Brian Wilson: Light a little dimmer after death of Jim Innes

THE DEATH of Jim Innes is a loss to left-wing politics as well as to his family and friends, writes Brian Wilson

THE DEATH of Jim Innes is a loss to left-wing politics as well as to his family and friends, writes Brian Wilson

I was driving across Lewis on Thursday morning, listening to a sage of Scotland’s environmental establishment, proclaiming that the ­closure of Longannet was an occasion for celebration rather than regret.

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Security of supply will not be a problem since Torness has been given a life extension. The steering wheel veered dangerously. Imported English electricity will help keep the lights on until tidal energy provides Scotland with limitless bounties. Time to pull into a lay-by and phone a friend.

With a few epithets thrown in, that conversation would have coalesced around three points of hypocrisy and nonsense. First, the sage had long vilified nuclear as the devil incarnate (even more wicked than Longannet); second, having been turned into an importer by a loopy one-club policy, Scotland will take whatever is sent – clean or dirty; third, there is not a shred of evidence that tidal will deliver anything, though we hope it does.

We had many such conversations in the past, my friend and I, but we will never have them again. The previous day, Jim Innes had died barely a week after being diagnosed with ­pancreatic cancer. Energy policy was one of many things we had similar views on. Another was that while we could easily abide disagreement with opponents, stupidity and dishonesty were harder to thole, regardless of source.

Jim never aspired to front-line politics but was a press officer for the Labour Party and associated causes, most recently the referendum, over four decades. Tributes paid to him this week were unusual for someone who came into the generally despised category of “spin doctor”. Adam Boulton of Sky described Jim as “one of the best ever press officers and human beings”. Bernard Ponsonby of STV recalled a “direct and very honest man”.

I went back a long way with Jim. We became friends the day we crossed the threshold of Dundee University. Along with Jim Wilkie and Dave Scott, we founded the West Highland Free Press, and Jim played a huge part in making it what it was – fearless, well-written and popular. I had a background in the West Highlands but Jim was a boy from Maryhill who learned fast.

Our careers thereafter were guided by loyalty to the Labour Party. We shared a straightforward belief that it was the only available vehicle for progressive change alongside a healthy awareness of its imperfections. In the 1980s, we honed our scepticism towards those for whom “left” politics was a self-indulgent game, divorced from the need to gain power in order to actually do anything. What goes around, I fear, comes around.

Jim worked in London during these mad-dog days. It’s said that every journalist has one great piece in him and there is no doubt about Jim’s opus. Following the debacle of the 1983 general election, he wrote an insider’s diary of the campaign which was, at one level, hilarious but also the direst of warnings about what happens to a political party when it loses all sense of connection to the people it is supposed to represent.

My own favourite from Jim’s account involved the daily strategy meetings: “Average attendance at this decision-making committee is between 30 and 40. In Harold Wilson’s day, average attendance was about six. There are not enough seats in the General Secretary’s office, so our leaders are perched on tables or lined up against the walls. One chap was there for the first two days and nobody recognised him. On the third day, someone asked who he was and he told them he was Foot’s Special Branch detective. Given the make-up of the committee, he was probably quite right to go in.”

But Jim’s peroration was driven by anger: “How dare a few thousand members tear the Labour Party asunder for four years and leave millions of Labour voters at the mercy of the Tories? How dare we arrogantly spend our energies on meaningless manifestos while those who look to us for help are made redundant … Labour voters expect us to be whatever we have to be to win elections. If professionalism is needed, then it is our duty – nothing less – our duty to be professional.” That clarion call was eventually heeded, though some never stopped despising it.

Jim carried on practising what he had preached. A string of by-election candidates were salvaged from their own vanities by accepting his brusque advice. Those who didn’t usually perished. His uncompromising style was not always welcomed in Scotland but adored by Labour people in Cumbria where he helped defend the ultra-marginal Copeland seat. The current MP, Jamie Reed, described Jim as “the fourth emergency service – whenever we were in trouble, we sent for him. He was revered. His advice was taken for Gospel.”

Both Jim and I recalled Anthony Wedgwood Benn as patron saint of civil nuclear power and saw no reason to desert the socialist mantra of that era: “Use nuclear power for peaceful purposes” – particularly if it keeps the lights on.

Jim was instrumental in creating TUSNE (Trade Unions for Safe Nuclear Energy) which, even at the height of Scargillite influence, persuaded the TUC to reject demands for closure of the nuclear industry. (For which, as my radio sage confirmed, we should remain grateful today.)

When I knew him first, Jim was teetotal for the good reason that he had seen enough of alcohol to fear his own genes. A phase of his life confirmed that he had been right to do so. Later, when he had come through all that, a friend and neighbour in Meigle was Dr Peter Rice, a consultant psychiatrist and specialist in challenging the causes of addiction, who involved Jim in that work.

Peter said: “The energy for that came from his own experience but his analysis was much wider.”

He urged building alliances with parts of the drinks industry they could work with. As in everything he did, Jim’s approach was practical and effective; never evangelical or over-optimistic about the human condition. That is not a bad epitaph for a life-enhancing man who knew the gulf between making a difference and simply talking about it; a distinction as important and urgent now as it ever has been.

To Rhoda, Bess and Alick goes the sympathy of many whose lives he touched.