I heard with great sadness of the death of Allan Blacklaws, O.B.E.. I regret that circumstances prevent me from attending the funeral on Wednesday, but I felt that I have to offer my memories of a man I held in the highest regard. The biographical details of Allan’s life are my personal understanding of them, and although I had the opportunity to confirm them with Allan a few years ago in an extended telephone conversation, this can only be regarded as a personal memoir.
In the very early 1960s, a devout Presbyterian native of Glasgow with a highly developed social conscience, Allan Blacklaws was engaged in pioneering employee relations work at the Stephens of Linthouse shipbuilding yard on the Upper Clyde. Later in the 1960s, the Fairfield Experiment became famous in its attempts to improve worker participation and communications in a traditional, troubled and dying industry. Regrettably, Fairfield’s was doomed, together with most of the rest of the Scottish yards, by the global economics of shipbuilding, and it collapsed among the ruins of the ill-starred Upper Clyde Shipbuilders and the workers’ occupation of the Clydebank yard. This event brought the world’s top media personalities, such as Robin Day, and Government ministers to the gates.
(I had lived in Dalmuir, on the Clyde near Clydebank, and had moved to Duntocher to the north of Clydebank at this time, and I regularly joined the crowd outside of the main gate of John Brown’s yard to observe this piece of industrial history in the making, and report back to my American bosses in the Goodyear Tyre factory, in Drumchapel, who were fascinated by the whole affair.)
However, the highly innovative approach to industrial relations of Allan Blacklaws had caught the eye of Peter Balfour, the chairman of Scottish & Newcastle Breweries Ltd.. In 1962, he invited Allan to join Scottish & Newcastle as its first - and only- personnel professional. By the late 1960s and early 1970s this charismatic, principled man, a former professional footballer and goalkeeper with St. Mirren, with his egalitarian values, high reputation and public profile, was recruiting young human relations professionals with similar ideals to the new Personnel department he had created from scratch.
In 1973, I left Goodyear and went to work for a subsidiary of Burmah Oil, the Rawlplug Company in Thornliebank as Industrial Relations Manager. Although the people I worked with were wonderful, and I held them in the highest regard, I was unhappy with the wider picture, and by the late autumn of 1973 had decided to seek a move to another company. I happened to see an STV interview with Allan Blacklaws, and he made an immediate impact on me, as a man of high principle and deep social conscience. Shortly thereafter, I applied for a vacancy with Scottish & Newcastle, and after several interviews, accepted the job of Regional Personnel for the Northwest of England, based in Chorley, near Manchester.
Allan Blacklaws had not been one of the managers who interviewed me, but shortly after joining the company, I travelled to Newcastle for a conference, and I met Allan for the first time on the stairs of the County Hotel. He had a rare combination of gravitas and an open, friendly personality, a commanding yet a welcoming presence. We were both Glasgow East-enders – Allan had gone to Whitehill School, just along the road from me. He was ten years older than me.
I never knew Allan intimately, in the way that his head office team knew him, but I was aware of his strong religious conviction and his devotion to the Kirk, and he was aware of my atheism. It was never a barrier between us, then or later – this was a man to whom the very idea of discrimination on grounds of beliefs or convictions was deeply repugnant.
I once tentatively raised with him the apparent irony that he and I, sharing strong egalitarian views and socialist principles (we were both Labour Party supporters) should be working for a brewery and a company that was dominated by Old Etonians and Tory capitalists. He smiled and said that he had previously worked for a shipbuilder, and both ships and beer were almost as old as mankind, and it was the people that mattered.
And for Allan, it was always the people that mattered – his guiding maxim was “Doing the right thing is the right thing to do”, which I initially dismissed as a banality, but came to realise later as containing something essential in the principle.
There were great days in the mid-seventies for Allan’s Personnel Department – we were in the midst of the most challenging industrial relations environment that the UK had ever encountered, with the trades unions at the peak of their power, rampant inflation of prices and wages, with a legacy of Tory industrial relations legislation on the statute books, perceived as an attack on the unions, new legislation on workers’ rights being enacted by the Callaghan Labour Government who were unsuccessfully attempting to reconcile the huge social pressures, the Bullock Report on industrial democracy, and European legislation to cope with.
I wound up in the Newcastle Breweries, which was the eye of the storm in Scottish and Newcastle’s industrial relations, with a young Joe Mills, a former S&N drayman now Regional Secretary of the T&GWU in the regional office just up the road from me, a power in the Labour Party, just about to recommend a young Scottish lawyer turned politician – one Tony Blair – to the Sedgefield Labour Party as their candidate for Westminster.
In this maelstrom, Allan Blacklaws was an oasis of calm. The trades unions trusted him, even when they were engaged in fighting the company, recognising the iron core of principle and the humanity that characterised the man.
But then Maggie Thatcher, a great shift in political power, and a transformation of British society that polarised political views, not least in Scottish and Newcastle. In early 1983, these culminated in a great shift of boardroom power and ideology, and in 1983 (I think) Allan left the company he loved.
I left five years later, in 1988. I didn’t see Allan again until the mid-nineties, when we met at a colleague, Roger Dobson’s, 50th birthday party in Houston House. Then, after another long gap, I picked up with Allan again by telephone about three years ago, and we maintained an intermittent telephone contact. During this period he lost his beloved wife Sylvia, and I can never forget the pain in his voice when I offered my condolences on the telephone.
To me, Allan was one of the finest examples of a Scot, epitomising the auld Kirk values and the deeply-rooted social conscience that once characterised many Scots industrialists. He made an enduring contribution to his church and his society, and was deeply loved by his family.
I am sad that he is gone, but he is with his beloved Sylvia.