Tom Johnston, wartime secretary for Scotland

THE day before the premature closure of Ravenscraig was announced I chanced to be in Caledonia Books, one of the excellent second-hand bookshops in the West End of Glasgow. Among my purchases was Memories, the autobiography of Tom Johnston, Secretary of State for Scotland during the war. He is remembered today mostly for the foundation of the Hydro-Electric Board but there was more to him than that.

When Churchill summoned him to London in 1941 and persuaded him -- rather against his will, for he wanted to write books -- to join the national Government he made two conditions. One was that he didn't want to take any money for office during the war. ''My resources are adequate to my needs and I don't want to make a song and dance about it.''

Churchill: ”Right! Nobody can prevent you taking nothing!”

The other condition was he should set up a Council of State for Scotland — a council composed of all the living ex-Secretaries of State for Scotland, of all parties; ”and whenever we were all agreed upon a Scottish issue, I could look to you for backing”.

Churchill: ”That seems a sort of national government of parties idea, just like our Government here. All right, I’ll look sympathetically upon anything about which Scotland is unanimous.”

Johnston set up his Council. It consisted of Lord Alness, Sir Archibald Sinclair, Sir John Colville (later Lord Clydesmuir), Walter Elliot, Ernest Brown and himself. He also helped to set up the Scottish Council (Development and Industry). It drew its members from both sides of industry and a broad spectrum of Scottish life. It was supported by the Scottish Office. During and after the war it pressed the case, with considerable success, for Scottish industrial development.

A Council of State, combining all-party interests, is possible only in time of emergency. Today it would have to include not only the last three Conservative holders of the office — Messrs Younger, Rifkind and Lang — but also Bruce Millan, now one of our EC Commissioners and one of the ablest of the post-war Secretaries (he found the Government money for the Burrell Collection and started the renewal of Glasgow’s fabric through GEAR). Donald Dewar, the veteran Shadow of the eighties, would also have to be co-opted.

Such a body would get short shrift today, for reasons of partisan politics. That is natural and even healthy in normal times. The Scottish Council, on the other hand, still survives as a genuinely multi-partisan body. It has done so under the benign supervision of its chief executive, Hamish Morrison, and its annual forum still has a valued place in the Scottish calendar.

The achievement in keeping it intact should not be under-rated. First, it lost to Government the task of attracting overseas investment. This should have gone to the Scottish Development Agency without equivocation but inter-departmental rivalries forced a fudged result in the shape of Locate in Scotland. Willie Ross, the Secretary of State who set up the SDA, was deeply suspicious of letting any of the London Ministries anywhere near Scottish industrial policy; it is a fight his successors have had to continue.

During the Thatcher years the council was obliged to work in relative obscurity. It was the practice of the Government to shun any idea of consensus. Indeed the habit of consensus was blamed, in the Thatcherite critique, for feebleness and inertia in government.

Instead the administration conferred with its supporters, like the CBI, which had highly privileged access to its ear, but paid little attention to anything from a wider constituency, such as the Scottish Council. This had some unfortunate consequences, like the poll tax disaster and the balkanisation of the Scottish Development Agency. Scottish Enterprise, facing its biggest challenge in Lanarkshire, has yet to convince.

The unions lived in Ultima Thule and anything with which they were involved was off limits for Government and parts of industry. The Standing Commission on the Scottish Economy, chaired by Sir Kenneth Alexander, resulted in 1986 from an STUC initiative which was supported by the Scottish Council and Cosla. Ewan Marwick, of the Glasgow Chamber of Commerce, remarked that it was ”in a time-warp”. He was right, for it was given the cold shoulder by the Government, the CBI and other Conservative interests. Too many Charlemagnes sent a deputy to its meetings. Its final report in 1989 was greeted with deafening indifference.

In his book Tom Johnston set out a list of what he wanted to achieve. In contemporary jargon it would be called a wish list.

”I ticked off in my mind several of the things I was certain I could do — even during a war. I could get an industrial parliament to begin attracting industries north, face up to the Whitehall departments, and stem the drift south of our Scots population. And I could have a jolly good try at a public corporation on a non-profit basis to harness Highland water power for electricity.

”And I would have a stab at teaching citizenship in the schools. And an attempt at altering the foolish rating system we had in Scotland — so foolish that as compared with England where the private builders between the years 1918 and 1939 had built 30 houses, our private builders had built only one . . . I might even try for a convention of Scots MPs in Edinburgh and see what would emerge politically from that.”

Some of Johnston’s aims had to wait, for example the burst of post-war house-building. It has taken a Conservative administration to address the imbalance in housing, though at some cost to the public sector. His initiative on citizenship was a big flop.

But it is remarkable how little the basic agenda of Scottish politics alters over the years — industrial policy, rates, housing and health remain its staples. And the agitation for a Scottish parliament rises and falls in waves.

Labour adopted it as part of its programme in 1919. It was influenced by the nationalist-tinged co-operative movement and by a desire to attract voters coming on to the register for the first time, many of whom had supported Gladstonian policies of Home Rule. The sentiment fell away only to rise again. In the seventies we came within a whisker of a Scottish Assembly.

The agitation is with us once more, magnified to the point where a parliament is now a probability if there is either a Labour Government or a hung Parliament at Westminster. For all of my adult and professional life I have wanted to see a Scottish parliament, working within a broader political and economic union with the rest of the UK and Europe, because I think its absence makes an emotional void in our national and political life.

I have, on the other hand, been slightly apprehensive about the idea sometimes put about that a parliament will, per se, make life better. Only we, the people who live in Scotland, can do that if we work together and if we conduct a skilful diplomacy in the wider world on whose markets we depend.

The disaster at Ravenscraig, and the further threats to our industrial base, do suggest that it is time to put behind us some aspects of the Thatcherite decade. During this period Scotland has been run by a minority sufficiently convinced of its rightness to tell us what’s good for us, even if we don’t like it (and which then expresses surprise when voters reject it).

Some of the prescriptions have already been proved wrong. Some may have done us good. But it’s time to start talking constructively together; it’s time for a little of that old Johnstonian spirit and his dream of what he called ”Scotia Resurgent”.

Memories, by the Rt Hon. Thomas Johnston. Collins 1952.

I could get an industrial parliament to begin attracting industries north, face up to the Whitehall departments, and stem the drift south of our Scots population