Thomas ‘Tom’ Johnston, journalist, County Councilor, politician, Member of Parliament, and Secretary of State for Scotland, was born on the 2nd of November, 1881.
Tom Johnston was one of the leading Scottish politicians of the twentieth century. He was a socialist and a member of the Labour Party whose political career culminated in the post of Secretary of State for Scotland. Johnston’s politics were influenced by the birth of the Labour Party and his early radical socialism came to the fore, when he helped launch the socialist paper, ‘Forward’. Later, he became associated with the ‘Red Clydesiders’, but later still, he sought to distance himself from the radical scribblings of his youth. He became the Secretary of State for Scotland during the Second World War and as a mark of the man, he was able to rise above partisan politics in that key role to which he gave outstanding service. It’s probably fair to say that he single-handedly shaped the government of Scotland from 1941, when he took office, and his influence continued to be felt long after he had departed.
Many new ideas were introduced through Johnston’s influence and his legacy remains right down to the present time. Few can hope for legacies more concrete than Tom Johnston, a man who could have claimed to have re-drawn the map of Scotland. As Secretary of State, he was the man who gave the North of Scotland its Hydro-Electric Board and the concrete dams that powered its output. That outbreak of dam building left a monument that turned around the fortunes of the Highlands, which is something for which most Scots today would be thankful. Those dams cannot fail to impress wayfarers and Munro-baggers, whether or not you appreciate the end result or simply recognise them as a monumental scar on the landscape. The Hydro-Electric Board was Johnston’s most innovative achievement. It is ‘what for?’ he is best remembered, because he made it happen, despite rural Scotland's resistance and hesitation towards the project. It’s probable that he had a more positive effect on the lives and prospects of ordinary Highlanders than anyone since Thomas Telford built his roads and bridges, one hundred and fifty years earlier.
Thomas Johnston was born in Kirkintilloch on the 2nd of November, 1881, and he was educated at the Lenzie Academy before going on to Glasgow University, where he studied History and Economics. His politics were formed by Fabian pamphlets and at University, he was a contemporary of Manny Shinwell, ‘Red Clydesider’ James Maxton, and Osborne Henry Mavor, the playwright and surgeon who become known as James Bridie. In 1906, Johnston founded ‘Forward’, a socialist journal that he continued to edit for twenty-seven years. It included his own firebrand journalism in the form of the serialisation of ‘Our Scots Noble Families’. That was an angry denunciation of Scotland's landed gentry and it sold 120,000 copies. Interestingly, when Johnston served on a number of Government Quangos in the late 1940s and ‘50s, he made it his business to buy up all of the remaining copies, so that the aristocrats on those Quangos wouldn’t be able to read the book.
His politics and journalism brought him into contact with many other militant socialists in Glasgow, to whom he first came to notice when he organised the campaign for Keir Hardie, the first leader of the Labour Party, to be made Rector of Glasgow University. He was elected to the Kirkintilloch Council and his approach to politics was immediately apparent when, as a member of the Education Committee, he was given responsibility for evening classes. He made them a sensational success by introducing dancing classes to the programme. He also set himself up as the champion of municipal housing, and became involved in the introduction and development of many other council services.
Johnston left the Council in November, 1922, when he was elected to the House of Commons as the Labour Member of Parliament for Stirling and Clackmannan West. Johnston's electoral history mirrored the rollercoaster ride of the Labour Party between the Wars as he won and lost the Dundee and Stirlingshire constituencies, before being appointed Under-Secretary of State for Scotland when Ramsay MacDonald became Prime Minister for the second time, following the 1929 General Election. In that junior ministerial, Scottish Office role, Johnston was responsible for the decision to evacuate St. Kilda in 1930.
The election of the Labour Government in 1929 coincided with an economic depression and Ramsay MacDonald was faced with the problem of growing unemployment. The majority of his Cabinet, including Johnston, voted against the measures suggested by Sir George May and MacDonald decided to resign. However, he was persuaded to form a Coalition Government and Johnston, a strong opponent of MacDonald's Coalition, lost his Stirling and Clackmannan seat in the 1931 General Election. Johnston returned to the House of Commons in November, 1935, before going on to serve as Secretary of State for Scotland in Winston Churchill's Wartime Government from February 1941 until May 1945.
Johnston was given a fairly free hand in Scotland and countered the influence of the Scottish Nationalists by devolving some of the UK's powers to a Scottish Council of State and a Scottish Council of Industry. He formed the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board in 1943, at a time when only a tiny proportion of people living in the Highlands has mains electricity; less than one per cent outside the main towns. Its role was to harness the vast potential for hydro-electric power, partly for the benefit of the Highlanders, partly to provide power for industry and, with admirable foresight, in order to help safeguard the UK’s long term energy supplies. Johnston became Chairman of the Hydro Board in 1945 and oversaw the development of the schemes that became known as ‘power frae the Glens’. By the time he retired in 1959, around ninety per cent of Highland residents had a mains electricity supply and the area's industrial base had been transformed.
Thomas Johnston died at his home in Milngavie on the 5th of September, 1965.