Bob Middleton

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The Independent Online

Robert Middleton, telephone engineer and politician: born Aberdeen 28 July 1932; Chairman, Scottish Labour Party 1986-87; Convener, Grampian Regional Council 1990-94; President, North Sea Commission of the Conference of Peripheral Maritime Regions 1992-95; OBE 1998; married Audrey Ewen (two sons); died Milltimber, Aberdeenshire 8 January 2002.

Had it not been for the pugnacious, driving personality of Bob Middleton, Dundee and not his native Aberdeen would have become the oil capital of Europe. He trumped Tayside's natural advantages. From 1970 until 1999, travelling to Baku, Caracas, Houston, Stavanger, Murmansk or Siberia, wherever oilmen meet, people would ask about the "big fellow, Mr Grampian". For years after Middleton's tenure ended north-east Scots abroad might be approached in the most obscure place by some beaming civic dignitary or businessman inquiring after "Governor Bob". As an ambassador of North Sea oil he was superb.

Born in an Aberdeen tenement, from Holburn Primary School (where he met his ever-supportive wife-to-be of 45 years) he won a bursary to Aberdeen Grammar School. He left at 16 and started work as an apprentice post-office engineer holding various posts until he was appointed Network Planning Manager in 1989. The fact that he had worked his way up a demanding profession earned him a respect among officials and businessmen of a kind which did not always accrue to those who were seen simply as full-time councillors. This enhanced his natural authority.

Elected to Aberdeen City Council in 1961, at the age of 28, he was appointed a magistrate two years later, and Chairman of Magistrates in 1965. Middleton was a vehement opponent of capital punishment, ignited by a rare personal experience. I shall never forget him berating a Labour Party wobbler, who had opined at a social event at a Scottish Labour Party Conference in the middle 1960s that perhaps, after all, the gallows were an unwelcome necessity. "You should have been with me, comrade, when I had to go in 1963 to Craiginches Prison, to witness, in my capacity as a magistrate, the last poor wretch ever to be executed in Scotland."

Eyebrows were raised when a 34-year-old who had left school at 16 was chosen as chairman of the City of Aberdeen Education Committee in 1966. Lord Hughes of Woodside, MP for North Aberdeen from 1970 until 1997, recalls:

Bob and I were elected to Aberdeen Town Council and I recall the intensity of his belief that councillors could change life for the better of the people of Aberdeen. Bob was always a passionate advocate of comprehensive secondary education. The teaching establishment of the day were hidebound in their opposition to change. Bob took them head on with his customary vigour and, in my view, his contribution was significant in bringing about the change of policy.

Middleton's education passion was sharpened by his realising that he had missed a great deal by leaving school at 16. He took enormous pride in the honorary degrees bestowed on him by both Aberdeen and Robert Gordon universities. It is par for the course that he should have left his body to Aberdeen University for medical research, and that his memorial service should have taken place yesterday at the huge Aberdeen Conference and Exhibition Centre which he had done so much to create.

My first contact with Bob Middleton was in 1962 when I was on the Commons committee stage of the Continental Shelf Bill – a very obscure measure at that time. Middleton phoned me up with a battery of questions that should be asked. Somewhat perplexed about this approach I asked the charming and discerning Tory MP for Aberdeen South, Lady Tweedsmuir, then an Under-Secretary at the Scottish Office, about him. "You will find," she said, "Councillor Middleton one of the most formidable of Scottish politicians among your contemporaries." This was prescient. He probably made more events happen differently than anybody other than a Secretary of State.

Having contested Banff in 1966, he was chosen as Labour standard-bearer in Aberdeen South. In the February 1974 election he lost by 36 per cent to 32 per cent with substantial votes for Liberals and Scottish Nationalists. In October 1974 he lost by only 365 votes to the Conservatives with a huge SNP 21 per cent of the vote and a Liberal 9 per cent. Indeed his opponent Iain Sproat formally congratulated him on winning; the postal votes counted later turned the tide for the Conservatives.

Middleton told me that the proudest moment of his whole life was, when at Brighton at the Labour Party Conference in 1973, he moved the motion which led to the Labour government's setting up the British National Oil Corporation to represent the state interest in the development of the North Sea.

As a member of the Scottish Labour Party Executive, of which he was in 1986-87 to become a forceful and decisive chairman, Middleton was a disciplinarian for whatever policy had been decided by the party. Woe betide any member of Aberdeen Town Council who defied a group decision, once taken.

He was outraged, too, that such discipline did not apply so stringently to MPs. In 1978, he barked at me that I had no right to vote against three-line whips on the Scotland Bill and that he thought disciplinary action should be taken to the extent that the West Lothian Labour Party should deselect me. Weeks later when I reasoned with him, he revealed his attitude:

I'm not saying that you are wrong about not wanting a Scottish Parliament; indeed I myself share some of your concerns about what Edinburgh government might do to harm areas of Scotland outside the central belt. I think that the North-East is better run from Aberdeen than from Edinburgh. But you have no right to think that you know better than party policy.

In later years, his attitude was somewhat mellowed by the fact that Bob Hughes, MP for North Aberdeen, and Jim Lamond, former MP for Oldham and an ex-Lord Provost of Aberdeen, were devo-sceptics; and latterly, when the Labour Party had been, as he saw it, hijacked away from socialism by Tony Blair and his entourage he had no hesitation in criticising, writing a critical book, Whatever Happened to Labour? (2001).

Perhaps Middleton's most lasting contribution will be the dynamic role that he played in the setting up of the North Sea Commission of the Conference of Peripheral Maritime Regions, of which he became chairman in 1992-95. Peter Cockhead, now Director of Planning for the City of Aberdeen, who travelled with him as far as Tyumen in Siberia, told me of the value of the economic linkage with Oblast, the Russian commercial business organisation, and that much trade resulted from Middleton's visits. Oil equipment and oil-related supplies industries benefited hugely.

Middleton would stop at nothing in order to advance relations, and the unexaggerated story is retold with relish how on a visit in 1992 Middleton shared a sauna bath with the Mayor of Murmansk – both in their birthday suits, confirming the deep friendships that were formed. He had a stentorian voice which enlivened any coach on its way to the suburbs of Murmansk for evening get-togethers. When Russia was opening up in the early 1990s he led a group of local businessmen to Siberia.

Jim Lamond confirms how disappointed Middleton was at the break-up of the regions proposed by the Royal Commission under Lord Wheatley in the 1970s. However, in 1995, Middleton gained admiration by the way he buckled down and undertook tasks for the Aberdeen City Council Finance Committee. Many people might have sulked. Middleton took it on the chin and got on with it because his religion was socialism.

Tam Dalyell

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