Obituary: Peter Doig

In February 1972, the Parliamentary Labour Party was immersed in issues arising from the miners' strike. It was a fraught time. And not the least contentious issue was that of secondary picketing, and flying pickets at the power stations. Most of the trade union movement was behind the miners, and were pressurising their sponsored Labour MPs to support what much of the public perceived as all kinds of excesses. Not the least vocal was the Transport and General Workers Union.

It was typical of Peter Doig that, reminding us that he was a lifelong member of the T&GWU and a member of the Labour Party since 1930, he should speak up on the floor of the House against secondary disputes and flying pickets. On 14 February, during the critical Emergency Powers debate, Doig said:

I remind the House that the Labour government delayed the closing of mines, created special development areas, introduced redundancy payments and earnings-related supplements as well as taking other steps with miners' interests specially in mind.

But I am one of the few MPs, possibly the only MP on the Labour side, who believes that the emergency regulations are necessary. I believe that because when the strike started the miners' leaders said that it was their policy to stop all power stations from operating. This has nothing to do with one's views on whether pickets are working unlawfully or not. As I see it, when a union takes its members out on strike it is entitled to picket in order to prevent other people from doing strikers' jobs. It is also entitled to try to influence other unions to join in. It is quite entitled to try to convince the trade unions that their members in other industries should support it.

What I do not believe is that it is entitled to picket other industries. Whether or not a power station is picketed is something for the power station workers to decide and not for people from outside the area altogether. The miners have no right at all to picket oil-fired power stations without first consulting the other union involved. And it should be for the other union to make the decision.

Hardly to his surprise, Doig received a sternly worded letter from his T&GWU head office, pointing out that his comments were contrary to union policy; and, if he did not recant smartly, they would withdraw his union sponsorship - which would certainly have had the effect, at that time, of terminating abruptly Doig's time in Parliament.

But no threat even to his livelihood (for he had no private means), nor the fury of Jack Jones in his heyday, could daunt Doig once he had made up his mind on what he deemed to be right. He penned a letter to Transport House, making it abundantly clear that he was a Member of Parliament and he would say and do what he believed to be right; and, that if the union wanted to withdraw sponsorship, so be it.

I vividly remember Doig's passing me a xerox of the letter during a session of the Scottish Grand Committee. It was a humdinger. I took my hat off to his fortitude, knowing that he financially depended on being an MP and that he had not yet qualified for a parliamentary pension having been an MP for under 10 years.

Doig's increasingly left-wing constituency Labour Party were pretty vexed, and some snarled. They hesitated at de-selection attempts, since Doig had proved himself an immensely caring and effective MP for the people of Dundee, particularly the disadvantaged, and his removal would quite certainly have meant that Dundee West would follow Dundee East, held by Gordon Wilson, leader of the SNP. For George Thomson (now Lord Thomson of Monifieth), from 1952 to 1972 the previous member for Dundee East, Doig was a "loyal and courageous colleague".

Peter Doig was born and brought up one of the four sons of a miner in Lochgelly, Fife, who was determined that none of his boys would follow him down the pit. He left Blackness School at 14, worked in bakeries and then became a van driver.

The Second World War changed everything. He volunteered for the RAF, was put into Transport and found himself at Stavanger in 1940, then at Tronheim in Norway, making a lucky last-minute escape in a tub from the rapidly advancing Wehrmacht.

The following year Doig was to make an even luckier escape, this time from the Japanese. He was sent as a despatch rider from northern Singapore to the Malayan coast, but the unit to which he was to deliver messages was cut off. They took to the sea in small boats - most were destroyed; Doig and his companions were set on fire, after which they were left for drowned by the attacking aircraft. By a series of miracles, which Doig once described to me after playing chess in the Commons chess room, under the pictures of Balfour and Bonar Law, a quarter of a century later - he was a genuinely modest man - he was picked up by a cargo ship and reached the Indian coast. Then, sleeping on deck, he travelled home on the troopship Devonia narrowly escaping U-boats. This experience was reflected in his political style: he always recognised that he was living on borrowed time, which gave him a perspective and objectivity which is rare among MPs.

Discharged in 1946, he returned to T.D. Duncan, the Dundee bakers soon to be swallowed up by Rank Hovis, and became a sales supervisor. Drawn into the Dundee Parliament, a famous old debating society, he acquired a taste for public affairs and was elected to Dundee Town Council in 1953. Success as an effective convenor of the Parks Department Committee, a reputation for severe probity and teetotalism in a city of colourful councillors and the support of the Juteworkers' Union led to his being chosen as City Treasurer.

His reputation was enhanced by a successful campaign against Lady Tweedsmuir in South Aberdeen in 1959 and the fact that he had forced the City Chamberlain against his will to take on the cosy oil cartels, and humiliate Shell into giving the City of Dundee a better deal.

In 1963 John Strachey suddenly died. Strachey was a heavyweight intellectual of the Left and had an international reputation. Dundee Labour Party decided that they wanted a candidate who was the opposite of Strachey and would pay attention to the city. This Doig did.

Doig has been lampooned for his constant attempts, starting in March 1969, to introduce protection from dogs legislation. "I seek in my Bill to achieve three things. First, that the warning be given on the outside gate `Beware of the dog' or a similar notice. Secondly, that a letter- box should be provided on the outside gate by dog owners. Thirdly, to establish beyond all doubt the legal right of people to use an approved dog repellent in self-defence."

I trow that more of my West Lothian constituents put pen to paper on Doig's dogs during the early 1970s than on the fact that I was one of 69 Labour MPs to go into the same lobby as Ted Heath on the momentous European Community vote of 25 October 1971, or on my controversial views on the future constitutional arrangements of the United Kingdom affecting Scotland. Doig also spoke his mind on devolution. On 10 January 1978, during the debate on the Scotland Bill, he said:

It would then be necessary to have customs officers not just on the border but at every airport, every railway station and every port. There would have to be customs officers at every one of these places immediately there was any inconsiderable difference in the rate of taxation between England and Scotland.

The same sort of situation would

arise if it were decided to change

the rate of income tax in Scotland.

If the rate of income tax were to be higher in Scotland, what would be the first thing to happen? Taxation is based on where the head office of a company happens to be. In such an event head offices in Scotland would immediately pull out and transfer to somewhere in England . . .

The same argument applies right through the list of possible taxes. Without a customs organisation, it would be utterly impossible to have separate rates if this sort. If we have them, we shall be heading for nothing but trouble. This idea is just sheer nonsense.

Peter Doig joined the SDP in 1981 and therefore does not qualify for a memorial encomium from the Chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party at our Wednesday morning meetings. But he and his supportive wife Emily will remain in the memory of his contemporaries as a credit to the party of which they were members for over half a century.

Tam Dalyell

Peter Muir Doig, van driver and politician: born Lochgelly, Fife 27 September 1911; member, Dundee Town Council 1953-63, Treasurer 1959-63; MP (Labour) for Dundee West 1963-79; married 1938 Emily Scott (two sons); died Wormit, Fife 31 October 1996.

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