Bruce Millan: Secretary of State for Scotland and EC Commissioner

That Bruce Millan, a Defence Minister, Secretary of State for Scotland and a well-regarded and effective British Commissioner in Brussels, chose not to go to the House of Lords says a lot about this modest, principled, intelligent and committed Labour politician. He preferred to return to Glasgow, where he had been one of the city's MPs.

He had a quality rare among politicians – lack of rancour. As Secretary of State for Scotland from 1976-79 he was the minister tasked with getting the 1978-79 Scotland Bill through the House. Doubtless exasperated by me, and other stalwarts of Labour's Vote No campaign, Millan might have been bitter and acerbic, but he maintained his impeccable manners and decent relations with colleagues determined to scupper the devolution policy.

He was the son of David Millan, a roadsweeper, dustman, longshoreman and caulker in the Dundee shipyard, who endured periods of unemployment. The eldest of three brothers, he was brought up in a two-room tenement. He never forgot what he owed to dedicated teachers at his primary school, Rockwell, and Harris Academy, and was determined that teachers' pay and conditions should be a government priority.

As war ended Millan trained in the Royal Signals and was posted to Graz and Klagenfurt in Austria. As an EEC Commissioner he recalled that though he did not really enjoy National Service his time in Austria had given him insights into European culture.

When Millan was 24 Will Marshall, the canny and talent-spotting Fife miners' leader, recommended him to the West Renfrewshire constituency to contest the 1951 Election. After the count, the victorious (and generous) Jack Mackay said he had been impressed by his young adversary, adding, "One day you may well be Secretary of State for Scotland."

In 1950 Millan qualified as a chartered accountant, and thanks to his good professional reputation he was chosen to contest the marginal seat of Glasgow Craigton, losing narrowly to the Scottish Office Minister of State J Nixon Browne. He turned the tables in the most keenly contested of the Scottish seats in 1959, by 19,649 votes to Nixon Browne's 19,047. By 1964 he had a majority of 6,247.

He was appointed Parliamentary Secretary at the Ministry of Defence, with responsibility for the RAF. In the autumn of 1965 a flight-sergeant whose family lived in my West Lothian constituency fell into deep trouble at RAF Gütersloh; it was typical of Millan that on his next visit to BAOR he went to Gütersloh to ascertain the facts, and on his return, ever courteous, he confronted the Air Marshals, who acknowledged that they had been over-hasty in rubber-stamping the station commander's decision.

In 1966 he was promoted to Minister of State at the Scottish Office, enjoying excellent relations with the Secretary of State, the formidable Willie Ross. In 1976, when Wilson dramatically resigned, Ross went to the incoming James Callaghan and told him, "Jim, if you appoint Dickson Mabon as my successor, I will make you sack me. If you opt for Bruce Millan, I will resign with total goodwill." This was awkward, since Mabon had been one of Callaghan key campaign managers. But Millan it was.

At the top of Millan's intray was the thorny issue of Sunday drinking. He was not a teetotaller, and said "I enjoy a whisky and other things, and I'm prepared to listen to the opinions presented to the Government about opening pubs on Sunday, but I'll need a lot of convincing." He wanted to ensure that he was not going to increase the danger to health and social conditions that excessive drinking had already brought to Scottish families.

One of Millan's causes was equality for women, but his main priorities were jobs and devolution. He was a very private person, and I am not at all sure what were his thoughts about a Scottish parliament; in every public utterance he was loyal to Labour policy, and to the minister in day-to-day charge of the Scotland Bill, John Smith. The Scotsman in September 1976 reported that he had appealed to an international gathering of economists for help in solving the "difficult problem" of financing a Scottish Assembly. The chartered accountant in him had a clear inkling of the problems of dismantling the UK tax regime, problems which rumble on to the present day. After an SNP government was formed, I asked, "Bruce, do you have regrets?" He replied, "I'm dismayed, but not surprised – and I think, Tam, that you and I should leave it at that."

The some-time Permanent Secretary at the Scottish Office, Sir William Kerr Fraser, told me, "The Civil Service regarded Bruce Millan as a man of great integrity. We got on well, in circumstances which were not easy. Once he had said 'Yes' or 'No' we knew that that was the firm decision. Civil servants value decisive ministers – but, unlike ministers nowadays, Millan had a crystal-clear and proper idea of the respective roles of ministers and civil servants."

In 1988, required to nominate a European Commissioner from the Labour Party, Margaret Thatcher chose Millan. Sir Julian Priestley, Secretary General of the European Parliament from 1997-2007, held Millan in the highest regard. "He initiated the move from a tokenist approach to supporting structural development in the regions to a position in which structural development became a major instrument of economic development, particularly in new member states. Whatever the current problems of Spain and Portugal, just look at their roads, and other superb infrastructure. That is the legacy of Bruce Millan."

On retirement from the EC, Millan returned to Glasgow, serving as Convenor of the charity Children in Scotland and as a member of the Board of the Scottish Association of Mental Health, whose then Chair, Lady Marion Fraser, recalled him as "immensely caring in a quiet way, immensely well-versed in the problems he was confronting, both on the human side and the medical side." He was the obvious choice in 1999 as chair of a committee established to conduct a review of Scotland's mental health legislation. The "Millan Committee", as it became known, recommended numerous changes to legislation, practice and procedures, proposing, for example, to extend the definition of "nearest relative", This was encapsulated in the Adults with Incapacity (Scotland) Bill, which allowed couples in same-sex relationships to act as legal guardians of partners who become incapacitated.

He married Gwen Fairey in 1953; their daughter Liz became a senior social worker, while their son Mark became a research scientist in animal behaviour at Cambridge.

Bruce Millan, chartered accountant and politician: born Dundee 5 October 1927; MP for Glasgow, Craigton 1959–83, Glasgow, Govan 1983–88; Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State: for Defence (RAF) 1964–66, for Scotland 1966–70; Minister of State, Scottish Office 1974–76; Secretary of State for Scotland 1976–79; EEC Commissioner 1989–95; married 1953 Gwendoline Fairey (one son, one daughter); died 21 February 2013.

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