George Younger dies after long illness
IF SCOTTISH and British politicians were all like George Younger, the reputation of that much-maligned profession with the general public would be very much higher than it is at present.
Younger’s friendliness, courtesy and moderate language were his public image. They were entirely genuine, but they were combined with a determination to advance those values and causes which he believed in and which, he was convinced, were in the public interest. He was a serious and ambitious politician.
His career demonstrated that it is not necessary to be nasty or duplicitous to get on in public life. But it also showed the importance of luck in politics. If Teddy Taylor had not lost Cathcart on the very day that the Tories came to power in 1979, Younger would not have been in Margaret Thatcher’s Cabinet.
Almost certainly, he would never have been Heseltine’s successor as defence secretary when the latter stormed out of the Cabinet room in 1986. As that same event brought me into the Cabinet as Younger’s successor at the Scottish Office, we both had reason to be grateful to him.
I served under George Younger for almost three years. He was a dream boss for a junior minister. The Scottish Office, in those pre-devolution days, was like a mini-government. The secretary of state had responsibility for housing, education, health and a host of other issues. Some in that office tried to control every one of them, determining all policy and leaving to their junior colleagues only the job of implementation. Younger’s style was more that of a Scottish prime minister and we, his junior ministers, were trusted to get on with running our departments.
I admired him, but our styles were very different. I remember vividly when we had to meet a delegation of Scottish council leaders, mostly Labour, who thumped on the table and declared how terrible and unhelpful the government was being to them. If I had been in charge of the meeting I would have thumped the table in response and given as good as I had got. We would have had a splendid row and they would have issued some indignant statement to the waiting press.
Younger’s approach was quite different. He listened to them and then said: "Gentlemen. If I was sitting where you are sitting I would have said exactly the same thing. But let me share with you my problems." The councillors left thinking they had had a very good hearing and only later must they have realised how little he had conceded.
When Heseltine departed, Younger was a natural choice to succeed him. He had spent almost six years at the Scottish Office and needed a change. To become defence secretary was the height of his political ambition. He had served in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and had seen action in Korea. He had, briefly, been minister of state in the Ministry of Defence in the dying days of Ted Heath’s government. As defence secretary he was popular with the armed forces, a good champion of their interests and a welcome relief from the insatiable desire of Heseltine to involve himself in every facet of the ministry’s activities.
At defence, as at the Scottish Office, Younger was not a particularly proactive secretary of state. Many politicians equate success with change.
They believe that a good minister is one who imposes major reforms. They assume that this is the purpose of power. I once heard Margaret Thatcher say: "We are here in order to change things."
Younger took a more relaxed and, some might say, a more Tory view. He had no burning desire to create a new world order, but he did want to eradicate injustice where he found it.
Despite these differences of personality, Thatcher held him in high regard. In her memoirs she recorded that she "valued his common sense, trusted his judgement and relied on his loyalty".
But although Younger was a senior minister, he was never one of the ‘big beasts’ of the jungle. He never became a household name, except in Scotland. Far from this being a source of disappointment to him it was probably a great relief, as he valued his privacy and that of his family.
He was never indispensable in the way that Willie Whitelaw became. Indeed, his loyalty and decency sometimes worked to his disadvantage. At the beginning of his political career he had been selected as the Tory candidate for the by-election in the safe seat of Kinross and West Perthshire.
When Sir Alec Douglas-Home became prime minister and suddenly needed a parliamentary constituency, Younger did not demur but handed him the plum.
Years later, after a brief sojourn as shadow defence secretary, he was dropped by Thatcher when she needed the post for Francis Pym. Younger returned to the back benches. After Alick Buchanan-Smith resigned as shadow Scottish Secretary, it was Teddy Taylor, not Younger, who was appointed to replace him. It was to Younger’s credit that, although having been a member of the shadow cabinet, he agreed to serve as Teddy Taylor’s deputy at a time of crisis for his party.
When Younger decided to leave government, it is known that Thatcher tried to dissuade him by hinting at the possibility of the Foreign Office if he changed his mind. Younger decided that, however grand the prospect of being Foreign Secretary might be, chairmanship of the Royal Bank of Scotland was even grander. In that role he presided over the extraordinary progress that the Royal Bank has made.
Younger’s years in retirement should not have been cut short. He said recently that there was so much he still wanted to do. There has hardly been a major Scottish institution that has not benefited from his voluntary services in recent times. He has also had the love and companionship of his wife, Diana, and his family. That relationship was close and supportive.
I recall one delightful example some years ago when, as Scottish Secretary, I accompanied the Queen to the presentation of new colours to the Argylls on the esplanade of Stirling Castle. The Queen’s Body Guard (Royal Company of Archers) were also on parade under the command of George Younger in his full Archer’s uniform.
Because there was a heavy wind that day and a real risk that the Archers’ bonnets might be blown off, Younger had a small thread attached to his and held under his chin to ensure he did not suffer this indignity. He had obviously thought that the thread would be invisible, but as the Queen spoke to him she saw the thread and remarked: "Ah, that would have been Diana’s idea?" It was.
In 2001, my wife and I enjoyed an unforgettable party in Stirling Castle for George Younger’s 70th birthday. No-one knew what the future held. I last visited him in November. He already knew that he was dying, but he was in robust and cheerful mood.
He was concerned, even then, for his party, for his friends and for his country. That he is no more is a tragic loss for his family. It is also the loss of one of Scotland’s finest sons and of a splendid British statesman.
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