Obituary: Lord John-Mackie

Click to follow
The Independent Online
John Mackie (John John-Mackie), politician: born 24 November 1909; MP (Labour) for Enfield East 1959- 74; Joint Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture 1964-70; Chairman, Forestry Commission 1976-79; created 1981 Baron John- Mackie; opposition frontbench spokesman on agriculture, food, forestry and fisheries, House of Lords 1983-88; married 1934 Jeannie Milne (three sons, two daughters); died Nazeing, Essex 25 May 1994.

IT IS a matter of some irony that, whereas few farmers cast their vote for the Labour Party, Labour governments in office have proved themselves tender towards the interest of farmers. Attlee's Minister of Agriculture, Tom Williams, acquired the status of patron saint in the Labour movement. And Fred Peart - Harold Wilson's Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries, and Food from 1964 to 1968 - was popular among farmers to an extent that was not true of most other Labour ministers in their own spheres.

An important contributory explanation of the acceptance gained by Peart, and then by Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos, who as Cledwyn Hughes succeeded him, in 1968-70, was that their two Parliamentary Under-Secretaries knew a very great deal about their departmental responsibilities. James Hoy represented Leith from 1945 and knew about the problems and life of the fishing industry. The other, John Mackie, was a scion of one of the great and hugely successful farming dynasties of Britain; farming was in his blood.

John Mackie was the second of the three distinguished sons of Maitland Mackie, a considerable figure and farmer in the north-east of Scotland. John's elder brother, also Maitland, was Convener of Aberdeenshire Council, and previously an innovative Chairman of the Education Committee, besides being a large-scale model farmer. His younger brother, George, Lord Mackie of Benshie DSO DFC, had an exceptionally distinguished combat record in the RAF, before becoming a Liberal MP and active working member of the House of Lords.

Mackie progressed automatically from Aberdeen Grammar School to the North of Scotland College of Agriculture, of which he was to be an influential Governor from 1942, until he became a Minister of the Crown in 1964. In the early 1950s he added to his large-scale farming operation at Laurencekirk, in Kincardineshire - everything about the physically huge Mackie brothers was large- scale - a farm at Waltham Abbey in Essex. This was partly because Mackie had been made a Governor of the National Institute of Agricultural Engineering in 1949. For 12 years he was, along with other big farmers publicly committed to socialism, Wilfred Cave and Harry Walston, a tribune of applying modern methods to farming. In this campaign they carried much credibility, not least since it became known that they paid those who worked on their farms wages substantially above the going rate.

However it was another of Mackie's interests, health, which eased the way for a man who was thought in the late 1940s to be a millionaire to become a Labour candidate. Hector McNeill, the imaginative Secretary of State for Scotland, appointed Mackie as Chairman of the Aberdeen and Kincardine Health Executive Committee. Having done this job both competently and with left- wing determination, Mackie was selected to fight North Angus and Mearns, losing to Sir Colin Thornton Kemsley by 8,159 votes at the 1951 general election.

The Labour Party in Scotland wanted Mackie in the House, and moved him as candidate to the more fertile pastures of Lanark, which had been Jennie Lee's (and Sir Alec Douglas-Home's) seat. However, in 1955, Labour was doing significantly less well in Scotland than in England, and Mackie lost to Patrick Maitland (now the Earl of Lauderdale), by 958 votes.

Rising 50, Mackie almost despaired of ever finding a Labour seat. However, both his interest in health, and the fact that he had fought their beloved Lanark, brought him into friendship with Aneurin Bevan and his wife, who had acquired a small farm, about which Mackie gave them a lot of good advice.

It should be made clear that Mackie's views had not simply been Labour, but determinedly left-wing socialist. In 1958, in a much-discussed Fabian pamphlet, Mackie argued the case for land nationalisation. He contended that many of the old estates were still functioning - but only a few really well. There were a tremendous number of new landlords - particularly investment trusts, insurance companies, and so on. There was a great deal of entailed land held by solicitors on behalf of far-off relations of the previous owners. A lot of land was held by wealthy businessmen purely to save death duties. This land was invariably badly managed. Land, Mackie said, should be let by the state to those who could farm it well, not those who could afford it. One of the main reasons for state ownership was to get full production from the land, and this would only be achieved if farmers were adequately trained.

This coherent if controversial thinking, plus, it should be said, the public endorsement of Nye and Jennie Bevan, won Mackie the candidature for the then safe Labour seat of Enfield East. I am told too, by local old-stagers, that they wanted a heavyweight with whom they could hold their heads high in comparison with the formidable Tory MP for Enfield West, Iain Macleod. In a hotly contested selection conference, Mackie was chosen to take over from the veteran EAG Davies, and held the seat with a 10 per cent majority.

In the first and second Wilson governments of 1964-70 Mackie and James Hoy were among the very few under-secretaries who were not involved in the ministerial merry-go-round. They were round pegs in a round hole, and sustained by MAFF (the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food), one of the most Rolls- Royce of all government departments, gave the impression of competence. Mackie travelled widely on official business, including a delicate visit to Argentina in March 1968. The authorities in Buenos Aires were furious that the Reid Committee Report had - unscientifically in their view - blamed Argentinian mutton, imported into Britain, for a virulent outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease. Mackie, by his good-humour, was able, farmer to farmer, to placate Rafael Garcia Nata, Argentina's Minister of Agriculture, and thus preserve an important trading relationship.

Even Mackie's good-humour was stretched when Anthony Greenwood, the Labour Minister of Housing, in 1967 rejected his appeal against a planning decision by Epping and Ongar Rural District Council about dwelling houses on his Essex farm. For a brief 24 hours, not least because Dick Crossman, Mackie's farming friend, Leader of the House and Greenwood's predecessor at Housing, opined that Greenwood's decision was barmy. Fortunately, an economic crisis pushed the matter out of the tabloid headlines. Otherwise, there would have been a stromach about a minister not supporting HMG's green-belt policy, with probably forced resignation.

Then, in 1969, there was the Bumbles Green Affair, involving Mackie's objection to the Eastern Electricity Board's erecting pylons which would injure his farm. Mackie's personality, laced with pawky Scots humour was such that his colleagues did not want to slay him for minor embarrassment to the Labour government.

The greatest public agony of Mackie's life came on 28 October 1971. Of the 69 Labour MPs who accompanied Ted Heath into the Pro-Common Market lobby, only Andrew Faulds, Roy Hattersley, Robert Sheldon and I remain in the Commons. It is difficult to convey the emotions of that night. And no one was more distressed - he was literally in tears, in the lobby - than Mackie, in the act of voting against his party.

It says a lot for him that, coming as he did from the left-wing stable, he galvanised himself to do so.

Mackie had been an advocate of the extension of the ownership of the woodland of Britain, under the aegis of the Forestry Commission. He believed that private ownership of land meant that much poor ground, suitable for trees, went unplanted, and that the commission was forced to acquire land, suitable for agriculture. Since Mackie had displayed more interest in the Forestry area of his responsibilities than any minister in the department's history, it was fitting that Wilson, and his farmer-friend Jim Callaghan, should appoint Mackie as Chairman of the Forestry Commission in succession to Tom Taylor. He left his stamp on the commission, insisting on development of greater public access, recreation facilities, and an extended emphasis on broad-leaf trees. George Holmes, Director-General of the Forestry Commission, told me, 'On account of his warmth, sincerity and enthusiasm, John Mackie was adored at all levels by the staff of the commission with whom he came into contact.'

Mackie was greatly upset when the incoming Conservative government decided to replace him after only three years. He told his friends that his time at the commission had been the happiest period of his life.

In all his work, he was supported by a remarkable lady, his wife Jeannie Milne, sister of the distinguished surgeon Jock Milne, and a tower of strength.

(Photograph omitted)