Pauline McNeill: Labour has plenty to learn from the courage of devolution’s quiet achiever
Many readers will not have heard of Dr Bob McLean. It probably says something about the Labour movement that a man who has shaped so much of the current political landscape has not become more of an icon in our time. The fact that there is little concrete recognition of Dr Bob McLean, Allan Lawson, Jim Boyack, Brian Duncan and many others who were the most persistent activists in the Campaign for a Scottish Assembly, who set out to bring power home to Scotland, is a tragedy. They typified many who passionately believed in Scottish devolution because of what it could do for Scottish people, more than as a response to the Thatcher years.
Bob lived for the thrill that every day we were working to change the course of history and he did not let up for a day. I had the privilege of being someone very close to Bob when he was formulating his ideas and strategy to influence the Scottish party on Home Rule. He set about creating the pressure group Scottish Labour Action, carefully working his way around Scotland to establish key players who would work for change in the Scottish Labour Party. As the student representative on the CSA Executive I quickly found that Bob was the key player in a fight he would take across the political divide and win. When I arrived at his workplace at the end of the day, I would wait for him to come off the phone to recall the daily political activity. He had just come off the phone to Alex Salmond or Malcolm Bruce, Dennis Canavan or Robin Cook or what seemed to be his twice-daily call with John Boothman. He would summarise the developments and action points. He stopped at nothing to find ways to put Labour at the forefront of the battle for devolution, a Labour party that might otherwise have been dismissed. His pluralist approach to everything, involving civic Scotland in his CSA work and politicians from all parties with a common interest, is a key lesson from the McLean era. This was all after a day’s work in Culture and Leisure in Edinburgh City Council, which he loved.
Thunderbirds Are Go!, the exhibition that took Edinburgh by storm, was created by him although I cannot find a credit for him in the promotional material. But then he was a modest man. I would get the daily saga of how he chased round the country trying to find all the original models. The day that a shocking pink Lady Penelope car arrived in the Arts Centre was the day I knew this was a man who was passionate about everything worth being passionate about. Thereafter Bob became great friends with the creator Gerry Anderson.
The legacy of Bob McLean must live on. Not simply because of what he achieved through using his talents, but because of the way he did what he did, by having the courage to enact all of his convictions for the greater good. His legacy must live on not just for his memory but because the McLean doctrine of defining your politics and applying them day to day, consistently, organising relentlessly, shaping and influencing the future, is a perfect model for anyone – elected or otherwise – who wants change in the world around them.
He feared no politician or individual in articulating the case as he saw it. I recall after a fierce debate on Home Rule at the Scottish Conference at which Bob had shown his intellect and ability to speak in public (though preferring to highlight contributions of Wendy Alexander or Susan Deacon). He passed a high-profile MP who had been on the opposing side in the debate, and collared him: “Call yourself a front-bench spokesperson, I call you a front-bench arsehole.” We were both shocked at Bob’s directness, but I thought he honestly deserved it.
He made me go to the infamous Derek Hatton meeting in Edinburgh, pushing past all the Militant Tendency paper sellers who were shouting abuse at us for daring to come to their public gathering. Bob’s point was simple: how could we argue against the phenomenon of the Revolutionary Socialist League if we hadn’t seen it for ourselves? I saw the point and the lesson in history.
What is the point of politics if we don’t influence and shape the future? As Jack McConnell recalls in his excellent obituary: “Are we political activists or football supporters?” Arguably this paradigm is needing to be applied more that ever, given the continuing crisis of the banking scandal.
Leaders are not always found on the front-bench in parliament. Bob is testament to that, although he undoubtedly should have been elected to Holyrood because he was certainly the biggest contributor to its existence. He accepted this fate.
The lessons from Bob McLean’s amazing life for politicians and for Scottish Labour as we move towards a decision on Scotland’s future are that you must show the courage of your convictions, and carry them through to the end. What the Labour government of 1997 achieved in its first year of government can never be underestimated, taking the blueprint of the Constitutional Convention [the creation of the CSA] and turning it into the Scotland Act. The movement should take on something from the life and times of Bob McLean by renewing our conviction and passion for life-changing politics, in the way that Bob did fearlessly and selflessly across all boundaries, with incredible style and energy. We should assert our position as the party of devolution, working with Scots of all parties who are passionate about shaping the ambitious country we can be.
Imagine if social networking was available to Bob McLean at the height of his influence. I know he would have had a million followers and he would be influencing the whole world. I owe so much too him and I am certainly not alone. «
» Pauline McNeill was a Labour MSP from 1999 to 2011
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Saturday 25 May 2013
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