John McWilliam: Highly respected politician who served as an Opposition whip at a difficult time for Labour

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The Independent Online

As a member of the Speaker's Panel – senior MPs, not ministers, who chair the committee stage of bills in the House of Commons – John McWilliam was procedurally authoritative and unflappable. For this reason, I was one of 14 MPs who gave him a vote in the long, drawn-out procedure for the election of a Speaker after Lady Boothroyd went to the House of Lords.

McWilliam's capacity for mastering the intricacies of any situation perhaps reflected the fact that he was that rare species among politicians – an engineer. I first knew him as an Edinburgh councillor who at a young age became entrusted by his colleagues with the key position of City Treasurer. He was careful, measured, and thoughtful in all that he did. In Parliament, as his colleague, I assert that he was a seriously underused talent by the Labour leadership.

John McWilliam was born the son of Alexander McWilliam, a post office engineer himself. He had a superb technical training at Leith Academy, a school renowned for its discipline and serious academic purpose, Heriot Watt College before it became a university and the Napier College of Science and Technology before it, too, achieved university status. McWilliam's interest in politics was fostered by James Hoy, the MP for Leith and Parliamentary Secretary at the Ministry of Agriculture in the Wilson government of 1964-1970, who spotted him as a likely young talent.

In 1968 the old guard on Edinburgh City Council was virtually wiped out in the elections of that disastrous year in the life of the Wilson government. The result was that a number of "bright young things" were selected as candidates, Robin Cook, George Foulkes, Jim Boyack and McWilliam among them. Foulkes, now Lord Foulkes, told me, "John McWilliam was one of the young turks who changed the face of Edinburgh. He was more proud of being the first Labour City Treasurer than anything else he did in life."

As one of McWilliam's mentors, councillor Mrs Annie Simpson, put it to me, John deserved to be a candidate for the Liberton ward where he was elected. He was also a rising figure in the Edinburgh trades council, which these days is not an organisation that matters greatly but was a very important body indeed. In 1973-74, Edinburgh council was in turmoil with antagonism between those who had been selected as regional councillors for the Lothian region and those who remained as district councillors and wanted more powers for the districts.

Jack Kane, leader of the Labour group, was a prospective regional councillor and therefore suggested that power be given to his No. 2, the City Treasurer, the young John McWilliam, who was not standing because he was earmarked for the House of Commons. In the words of the distinguished Lord Provost of Edinburgh, Eric Milligan, himself a young councillor at the time, "in the last year of the existence of Edinburgh corporation in 1974-75 John McWilliam was perceived to be neutral in the future region and the future district and it is no exaggeration to say that he ran Scotland's capital city. He had the reputation, deserved, of playing everything by the book and was a straight as a die".

In the February 1974 general election, Labour thought they had a real chance of winning the Pentlands constituency, and selected McWilliam as the candidate. In the event he was beaten by another young man by the name of Malcolm Rifkind by 18,162 votes to 13,560, with the Liberal Ross Smith taking 6,870 – and, crucially, T.T. Forest for the Scottish nationalists taking 5,491. In the opinion of Eric Milligan, voters in the huge Wester Hailes area had deserted Labour for the SNP.

McWilliam did not contest the seat in October 1974 and was soon chosen to succeed Bob Woof in the Durham constancy of Blaydon. His agent Frank Earl (1998-2005) told me that Tyneside had a close affinity with the Scots and McWilliam, always available to constituents who had problems, never had any difficulty in being an outsider.

In the difficult years for the Labour Party from 1984 to 1987, McWilliam was in the whips' office and then became a deputy whip. He was made Deputy Shadow Leader of the House by Michael Foot, while Neil Kinnock asked him to be a key member of the Opposition whips' office. All of us who had dealings with him respected his blunt speaking and sensible judgement. He would come and go with those MPs whom he thought were basically loyal and hard-working; he could be extremely caustic to those whom he thought were on ego trips to the detriment of the Labour Party.

In 1987 he was appointed to the Speaker's Panel of Chairmen. As one who served on many committees he chaired I can say that he was superb at making his colleagues stick to the point and not wander off into irrelevant argument. He had contempt for those who, as he put it, constantly engaged in verbal diarrhoea. Throughout his parliamentary career he had an eye for detail, fact and proper procedure that came from his disciplined engineering background.

Truth to tell he had two turbulent marriages, but in 1998 he found great happiness when he married Helena Lovegreen. After he retired in 2005 he returned to Scotland and lived in one of the most beautiful places in the United Kingdom, Comrie in Perthshire. Only those who have taken the low road from Leith to Comrie can fully comprehend its spring and autumn glory. The place of his retirement synchronised beautifully with one of his passions – fly fishing.

Tam Dalyell

John David McWilliam, telecommunications engineer and politician: born Leith 16 May 1941; married 1965 Lesley Catling (divorced; two daughters), 1994 Mary McLoughlin (divorced); 1998 Helena Lovegreen; Councillor, Edinburgh City Council 1970-1975, City Treasurer 1974-75; Member of Parliament for Blaydon, 1979-2005, Opposition Whip 1984-87, Member of the Speaker's Panel 1987-1997; died Perth 14 November 2009.