Obituary: Tom McCabe, former MSP

Born: 28 April, 1954 in Hamilton, Lanarkshire. Died: 19 April, 2015, aged 60.

Labour politician who was the first MSP elected in 1999. 
Picture: Neil Hanna
Labour politician who was the first MSP elected in 1999. Picture: Neil Hanna

Tom McCabe was born in Hamilton, Lanarkshire, the only son of Tommy and Sadie McCabe. After attending St Martin’s Secondary School, he started work as a machine operator in the Hoover factory in 1974. There he quickly became involved in trade union the AEU.

Despite his youth, he won the respect of his colleagues and was quickly elected a senior shop steward. He was admired for his commitment to his fellow workers – a commitment perhaps spurred on by the ­industrial accident that was to leave his father Tommy without both legs for most of his life.

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His mother was very proud of her only son. “His name is Thomas,” she would tell anyone who called for “Tom”, and she was not one to contradict.

But it was as Tom that he was to be elected to Hamilton District Council in 1990. He was quickly promoted to leader of the council and in 1995 – with a growing reputation for modernisation – he was chosen by his new colleagues on South Lanarkshire unitary authority to lead them as they sought to amalgamate four local authorities into one body.

He also incurred the wrath of other leaders when he moved quickly to steal some of the best top management from under the noses of other councils.

He had made his mark – decisive and ambitious for his area – and the new authority quickly developed a reputation for “joined-up” services and financial management.

His place in history was sealed when he was elected as the first member of the Scottish Parliament, to serve the Hamilton South Consistency in 1999.

The speed of the counting operation in Hamilton had secured maximum publicity for the town and their new MSP. It didn’t take long for stories to circulate about the council leader authorising all the traffic lights between counting stations and the town hall to be green – Tom’s legendary ­attention to detail had won again!

He did not glory in the moment, instead delivering a carefully prepared victory speech calling on all parties in Scotland to meet their “obligation to make the Parliament work for Scotland”. He had no idea he was about to become the minister for Parliament, and take on that responsibility.

Donald Dewar’s time as first minister was a difficult period as the new Parliament established its rules. Tom worked tirelessly to build the cross-party relationships that were essential in the Parliament’s business committee and to maintain the Labour coalition with the Liberal Democrats. With Labour MSPs unhappy about sharing power, Lib Dems distrustful about how much power was shared, and a Cabinet that was at times a shambles, McCabe would hold everyone together for Dewar and then for Henry McLeish. McCabe’s former private secretary noted “he was not the greatest fan of coalition but he made it work”.

When Donald died, and later when Henry resigned, McCabe was the rock that held the Cabinet together. He was the only Labour MSP to serve lengthy periods in the Cabinets of all three Labour first ministers, helping Donald Dewar push through the new Holyrood building and Henry McLeish secure free care for the elderly.

McCabe resigned from Cabinet to take a break in 2001. Returning as health minister, he led our consultation on smoking in public places. In August 2004, we were about to make the big decision, and Tom asked to speak to me. The UK Labour government had backed off a total ban and adopted a compromise plan to allow some premises to be smoking and some not. Tom believed this would simply lead to lounge bars in the west end of Glasgow adopting a smoking ban while the working men’s pubs in the east end would continue as before.

From personal and family experience, he understood the way in which the smoking culture of working-class communities had contributed to life expectancy and ill health. His plea to me to risk my position and be bold was the single most influential moment as I weighed up the pros and cons.

He won the argument and we went our own way. It was typical of a man who was always brave and a fiercely loyal team player.

He became minister for finance and public sector Reform in 2004, where he transformed public procurement and led on the promotion of Scotland overseas. Former staff have spoken of someone who worked hard, had high standards but who also won their respect by his honesty and humanity. One said: “He had a very practical common sense and fair approach to public services, coupled with a very high ambition for what they could and should achieve for citizens.”

His legendary love of soft furnishings showed a gentler side – and caused much amusement in and around government. One former staffer recalls walking through Washington between meetings when she realized he had been left behind – only to discover he was in a shop, looking at cushions.

He supported the modernisation of Scottish Labour in the 1990s and, following Labour’s defeat in 2007, wrote about the need for a new direction and a more autonomous relationship with UK Labour. He called for respect and innovative policy development, but his call was not heeded, and he lost his seat in the defeat of 2011.

He leaves one son, Mark, and a daughter, Paula, plus grandchildren from his first marriage, and three sisters. Later in life he met Shuming Kong, then a reporter with China Central TV in London. They married in 2006 and their daughter Ava is now six. Tom was diagnosed with cancer in early 2014 and died at home with Shuming by his side.