Obituary: Viscount Muirshiel

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The Independent Online
John Scott Maclay, politician and shipowner, born Kilmacolm Renfrewshire 26 October 1905, MP (National Liberal and Conservative) for Montrose Burghs 1940- 50, for Renfrewshire West 1950-64, CMG 1944, Parliamentary Secretary Ministry of Production 1945, Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation 1951-52, PC 1952, President Assembly of Western European Union 1955-56, Minister of State for Colonial Affairs 1956-57, Secretary of State for Scotland 1957-62, President National Liberal Council 1957-67, CH 1962, created 1964 Viscount Muirshiel, Trustee National Galleries of Scotland 1966-76, Chairman Scottish Civic Trust 1967-89, KT 1973, Lord-Lieutenant of Renfrewshire 1967-80, married 1930 Betty (Becky) Astley (died 1974), died Kilmacolm 17 August 1992.

VISCOUNT MUIRSHIEL was in his political heyday, as Jack Maclay, one of Harold Macmillan's most important cabinet henchmen. Maclay, Secretary of State for Scotland from January 1957, was abruptly sacked in July 1962 in the 'night of the long knives', when Macmillan, in a panic, got rid of half his Cabinet; as Harold Wilson, then shadow Treasury spokesman, memorably put it, 'the wrong half'. In Maclay's case Wilson's shaft was justified, since Maclay was a far more substantial politician than his successor, Michael Noble, then an MP of three years' standing, who had never held ministerial office.

The following day, after his unceremonious political execution - along with Selwyn Lloyd, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir David Eccles, Charles Hill, David Maxwell Fyfe and other grandees of the post-war Conservative Party - I met Maclay in a Commons corridor. He rescued me at one stroke from my obvious embarrassment. 'Well,' he said cheerfully, 'you succeeded in getting me the order of the boot.' This was a reference to the West Lothian by-election a month before, when I had been the successful Labour candidate and the Tories, who had polled 18,500 votes in 1959, slumped to 4,000 with a lost deposit. 'But', added Maclay, 'that's political life and you will learn.' In the long talk that ensued, I could not but be impressed that a man who had been so treacherously ill-done by his prime minister and friend, could seem to be so entirely devoid of rancour. Unlike some of the other decapitated ministers, Maclay displayed equanimity and generosity. He pleaded ill-health, although this was to be belied by the fact that for the next quarter of a century he made good use of his time and energies in the public service in Scotland, as Chairman of the Scottish Civic Trust and many other organisations. It was his good behaviour that helped him to earn not just a peerage but a viscountcy. In 1973 he received the accolade of being made a Knight of the Thistle.

Maclay came of a merchant-shipping family from the west of Scotland. Born in 1905, he was the younger of two sons of the first Baron Maclay, who was Minister of Shipping in Lloyd George's government during the First World War. Jack went to Winchester just as hostilities had ended. Dick Crossman, a fellow Wykehamist two years his junior, remembered him as 'a clever and civilised boy', which, emanating from that particular source, was praise indeed. Maclay went to Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1924 where, by his own account, he worked hard and fulfilled the expectations of his somewhat demanding family. Not only did he achieve academic success but he rowed bow in the winning Cambridge eight of 1927 against Oxford. In 1930 he married Becky Astley, the younger daughter of Col Delaval Astley, and a sister of the late Lord Inverchapel, sometime ambassador in Moscow. They were to form a partnership which lasted for 44 years until her death in 1974. She served him well as wife to the Secretary of State, and it was a great sorrow to both of them that they were unable to have children.

Like his father and elder brother Joseph before him, Maclay went on to become a shipowner and a director of the family firm, Maclay & Macintyre, well respected in the west of Scotland. Maclay's brother had been Liberal MP for Paisley in the 1930s, in succession to HH Asquith. But Jack was then unattracted by politics and remained with his firm until 1940, when he was elected as National Liberal member for Montrose Burghs. However, it was not until 1944 that he made his maiden speech in the House.

In 1941 Maclay went to work in the British Merchant Shipping Mission in Washington, at first as deputy to Sir Arthur Salter and subsequently as Head of Mission. It was the good work that he did at this time that started what was to be a lifelong friendship with Harold Macmillan, who had many dealings with the Americans as the Resident Minister in North Africa. On his return to Britain, Maclay was a natural to become Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Production in Winston Churchill's 'caretaker administration'.

During the time of the Labour government Maclay became a very active member of the Council of Shipping. After the abolition of the Montrose Burghs constituency in 1948, Maclay returned to his beloved west of Scotland at the 1950 election for the constituency of Renfrewshire West. I was told by my own senior Labour colleagues such as the late Tom Fraser that Maclay had been very effective in opposition because he knew so much about shipping and trade. He became chairman of the National Liberal Parliamentary Party (1947-50) and when the Tories returned to office in 1951 he was the first choice to become Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation, a reward for his work in opposition and his expertise.

Maclay did not have a good year in 1952. After 10 months in office, his 'health' let him down during a political furore over transport reforms and rail fares. On medical advice he resigned and only came back to the front bench after being appointed Minister of State in the Colonial Office in 1956. Accepting his resignation in 1952, Churchill referred in glowing terms to the value of what Maclay had done in the Department of Transport and during the war where his work had come to Churchill's notice when Prime Minister.

During this time, when he was off the front bench and out of office, Maclay became an enthusiast for Europe and a senior figure in the movement for European union. In 1954 he was asked by the General Affairs Committee of the Assembly of the Western European Union in Strasbourg to report on alternatives to the concept of a European Defence Community, and in 1955 and 1956 he was elected President of the assembly - a considerable honour for a man from a lukewarm country such as Britain.

Towards the end of his life I asked him what had been his greatest regret, thinking it would be the closing down of the Linwood car plant on the outskirts of Glasgow which he had been instrumental in setting up. Not a bit of it. He was absolutely clear. 'My greatest regret is that our country did not perceive the importance of what was happening at the Messina conference and join the European Six on the ground floor.'

In October 1956 Maclay's experience and standing beckoned him back to government as Minister of State in the Colonial Office. Albeit he was there for a short time, he had to handle a difficult situation relating to the Turkish terrorist organisation Eoka in Cyprus and a developing situation in Ghana. In 1957, as a postgraduate student, I went to the Ghana of Kwame Nkrumah and know at first hand that Maclay was highly regarded as a British minister by senior members of the Ghanaian government and indeed by Geoffrey Bing QC, the left-wing Labour MP who had gone as Nkrumah's adviser.

As Secretary of State for Scotland, Maclay was at the centre of the plans to set up the Ravenscraig steel works in Motherwell, the BMC (later British Leyland) Bathgate motor-vehicle plant, near Edinburgh, which became the biggest engineering shop under one roof in Europe, besides the car-manufacturing unit at Linwood. I suppose that history will judge that all this was a catastrophic industrial mistake, and certainly it has ended in tears in the 1980s and 1990s. However, what is obvious to us now was not so obvious to them then. It was a tribute to Maclay's weight in Cabinet that he was able to persuade his colleagues and leaders of industry that it was necessary to do something about the Scottish unemployment problem of the day. And, whatever people now say, the fact is that high-quality employment was given to many thousands of ex-coalminers and shale miners and their families who would not otherwise have had it. It looked at the time that Maclay was doing the right thing for the industrial infrastructure.

At the Commons dispatch box Maclay was genial and relaxed, often languid, accepting the shafts of the leading Scottish Labour MPs of the day such as Willie Ross, Peggy Herbison and James Hoy with good-tempered equanimity. The political columnists of today would not have given him star rating as a Commons performer. But when it came to bringing the bacon home in terms of Treasury agreement Maclay was a very formidable operator indeed.

After he left the Commons in 1964 Maclay was created Viscount Muirshiel and served as Lord-Lieutenant of Renfrewshire from 1967 to 1980. He was chairman of the joint Exchequer Board for Northern Ireland and chairman of the Scottish Civic Trust. The policy of both the Forestry Commission and many private owners of having a higher proportion of broad-leaved trees owes much to Jack Maclay's enthusiasms. He was one of the driving forces behind the development of the Burrell Collection which has been such a success in the city of Glasgow.

Jack Maclay, Viscount Muirshiel, deserves to be remembered as one of the most effective Scots of the century. And he will be remembered for what he was, a charming and generous man.

(Photograph omitted)