Obituary: Bruce Millan, former Secretary of State for Scotland

Bruce Millan
Bruce Millan
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Born: 5 October, 1927, in Dundee. Died: 21 February, 2013, aged 85

BRUCE Millan was the least flamboyant of politicians to whom successful outcomes were far more important than the seeking of credit or applause.

Throughout his career, Millan won respect for his integrity, decency and thoroughness. In less self-effacing hands, his achievements in office would have been more widely known and praised. Both as Secretary of State for Scotland and the European Union’s commissioner for the regions, he left many lasting legacies.

Bruce Millan possessed the firm socialist commitment of a working-class Dundee upbringing and also the forensic eye of a trained chartered accountant. It could be a deceptive combination. As one former colleague put it: “Bruce was always a lot more political than he looked.”

The eldest of three brothers, their father was a caulker in Dundee’s Caledon shipyard facing frequent periods of unemployment, while their mother would work in the jute mills to supplement income. The family lived at “the top of the Hilltown” and Millan went to Rockwell Junior Secondary School.

Identified as a bright pupil, he was put forward for a bursary to Harris Academy, which he duly secured. Having inherited his father’s left-wing views, he became active in the Labour League of Youth. After school, he entered National Service with the Royal Signals, while studying for accountancy exams.

By the age of 23, he was selected as parliamentary candidate for the Conservative seat of West Renfrewshire while working as an accountant with the Scottish Gas Board in Kilmarnock. In 1955, he lost in Glasgow Craigton but four years later took the seat from the Tories, turning a 210 vote deficit into a 602 majority in straight fights. He remained in parliament until 1988.

He commanded great loyalty and affection as a constituency MP, while the Craigton Labour Party became a by-word for strong organisation and community involvement. Millan was assiduous in everything he tackled, always accompanied by a wry good humour and patience beyond the call of duty. In 1983, a redrawing of boundaries extended his renamed Govan constituency.

His first ministerial appointment was as Under-Secretary for the Royal Air Force in the 1964 government of Harold Wilson. His boss in this role was Denis Healey, with whom he retained a long-standing political affinity. When Labour won again two years later, Millan joined the Scottish Office and started a long partnership with Willie Ross.

In his memoirs, Roy Jenkins recalled an episode in which he confessed to having seriously under-estimated Bruce Millan. The occasion was a meeting of the parliamentary Labour Party in 1971, when Jenkins was seeking re-election as deputy leader and Labour was deeply divided over EU membership.

Jenkins was asked an apparently straightforward – but in fact very shrewd – question by Millan, which turned out to have dramatic consequences. Would Jenkins again vote against the party line over Europe if the occasion arose? Jenkins wrote that he had hitherto regarded Millan as “an unflamboyant CA … nice but pedestrian”.

However, Jenkins’ inability to give a straight answer to the question led inexorably to his resignation when he did vote against the party line the following year. It taught him – or so he said – “the danger of taking a patronising view of a colleague”. Millan would undoubtedly have been motivated more by questions of loyalty, in which he was impeccable, than the EU issue itself.

Following the resignation of Wilson in 1976, he replaced Ross as Secretary of State for Scotland. It was a time of turmoil on many fronts – Scottish Nationalism on a high, traditional industries teetering on the brink and the unions in mutinous mood as a result of pay restraint, which led ultimately to the Winter of Discontent. Through all this, Millan steered a path with customary calm and good humour.

The devolution question took up much of his three years as Scottish Secretary, culminating in the inconclusive result of the referendum. Millan later said that he felt “hampered” by this debate in pursuing his social and economic objectives, which were both radical and wide-ranging.

He is generally credited with having been the political driving force behind creating the Scottish Development Agency with a clear view of the need for a powerful economic force driving the establishment of new industries to replace those which were in decline. He was also a firm believer in urban regeneration and huge sums went into transforming areas like Glasgow’s East End, his native Dundee and the port of Leith.

Bruce was a social liberal and unafraid to face down critics in order to deliver just outcomes. He faced criticism over his decision to free Paddy Meehan who had been wrongly convicted, as later confirmed, of a brutal murder in Ayr. And he pushed through the legislation, well ahead of its time, which introduced community service as an alternative to prison.

In each such decision, Millan acted on what he thought was the right thing, rather than what would be popular,

Another unsung legacy was the Barnett Formula, which has served Scottish publish expenditure so well. This was an accountants’ solution to an intransigent problem. He and Joel Barnett, also an accountant and financial secretary to the Treasury, got on well and agreed that annual negotiation of a block grant to the Scottish Office simply invited controversy. They created a formula based on proportionality, which continues to mean Scotland getting an assigned share of every spending decision at Westminster.

He was an unexpected choice as European commissioner when Neil Kinnock put a name forward in 1988 and became an unusual mandarin of Brussels, feeding on sandwiches and working late into the night on the detail of policy. But his appointment as commissioner for regional policy and cohesion under Jacques Delors proved inspired, creating a sustainable structure for a Europe of the Regions, narrowing the gaps between rich and poor.

Nowhere benefited more from Millan’s quiet diplomacy than the Highlands and Islands, which became an Objective One region despite not strictly meeting the criteria. The region has continued to be in receipt of vast sums of structural funding ever since. The most I ever got out of him on how it had been achieved was a quiet laugh and an assurance that there were always ways of reaching good outcomes, just don’t make a fuss about it.

After returning to Glasgow, he was asked by John Prescott to chair a commission on regional policy for England, which led to the creation of a powerful network of Regional Development Agencies along SDA lines. He chaired a post-devolution committee on mental health law in Scotland, which produced a widely-praised report. In his own quiet way, Bruce continued to give time and intellect to a wide range of worthy causes.

Above all, though, he valued the time he could spend with his family. Bruce Millan is survived by Gwen, his wife of 60 years, a daughter, son and two much-adored grand-daughters.