Jimmy Wray: Colourful and combative MP who introduced legislation to fight knife crime

 

There were conflicting views in the Scottish Group of Labour MPs concerning Jimmy Wray, MP for Glasgow Provan and Glasgow Baillieston. There were his friends (of whom I was one), who thought that he brought something different to Parliament which ought to be represented. Then there were his enemies, who thought that such a thug had no business in the House of Commons.

Born into a family of nine of Irish descent, Wray was a fighter in every sense. "School delinquent" (his description), teenage bruiser on the streets of the Gorbals, a useful pugilist, barrow-boy, coalman, HGV driver, he became a councillor for Kelvinside in 1964 and a member of Glasgow Corporation. In 1975 he was chosen as a councillor in the new Strathclyde region, representing the Gorbals.

He was popular and colourful. To the disapproval of the Labour hierarchy and the approval of a number of his constituents, Wray sorted out a number of case problems with his fists. He told me with his characteristic slow chuckle that it was not quite as acceptable for him to do so as an MP – "and anyway, I'm 15 years older and my fists aren't as fast as they were."

His soulmate in Parliament for 18 years was Jimmy Hood, MP for Clydesdale. He recalled that "Wray was not deterred by what he would call 'the pompous establishment'. He was a master of unorthodox direct action, such as the time he thought he was being ignored by Glasgow council housing officials abut an infestation of rats on a housing estate in his ward. He took a live rat into the council chamber inside a bag, took it out and threw it at the council officers, shouting, "My people have to live with these rats! How do you lot like it?"

I first met Wray when he was an agent for Frank McElhone MP, whose greengrocer's shop doubled up as his advice bureau. One Friday night McElhone returned from Westminster, tired after an extended sitting. Wray had marshalled the 40 or so people who wanted to see their MP. After half an hour a man, enraged at his treatment by the Council, pulled out an axe. Constituents fled; McElhone and Wray calmed him down and promised to do what they could. A fortnight later he reappeared without his axe. "Mr Wray, Mr McElhone, you've solved my problem. If there's anything I can do..." Quick as a flash Wray replied, "Next time Frank comes back tired from London, bring your axe!"

In 1985 Hugh Brown decided to retire as MP for Provan. He moaned in the Commons tearoom about how terrible it would be if he were succeeded by Wray. However, the alternative was a Militant Tendency activist, and Wray scraped home by one vote at a bitterly contested selection meeting. Wray added to the flames – justifiably in my opinion – by opposing devolution and any idea of a Scottish Parliament.

Wray seldom spoke in the Chamber, but in 1996 he came up high in the ballot for Private Members' Bills and on 20 November 1996 introduced a Bill to create criminal offences in relation to the possession or marketing of knives, and publications relating to them; to confer powers on the police to stop and search people or vehicles, and to seize any items found.

On Friday 13 December 1996 Wray rose and told us that the House had been deeply moved by recent crimes involving knives. The Commons warms to Members who speak from personal experience; not one of the 625 of us was more appropriately qualified to speak convincingly on that topic.

Wray reminded a House fuller than usual for a Friday morning of the murder of the headmaster Philip Lawrence by a young attacker armed with a knife. He had been in touch with Lawrence's widow Frances and quoted from her manifesto for the nation: "It is shocking to discover how easy it is to acquire battlefield blades which can have no function other than to be flourished by the inadequate and the cowardly."

Wray told us that in the Easterhouse area of his own constituency, where unemployment and poverty were rife, a number of unarmed people had had appalling injuries inflicted upon them. "Carrying a knife is not for protection or a sign of strength," he said. "It is a sign of weakness in people without the courage to take knives off the streets." He believed that the words used in advertisements to describe knives were astonishing: "SAS shoulder holster knife", "Rambo shortsword", "Terminator Terror Sword ... monstrous, double-handed sword ... absolutely awesome, 56in overall".

He gave us another example – "A commando knife made of carbon fibre, complete with blood channels" – looked round a slightly bemused Chamber and sighed, in his broad Glasgow patois, "This was described as 'an ideal Christmas present'."

He saw that the Advertising Standards Authority had no power to regulate, but he provided a power of forfeiture over any offending material.Wray had piloted his Bill with skill. The Home Office minister David Maclean told me Wray had been extremely co-operative with Home Office officials in drafting the Bill and getting crucial government backing and parliamentary time – and that he had provided "many streetwise insights".

Wray was the leading light in the pro-boxing group of MPs; once I accepted his invitation to accompany him to York Hall, Bethnal Green; it was obvious that he was a popular figure in the boxing fraternity. He was much reviled for opining that Mike Tyson was a role model; what he said was that Tyson was a role model in his determination as a young scoundrel to make something of himself. Wray did not like the "quality" press, and they did not like him. Once he threatened to "knock the block off" a distinguished columnist. The threat was thought to be not entirely fanciful.

The House of Commons can throw up unlikely friendships. In their last Parliament Wray's "pair" was Michael Heseltine. He spoke warmly of Wray. "He was not only amicable, but always gave me a straight answer. He told me the truth as he saw it. I liked him." The feeling was mutual. Wray, with some anger, told me that he wished some of his Labour colleagues had done as much for the East End of Glasgow as Heseltine had done for Liverpool.

Tam Dalyell

James Wray, HGV driver and politician: born Glasgow 28 April 1938; Member, Strathclyde Regional Council 1976; MP for Glasgow Provan 1987–97, Glasgow Baillieston 1997–2005. married firstly and secondly (one son, two daughters), 1999 Laura Walker (one son); died 25 May 2013.

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