Obituary: Jimmy Johnson

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The Independent Online
James (Jimmy) Johnson, politician, teacher, educationalist: born Radcliffe, Northumberland 16 September 1908; MP (Labour) for Rugby 1950-59, for Kingston-upon-Hull West 1964-83; married 1937 Gladys Green (one daughter); died Sutton, Surrey 31 Jan uary 1995.

When his friend the peerless former England inside-right Raich Carter, opined publicly that football stars like himself would never again taste the ecstasy and adulation of their younger years, and ought to be put down at the age of 35, Jimmy Johnson cheerfully told his friends in the tea-room of the House of Commons that Carter's remarks in a way applied to him. Johnson, who had a lovely, self-deprecating sense of humour, was the first colleague in at least my hearing to use the now-common parlance "political re-tread" - the term used for an MP who has held a Parliamentary seat, been defeated, and at a later election, returned to the Commons, like a re-treaded car tyre for a car, for the same or another constituency.

Usually re-treads do not become ministers, but there are spectacular exceptions: Harold Macmillan was one such, Anthony Barber, now Lord Barber, was another, Michael Ancram, now Minister of State in the Northern Ireland office, a double re-tread, a third. Alas, in Johnson's situation, the fact that he had lost Rugby by a whisker in 1959 put paid to the hope of a ministerial career. Even so, had Hugh Gaitskell and not Harold Wilson formed the 1964 Labour Government, Johnson thought that he would have been a minister, either responsible for fisheries, or the job which he really craved, Parliamentary Secretary at the Ministry of Overseas Development, a department newly created by the Labour Government.

The truth was that Johnson had come into Parliament when the troubles of the Labour Party encapsulated by the concept of "the Bevanites" were wreaking their most bitter mayhem. As a new MP, Johnson, albeit later to be a member of the Tribune group, expressed his ill- disguised contempt for Nye Bevan, Harold Wilson and John Freeman in, as he put it, deserting the Attlee Government. This attitude was never entirely forgiven by the new leadership, and certainly not forgotten.

Johnson was born and brought up in Northumberland, where his father was a miner, and his mother the village midwife in Radcliffe, near Alnwick. It was part of his make-up that he was damned if he was going to doff his cap to anybody. From time to time hewould reminisce that as a schoolboy he would look up at the grand walls of Alnwick Castle and think that the Duke and Duchess of Northumberland were no better than his mum or dad. He always cared about equality of opportunity which made him a congenial colleague for Anthony Crosland, with whom he shared interests in fisheries and in education when the latter was Secretary of State.

However, Johnson was eternally grateful for the rigorous academic education he received from particular teachers at Duke's School, Alnwick. "You can have any education system in the world," he said, "but there is no more important component than the dedicated school master or school mistress, really interested in their pupils as people." Johnson made an important input into Tony Crosland's watershed speech to the National Union of Teachers at Douglas, Isle of Man, in 1965, when Crosland emphasised the importance the Labour Government attached to the morale of the teaching profession in improving standards of education in Britain.

At Leeds University, Johnson combined getting a rather rare First Class honours in geography with playing football not only for Leeds University but for the British University team and for the Corinthians, then in their heyday of amateur football. Ruefully, Johnson told me that parental pressure and the university ethos of the day had led him to turn away feelers from many football clubs including Huddersfield Town and Sunderland then in their glory days: "Looking back on it, I should have grabbed the opportunity of having the chance to play in the same team as Raich Carter."

Instead of going to Roker Park, Johnson took a diploma of education and got a job at Queen Elizabeth High School, Atherstone, before being promoted to a post of responsibility at Scarborough High School. Over the years various people have told me that Johnson was an exceptionally good teacher of geography and, unlike like many masters in charge of games, encouraged not only those with first-XI potential, but also the less proficient. It was part of his character that he would always go out of his way tohelp the less talented.

During the Second World War, when he was over age for active service, Johnson worked for ARP in Scarborough - a restricted occupation - and was an officer in the Air Training Corps. After the war, he returned to Bablake School, in Coventry, and was then enticed to the growing Coventry Technical College as a lecturer. George Hodgkinson, then a great power in the Coventry Labour party in which Johnson had become active, recommended him to the marginal seat of Rugby as a candidate.

In the Commons for Rugby between 1950 and 1959, Johnson acted as an aide and unofficial PPS to Arthur Creech Jones, the Colonial Secretary. This enabled Johnson to use his time in the 1950s fruitfully to travel in Africa. When he lost his seat in 1959 hebecame student adviser to the Liberian Government.

When Johnson returned to the House of Commons for the very safe seat of Kingston-upon-Hull West in 1964, it was clear to him that he was not going to get a coveted ministerial job. Johnson did not sulk at this, but was extremely encouraging to his younger colleagues and, for that, many, including me, have reason to be grateful for his kindly advice, not least in adversity. He devoted himself to his Hull consistency, making frequent visits with the long- distance trawler fleet to the fishing grounds. Of a physically tough build and with an enormous capacity to be convivial, Johnson was extremely popular with the fishing community.

Otherwise, he devoted himself to the affairs of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, of which he became treasurer, and of Africa. Judith Hart, when she was Minister of Overseas Development, had no stronger protagonist than Johnson for her view that overseas aid ought to be targeted on the very poorest countries of the world.

Johnson was both a friend to a huge diversity of emerging African leaders, and also trade-union adviser to groups of workers in Africa, particularly local government workers in Kenya.

When I was chairman of a parliamentary sports group in the 1970s, Johnson was the most faithful attender and later became a director of Hull City football club. His greatest constituency problem was not to reveal a preference between the round ball and the oval ball of rugby league, in which sport he took a constructive interest at a time when they needed friends.

Johnson's long membership of the Commons was enormously useful, far beyond the requirements of party loyalty. He was an old Corinthian of a politician in the best sense.

Tam Dalyell