Labour Lives: The Story of John P. Mackintosh

When the death of John P. Mackintosh, the Labour Member of Parliament for Berwick and East Lothian, was announced on 31 July 1978, William Russell, the Glasgow Herald’s man in SW1A, reflected on the premature passing of a man ‘who looked a winner but failed to conquer’. Aged only 48 but having been an MP since 1966, Mackintosh never held high office, with Bruce Millan, the Secretary of State for Scotland, observing that, although he did not ‘have the success in Parliament that his ability deserved’, Mackintosh was the ‘kind of man that the Labour Party in Parliament cannot afford to lose’.  

Born to a Londoner, Mary Pitcairn, and a Scottish whisky seller, in Simla, the hill-top ‘summer capital’ of the British Raj, in August 1929, Mackintosh was Scottish by both birth and formation. Despite not having set foot in Scotland before the outbreak of war forced the family to travel from the sub-continent to Edinburgh in 1940, Mackintosh became a poster-boy for Scottish education, becoming a gifted and extremely diligent student at Melville College in Edinburgh’s West End before studying History at the University of Edinburgh, Balliol College, Oxford, and Princeton in the United States. As Henry Drucker once remarked, in habit, intellect and personality, ‘the radical spirit of Calvinist capitalism can have produced few truer sons than this Scottish socialist’. 

Combining a fierce independence of thought with what The Times called, ‘a gift for memorable expression, and an intense manner of delivery that etched his words upon the mind’, Mackintosh was a dedicated and enthusiastic parliamentarian, balancing a prolific academic career at Strathclyde and Edinburgh with his duties as the MP for Berwick and East Lothian from March 1966 to February 1974, before regaining the seat—which he would hold until his death—from Michael Ancram in October 1974. An academic, parliamentarian, and columnist, with a sometimes-turbulent personal life following an acrimonious divorce from his first wife and later remarriage to his second, Dr Una Maclean, Mackintosh was, as William Russell, observed, ‘a man of parts, possibly too many for his own good’. 

Having joined the Labour Party as a young ‘Bevanite’ in 1948 during the Attlee government’s most transformational period—even, reportedly, sending Nye a congratulatory telegram on his resignation as Minister of Labour in April 1951—Mackintosh moved progressively further towards the right as he aged, becoming increasing caustic about Harold Wilson’s leadership of the party and championing Roy Jenkins to be the next Labour Prime Minister. In 1977, whilst reflecting on Jimmy Carter’s victory in the previous year’s presidential election, Mackintosh compared the average Constituency Labour Party (CLP) in Britain with Eskimos in Canada, noting that, where the average Eskimo household comprised a husband, wife, two children and a social anthropologist, a run-of-the-mill CLP is typically made up of ‘some old age pensioners, two Marxists trying to make a takeover and an American Ph.D. student’.

Much like William Ewart Gladstone—a childhood hero whose Midlothian constituency overlapped with his own largely agricultural seat—Mackintosh was renowned for his gravitas, hefty intellect, and well-earned reputation as a good House of Commons speaker, as well as what Henry Drucker called his ‘touchingly unfashionable’ flair for lecturing that, to Drucker, seemed paradoxical for a man ‘so critical of established institutions and practices’. 

In addition to being a committed constituency representative and a measured and deliberate speaker, John Mackintosh was one of British and Scottish politics’ most intense thinkers, who became something of a constitutional pioneer during an era in which the notion of Scotland governing itself made the political weather for more than a decade. As a committed devolutionist, Mackintosh—who had compared devolution to the ‘need to readjust to a new European role in defence and foreign policy’ as early as 1968—argued that the primary aim of those supporting Home Rule should be to bring about ‘an improvement in the running of the country’ which had become increasingly ‘slow, cumbersome, inefficient and costly’. 

Whilst John P. Mackintosh ultimately died the day before the Scotland Act 1978 received Royal Assent and some nine months before the referendum which would determine the Scottish Assembly’s fate, he made a substantial contribution to the cause of devolution in the 1970s. In addition to founding the cross-party ‘Yes for Scotland’ campaign with Lord Kilbrandon—who chaired the Royal Commission on the Constitution after the death of its previous Chair, the former editor of The Economist, Lord Crowther, in February 1972—Mackintosh wrote the only thorough set of proposals for how the Assembly would operate.

As well as recommending that the Assembly establish ten permanent select committees to oversee the new Scottish Executive—and attempting to amend the Scotland Act so that the Assembly would be elected by proportional representation—Mackintosh argued that it was essential that Scotland’s fledgling legislature reduced the feeling that ‘government is a remote, secret process’ and was powerful and dynamic enough to ‘catch the attention of the public’. As the Consultative Steering Group later would before the establishment of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, Mackintosh also suggested that, if the Assembly were to cement these distinctive habits in the long-term, it would be necessary to write them into its Standing Orders from the outset to prevent it adopting interim procedures, written by Scottish Office ministers, which could then become ‘hardened’ and give the new institution a life-long ‘tendency to drift back towards the Westminster model’.

When delivering the Earl Grey Memorial Lecture at Newcastle University in 1977—in which he questioned ‘how far is Britain a democracy’—Mackintosh endorsed Tony Benn’s concept of a new digital mass democracy where voters could cast a daily ballot through their television as a possible solution to Britain’s political malaise. Whilst the recently appointed Chair of Politics at the University of Edinburgh suggested that leaders may have ‘expected too much out of the political system’ and had ‘failed to recognise structural problems in British society’, he also questioned if referendums ‘strengthen British democracy because they give the people a chance to make their views known’ or undermine faith in Parliament’s right and capacity to make decisions. With pleasing symmetry with today’s politics, Mackintosh also questioned whether party leaders should be chosen by MPs or party activists and interrogated how best to judge the public’s approval of their government and its policies between elections.

In 2021, John P. Mackintosh appears to be a prime example of the value of applying sheer brain power to politics. A professor and parliamentarian, Mackintosh brought colour, depth, and ingenuity to Scotland’s devolution decade, and his death at just 48 years of age left Scotland and the cause of Home Rule north of the border without its most fluent and considered advocate. Equally significant is the fact that, as we approach the forty-third anniversary of his death, his assessment of the primary problem facing British politics remains surprisingly familiar and one that politicians in Westminster, Holyrood, Cardiff Bay and Stormont have continued to neglect – ensuring that Britain remained on an even and equitable keel with ‘the Scots get[ting] fair treatment among the regions, the state pensioners among the other retired groups, the miners and the nurses among wage earners, the railway users as opposed to car owners’. 

Whilst Mackintosh’s personal qualities and his membership of the pantheon of unjustly forgotten parliamentarians of the last half-century make him a ripe and willing subject for any fledgling and unoccupied biographer, ruminating on his legacy, as David Torrance observed in The Herald in February 2018, is ‘not an entirely happy affair, for his twin constitutional passions – Scottish devolution and European unity – are now, in different ways, once mainstream propositions that find themselves out of favour’.

Tom Chidwick is a freelance writer and contemporary historian, who writes a fortnightly column for Scottish Review. He is currently writing a history of the 1979 referendum on the creation of a Scottish Assembly.  He can be found on twitter at @TomChidwick

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s