William Robertson: Public servant who brought jobs to Scotland


William Robertson was the third chief executive of the Scottish Council for Development and Industry. But he was widely seen as the primary architect, not just of the SCDI as it is today but of much of Scotland's widely imitated approach to economic development.

Sir William Kerr Fraser, later Chancellor of the University of Glasgow, worked with Robertson when he was Principal Private Secretary to William Ross, Secretary of State for Scotland. "Willie Robertson was an unappreciated power in the land in the 1960s and 1970s," he said. "His quiet, determined style, combined with his technical knowledge, contributed greatly to the establishment of the electronics industry in Scotland."

Willie Robertson was born into an engineering shipbuilding family and was sent to the rigorous Allan Glens School. He told me that it never left him that while he was well turned-out in a school uniform, he was appalled by the queues of unemployed he passed on his way to school. The creation of jobs was the mainspring of his life. A first class honours student of engineering at the University of Glasgow, he went in 1936 to study electrical engineering and radio waves under the leading professor of the day in that field, Carl Bartzmeister of the Technologische Hochschule in Dresden. He stayed in digs with a family of advocates by the name of Bellmeir and became friendly with the eldest son of the house, a radiologist.

He confided in Robertson the appalling situation by which he was asked to carry out experiments on Jews. "What would you do?" he asked. Robertson said he would have refused to do anything of the kind. "If I refuse,'' came the answer, "my career will be broken and my family marked. And who am I to say that all my country is wrong except for me?''

Robertson came home with great affection for the Bellmeir family and many of the staff and students of the Hochschule, but determined to do everything he could in the resistance to Nazi Germany. He served successively in the infant military technical establishments at Felixstowe, Dundee and Swanage where he began a long and fruitful relationship with Sir Robert Watson Watt, with the particular brief to monitor what the Germans were up to in electronic communications.

A man of great initiative, after some eight years at the Royal Radar establishment at Malvern he approached Sir Edward Appleton, the Nobel Prize-winning Vice Chancellor of Edinburgh University, with a view to setting up a joint unit of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (forerunner of the Science Research Council) and the Scottish Council on Industry. Appleton was sympathetic and the bodies merged to form the Scottish Council for Development and Industry. It became the lead economic development body in Scotland, and pioneered economic development techniques – industrial estates, industrial investment, trade missions – that would be admired and emulated across the developed world.

In the 1950s and 1960s there was a consensus behind an interventionist, planned approach to economic development. The SCDI, with a broad membership base that ranged from bankers to trade union leaders, was uniquely placed to form the van of that consensus, and its reports, chaired by the great economist Sir Alexander Cairncross and Sir John Toothill, managing director of Ferranti, drafted the blueprint for British regional policy right through to the Thatcher era.

Robertson brought together a Scottish consensus which wrung from governments of differing persuasions a succession of monumental economic initiatives: a massive coalfield reconstruction; an integrated steel plant for Motherwell, Ravenscraig steelworks, a tractor and truck plant for Bathgate, a car factory for Linwood, a paper mill for Corpach, an aluminium smelter for Invergordon and construction yards to build the rigs that would drill for North Sea oil. As Robertson put it, "The sole criterion that people saw in those days was that of employment - what mattered was to create jobs.''

With hindsight it might be argued that these projects eventually came to grief. But they all provided good employment when it was desperately needed; Robertson's constant badgering of governments for such projects was wholly justified.

He lobbied – with what was almost certainly more passion than was encouraged in civil servants – for the government to build a major new research facility in Scotland and the north of England rather than the Home Counties. In alliance with Scottish Secretaries of State, by sheer weight of advocacy he persuaded ministers to set up the National Engineering Laboratory in East Kilbride rather than Stevenage, helping to rebuild Scotland's by then somewhat tarnished reputation for industrial and scientific innovation.

Willie Robertson in those years knew everybody worth knowing: in Scotland, in Westminster, in Whitehall and beyond. He knew, too, how best to win those there over to cases that he invariably put forward with a mixture of courteous elegance and unstoppable conviction. He was among the first to impress on Scottish universities the benefits of collaboration with industry, a goal that ranks high on today's public policy agenda. He badgered government to support what he felt would be a coming sector, biotechnology, by investing in a bioengineering institute, an initiative eventually realised by Strathclyde University.

Finally, a personal example of his quick-witted decisiveness. In October 1971 I was given a sudden offer by the Chinese head of legation in London, a Mr Piao, to take a trade delegation to the Kwan-Chung Fair the following month. On the very afternoon I contacted him, Robertson set in motion a formidable delegation, led by the chairman of the SCDI's executive committee, Lord Clydesmuir, which proved to be the first from western Europe to visit cultural-revolution China. This was the start of a relationship which lasts to this day. Robertson was an enabler of many worthwhile initiatives.

William Shepherd Robertson, electronics engineer and public servant: born Glasgow 16 July 1914; Chief Executive, Scottish Council for Development and Industry 1956-79; married 1939 Margaret ("Biddy") Ferguson (died 2000; two sons); died Pencaitland 18 July 2012.