Hugh McCartney

Scottish Labour MP and whip
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The Independent Online

Hugh McCartney, trade unionist, engineer and politician: born Glasgow 3 January 1920; MP (Labour) for East Dunbartonshire 1970-74, for Dunbartonshire Central 1974-83, for Clydebank and Milngavie 1983-87; Scottish Regional Whip 1979-83; Director, East Dunbartonshire Initiative for Creative Therapy and Social Care 1997-99; married 1949 Margaret McDonald (one son, two daughters); died Kirkintilloch, East Dunbartonshire 28 February 2006.

Whips in the House of Commons are often portrayed as a species of endemic bullies, but this is a misconception. On the contrary, as the "platoon sergeant of the awkward squad", in the words of the late and great Tony Bevins, political editor of The Independent, I never had a bad word with Hugh McCartney.

McCartney was the Labour Party's Scottish Regional Whip from 1979 to 1983. Over those fraught years the party had good reason to be vexed with me as the leader of the "Vote No" campaign on devolution. It was hugely to McCartney's credit that he never took it out on any of us, albeit that he himself was very much in favour of a Scottish Parliament. He was a man of considerable intelligence and innate tolerance, although, like his son, Ian McCartney, MP for Makerfield, he was a passionate loyalist to the organisation which he had joined at the age of 16 in 1936, having spent two years in the old west of Scotland Independent Labour Party.

Hugh McCartney was born in 1920 in Bridgeton, Glasgow, one of the eight children of a Glasgow tram-driver. His father incurred a serious injury, involving amputation of a leg, which meant that the family suffered from some very hard times in the late 1920s and early 1930s. His childhood explains McCartney's lifelong concern with health and safety issues, culminating in his leading role in the Scottish Council of Rospa (the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents), from 1965 to 1970. On leaving the Royal Technical College in Glasgow (now Strathclyde University), he became an apprentice in the textiles industry. Diminutive in stature and extremely dextrous, he told me that he was the ideal person to go right under the heavy machinery of the looms in those days and sort out the problems.

On the outbreak of war in 1939 he was sent to the reserved occupation of an aircraft engineering fitter in Coventry. This was a very important couple of years in which he formed a lasting relationship with the then young Transport and General Workers' Union leader in Coventry, Jack Jones, and became involved in Coventry Labour Party, then led by George Hodgkinson, one of the great figures of local government who was to lead the rebuilding of post-war Coventry. McCartney told me that it was the impression made on him as a young man by the remarkable local councillors of Coventry that enticed him to stand for local election in Kirkintilloch, where he was a town councillor for 15 years from 1955.

However, the centre of McCartney's interests was in the trade unions and in the Labour Party. He was delighted when in 1956 Frank Cousins, then a great left-wing leader, was unexpectedly chosen to succeed Arthur Deakin (and Jock Tiffin) as General Secretary of the TGWU. Cousins was succeeded in turn, in 1969, by Jack Jones who, clear as a bell aged 93, recalls a friendship of nearly 70 years with McCartney, and confirms the respect in which he was held, for his consistency in supporting the TGWU, throughout the trade union movement.

I vividly remember McCartney's coming in a yellow jalopy to Bow'ness in West Lothian for my by-election of 1962. He was the friend and agent of a very remarkable MP, a Welshman, Cyril Bence, an engineer prominent in Birmingham politics who was the MP for East Dunbartonshire from 1951 to 1970. Bence had been prominent in the National Union of Scalemakers, part of the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers. However, as an engineer, he knew of McCartney's professional skill, and didn't hold it against him that McCartney made a conscious decision to devote his energies to the TGWU and not to a union which at that time put skilled workers at an advantage over the semi-skilled and the non-skilled. McCartney told me that part of the reason that he was vehement in defending the dignity of non-skilled workers was the passionate belief of his trade-union activist wife in the Confederation of Health Service Employees, Margaret, that all those who worked were worthy of the highest respect.

McCartney was not only Bence's anointed successor but the unchallenged choice of the East Dunbartonshire Constituency Labour Party, who had come to know him so well.

In the House of Commons, to which he was elected in 1970 with a 5,555 majority over the Conservative, he was one of those MPs who only spoke when he had something of importance to say. Not only did he raise Scottish issues, in particular problems associated with crime, but also issues affecting his union members nationally. As a member of Jack Jones's small group of confidants, McCartney really knew what he was talking about. The current House of Commons is the poorer for having so few members like him who had a lifetime experience of industry and who were immersed in the day-to-day concerns of their union.

As one who on a large number of occasions sat under his chairmanship in the Scottish Grand Committee of the House of Commons, I can vouch for McCartney's considerable authority and good sense in controlling that somewhat raucous collective, which went under the name of the Scottish Parliamentary Group in the House of Commons. He had a trade unionist's knack of not taking any nonsense.

Few MPs have made better use of their time after retiring. McCartney became involved in a host of worthwhile activities around his home town of Kirkintilloch and from 1997 to 1999 was Director of the East Dunbartonshire Initiative for Creative Therapy and Social Care. When I last saw him, as an old friend, returning rarely to the House of Commons, he exuded pleasure that his son Ian should have become Chairman of the Labour Party, smoothing often tricky relations between the Prime Minister and the trade union leaders.

McCartney thought that his son was pivotal to the Labour government and rightly so and was pleased at his performance, just as he had been pleased, all those years ago, in 1965, when the teenage Ian had led the first strike of paper delivery boys in central Scotland.

Tam Dalyell