Lord John McFall has spent 36 years at Westminster, but he’s “never forgotten” his Scottish roots.
That’s what the 79-year-old Lord Speaker said as he accepted the Lifetime Achievement award at the Herald Scottish Politician of the Year Awards on Thursday night (November 23), in association with Scottish Power.
The award is not given every year, only to someone who has made an outstanding contribution to public life.
This year the judges wanted to recognise another Scot whose “ceaseless drive and energy” have not only taken them to high places but “improved the lives of countless others”.
Early life and education
Born in Glasgow, John McFall grew up on a housing estate in Dumbarton in the 1950s. His father was a school janitor and his mother ran a newsagent’s shop called Jeanie Clearly’s.
John would sell papers on a Saturday outside the local cinema from a very young age.
When he left St Patrick’s Secondary School in Castlehill, Dumbarton, at 15 with no qualifications, his first job was digging flower beds and cutting the grass in the town park for the council.
A later stint at a factory was followed by a remarkable change of career.
Encouraged by his wife Joan, Mr McFall studied at night school in his early 20s and at what is now the University of the West of Scotland, obtaining a BSc in Chemistry.
He became a chemistry teacher at his old school St Patrick’s, later rising to deputy head of a school in Glasgow.
One of his pupils was Jim Murphy, later the leader of Scottish Labour, who said Mr McFall had a reputation as a “good belter”.
The teacher got a BA from the Open University in Education and Philosophy, and, over the course of three years part-time study, acquired an MBA from the University of Strathclyde.
Early political career
A lifelong Labour supporter, Mr McFall was also busy as secretary of his constituency party.
At the 1987 general election, he combined his love of politics and his home town by becoming the MP for Dumbarton.
His first decade at Westminster was spent in opposition, where he campaigned for Scotland’s first national park to be established at Loch Lomond, which lay partly within his constituency.
It was eventually delivered by Holyrood, which he also campaigned for.
Mr McFall led a private member’s bill to ban fox hunting in the Commons before it was stymied in the Lords. During the campaign, he posed with animal rights activists dressed in animal suits saying For Fox Sake.
Time in Government and Omagh
Within days of becoming a minister in the Northern Ireland Office in 1998, Mr McFall was on duty when the Real IRA exploded a car bomb in Omagh killing 29 people.
It was the deadliest single incident of the Troubles. He was the first UK minister on the scene.
Mr McFall said at the time: “I thought of the young mothers out buying uniforms for their children about to start school for the first time and about the young girls out looking for the latest fashions – just as they would have been doing in Dumbarton.
“Men were going for a pint, popping into the bookies next door, just like home. All gone.”
Mr McFall was given responsibility for engaging with the Omagh families and the services on the ground, work he would later call his most significant political contribution.
One of the survivors presented him with a painting of 29 flowers as a permanent reminder of his efforts and he maintains a strong interest in the peace process.
Back home, Mr McFall helped save Dumbarton FC – the team he dreamed of playing for as a boy – from liquidation by assembling a rescue package and became chair of the Commons Treasury Select Committee in 2001.
He credited his training in science for helping him cut to the heart of the many scandals the committee examined, including Equitable Life and Northern Rock.
Mr McFall took no prisoners and witnesses quickly came to dread the hearings.
On Northern Rock, he told the Bank of England’s deputy governor he had been “asleep in the back shop while there was a mugging out front”.
Standing down as MP and becoming a Lord
In 2010, Mr McFall stood down as an MP. But he soon found a new role.
Taking a call in Glasgow’s Central Station one day, he learned he was being elevated by Gordon Brown to the House of Lords.
He became Baron McFall of Alcluith, an ancient name meaning Rock on the Clyde.
As a Lord, he sat on the UK Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards after the rigging of the Libor rate scandal.
In 2016, he was appointed Senior Deputy Speaker and chairman of Committees. Five years later, he was elected Lord Speaker of the House of Lords.
As well as overseeing proceedings in the Chamber from the Woolsack, he has a host of administrative, state and ceremonial duties.
He also leads public engagement on behalf of the Lords at home and abroad.