TOM Stevenson recalls the life of Hector McNeil, and his personal experience of him, for the many who have no idea who he was.
We all have some points in our life when we can remember where we were when a certain event occurred. I can clearly recall as a 14-year-old schoolboy, the wee small hours of Friday 22 October 1951. Myself and several others were in a house in east Brougham Street, Greenock awaiting the results of the General Election which had taken place on the previous day.
At that time, and for many years afterwards, the Brougham Street building we were in, pictured, which still exists today, was known as Keir Hardie House, as it was the headquarters of Greenock Constituency Labour Party. I had a relative in the Labour Party who asked if I would like to act as a messenger during the election campaign. This entailed using my cycle to deliver messages and material to individuals and locations all over Greenock. This was in the days when telephones were few and far between, consequently I covered a lot of miles.
I had to plead with my parents to permit me to be in Keir Hardie House late that night so I could hear the result as there was no television available. It was there, early that morning, that our MP Hector McNeil arrived and the first words from his mouth were: “We’re out chaps!” (I remember this vividly as I always thought the word “chaps” slightly odd when addressing a group of Greenock election workers.)
McNeil was not referring to his local result – he had been re-elected with an increased majority – but to the fact that the 1945 Labour Government had been defeated. Atlee was out and Churchill was again Prime Minister. This also meant that Hector was no longer Secretary of State for Scotland and the strong hint of him being appointed Foreign Secretary if his party had retained power was gone.
Soon afterwards McNeil, his wife Sheila, several others and myself (I was getting a lift home!) were on our way by taxi to a hall at Barr’s Cottage where Labour Party ‘victory’ celebrations were underway — after all at least their man had won!
Hector McNeil was born on 10 March 1907 at Garelochhead. His father was a journeyman shipwright from Barra and his mother hailed from Islay. The family later moved to Glasgow and Hector won a scholarship to Glasgow University where he distinguished himself both as a student and as an extremely able debater before embarking on a career in journalism.
When he was 23, McNeil was elected a Glasgow councillor representing Whiteinch. After five years, he resigned from the council to become night editor of Lord Beaverbrook’s Conservative Daily Express. For whatever reason, McNeil formed an unlikely friendship with Beaverbrook which was to last for the rest of his life.
In 1941, when he was only 31 years old, McNeil was given the opportunity of standing for Parliament for the Constituency of Greenock. Probably because of the Second World War raging, he was returned unopposed. In 1945 a Labour Government was swept into power and, in 1946, Hector McNeil was appointed as a junior minister at the Foreign Office and was promoted a year later to Minister of State in the Foreign Office. In this role he quickly became the righthand man of the then Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin. At Bevin’s request he made frequent visits to the United Nations representing Britain.
In 1947 he was appointed vice-president of the United Nations Organisation assembly. Here his debating skills were demonstrated. Greenock’s young MP quickly won for himself a worldwide reputation for the many successful verbal jousts he had with Andrei Vyshinsky, a contemporary of Joseph Stalin and the foreign secretary of the USSR. Consequently Hector became very well-known and admired in the USA.
Fortunately for Greenock, a particular American was drawn to McNeil. Thomas J Watson was chairman of the board of the IBM Corporation, a devout supporter of the UN, and as a result, the two men formed a friendship. Watson’s eldest son wrote in a 1991 letter: ‘He [McNeil] talked to my father at great length on a number of occasions about the area near the Clyde and the particular charm of Greenock “
In 1950, Hector McNeil was appointed the youngest Secretary of State for Scotland since the post was created in 1885. The same year, the IBM Corporation began looking at the UK as a possible site for manufacturing. In July 1950, Watson and his second son Arthur met McNeil in his Westminster office where, to quote the young Watson, McNeil responded: ‘I have something for you in Scotland.’
Jack Liddell, town clerk of Greenock, described the immediate aftermath of that visit in a letter which he penned in 1984: ‘I was promoted town clerk in June 1950 and, in the first week of July, I had a phone call from the late Hector McNeil, our MP, who told me that he was bringing some Americans to Greenock who were looking for a possible site. He asked if I would give them a good lunch in the Tontine.’
Liddell goes on to relate this historic visit to Greenock and the personal selection by Watson of Spango Valley as the site he favoured. Liddell concludes: ‘I felt the true story should be told of how a multi-million pound factory came to be built on a site chosen from a car window!”
The rest is history — on 30 August 1954, IBM’s Spango manufacturing plant was opened and dedicated by Lord Bilsland, chairman of Scottish Industrial Estates. During his speech he made the following comment: “But for Hector McNeil, burgh MP, I do not think any of us would be here today.”
In early October 1955 McNeil was making one of his many Transatlantic crossings on the liner Queen Mary when he suffered a stroke as the ship was approaching New York. On arrival he was rushed to the Columbia Medical Centre in New York City. Here on 11 October 1955 at 45 years of age, Greenock’s MP passed away. His death was a result of a brain haemorrhage.
IBM Greenock in its heyday