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Tom Johnston: Influential economist who worked to forge links between academia and industry

Tom Johnston was an economist who, as Principal and Vice-Chancellor of Heriot-Watt University, worked tirelessly to forge links between academia and industry. He was also one of the pioneers of Manpower Economics, the study of the labour market.

Thomas Lothian Johnston was born in Whitburn, West Lothian – hence the name Lothian – the son of a railway signalman working in an area of some 30 coal mines whose output was transported by rail. When Johnston was a year old, his father was transferred to the Newcastleton area of the Borders, served by the Edinburgh-Carlisle line that was unfortunately closed by Beeching. Johnston liked to say to me, "I'm your constituent by birth, a Borderer by upbringing, and a citizen of Edinburgh by occupation!"

On leaving Hawick High School in 1944, Johnston volunteered as a 17-year-old for the Royal Navy. "I grew up on the lower deck," he would say with a chuckle. Throughout his life, he had the erect bearing of the naval officer that he became, which, added to his Nordic good looks, made him a striking figure. He sailed in the cruiser HMS Cumberland to Trincomalee, the naval base in what was Ceylon, but the atomic bombs ended the war before he saw action. Johnston said to me recently: "Had it not been for your distant relation Harry Truman, I might have drowned in the Sea of Japan, as a result of kamikaze attack."

Johnston gained a place at Cambridge, but preferred to go to Edinburgh University – "Had there been a University in Hawick, I would have gone there!" he said, so attached was he to the rugby ambience there – a sport at which he excelled. Taking up his place at Edinburgh, the young naval officer attracted the attention of Professor Sir Alexander Gray, one of the great figures of pre-war and wartime economics in Britain. After Johnston graduated with inevitable first class honours – a rarity at that time in the ancient Scottish universities – Gray sent him to his Swedish friends Professor Gunnar Myrdahl and his equally distinguished economist wife Alva, and Professor Gösta Rehn, at that time one of the pioneers of Welfare and Manpower Economics. He quickly applied himself to mastering the challenging Swedish language.

In 1955 he returned to Edinburgh, to be awarded a PhD, as a result of his dissertation on the Swedish labour market. Johnston argued that the great solution was the Swedish one: negotiation, not confrontation – labour and capital should develop a system of collective bargaining. Professor Alan Peacock, at that time the editor of the journal Economica, told me he accepted an article from Johnston along these lines, the first to be accepted from a Scottish university by any serious economic journal for many years.

From 1955-1965, he was a member of Edinburgh University's Political Economy department (where my wife happened to be one of his students). As the young secretary of the Edinburgh Fabian Society, I invited him to one of our Saturday evening monthly meetings. He came willingly and spoke with great insight about labour relations. But I never did discover what his politics were. "Those," his son Andrew told me, "he kept close to his chest."

Spells at the University of Illinois, arranged by Professor Peacock, and at Queen's University in Canada, enhanced his reputation, and at the age of 39 he was an obvious choice for the position of Founding Professor of Economics at the new Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh. He had conspicuous success, working closely with Professor Tom Patton, Professor of Marine Engineering, in developing authoritative work on the infant North Sea oil industry. On account of his balanced judgement (and in my opinion, personal good manners and charm), membership of significant bodies flowed towards him – the National Industries Relations Court from 1971-74, for example, as well as the National Youth Employment Council and the Milk Marketing Board.

He could no longer combine academic and political life, with his appointment in 1977 by Willie Ross, Harold Wilson's Secretary of State for Scotland (to whom he was Economic Consultant) as the first Chairman of the Manpower Services Committee for Scotland. His very skills on manpower economics continued to move him away from mainstream theory. While most of Johnston's public activity was Scotland-centric, he was invited, thanks to his qualities of balanced judgement, to be chairman (1978-79) of the Inquiry into staff representation in a hugely sensitive area, the London clearing banks.

In 1981, he returned to Heriot-Watt as Vice-Chancellor, and gave added impetus to his friend Tom Patton's Institute of Offshore Engineering. As one of the local MPs, I knew at first hand of his spectacular success in establishing links between Heriot Watt and industry, and of his being a team-leader of staff at Heriot-Watt, which was a conspicuously happy ship.

A man of no nonsense, he was ever-considerate of other people. Andrew Walker, a Vice-Principal of Heriot-Watt and Professor of Modern Optics, reflected to me: "the Eighties were a challenging period for British universities but Tom successfully led the continuing development of Heriot-Watt with tact and diplomacy in his usual modest style and laid the foundations of the now internationally renowned Institute of Petroleum Engineering."

As President of the Royal Society of Edinburgh – a distinction scientists seldom confer on economists – Johnston was one of our really influential leaders. His death notice made no mention of his various distinctions – his friends thought the notice was "another Tom Johnston". His many constructive achievements were shrouded in modesty.

Tam Dalyell

Thomas Lothian Johnston, economist: born Whitburn, West Lothian 9 March 1927; Professor of Economics, Heriot- Watt University, 1966-76; member, National Industrial Relations Court, 1971-74; member, Scottish Economic Council 1977-91; Economic Consultant to Secretary of State for Scotland, 1977-81; Chairman, Manpower Services Committee for Scotland, 1977-80; Principal and Vice-Chancellor, Heriot-Watt University, 1981-88; President, Royal Society of Edinburgh 1993-96; married 1956 Joan Fahmy (two sons, three daughters); died Edinburgh 25 March 2009.