Obituary : Lord Clydesmuir
Monday 07 October 1996
Indeed, the background to the Scottish Council for Development and Industry's delegation to China in 1971, the first trade mission from the West in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, encapsulates Lord Clydesmuir's dynamic attitude to life.
Summoned to lunch by the Chinese charge d'affaires Mr Piao at two hours' notice on 28 October 1971, the day of the Common Market entry vote, when 69 of us were proposing to vote with Ted Heath, against the policy of the Labour Party, I was told: "You asked in April about a trade delegation from Scotland. We agree. You will be in Canton on 11 November." In desperation, but unwilling to forfeit what was a stupendous opportunity, I telephoned Clydesmuir. Listening carefully, as he always did - he was an unusually good listener, over and above his natural good manners - he responded: "Right. Let me operate." He added tersely that he trusted that I would go into the pro- European lobby for the sake of Scotland, because he believed that the future of Scottish industry was in Europe. A belief to which adhered for the rest of his life.
Operate he did. Rearranging all engagements to lead the delegation himself, he put together from the Scottish Council of Development and Industry a delegation of 16 members ranging from the representatives of John Brown Engineering, Ferranti's and British Aluminium to a Midlothian mink farmer. Typically he had taken the trouble to ask the Chinese whom they really wanted. His leadership was such that not one of us, on any occasion, was so much as a minute late for any of our innumerable engagements. We sensed that Clydesmuir would have felt displeased and let down, and his displeasure was not be incurred lightly. He was quietly formidable.
Certainly, the Chinese considered that he had great mandarin qualities. Summoned out of bed at midnight - that was not an unusual experience in Mao's China in those days - to the Forbidden City to see Jum Wen-Chin, then head of the European and American department of the Chinese Foreign Office, my host revealed that in the previous 10 days the Chinese had been most impressed by milord Clydesmuir. Was he likely to be the future Leader of Scotland?
It transpired that we Scots had been invited as, after 17 years of non- contact, they thought that the Scots, like the Albanians, were much put upon by their larger neighbours. (As an indication of the lack of contact and the timescale on which the Chinese leadership operated, Jum Wen-Chin, interrogating me about Labour Party policy, used the phrase "As Lord Attlee was telling me" as if it had been the other day; 17 years had gone by.)
I can see why the question should be asked, because, as Clydesmuir's fellow industrialist heavyweight Viscount Weir, of G. & J. Weir Pumps, put it: "The thing about Ronnie Clydesmuir was that he was a tremendous Scottish patriot. He really did care about Scotland and Scottish industry."
Later we visited a truck factory in Shanghai, where a thousand workers produced three vehicles a day. It became apparent that the Chinese were resistant to labour-saving devices. Louis Portman, one of our delegation, then export manager of Leyland Trucks, observed to Clydesmuir how inefficient it all was. Fascinatingly, Clydesmuir dissented. He revealed that he knew a great deal about the Little Red Book, and explained to the tough-minded Midlander that in the Shanghai of Yao Wan-Yan, most notorious of the Gang of Four and then mayor of the city, people's having employment and function was a more important consideration than efficiency and numbers of trucks produced. Portman confided to me afterwards: "At first I thought Ronnie was a stuffed shirt. Actually, he's an unstuffed shirt and most astute."
What Portman did not know was that Clydesmuir, besides preparing meticulously for any venture in which he was to be involved, knew a great deal about Communism. He had led the first Scottish Council for Development and Industry delegation to the Soviet Union in 1960. But there was something else. His supervisor at Trinity College, Cambridge, was Maurice Dobb, Communist, author of books on the Russian Revolution and capitalism, and old Carthusian. Clydesmuir told me: "I'd benefited from the fact that, as a Charterhouse boy, I was of special interest to Morris Dobb, who took infinite trouble over my further education."
He was lucky, too, to have been taught on a one-to-one basis by two other fellows of Trinity - Dennis Robertson, then a member of the Council of the Government's Economic Advisers and later Professor of Political Economy in Cambridge, and Piero Sraffa, influential friend of Maynard Keynes, whose lectures Clydesmuir attended.
Ronald Clydesmuir was born the son of Colonel the Right Hon Sir John Colville, Member of Parliament for North Midlothian 1929 to 1943, Secretary of the Department of Overseas Trade in the Baldwin government, Financial Secretary to the Treasury 1936-38 and Secretary of State for Scotland 1938-40, later, 1943-46, to be Governor of Bombay and three times acting Viceroy of India in absence of Lord Wavell, and ennobled in 1948. On his mother's side he inherited the industrial drive of his grandfather Sir William Bilsland, founder of Glasgow Bakeries, and his uncle Sir Steven Bilsland, the founder of the Scottish Council for Development of Industry which was to be so important in Clydesmuir's life.
Leaving Cambridge he was commissioned into the Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) and was later on the staff of the Fifth Infantry Division, becoming a major at the age of 24. He was appointed MBE in the military honours and had a "good war" in the Normandy campaign. On demobilisation he joined the famous Scottish iron and steel company, Colvilles, founded by his great-great-grandfather. His father insisted, Clydesmuir thought rightly, that he work at junior level in several plants of the Colville group and hold a whole series of "grooming positions" before he was appointed as a full-blown director in 1958.
He had joined the executive committee of the Scottish Council (Development and Industry) as a 35-year-old in 1952 and was elected on merit as vice- president in 1964 when he was already chairman of "Enterprise Scotland" and a driving force in the staging of the highly successful Scottish Industries Exhibition of that year. He gained the respect of the incoming Labour Secretary of State Willie Ross, who on one occasion in Clydesmuir's presence asserted, "I can recite Burns with the best of them." I heard Clydesmuir respond with a characteristic twinkle: "But Willie, I can recite Marx with the best of them!" Ross had the grace to laugh, because he knew from Clydesmuir's background that he did not exaggerate.
A directorship of the British Linen Bank introduced him to senior banking colleagues who recognised his quality and made him Governor when he was 49 in 1966. In March 1971 when the British Linen Bank merged with the Bank of Scotland Clydesmuir became Deputy Governor and, the following year, became Governor, a position he held until 1981. Sir Bruce Pattullo, the distinguished current Governor of the Bank of Scotland, said of him: "Ronnie's old-fashioned charm and courtesy meant that he was well liked throughout the Bank of Scotland - but he was also very effective when he needed to be. He had natural authority." Pattullo recollected that Clydesmuir was extremely impressive in talking to junior staff on the basis of a level playing field of knowledge and interest.
Clydesmuir was a director of Scotbits Securities, Scottish Save & Prosper, Scottish Western Investment Company, the Scottish Provident Institution and the Caledonian Off-shore Co. He played a very important part in developing North Sea oil and gas industries and for 17 years was chairman of North Sea Assets, from 1972 to 1987. Central Scotland has reason to be grateful for his assiduity in attracting electronic firms to what is now referred to as Silicon Valley. David Packard, who set up the huge Hewlett Packard at South Queensferry in my constituency, tells me that one of the reasons why he and Bill Hewlett were attracted to the Scottish venue was the helpfulness of Clydesmuir and his remarkable chief executive Dr Willie Robertson, who, compared to today's "Locate in Scotland" and Scottish Enterprise, operated on the proverbial shoestring.
Clydesmuir was president of the Scottish Council of Physical Recreation and espoused the cause of the National Playing Fields Association and the Outward Bound movement. As Lord-Lieutenant of Lanarkshire for 30 years he was supported marvellously by his wife of half a century, Joan Booth. The family had been thrown into public life at a very young age by the premature death of the first Lord Clydesmuir in 1954, who had been on the operating table for a routine and simple operation but had died as a result of a pair of scissors being left inadvertently in his body.
Throughout his life the Church of Scotland, where he was an elder of St Michael's, Linlithgow, and later the Queen's representative in 1971 and 1972, meant a great deal to him.
Ronald John Bilsland Colville, businessman and banker: born Glasgow 21 May 1917; MBE 1944; succeeded 1954 as second Baron Clydesmuir; Lord- Lieutenant of Lanarkshire 1963-92; CB 1965; chairman, executive committee, Scottish Council (Development and Industry) 1966-78, president 1978-86; Governor, British Linen Bank 1966-71; Deputy Governor, Bank of Scotland 1971-72, Governor 1972-81; Lord High Commissioner to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland 1971-72; KT 1972; a Captain, Royal Company of Archers, Queen's Bodyguard for Scotland 1985- 88, Captain General 1988-96; married 1946 Joan Booth (two sons, two daughters); died Biggar, Lanarkshire 2 October 1996.
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