John Muir

'Wizard' of the Scottish Labour Party

Obituaries often record historic by-elections, when so-and-so triumphantly entered the House of Commons. Credit is bestowed on the candidate; but little is said about the party agent. A candidate can match Demosthenes in eloquence; but, if his or her agent is useless, Demosthenes may remain unelected.



John Ferguson Muir, political agent: born Dundee 10 May 1909; Labour Party agent 1945-80; married 1928 Lizzie Rutherford (died 1983; two sons, three daughters), 1985 Kathy Clark (née Wallis); died Dundee 10 May 2004.



Obituaries often record historic by-elections, when so-and-so triumphantly entered the House of Commons. Credit is bestowed on the candidate; but little is said about the party agent. A candidate can match Demosthenes in eloquence; but, if his or her agent is useless, Demosthenes may remain unelected.

John Muir was an outstanding agent, whose calm good-humour and sardonic wit enhanced many Labour by-election campaigns in Scotland and England over nearly 40 years. In the words of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, "He was a great organiser and stalwart who helped build the Labour Party in Scotland and deserves enormous credit."

Amid the relieved rejoicing at the Glasgow Garscadden by-election held on 13 April 1978 when Donald Dewar won 16,507 votes to Keith Bovey's 11,955 votes, I heard John Smith MP, the future Labour leader, turn round to Muir, who had been in charge of one of the crucial precincts, and say: "John, you are a wizard."

At Garscadden, and six weeks later on 31 May 1978 when George Robertson, later to be Defence Secretary and Nato Secretary-General, beat the redoubtable Margo MacDonald of the Scottish National Party by 18,880 votes to 12,388 votes, there had been a very real prospect of an SNP triumph, with huge consequences for the UK. The SNP onslaught was stemmed.

I do not think that it is an exaggeration to contend that Muir, who worked hand in glove with successive secretaries of the Scottish Labour Party, Willie Marshall, Peter Allison, Jimmy McGrandle, Helen Liddell and Jimmy Allison, helped materially to shift the tectonic plates of Scottish politics.

We easily forget now that in 1951 there were 36 Scottish Conservative MPs in the House of Commons to Labour's 35. The fact that Conservative representation gradually dwindled to zero (it is now one) had not only to do with political discontent but with the charm and efficiency with which Muir and colleagues like Dick Stewart and Harry Hawthorne went about their business.

John Muir was born in 1909, the son of a small printer. On leaving Morgan Academy rather earlier than most of his contemporaries who were destined for university, he went into his father's business as a compositor. At the outbreak of the Second World War, he was in a reserved occupation in Aberdeen applying technical know-how to the maintenance of ships.

At the end of the war he took a post as an assistant organiser of the Scottish Labour Party, which meant travelling not only all over the Highlands and Islands which were his particular responsibility - he played a great part in securing Malcolm MacMillan's seat in the Western Isles for Labour - but being despatched wherever there was a by-election in Scotland or the north of England, at a time when by-elections were far more frequent than they have been in the last decade. Muir was well received by party workers whenever he descended on a constituency and was a familiar figure as a senior steward at every Labour Party conference for 40 years.

John Muir was cultivated and immensely well-read. I vividly remember visiting him in his home high up in a Dundee tower block with a dramatic view overlooking the Tay. "This is a city of the three Js. Let me tell you about each one in turn."

He proceeded to give a learned account of the jute industry and why the East India Company had chosen Dundee as the centre of operations for their rope-making, attracting a host of firms connected to the jute industry. He paused for questions and then went on with jam, with details of raspberry production in the Carse of Gowrie, combined to sugar-beet production in the East Neuk of Fife, and its processing at Cupar, which also was basic to Robertson's marmalade.

Finally, Muir came to journalism and a hilarious description from a socialist point of view of the publishers D.C. Thomson of Dundee. It was Muir who first told me of the story of the press baron Lord Northcliffe asking the Mr Thomson of the day, "How much do you want for the Sunday Post, The Beano and The Dandy?" To which Thomson memorably replied, "Lord Northcliffe, how much do you want for the Daily Mail?"

Muir was married for over half a century to Lizzie Rutherford, an exceptionally happy marriage for an agent, the nature of whose job took him here, there and everywhere. He was equally fortunate to have 19 most happy years with Kathy Clark, a well-known figure herself in the Scottish Labour Party.

Tam Dalyell

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