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Bruce Millan

Politician and former Scottish Secretary;

Born October 5, 1927; Died February 23, 2013.

Bruce Millan, who has died aged 85, was an unassuming but significant figure in Scottish, UK and European politics for almost three decades. In the late 1970s he was a dry but efficient Scottish Secretary, and in the late 1980s a low- profile but highly competent European Commissioner.

In truth, the latter role probably suited him, as an accountant by background, more than the often-bruising world of Scottish politics. It was also his misfortune to find himself responsible for delivering devolution when public opinion was tepid and many members of his own party were openly hostile.

He was at least supportive of a Scottish Assembly, unlike his predecessor Willie Ross. "Not that he is wildly enthusiastic about devolution," noted a newspaper upon his appointment in April 1976. "Bruce Millan is not wildly enthusiastic about anything."

The Scotland and Wales Bill appeared in November 1976 and was killed off a few months later at the hands of Welsh and Scottish Labour backbenchers. A second attempt, the Scotland Bill, did pass in late 1977, but Mr Millan was forced to concede various wrecking amendments including, most notably, a post-legislative referendum.

Bruce Millan was born in Dundee, the son of David Millan, a shipyard worker. After attending the city's Harris Academy he trained as a chartered accountant, coming top of his class at college and working in Glasgow from 1950 until he entered Parliament in 1959.

Mr Millan unsuccessfully contested West Renfrewshire in 1951 and the Craigton Division of Glasgow in 1955, but won the latter on his second attempt four years later. His election address in 1959 was typically cautious: "I do not myself see any compelling reason for a separate Scottish Parliament, but I have by no means a closed mind on the matter."

His first ministerial job was at the Ministry of Defence as under-secretary for the RAF, and after the 1966 General Eelection he moved to the Scottish Office to take charge of education under Willie Ross, with whom he got along well, unlike almost everybody else.

The Scottish Education Department provided a showcase for Millan's daunting ability with numbers, and although he did not sparkle in the House of Commons he could present a lucid case. After four years in opposition, he returned to the Scottish Office, this time as Minister of State, in 1974, and two years later the new Prime Minister James Callaghan appointed him Scottish Secretary.

"Bruce Millan: Dependable Heir Without Charisma" was one newspaper's less than flattering headline, although it captured something of the new Scottish Secretary's style. With a decaying Labour majority in the House, not to forget an economic crisis and splits over devolution, Mr Millan's three years in the post were far from straightforward.

Nevertheless his hard-working, methodical approach paid dividends. The interventionist Scottish Development Agency had been his brainchild as a junior minister, and now he used it to regenerate Scotland's inner cities. The Glasgow East End Area Renewal (GEAR) project removed slum housing, while other projects in Dundee and Leith kick-started long overdue urban renewal in once-thriving Scottish ports.

Another claim to fame was the so-called Barnett Formula, which Mr Millan cooked up with the then Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Joel Barnett, to avoid endless rounds of inter-departmental spending negotiations. There was, of course, less money to spend after the 1976 IMF crisis, and Mr Millan grappled with the consequences of austerity, often stark, north of the Border.

"Bruce is a chartered accountant, quiet and steady," observed Tony Benn in his diaries, "and, though his instincts are mainly cautious, he has something of a radical streak." That streak surfaced in Cabinet when he was one of only four ministers to vote against the Lib-Lab Pact, which sustained Mr Callaghan in office for around 18 months.

The Winter of Discontent, however, diminished the chances of a Labour victory when the General Election finally came in May 1979. The devolution referendum in March, in which a majority of Scots backed a Scottish Assembly but not the 40 % of the electorate required, proved the death knell. Margaret Thatcher slipped in the knife with a no-confidence motion and the Government fell by a single vote.

Although the Labour vote rose in Scotland and Mr Millan remained on Labour's front bench for another three years, his career in Scottish politics was effectively at an end. Urged by Neil Kinnock to accept an appointment as one of the UK's two European Commissioners five years later, he quit his Glasgow seat (renamed Govan in 1983); the resulting by-election produced a memorable SNP victory.

With its paperwork, number crunching and backroom nature, Mr Millan was in his element as Commissioner for Regional Policy and Cohesion, a post he held until 1995. Fittingly, that brief required direct – and economically beneficial – dealings with Scotland, most notably in the Highlands and Islands.

On returning to the UK, Mr Millan eschewed titles or honours and instead kept a low profile, only resurfacing in 2001 to produce a comprehensive and thoughtful report, New Directions, on mental health law in Scotland.

Bruce Millan was recently diagnosed with cancer and died from bronchial pneumonia at Glasgow's Southern General Hospital. His wife Gwen, son Mark, daughter Liz and two granddaughters survive him.

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