Twenty years on: Ron Ferguson commemorates the life of a born leader, Geoff Shaw

HE was Labour's great white hope - the man who would, or could, be Premier. He had obvious leadership qualities, a squeaky-clean image, an ability to communicate with all classes. He was a Scotsman who seemed born to lead, just at the time when huge national opportunities were opening up.

Then one day this fit, energetic 51-year-old man collapsed with a heart attack. Soon, Scotland was in mourning for a lost leader.

The points of similarity between John Smith and Geoff Shaw are illuminating. Both able Scotsmen, leaders. Both passionate seekers after social justice, with deep roots in Christianity. Both dying of heart attacks at the height of their powers, leaving a deep sense of loss, of what might have been.

It's hard to believe that it's 20 years tomorrow since Geoff Shaw died, yet so much has happened in the interval. The Thatcher revolution dismantled many of the perceived ideas of society. The Strathclyde Region into which he poured so much of his energy is already dead and buried, without much lamentation. The powers of local authorities have been drastically cut. Glitzy New Labour is in power.

At the time of Geoff Shaw's death, it looked as if Scotland was on the brink of achieving Home Rule. And the name on many people's lips as the obvious candidate for first Scottish premier was the Rev Geoffrey Mackintosh Shaw.

The Evening Times had run an article on its front page, under the banner headline, ''Who will be Scotland's first Prime Minister?''. They profiled various candidates, and put their money on Shaw.

''Geoff Shaw already 'rules' half the people of Scotland as convener of Strathclyde Regional Council,'' the writer argued. ''Since the SRC came into being, he has entrenched his position as a foremost figure in Labour politics.''

What is astonishing about this is that at the time the article was written, Shaw had been in public political life for only six years. Three years after his election in 1970, he was leader of the administration of the city of Glasgow, and a year later he was chosen as head of the newly

created Strathclyde Region. By any standards, this was a meteoric political rise. Why did it happen?

To understand the phenomenon, it is necessary to rehearse the outline of this remarkable life. Son of a prominent Edinburgh surgeon and dux of Edinburgh Academy, he forsook law to study for the ministry. Shaw was marked out as a rising star with a promising career in the Kirk, until he embarked on a journey that was to change his life.

While doing post-graduate study at Union Theological seminary, fellow Scot Walter Fyfe persuaded him to work with the East Harlem Protestant Parish. What the Cramond scoutmaster saw in the New York ghetto horrified and changed him. Nothing in his privileged upbringing had prepared him for the experience of working with drug addicts and drop-outs and gang leaders. He was profoundly moved by the dignity of poor people struggling to survive against the odds.

Back in Scotland, Shaw and Walter and Elizabeth Fyfe, and another radical young divinity student, John Jardine and his wife Beryl established the

Gorbals Group, as an experiment within a somewhat bemused Church of Scotland. Instead of living in suburban manses, the three ministers chose to live right at the heart of what was recognised as one of the worst slum ghettos in Europe. They held open house, and shared worship, money, food, themselves.

It was in the Gorbals that Geoff Shaw did his greatest work. The ever-open battered door of his tenement flat in Cleland Street represented a haven for many broken people. With coffee and prayer and hospitality and action, he helped mend lives.

Geoff worked on the principle of unconditional acceptance - a notion that is noble in the abstract, but utterly demanding and draining to fulfil. Youngsters released from Borstal and struggling with drug and drink addiction, prisoners and no-hopers found acceptance.

Some of the problems he had to deal with brought risk to his own life. I have on my study wall a treasured fragment of a note he wrote about one desperate young addict: ''Have proceeded on the basis of refusal to reject no matter how foul.''

Gorbals hard man Jimmy Boyle told me in the Special Unit in Barlinne: ''Never have I heard of people let down by Geoff Shaw. No matter what time of the night you went to Cleland Street, you were welcome. Geoff had a magic about him. He challenged everything you thought you knew about churchmen.''

It was anger about the injustices he saw around him that moved the CND and anti-Vietnam war campaigner in the direction of politics. After his election as councillor for Govanhill in 1970, he moved straight through the ranks.

At a time when Labour councillors were being accused of corruption over housing, the untried but obviously talented outsider from Gorbals arrived at the right time, on the fast track to Scottish political stardom.

When Geoff Shaw died, the sense of loss was palpable. Many people who had never met him felt they knew him. He had made his mark on the vast Strathclyde region, and it was a very human mark.

What would he have become? As with John Smith, it's easy - and pointless - to project all sorts of aspirations on to a lost leader. My sense is that towards the end, the huge conflicting demands of politics and continued pastoral concern for troubled individuals were tearing him apart. This complex, contradictory, heroic, driven, selfless, private, holy, secular, Protestant Gorbals monk could not let any of it go.

His unpatronising kindness to me as a struggling young minister in Easterhouse made a deep impression on me. But it was his extraordinary funeral that showed me just how many people had been touched by his remarkable life, and made me resolve to write his biography.

The ''state'' funeral in Glasgow Cathedral was full of ironies, which would have made Geoff smile. Ecclesiastical dignitaries saying farewell to a cleric whose brave and pioneering ministry had been largely marginalised by the Church. Military representatives paying tribute to a passionate campaigner against nuclear weapons. Law-and-order men eulogising a former law student who broke the law in the name of what he conceived to be a higher obedience. The wealthy lauding someone who spent most of his adult life living in a slum, fighting for the poor and questioning the way in which wealth was distributed. Peers acknowledging a public schoolboy who refused a knighthood and sought to abolish public schools.

Then out of the packed cathedral into the brightness: the streets lined with silent people, many openly weeping, as the cortege made its way towards the Gorbals.

Twenty years on, as Scotland stands on the cusp of a new and exciting adventure, the haunting, battered door in Cleland Street should stand as a reminder of the needs of the excluded. The quiet, forgotten man is missed. Greatly.

n Geoff: a life of Geoffrey M Shaw, by Ron Ferguson, is published in paperback by Famedram, #6.95.