Obituaries: SIR ROBERT CALDERWOOD ; Local Authority Executive with a 'Kindly Sense of Socialism' Who Oversaw Strathclyde Regional Council

By Dalyell, Tam | The Independent (London, England), June 2, 2006 | Go to article overview
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Obituaries: SIR ROBERT CALDERWOOD ; Local Authority Executive with a 'Kindly Sense of Socialism' Who Oversaw Strathclyde Regional Council


Dalyell, Tam, The Independent (London, England)


Successively chief executive of Salford local authority, 1966- 69, of Bolton, 1969-73, of Manchester, 1973-79, and finally of the largest local authority in Britain, Strathclyde Regional Council, 1980-92, Robert Calderwood was both a powerful figure and an innovator in British local government. Few, if any, local authority figures had more influence during the quarter of a century in which he was active and in 1989-90 he served as president of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives.

Born in 1932, Calderwood was the son of a mill worker who became Provost (mayor) of Darvel in Ayrshire. When Calderwood was nine, his father took up a full-time position as a trade union officer with Usdaw, the Union of Shop Distributive and Allied Workers, which involved moving to Manchester, where the union had its headquarters and where its national officers were expected to reside. Calderwood said later that he felt himself very fortunate to gain admittance by examination to the city's rigorous William Hulme's School from which he won a place to study Law at Manchester University, later, in 1956, being admitted as a solicitor.

The former Irene Jones (now Lady Morris of Manchester) and her sister-in-law Pauline Morris recall that Calderwood was a popular member of the Labour League of Youth, "with his flaming red hair, looking like, in the view of the girls, a young Spencer Tracy". They also recalled his "deep-rooted, but kindly sense of socialism". In 1948, the League ran speaking contests' the team from the north- west consisted of Irene Jones as chairman, her future husband Alf Morris, now Lord Morris of Manchester, as the speaker' and Bob Calderwood, four years younger but chosen to move the vote of thanks. They won the northwest championship and finished a good second in the national finals.

My first meeting with Calderwood is indelibly etched on my mind. In 1966, after a visit to the Borneo War, I was asked by the fiercely left-wing Frank Allaun MP to visit Salford for a meeting of his constituency Labour Party and he briefed me on Calderwood as "this marvellous new chief executive we've got whose deep-down socialism matches his flaming red hair". Calderwood was always careful not to be overtly political but he did have deep political beliefs, which were to erupt when Margaret Thatcher and her government decided to experiment with the Poll Tax. This represented all that Calderwood thought wrong with that kind of society.

Unsurprisingly, in 1969 Calderwood was poached by the larger authority of Bolton to be chief executive. Terry Lewis, former Labour MP for Worsley but at that time a member of Kearsley District Council, worked closely with Calderwood striving to cope with the problems of local government reorganisation. According to Lewis, Calderwood was outstanding in operating the co-ordinating committee and was a superb organiser, with a considerable presence. He would do the spade work, with results the elected councillors could be proud of. It was perhaps natural that from the grandeur of the Bolton Town Hall, Calderwood should be chosen in 1973 for the plum job of Town Clerk of Manchester.

Charles Morris, former member of Manchester corporation and MP for Manchester Openshaw, 1963-83, recalls Calderwood's watch in the Manchester Town Hall:

The Town Clerk of Manchester has a huge range of responsibilities ranging from the airport to the ship canal to water gathering in the Lake District and a number of special niche activities to do with the arts. I thought Calderwood was in complete control of his voluminous responsibilities.

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