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Gavin Strang to bow out as MP after 40 years

HE SERVED as a minister under three Labour premiers, was once in charge of North Sea oil and took on his own government over privatisation. Now, after 40 years as MP for Edinburgh East, Gavin Strang is standing down from the Commons.

As he uses the last few days before parliament is dissolved to clear out his office at Westminster – "I'm not very good at throwing things out" – he can vividly recall how it all started.

He was 25, the son of a farming family from Perthshire, working as a junior research scientist at Edinburgh University's King's Buildings and a Labour activist.

He says: "The sitting MP, George Willis, announced he wasn't standing again. I grew up in Perthshire and still had my links there. It was a safe Conservative seat, but I'd thought I'd probably be the Labour candidate there. They were quite keen to have me because of my farming background and they usually had difficulty getting people from that sort of background to be a Labour candidate.

"I remember being on holiday with a friend in Blackpool, lying on the beach and wondering if I should go for the Edinburgh East nomination. I was already chairman of Portobello Labour Party and I decided I would put my hat in the ring. You could say I was a dark horse, but I led from the first ballot."

One of the leading contenders was effectively disqualified for concealing the fact he had been expelled from the party for a few years.

The others he was up against were Alex Napier, a long-established Musselburgh councillor and chairman of the constituency party; Iain Jordan, a lecturer with the Workers Educational Association; Phyllis Herriot, then a councillor and now a leading spokeswoman for pensioners; and Fred Forrester, who went on to become organising secretary for teaching union the EIS.

Dr Strang emerged victorious and was elected an MP – aged just 26 – at the 1970 general election, when Ted Heath led the Tories to a surprise victory over Labour's Harold Wilson.

"The whole way politics was conducted was so different then – parliament was not televised, if a Scottish MP asked a question in parliament there was a fair chance that would be reported in the Scottish newspapers and the way of conducting business with constituents was different. No-one had a mobile or a computer. I would say maybe half my constituents didn't even have a landline phone."

He says when he was first elected the big issues were always housing and jobs.

"There was this drive to demolish tenements in the area and they overdid that, so I was involved in a few campaigns to avert that. One example is King's Road in Portobello which they wanted to demolish. King's Road is still there with a large number of flats and it fulfils a very important function in the housing market – these are low-cost flats, a place where people have been able to buy a flat without having to spend a fortune.

"We had a lot of campaigns to get jobs and new industrial developments. The east side of the city had lost a lot of jobs in the brewing industry – at one time there were seven breweries in the Duddingston and Craigmillar area – and a large number of jobs in the mining industry.

"The Peffermill estate was one of the major breakthroughs. I remember we had a big deputation to the council and we got it through by one vote."

In 1973, Dr Strang became the youngest frontbench spokesman in the House when Wilson appointed him to Labour's Scottish affairs team. A few months later he moved to energy, under Tony Benn.

When Labour returned to power in February 1974, he became the junior minister with responsibility for North Sea oil.

"It was quite exciting times," he recalls. "The whole North Sea oil thing was growing very fast. It was a big issue and the SNP had their campaign 'It's Scotland's oil', so it was a very political position."

Soon after the second election of 1974, in October, Dr Strang was moved to become a junior agriculture minister, holding the post for the next five years, through the change of premiership from Wilson to Jim Callaghan, until Margaret Thatcher's victory in 1979. During Labour's 18-year exile in opposition, Dr Strang was on and off the frontbench. He resigned over the Falklands War in 1982 and voted against the Gulf War in 1990.

"John Smith appointed me back on the frontbench as principal spokesman on agriculture. It meant you played a leading role in developing policy in opposition – for example, we drew up the policy for the Food Standards Agency which we set up and answers to the Department of Health and not the Ministry of Agriculture, and it's standing the test of time."

When Labour won its landslide victory in 1997, his top place in the ballot for the shadow cabinet meant he had a reasonable expectation of getting a job in Tony Blair's new Cabinet. He assumed it would be agriculture, but instead was handed transport. "I was gobsmacked," he admits.

It meant being part of a new, giant Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions whose overlord was Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott.

"It's a mistake to have transport in with another area because it's such a major part of the economy it should be a separate department – and it was eventually turned again into a stand-alone department."

Dr Strang says reports of a fall-out between himself and Mr Prescott have been "slightly exaggerated". "Part of the difficulty was John Prescott was more interested in transport than anything else in the department," he says. "There was an argument on how far to slash the previous Conservative government's roads programme, which we did and I supported cutting it. However, the difference was I still take the view that for many communities and small towns a bypass was an excellent thing – and in opposition I had spent a lot of time campaigning for the Musselburgh bypass – so the idea that building a bypass was an environmental negative I thought was wrong.

"There was a difference of emphasis. At the end of the day we ended up with a white paper which we both supported strongly."

That was not all, though. "The government decided, wrongly in my view, to privatise air traffic control, which I opposed in government, but I lost that argument. When I lost my position in government – after 15 months – I spent a lot of time opposing that, though the government did partially privatise it."

A long-time supporter of the Scottish Parliament, Dr Strang says he would be happy to see more powers for Holyrood,

although his retirement plans are perhaps a little more pressing. "I've got various interests I've not really pursued – photography, golf, my family tree.

"It has been a privilege to be MP for the area all this time, but I've been going up and down to London for 40 years. I'm quite sure when we get to some of those wintry Sunday evenings I'll be saying to myself it's really quite nice not to have to be travelling down to London tomorrow."

PRIME TIME – STRANG ON LABOUR LEADERS

Harold Wilson: He was a very good prime minister, under-rated at the time, and a nice guy. I featured in a party political broadcast saying we were not going to allow the people with money to take control of the oil the way they had taken control of the land, and he always referred to this clip when he saw me.

Jim Callaghan: He was a very different character. I had been a strong supporter of Wilson, but I hadn't voted for Callaghan, so there was that backdrop to our relationship. Wilson had a tremendous mind. Callaghan could have been a bit sharper.

Tony Blair: He felt very strongly we had to present a very slick image to the electorate. We probably went too far down that road, though you have to give him credit for the big election victory we had.

I got on well enough with him, but I probably belonged to a group of MPs he saw as too left-wing. I think the invasion of Iraq was wrong and has undermined Labour's appeal to young people.

 
 
 

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