Dr Jesse Dickson Mabon
Labour minister who defected to Social Democrats and back
Born: 1 November, 1925, in Glasgow.
Died: 10 April, 2008, in Eastbourne, Kent, aged 82.
J DICKSON Mabon, a Labour MP for the Greenock area for nearly three decades, served as minister of state for Scotland under Harold Wilson and as minister of state for Energy in the government of James Callaghan. Ironically, it was the latter job, from 1976-79, that brought him the greater prominence north of the Border, when North Sea oil had just come onstream and he was heavily involved in overseeing the production boom.
As a Scot in a British government, Mabon, who preferred to be called Dick or Dickson rather than Jesse, found himself with the unenviable task of countering the growing Scottish National Party's loud assertion that "it's Scotland's oil" and having to insist the new source of wealth belonged to the British nation. With concerns over the effects of the oil boom on the SNP vote, it became part of his job to play down the significance of the new-found source of wealth, speaking of "the eldorado that the SNP dangle before you".
He nevertheless remained a fiercely proud Scot and felt his greatest achievement was his role in creating badly-needed social housing during his term as minister for Scotland, number two to secretary of state Willie Ross, from 1967-70.
Mabon gained national prominence in 1981 when he defected from his beloved Labour Party, citing increasing influence by trade unions and Trotskyist factions, and joined the new Social Democratic Party founded by the so-called Gang of Four – Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams, David Owen and Bill Rodgers. He would return to the Labour fold in 1991 and remained an active member of the party in Eastbourne, Kent, where he retired.
In October 1971 Mabon was one of 69 Labour MPs, including Jenkins, Williams and Tam Dalyell, who defied the party in a historic House of Commons vote, ensuring a clear, two-to-one majority for joining the European Economic Community. He remained firmly pro-European throughout his life and held several posts in European bodies.
Jesse Dickson Mabon was born in the Blythswood district of Glasgow in 1925, son of Jesse Dickson Mabon and Isabel Simpson Montgomery. He was educated at Possilpark and North Kelvinside schools in the city before the Second World War interrupted his further education. By chance, instead of going to war, he was drafted in 1944 into the so-called "Bevin Boys", picked by lottery to keep the coal mines going while most full-time miners were fighting at the front.
Often working in the same mines as future comedian Stanley Baxter, he remained in active service until the Bevin Boys' programme ended in 1948, when he went to the University of Glasgow to study medicine.
(Mabon's, and The Bevin Boys' contribution to the war effort went largely unrecognised for nearly half a century. Only last month did Prime Minister Gordon Brown award the first Veterans Badges for Bevin Boys, putting them on a par with front-line war vets).
At university, Mabon's debating skills quickly shone through. He was chairman of the Glasgow University Labour Club from 1948-50, president of the University Union from 1951-52 and president of the Scottish Union of Students from 1954-55 before graduating MB, ChB (bachelor of medicine and surgery).
He had long since seen politics as his calling and had, while still a student, stood unsuccessfully as a Labour candidate for Bute and North Ayrshire in 1951.
After graduating, he was elected Labour (and Co-operative) MP for Greenock at a by-election in 1955, a seat he held until 1983, the last two years as a Social Democrat. (The constituency had become Greenock and Port Glasgow in 1974.)
In his first speech at Westminster, in 1956, he called on the government to give tax concessions to organisers of the Highland games. "The history of cricket can be traced back to the days of Edward IV and that of football to Edward II," he told the House of Commons. "But the origin of the Highland games can be traced back to the time when the Greeks played their Olympic games, and some of us like to think their history goes even further back than that. I am not making a constituency case, but a national case – the case for Scotland. After all, Scotland is an integral part of the United Kingdom and deserves this recognition of her national traditions."
In 1955, he was the first Labour MP to voice his support for Hugh Gaitskell in the party's leadership election and considered himself a loyal "Gaitskellite" until the latter died in 1963, causing what Mabon called "great lamentations in the Labour movement." He felt Gaitskell's successor as Labour Party leader, Harold Wilson, was a poor substitute.
From 1958-64, he doubled as a visiting physician at London's Manor House hospital, in his spare time writing as a political columnist for the Daily Record in Glasgow.
In Wilson's first government, Mabon was appointed joint under-secretary of state for Scotland (1964-67). He was promoted to minister of state (1967-70), serving under Willie Ross, who was said to have been irked by Mabon's ability to attract media attention on an almost-daily basis.
During the subsequent Tory government, he served as deputy opposition spokesman on Scotland (1972-74) but regained a government post, as minister of state for energy, from 1976-79, after James Callaghan became prime minister.
In 1983, when he wanted to stand again for his old seat in Greenock but by then was a Social Democrat, the local Liberals refused to stand their candidate down despite their alliance with the SDP. He ran instead for the SDP in Renfrewshire West and Inverclyde but lost to Tory Anna McCurley, then lost again in 1987, to Labour's Tommy Graham.
While still a Labour MP, he served terms as a member of the Council of Europe, the Assembly of the Western European Union and the North Atlantic Assembly. In later years, he was an active member of the pro-nuclear energy lobby, notably the Supporters of Nuclear Energy, on whose committee he served.
As a doctor, he became increasingly interested in homeopathy, an alternative medicine which encourages the body's own healing mechanisms. For a time, he had a homeopathic practice in Highgate, north London, and, as the first chairman of the NHS Trust for the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital, played a key role in saving the hospital, dating back to 1849, from closure. He was also a trustee of the Blackie Foundation Trust, which promotes homeopathic remedies, trains doctors and funds research into the effectiveness of homeopathy.
The charities he supported were almost countless, but included The Saints and Sinners Club of Scotland. For his charity work, he was made a Freeman of the City of London and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.
Jesse Dickson Mabon is survived by his wife of 38 years, Elizabeth, (ne Zinn) and son David and family, who live in New Zealand.
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