29 April, 2009

Lord Thomas Johnston Taylor


Thomas Johnston Taylor, businessman and public servant: born Glasgow 27 April 1912; President, Scottish Co-Operative Wholesale Society 1965-70; created 1968 Baron Taylor of Gryfe; Chairman, Forestry Commission 1970-76; Chairman, Scottish Railways Board 1971-80; chairman, Morgan Grenfell (Scotland) 1973-85; Chairman, Economic Forestry Group 1976-81; FRSE 1977; Chairman, Scottish Action on Dementia 1989-95; married 1943 Isobel Wands (two daughters); died St Andrews 13 July 2001.

From being a 14-year-old school leaver from Bellahouston Academy in Glasgow who had lost his father in France at the age of three in the First World War, to chairmanships of the Forestry Commission and the Scottish Railways Board and membership of the international board of Morgan Grenfell and House of Lords select committees, Tom Taylor's journey was one of constructive achievement. Having to earn a living at 14, he became an office boy in the Scottish Co-Operative Wholesale Society, then the biggest commercial organisation in Scotland; he was eventually to become its president.
When he was 20, in 1932, the SCWS, run by elders who really cared about their junior employees and their personal fulfilment, gave him a scholarship which entitled him to spend a year in Germany on the eve of Hitler's coming to power – and, crucially, to learn German.
He took an active part in the Independent Labour Party, being Jimmy Maxton's proverbial bag carrier, and, at the age of 22, got himself elected as a Glasgow City Councillor, fighting two parliamentary elections as an ILP candidate subsequently, in the second of which, in Edinburgh in 1942, he challenged the wartime consensus to allow the party which held the seat to choose a successor on the death of an incumbent, and was severely trounced.
A contact with Fenner Brockway led to a defining moment in Taylor's life. Brockway, who was Secretary of the Independent Labour Party, recalled in March 1938 that Taylor spoke German and knew Vienna. He pleaded with him to go to Austria to assist the illegal escape of a number of people whose lives were threatened. Having lived in Germany and witnessed the burning of homes and business premises of Jews and the beating up of innocent people in public by brown-shirted storm troopers wielding their truncheons, Taylor needed no convincing of the threat which now faced Austrian opponents of the German invaders.
His superiors in the SCWS were somewhat surprised when their clerk asked for his summer holiday in March to go to Austria but acquiesced, impressed by his idealism. There followed meetings in London with Brockway and in co-operation with exiles in Paris plans were prepared. Forged passports with photographs and signatures of the intended escapees were provided and hidden in Taylor's suitcase. He was given a list of names and telephone numbers of contacts in Vienna. He coded the information, having destroyed the numbers, by marking certain pages in a paperback, which he carried.
At the German-Austrian border he realised how dangerous his situation was. The train stopped – and the storm troopers questioned all passengers and searched some of the luggage. He was able to convince them that he was a harmless British tourist visiting Vienna.
The intended escapees were well-known socialist activists whose telephone numbers would certainly be under the surveillance of the Gestapo; his instructions were to contact intermediaries who had been alerted from Paris, were not suspect and would arrange a safe rendezvous. The meetings took place in a pub or café with friends sitting at a neighbouring table to prevent anyone overhearing the conversation and to warn of any Gestapo raid. Taylor would recall that whenever possible he had to use public telephone kiosks.
His first contact was a young American couple who were studying at the university. That worked well, but another was a doctor with a consulting room in the heart of Vienna. Taylor noted his consulting hours and presented himself as a patient. Announcing that he had come from "mutual friends in Paris", he waited for him to make the next move. The doctor, however, looked at Taylor blankly and said that he had no friends in Paris. He turned out to be a locum, the contact doctor being off for the day. Contact with the Jewish doctor to whom Taylor had been directed was established two days later.
One difficulty Taylor encountered was convincing individuals that they should grasp the opportunity to escape. Some had families who would be left behind. Others had become accustomed to the inefficiency of the existing Austrian dictatorship and did not realise the extent of the brutality of the Nazi regime. It was not unknown under Dollfuss for socialist sympathisers in the police to warn you beforehand in the event of any anticipated raid on your house. Taylor had to warn his friends that under Hitler it would be different.
After 10 days of nervous discussion and planning, eight refugees were on their way by separate routes and on different days. All the main railway stations were being watched by the Gestapo in Paris. Using an international timetable Taylor made plans to avoid them. The journey to the frontier would take several local trains; to avoid suspicion, each ticket was purchased for a relatively short journey.
All missions were successfully completed. Taylor told me of walking in the sunshine on a Sunday morning in Vienna, the beauty of the place shattered by the shouts of "Heil Hitler" and the sharp crash of the jackboots of storm troopers marching in a great Nazi parade. As he made his way out of town he caught a glimpse of Dr Goebbels in a restaurant.
The Second World War presented a considerable dilemma for Taylor – he hated Hitlerism but at the same time was associated with the ILP, which had a long pacifist tradition. He registered as a conscientious objector but took part in relief work in Europe as a member of the United Nations Relief and Reconstruction Administration (Unrra), where he was involved in the resettlement of refugees who wandered homeless in Europe in post-war reconstruction.
During his spell with Unrra, he lived in the United States and observed the changes that took place immediately after the war in modern supermarket retailing. On his return to Scotland, he tried to direct the Co-Operative movement of which, in 1965, he was to become President, to anticipate these dramatic changes. Unfortunately there was little response and he resigned from the service of the Co-Operative Society.
In 1963, on the recommendation of Willie Ross, the Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, Taylor was appointed by Sir Alec Douglas-Home as a Forestry Commissioner. The Forestry Commission had been instituted in 1919 to make good the timber shortages caused by the First World War, but over the 13 years in which Taylor was to serve – confirmed for a second term by Harold Wilson, anointed in 1970 as Chairman by a Labour government, and re-anointed by Ted Heath – came increasingly to recognise its recreational responsibilities.
Taylor worked at constructive bipartisan relations with politicians of different political hues. George Holmes, later to be Director-General, but, in Taylor's time, Research Director and Harvesting and Marketing Commissioner, recalls:
Tom was an extraordinary combination of a hard-headed businessman and a left-wing, socially aware, politician. He worked well with my predecessor as Director-General, the effective Aberdonian John Dickson, partly because he was a chairman who did not fuss. He was a great guy to have at the helm.
An enthusiast for the development of wood processing in Britain, he was proud to visit alongside MPs the Wiggins Teape Corpach development near Fort William. He had played a crucial part in persuading Willie Ross, now the Scottish Secretary, and Harold Wilson to siphon off significant public funds to the project, inaugurated in 1966. He was unapologetic in the 1980s when Corpach ceased to produce pulp, after being acquired by Finnish interests who preferred to produce newsprint in Finland.
As Chairman he was a believer in public access, caravan sites, and forest cabins – though less excited about nature conservation. His first years of chairmanship coincided with reviews of government policy and much cost-benefit analysis. Policies had to be tightened to provide returns on investment; and recreation facilities were subject always to the hot breath of the Treasury. Taylor has been criticised in retrospect for being too keen on what Marion Shoard in her seminal 1980 book The Theft of the Countryside called "the serried ranks of conifers" – an insufficient sensitivity to the claims of broad-leafed trees.
Much of his energy – it was formidable and elastic – was consumed with managing the upheaval of 1974 in which the headquarters of the Forestry Commission was moved by government diktat from London and Basingstoke to Edinburgh. Any such transfer is traumatic for key staff with mortgages and children at secondary school. Taylor won justified plaudits for kindness and good sense at this difficult time for those who worked in the senior echelons of the commission. He inspired loyalty.
Taylor served 10 years, too, on the board of British Rail, serving as Chairman of the Scottish Railways Board from 1971 to 1980, and before leaving warned the Government of the dangers of their proposed structure for the privatised industry. He took a lively interest in Scottish industrial and cultural affairs. He was a member of the Scottish Council for Development and Industry, served on the board of Scottish Television and was Vice-Chairman of the Glasgow Citizens Theatre. The last 12 years of his business life were spent in the service of Morgan Grenfell, the leading London merchant bank; he was chairman of Morgan Grenfell (Scotland) and a member of their international board.
In the midst of all this activity he took an active part in the House of Lords, to which he was sent, as Lord Taylor of Gryfe, in 1968, concentrating on forestry, Scottish industry and foreign affairs. In 1977-79 he was one of the staunchest supporters of the Labour Vote No Campaign, which scuppered Scottish devolution. However, by 1995 he had changed his mind and he told the House of Lords on 4 July:
A great deal has been said about preserving the Union. The noble Viscount, Lord Weir, has painted a picture of decline and a slippery slope towards independence. I tell the House, that if we do not respond to the wishes of the Scottish people for an assembly, the descent into the demand for complete independence will grow and will not diminish. The people of Scotland will feel that they have a right to their own assembly. But if they are told that they cannot have it and that the English parliament has decided that they cannot have it, the reaction will be towards more extreme demands for independence than are involved in the document which Lord Ewing [of Kirkford] as Chairman of the Scottish Constitutional Convention has produced.
He left the Labour Party for the SDP in 1981 but returned in 1990.
Tom Taylor believed in the silent form of worship of the Quakers, sharing a belief in pacifism with his devoted wife Isobel, who regularly worshipped with him at the Friends Meeting House in Glasgow and subsequently in St Andrews.


by Tam Dalyell

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