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Thomas Johnston

Thomas Johnston (1882-5 September 1965) was a prominent Scottish-born socialist and politician of the early 20th century, a member of the Labour Party, an MP and government minister – usually with Cabinet responsibility for Scottish affairs.

Table of contents
1 Red Clydesider
2 War-time Cabinet role
3 Power to the Glens
4 Post-war activity

Red Clydesider

Johnston was born in Kirkintilloch in 1882. At Glasgow University, he helped launch the left-wing journal, Forward, in 1906, and in the same city later became associated with the 'Red Clydesiders', a socialist grouping that included James Maxton and Manny Shinwell.

First elected as a member of Parliament for the constituency of Stirling and Clackmannan in November 1922, Johnston was appointed Under-Secretary of State for Scotland by Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald in 1929. This troubled administration was relatively short-lived; only a handful of Labour ministers supported MacDonald’s proposal of a coalition government, with Johnston and other Red Clydesiders among the strong opponents. This opposition may have backfired (albeit temporarily), as Johnston lost his seat at the General Election in 1931, but he returned (representing West Stirlingshire) to the House of Commons in 1935 and remained an MP until retiring in 1945.

War-time Cabinet role

During the Second World War, Prime Minister Winston Churchill appointed Johnston as Secretary of State for Scotland on 12 February 1941, and Johnston retained the war-time Cabinet post until May 1945. A long-standing supporter of the Home Rule movement, he was able to persuade Churchill of the need to counter the nationalist threat north of the border and created a Scottish Council of State and a Council of Industry as institutions to devolve some power away from Whitehall.

Power to the Glens

Arguably, his greatest legacy was the creation of the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board. Until the 1940s, many areas of Scotland north of the Central Belt had little or no electricity supply. There were coal-fired and diesel-powered power stations in some urban locations, and excess capacity from some industrial hydroelectricity schemes was sometimes made available locally, but there was no connection to the national electric power transmission system, the National Grid.

Inspired by the example of the American Tennessee Valley Authority initiative instigated by President Franklin D Roosevelt, Johnston sought to capitalise upon the geography of the Scottish Highlands and its high rainfall levels to develop power schemes that would benefit people across the then under-developed north of Scotland.

Post-war activity

Post-war, Johnston subsequently served as chairman of various Scottish organisations, including the Scottish National Forestry Commission (1945-48) and the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board (1946-59). He represented Scottish interests in the council appointed to devise the 1951 Festival of Britain. He was also Chancellor of Aberdeen University from 1951 until his death in 1965.