Scotsman Obituaries: John Stevenson, social worker and trade unionist

John Stevenson, social worker and trade unionist. Born: 16 July 1950 in Edinburgh. Died 6 April 2022 in Edinburgh, aged 71

John Stevenson – social worker, trade unionist, socialist, musician, journalist, magician, lover of trains, hater of injustice, part owner of Hearts FC, former president of City of Edinburgh Unison branch and family man – died peacefully at Edinburgh Western General Hospital on Wednesday 6 April 2022.

His was a career to delight. After a short period with Scottish Gas he cleaned beer kegs for Scottish & Newcastle, was a pizza chef in Paris (to learn French), ran an ice cream stand in Chelsea, was a semi-professional magician and children’s entertainer, and a loading agent for Lloyds Shipping covering Leith Docks.

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He was also a BT telecommunications engineer, building telephone exchanges. Morag, his wife, said he would point out the car window in the most unlikely places and say: “Aye, that's one of mine.”

John Stevenson was a passionate fighter against injustice

It was not until the late 1970s that John found his actual 40-year calling as a “sensitive and skilful” social worker, known for his kindness, especially when working with families living through difficult experiences. He worked in Pilton, Muirhouse, West Lothian and elsewhere, setting up such projects as an adolescent placement scheme and redundancy counselling for British Leyland employees. As a senior social worker, he helped steer Edinburgh and Lothian’s social work teams through significant changes.

John skilfully balanced his trade union leadership with his commitment to social work. He never saw a contradiction between management and trade unionism, becoming president of Unison’s City of Edinburgh Branch while remaining a senior social worker, protecting workers’ rights and children and families.

A big figure in Scotland’s biggest trade union, perhaps his biggest contribution was the integrity he brought to Unison’s campaigns and communications. He was elected year after year to chair the union’s campaigns committee. And for 30 years, John edited Scotland in Unison, the union’s newspaper. He was fiercely proud that it was lay edited and produced to a highly professional standard. Generations of trade unionists were trained by John, learning how to put forward Unison’s message. He always supported activists coming through.

With boundless energy and intellectual curiosity, he introduced modern techniques to improve the lives of working people. He took Unison into the digital age, introduced websites (he taught himself code), wrote blogs and pioneered Unison’s social media – in the days when you had to persuade people why organisations needed these things.

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Like many working class boys brought up in Easter Drylaw, Edinburgh – he attended Trinity Academy – John was the product of 22nd Edinburgh Boys Brigade. From age 11 to 18 he advanced through the ranks from Lance Corporal to Lieutenant, winning Best Boy trophy and the Queens Badge. He became an award-winning bugle player, taking part in Beating the Retreat at Edinburgh Castle Esplanade and the Leith Pageant. He loved BB football and qualified as an SFA referee.

As a student he played professionally in bands – between sets he performed conjuring tricks – and was accepted into Edinburgh Magic Circle. In later life he could still delight friends with a disappearing handkerchief or card trick and was famous for producing a lit cigarette from his pocket.

John studied Languages and Linguistics at Edinburgh University. Though he didn't finish his degree, he never lost his love for language. He was as able to deliver a speech at a Burns Supper as at a conference. For fun John read German poets, in German.

More controversially perhaps, he was proud co-owner of his beloved Heart of Midlothian FC – on account of buying a few shares, and a couple of old plastic Tynecastle seats for his garden.

In retirement John wrote for the Morning Star and, as a long-time anti-apartheid campaigner, he became a trustee of the Nelson Mandela Scottish Memorial Foundation. He was still writing material for it just a few weeks ago, from his hospital bed. In 1993, the story goes, John’s boss needed to talk to him but couldn’t find him. Was he with a client or at a community meeting? Leading a union delegation to the council Chief Executive? At another Unison conference? “No”, said a colleague. “He’s meeting Nelson Mandela.”

When John recently made it public that he wouldn’t be getting better, he did so with typically self-deprecating wit: “Much gratitude for the NHS community and hospital staff, from cleaner to consultant, who have been brilliant (apart from the patronising one who assumed ‘old people’ had resigned the right be spoken to as an adult – or maybe she just didn’t like my jokes). For me, the best staff one liner was when I greeted one regular clinician with: ‘How are you today?’ to get the reply: ‘Better than you I suspect’.”

John was a raconteur who could delight audiences with a well-crafted joke, often reducing meetings to such fits of giggles they would be disrupted. But he maintained a sense of discipline in his work, politics, and trade unionism, prepared to put his case but abide by the decision of the majority, and he made a difference.

He is survived by his wife Morag, and his children Seonaid and Robbie. The family invites anyone touched by John’s life to an open celebration on Saturday 30 April at 1pm at the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, 9 Queen Street, Edinburgh.

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