Hugh Brown: Workhorse Scottish Office minister

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The Independent Online

Hugh Brown, MP for Glasgow Provan for more than 20 years, was a self-effacing but effective Under-Secretary at the Scottish Office, working dutifully and loyally for Harold Wilson's Secretary of State Willie Ross and Jim Callaghan's Secretary of State Bruce Millan.

He confined himself in Parliament mostly to Scottish affairs, but he did render considerable and skilful service to the UK government as one of the Fisheries ministers in the Scottish Office involved in the day-to-day delicate negotiations with Iceland – the so-called Cod War. Brown was far more tactful than the lead negotiator, Tony Crosland (who was also MP for Grimsby). The Icelanders had a huge respect for Brown and the fairness of his judgement.

Hugh Brown was a product of Clydeside in the 1930s. His father was an engineer and Brown claimed to inherit from him admiration for craft skills. He described his father as a man who would not put a handle on a chest of drawers without using a micrometer.

Both his father and mother were members of the ILP, the Independent Labour Party, and he told me that they regularly received a turkey at Christmas, for having sold the most prize tickets. "The first thing that interested me about politics," Brown said, "was when I was a telegraph messenger, going up and down through George Square in the 1930s, when there were demonstrations every other day. It was that and the Spanish Civil War which first involved me, after I had left school, at 14, and joined the Post Office."

In 1947 Brown married Mary Carmichael and into a highly political family. His father-in-law was Jimmy Carmichael, ILP Member of Parliament for Glasgow Bridgeton and his brother-in-law Neil Carmichael was to be the MP for Glasgow Woodside, elected at a by-election in 1963.

On leaving school, Brown had entered the civil service and rose to be a manager of the National Insurance Office, dealing with a whole range of welfare requirements. During the first Wilson government and subsequently during the years of opposition, Brown's contribution to the more technical debates on pensions policy and social security issues were invaluable and ever constructive, coming from a background of detailed knowledge. I do not know of any other manager of a National Insurance Office who has become an MP and Brown contributed significantly to the committee work of the House.

In 1962 when he was selected as a prospective parliamentary candidate, he was flung out of the civil service and had to eke out a living for two years waiting for the general election. Gaining 29,830 votes, he romped home in the 1964 general election in the Provan division of Glasgow, which was to be an un-impregnable base until he decided to retire in 1987. He was a parliamentary workhorse and no Scottish MP occupied more footage in the columns of Hansard during the time of the Labour government of 1974 to 1979.

As one of his colleagues, I know at first hand that he would go into meticulous detail about any of our constituency issues, for which he was the minister responsible in the Scottish Office. But, above all, his interests centred on improving the lot of those who lived in his own city of Glasgow.

His handling of the very delicate matter of the closure of Robroyston Hospital in August 1976 was an exemplary performance. His colleague Richard Buchanan, the predecessor of the Speaker Michael Martin as MP for Glasgow Springburn, had raised in an adjournment debate the strong feelings of people in Glasgow. Brown ended his reply:

Expansion is taking place in some areas of the country, there is a holding operation in others, and in some there may even be a contraction in services linked to a shrinking population. I am certain that the provision of services to patients in the areas which he and I represent will continue at a high level. The quality of staff makes the provision extremely good, and that will continue even though they have to be allocated positions in other hospitals.

It was typical of Brown that he did not let the matter rest there. He made a point of conducting on Friday evenings and Saturdays a whole series of meetings of various groups in different areas of Glasgow, in order to explain the Government's position. Thereby, as in many other actions, he enhanced the reputation of the job of Member of Parliament.

Tam Dalyell

Hugh Dunbar Brown, civil servant and politician: born Glasgow 18 May 1919; MP (Labour) for Glasgow Provan 1964-87; Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Scottish Office 1974-79; married 1947 Mary Carmichael (died 2000; one daughter); died Glasgow 10 March 2008.