Obituary: Bert Gough

Click to follow
The Independent Online
"NO BAIRNS in Fife will have empty bellies." In the most fraught days of the 1984 miners' strike, these eight words reverberated round not only the coalfields, the innumerable, mushrooming mining support groups, but up and down the land. The words were those of Bert Gough, Convenor of Fife Regional Council from 1978 to 1996, a longer span than anyone else has had recently at the head of a major local authority.

South of Hadrian's Wall - or at least south of the Wash - people, Downing Street insiders, pundits, all express themselves perplexed that the Scots should be so disaffected and disdainful of New Labour. Part of the explanation lies in the widespread belief that there is a heck of a lot that is estimable in Old Labour. The life - "career" would be a misplaced word - of Bert Gough is an epitome of old, possibly ancient Labour with many concomitant virtues.

Gough was a man of power in the Kingdom of Fife for four decades. Until his pit closed and he became a Co-Operative Insurance agent he would very likely for the first three decades come to a meeting straight from a hard night-shift at the Wellesley pit. His Old Labour quality was enshrined in passionate beliefs. "Down the pit we did not take money to the disadvantage of our fellow men. That is also the way that Fife Council will work." He led a council and a region which, despite an overwhelming one-party, Labour majority for many years, was never tainted with sleaze or impropriety.

Gordon Brown, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, was one of Gough's political sons. Brown recalls affectionately, "Bert had a unique way of speaking - for example he would say, 'Inasmuch as I am the convenor of Fife Regional Council we will treat the elderly and the disabled as royally as we can' " - which meant that he pioneered free travel for those within entitlement to concessionary fares.

Gough vehemently believed that the elderly should not be cooped up in their homes. And he was the driving force behind the first introduction in Britain of free concessionary travel for senior citizens. The present Chancellor admires Gough not only for his pioneering ideas but also that for 20 years he sustained them by, in the most difficult circumstances, renegotiating free travel with the bus companies.

At my last lunch with him in his headquarters at Glenrothes he pointedly asked me, "Does New Labour believe that we should be our brother's keeper?" I ducked that one and went off at a tangent. With a twinkle in his eye, which could be steely, he directly remarked, "Come on, Tam, you changed the subject."

He was enormously shrewd and when John Markland, the council's current Chief Executive, asked Gough what he made of the Shadow Employment Secretary, Tony Blair MP, on a visit to Fife in the early 1990s he got the laconic answer, "That boy Blair will be Prime Minister one day!"

Born in East Wemyss in 1924, Bert Gough went to the village school, left on his 14th birthday and was down the Wellesley pit in neighbouring Buckhaven the next morning.

His father was active in the NUM branch and in his late teens Gough was given trade union and Labour Party responsibilities. Unlike most of his contemporaries in Fife he resisted the attractions of the Moffat brothers, Willie Gallacher and the Communist Party.

In 1956, Gough was elected to the Buckhaven and Methil Town Council, a conspicuously talented local authority having amongst its members John McArthur, David Proudfoot and Andrew Goodwillie. In innumerable elections over the next 40 years defeat was unknown to him; he won them all, because, in the words of Lord Ewing (the former MP Harry Ewing), everybody recognised his worth.

I first met Gough in 1966 when he had just become the youngest Provost ever of Buckhaven and Methil and was among a local authority delegation to Westminster. No one argued the case for educational spending more eloquently and he it was in the council who gave the financial backing to Douglas McIntosh in creating half a dozen technical colleges in Fife.

As Henry McLeish, now Minister of State at the Scottish Office, puts it, Gough, with his supportive wife Margaret, championed the cause of Fife's remaining as a Kingdom during local government reform in the 1970s, and acted as a wonderful ambassador for Fife.

The late Hamish Dunlop, the former Chief Executive, apprehensive about the force of Convenor Gough's crunching handshake, entreated him at a royal visit in 1982 to press the Queen's hand gently. He did.

Robert Gough, coalminer and politician: born East Wemyss, Fife 1 August 1924; Convenor, Fife Regional Council 1978-96; CBE 1990; married 1945 Margaret Arnott (two sons); died Kirkcaldy, Fife 11 May 1998.