Jimmy Hamilton

Loyal, no-nonsense MP and whip in the Wilson and Callaghan governments
Click to follow

James Hamilton, construction engineer and politician: born Baillieston, Lanarkshire 11 March 1918; MP (Labour) for Bothwell 1964-83, for Motherwell North 1983-87; President, Constructional Engineering Union 1968-69; assistant government whip 1969-70, opposition whip 1970-74; Lord Commissioner of the Treasury and Vice-Chamberlain of the Household 1974-78; Comptroller of HM Household 1978-79; CBE 1979; married 1945 Agnes McGhee (one son, three daughters, and one son deceased); died Bellshill, Lanarkshire 11 April 2005.

The abiding picture of Jimmy Hamilton is that of him as Comptroller of Her Majesty's Household, the title accorded to the most senior government whip, standing to attention, stiff upper lip, at the Bar of the House of Commons, as Mr Speaker announced on that March evening in 1979 that the Government had been defeated by one vote. Hamilton had conveyed the bad news to Jim Callaghan with a thumbs down. A dignified Prime Minister was thereupon prompted to rise to the despatch box and say: "The House of Commons having expressed its will, we will now take our case to the country." in the previous five years it had so often fallen to Hamilton, ever immaculate as the company sergeant major of the Cameron Highlanders which he had been three decades before, to announce wafer-thin majorities for the Wilson/Callaghan government whose majority dwindled from five to minus one. Labour's Deputy Chief Whip Walter Harrison, who did more than any other man to hold, by hook or by crook, that government in power, recalls Jimmy Hamilton as

as sound, as solid and as loyal as any politician comes. He was a no-nonsense man. During the trying days of the 1974-79 government Jimmy was a star player in a team under pressure.

I am told by more than one of those who were frequently present that Hamilton, not least on account of his military service and bearing, was found by the Queen to be a most congenial Vice-Chamberlain of the Household, when he went to report to her on the day's doings in the House of Commons.

Jimmy Hamilton was my whip for over a decade and there was never a bad word between us. You knew where you were with him. If a Scottish MP had a reasonable request, no one could be more sympathetic and helpful. From his soldiering days in the Second World War and from his experience in the rough and tumble of the Amalgamated Union of Engineers, he instinctively knew when any colleague was trying to have him on.

Hamilton was born in 1918, the son of a miner, and after attending two Roman Catholic schools - he was an extremely devout Catholic, attending Mass in London every morning, as well as in Lanarkshire - he became an apprentice with the well-known construction firm of Alex Findlay and Company.

Volunteering for army service at the outbreak of war he was posted to the Cameron Highlanders and served with them and the Reconnaissance Unit of the Lovat Scouts, ending the war in northern Italy. He counted himself lucky not to be captured along with so many of his contemporaries in the Highland Division, and was one of the Camerons who escaped to Britain from the beaches of Dunkirk.

Shortly after he had been appointed an opposition whip in 1969, Colonel Sir Donald Cameron of Lochiel said to me with a wide grin: "And now you'll have to do what you are tell'd." I was nonplussed. It transpired that he had known Hamilton as an extremely effective sergeant major in Italy towards the end of the war. After peace was declared Hamilton was tempted to remain in the Army but decided to return to civilian life and marry Agnes McGhee, with whom he was to have a most harmonious and happy 60-year marriage.

His style of operation, both as a member of the district council of the Sixth Lanarkshire District in 1955-58 and of Lanark County Council in 1958-64, and then as a Member of Parliament for nearly a quarter of a century, was to ask Agnes to handle the constituents coming day and night to his house, not to mention their telephone calls. During his absence in Parliament - and he always said, "When Parliament is sitting my business is in Westminster and not in Scotland" - he asked her to look after his Bothwell electors. This system worked so well that, when he won the Motherwell North seat, as Bothwell had become in 1983 (a bad year for the Labour Party), he had a majority of 17,894.

At first hand, because our constituencies were near each other, I know how personal his relationships were with those who elected him. He used to tell us that he spent many a Sunday morning after church in the local sauna - "And, Tam, you learn in the sauna what is really going on locally in the constituency!"

It was not only his council work but his work from 1958 on the National Executive Committee of the Construction Engineering Union, over and above the convenership of shop stewards at Findlays, which commended him to the powerful General Secretary of the AEU, John Boyd, who made sure of huge trade-union support in allocating Hamilton his local parliamentary seat. He was ideally suited because the problems of the constituency were the problems not only of the giant steel mill at Ravenscraig but also of other major steel units in the neighbourhood, if not his constituency like that of Gartcosh. I was not at all surprised that after five years in Parliament Hamilton was chosen as Chairman of the Trade Union Group of the Parliamentary Labour Party.

I do not know to this day what his views were on Scottish devolution. Sufficient to say that as a whip he treated those of us in the dissenting "Labour Vote No" campaign with total equanimity. Certain it is that he had no time whatsoever for the aspirations of the Scottish Nationalists. I suspect that he agreed with his boss, the Chief Whip Michael Cocks, that self-government for Scotland was a lot of nonsense and would create huge problems, if not in Edinburgh, without question in Westminster. But Hamilton had the discipline of trade-union experience to be loyal to whatever the Labour government was proposing.

Tam Dalyell