In memory of John P Mackintosh

Gerald O’Brien

I cannot describe the feeling of desolation and despair that settled over our constituency when news of John’s death became known. Every walk of life, every creed, young and old, mourns his passing and our hearts go out to John’s family.

John Mackintosh began his love affair with Berwick and East Lothian when he was adopted as prospective candidate in November 1963 and as a young man of 34, he must have looked round the constituency with its lush farmlands and rolling hills and asked himself how on earth he could possibly win this seat for Labour. History shows that John did win it in 1966 and held it, except for a brief period in 1974, until now. John won the seat and held it against the odds, with his brilliance of mind, his oratory, his reputation as an academic, but more than that, he won it because he had an amazing rapport with the people inside the constituency and the constituency Labour Party.

This is what I want to tell you about.

Everyone knows of John’s abilities at national level. What is less known are the human qualities that marked him out as something special and ensured that as well as an admiration for his many talents, there was also a deep love. This is where the loss is greatest. John Mackintosh was an outstanding person.

As his agent and before that, as chairman of the constituency Labour Party, I had the privilege to view the very special and unique relationship he had with his local Labour Parties, and his constituency party.

It was from Berwick and East Lothian in 1966 that he first ventured out into the wider political arena to give his maiden speech in the House, which one national paper described as the most outstanding since the war.

It was to Berwick and East Lothian that he returned to sound out the opinions of what he considered, and indeed proudly proclaimed, to be one of the most sophisticated and informed electorates in Britain. The constituency made great demands on him, but he was always willing to give of his time. No job, no problem, was too small. Having a marginal seat did not account for all that he did. He simply loved Berwick and East Lothian.

He could have chosen an easier and more secure profession, he could have had safer seats, but John Mackintosh rejected the soft options. The constituency remained at the heart of his political life. It is impossible to evaluate the amount of work John did on behalf of his constituents. It was prodigious. A letter to John Mackintosh on a problem or difficulty had become an institution and the results of his efforts on their behalf speaks volumes for the care he lavished on those he represented. It was not an uncommon occurrence for somebody to get to his or her feet at a public meeting to thank John, in a very public way, for help he had given with some problem. John Mackintosh, many times at the centre of the national political stage, was, nonetheless, an exceptional constituency M.P.

In the 15 years that he was with Berwick and East Lothian he missed only one General Management Committee meeting, a fault which was entirely mine and was the only time that John lost his temper with me.

When I first became his agent, in the summer of 1973, John took me round the constituency with him. He picked me up in Tranent and we travelled the Al road to Eyemouth, spoke to two firms who had problems on the small industrial estate, then to a fisherman who had a problem with his boat, on to Berwick-on-Tweed for lunch with the editor of the local paper, onwards to Paxton to meet a farmer, who is now a prospective parliamentary Labour candidate, along the border road to Duns, to another small industrial estate which was having problems with its electricity supply, over to the lovely village of Longformacus, where we visited an old man who was bedridden and was having problems with social security. From there we crossed the lovely Lammermuir Hills, which John loved so well and finished up in Prestonpans Labour Club for a drink and a discussion with the members on the issues of the day.

All different problems, but all treated with a meticulous and caring manner. Not an exceptional day but only illustrating the unexceptional side of an exceptional man. But also a kind and gentle entry into my job for me.

Amongst John’s local party comrades there was always great respect and rapport, a fact that puzzled many political commentators, who did not know him. There was not always agreement, but there was always a willingness to listen to debate. Because of this, a fierce loyalty grew between John Mackintosh and his constituency Labour Party.

This loyalty was in every way a two-way loyalty. John never patronised and always treated the views of his constituency party with great respect. Lack of education or learning did not debar anybody from having a point of view worthy of his consideration.

What endeared him most to local party members, however, was his political courage and his irreverence towards the pompous and self-opinionated. In all senses he was a democrat and an egalitarian.

At the last meeting of the General Management Committee of the Labour Party, John, in what many believed to be one of his finest speeches, talked of his sense of outrage at the appalling conditions and treatment of the black population that he encountered on his visit to South Africa. He told us that he was shadowed by the secret police everywhere he went, and he went on to say that he considered it an honour that he was thought of as a threat to the abhorrent system that exists in that country. John was always instinctively for the underdog, for the less well-off, and for the invalids of our society. He remained one of us.

When the days and the weeks and the months pass we in Berwick and East Lothian will remember John, mainly by his constituency work, the hard and the good times, together; his laughter and fun at a social gathering, his jacket off for a game of football or his non-stop efforts on our behalf.

We are all deeply moved that one of John’s last wishes was that he be buried at Gifford, in the heart of the constituency that he loved so much. On Sunday, July 30th 1978, the grey mist lay like a great shroud over the Lammermuir Hills and the sma’ rain fell gloomily on the plains that roll down to the Firth of Forth. Heaven cried. So did we.

Reproduced from In Memory of John P. Mackintosh 1929-1978 (1979) The Political Quarterly Publishing Co Ltd. Gerald O’Brien was JP Mackintosh’s Constituency Agent; input from Noel Foy, former chair Berwick & East Lothian Labour Party, is acknowledged.