Labour Party stalwart in Scotland
Thursday 06 April 2006
Thomas Fulton, railwayman and politician: born Glasgow 9 April 1915; Chairman, Scottish Labour Party 1974-75; died Ayr 22 March 2006.
There are few years in which it has mattered who occupies the chair of the Labour Party in Scotland. But 1974-75 was one of them - and the nature of the occupant of the chair, though it might not have been obvious at the time, was a matter hugely important not only to Scotland but to the United Kingdom.
In October 1974, in the second general election of the year, the Scottish National Party had won 12 seats. Panic engulfed the Labour hierarchy in Scotland. Half the party thought that the promise of a Scottish Assembly and devolution provided the only hope of stemming the SNP tide; the other half (of whom I was one) were opposed to conceding anything. By the narrowest of margins - and partly because one of the number had left the crucial meeting early in order to get her groceries before the shops closed - the Scottish Executive of the Labour Party decided by six votes to five to change the long-established policy of the Labour Party towards devolution.
Tom Fulton was in the chair. Loyalist and party democrat to the core, he accepted the decision with misgivings. But he did something of critical importance - he insisted that the dissenters, soon to metamorphose into the Labour Vote No Campaign led by Robin Cook MP and Brian Wilson, later MP for North Ayrshire and Energy Minister in the Blair government, Archie Birt, the campaign secretary, and myself, should not be "punished", i.e. expelled from the party.
Had Fulton not taken this robust line, I believe that opposition in the Labour Party would have been snuffed out, the 1979 referendum result would have been different and, given the mood of the time and the hullabaloo about Scottish oil, there would have been a bitter divorce between Scotland and England.
When Tom Fulton was born, in Bridgeton, Glasgow, in 1915, his father was fighting in Flanders, but he followed his father's path into working for the railway after leaving school at 14. He became a booking clerk at Renfrew station and, in his late teens, began a lifelong association with the Transport Salaried Staffs Association - a relationship which brought him into contact with a young Tom Bradley, later to be President of the TSSA, a Leicester MP and Chairman of the British Labour Party. This was to give Fulton a wider perspective of public affairs.
In 1940 he volunteered and rose to the rank of sergeant. In 1941 he became a Sapper officer, dealing mainly with dock and railway installations first in Britain and then from 1942 to 1945 in India and Burma. He never forgot his time with the 14th Army, and the comrades he lost to the Japanese. He was a regular attender at Burma Star functions in Scotland.
Fulton finished the war as a major and with impish humour would send messages, "Major Fulton, Royal Engineers, to Major Ross, Highland Light Infantry" - Major Ross being Willie Ross, Harold Wilson's formidable Secretary of State for Scotland.
Pat Lally, the famous Lord Provost of Glasgow, recalls that Fulton, on joining Glasgow Corporation in 1960, was a firebrand at first. It was in his nature to be difficult and, with Lally, he lost the whip for a period after insisting that equal preference be given to council tenants and to owner-occupiers, in a cause célèbre involving building-land allocation in Queen's Park and Shawlands.
As convener of the Greater Glasgow Passenger Transport Executive and Head of Transport for the new Strathclyde region in 1974, Fulton worked closely with Bill Murray, the professional director of operations, whom he had first encountered as a colleague at the end of the war in Darjeeling, when Murray was a captain in the Royal Signals. Together they developed Glasgow's suburban rail system until it became second only to that of London in the United Kingdom - a programme which involved the establishment of a new central low-level line and the rebuilding of 22 stations. Fulton also pioneered concessionary fares for the elderly, as he had done two decades before in promoting pensioner penny fares for Glasgow Corporation.
His greatest achievement, perhaps, was to insist that Strathclyde Region look after the interests of the remote islands off the Scottish west coast. Many islanders feel they never had it so good as when they were represented on Strathclyde Region - later to be dismantled by the Thatcher government.
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