IT could be called damning with faint praise. When Bruce Millan was appointed Secretary of State for Scotland during the dying days of James Callaghan’s government, The Scotsman’s headline read “Dependable Heir Without Charisma.”
But Millan, who died today at the age of 85, defied his critics to go on to a play a crucial part in Scottish and European politics as both a Labour parliamentarian and an EU Commissioner.
The native Dundonian was certainly dependable, while his charisma was of the understated variety. Yet his modest manner disguised a sharp mind, both politically and numerically (he was an accountant by background).
Tributes poured in from across the political spectrum today. Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond said: “Bruce was dedicated to public life, serving Scotland as a respected parliamentarian and as Commissioner in Europe.”
In his memoirs, former Labour minister Roy Jenkins recalled a meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party in November 1971. He was yet to declare his position on UK membership of the European Community, so Millan decided to challenge the future Commission President as to his views. “I thought him nice but pedestrian,” reflected Jenkins, “which shows the danger of taking patronising views.”
Fittingly, 17 years later Millan took his own talents to Brussels as one of the UK’s two commissioners. His departure from the House of Commons sparked a memorable by-election in Govan, which Jim Sillars – architect of the SNP’s “independence in Europe” slogan – seized for the Nationalists.
Millan was born on 5 October 1927 in Dundee, the son of David Millan, a shipyard worker. After attending the city’s Harris Academy, he became a chartered accountant, and unsuccessfully contested a number of West Coast Scottish constituencies before winning the Craigton Division of Glasgow in 1959.
His first ministerial job was at the Ministry of Defence as under-secretary for the RAF and, following the 1966 general election, he moved to the Scottish Office as education minister. Millan returned to the Scottish Office in 1974, this time as Minister of State, succeeding the intimidating Willie Ross as Secretary of State in April 1976.
Many civil servants thought he behaved more like an auditor than a policy-maker, a technocratic approach Millan applied to creating a Scottish Assembly. “Not that he is wildly enthusiastic about devolution,” noted The Scotsman. “Bruce Millan is not wildly enthusiastic about anything.”
Even Millan’s methodical approach could not save the first Scotland Act, which suffered death by a thousand cuts at the hands of rebellious backbench Labour MPs and a largely unenthusiastic electorate in the 1979 referendum (although a majority did support the plans). The often bad-tempered debate dominated Millan’s wide-ranging Scottish Office brief, although he kept any resulting frustrations to himself.
Although not close to Callaghan (he had backed Denis Healey in the 1976 leadership contest), Millan forged an effective working relationship with Gregor Mackenzie, his Minister of State. The more ebullient Mackenzie managed front-of-house activities while the Secretary of State buried his head in the detail. Civil servants remember him
working incredibly hard to master his brief to an extent unusual in his political contemporaries.
Millan’s most enduring legacy was a marked shift away from urban development (like New Towns) towards urban renewal. The Scottish Development Agency had been Millan’s brainchild, and he was determined to use it to regenerate decaying inner-city areas of Scotland.
In 1978 he also played a part in creating the so-called “Barnett formula”, named after the then Chief Secretary Joel Barnett but probably Millan’s idea. The aim, which endures to this day, was to replace endless inter-departmental negotiations with an automatic rise or fall in Scottish expenditure reflecting those in English ministries.
Some colleagues noted a “radical streak.” Thus Millan surprised Cabinet colleagues by voting against the Lib-Lab Pact in 1976, and also further spending cuts, which he feared would simply increase unemployment in Scotland.
Millan’s final months as Scottish Secretary were chaotic, as he grappled with the Winter of Discontent as well as fallout from the failed devolution referendum. Following defeat at the polls in May 1979, he remained on Labour’s front bench until 1983 and quit parliament for Brussels five years later.
With its penchant for paperwork, statistics and backroom deals, Millan was in his element as European Commissioner for Regional Policy and Cohesion. He served a seven-year term and returned to Glasgow in 1995, but kept a curiously low political profile, particularly in the devolution debates of the late 1990s.
Perhaps Millan felt his political backstory would not have been helpful. Instead he won praise for his chairmanship of a committee that investigated mental health law in Scotland, producing a typically comprehensive and thoughtful report, in January 2001.
Otherwise he was silent: silent on the Scottish Parliament finally established in 1999, and silent on the prospect of independence after the 2007 elections. Nevertheless his contribution to Scottish, UK and European politics was substantial.