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Q&A With Playwright Robert Dawson Scott, The Electrifying Mr Johnston

10 Jan 2019

Q. What was the catalyst for the play?

A. As usual, lots of things. But the key moment, was an article by Lesley Riddoch, the campaigning journalist, about land reform. In it she quoted a passage from a book called “Our Scots Noble Families”, by a man who was then completely unknown to me, Thomas Johnston. The vitriolic attack on the landed gentry which it contains was so incendiary, I wanted to find out more about who wrote it and that led me to Johnston, who turns out to be, in my mind anyway, one of the great Scottish heroes of the last century.

What was it about him that impressed you?

Well aside from his career achievements, culminating in becoming Secretary of State for Scotland in Churchill’s War cabinet in 1941, I think above all it was the clear sense of public service that propelled his life. It started when he was a town councillor in Kirkintilloch, where he grew up, running adult education classes. He thought continuing education was important at a time when secondary schooling was only for those who could afford it. But attendances were poor so he added dance classes to the list of available classes with a condition that you could only come to the wildly popular dance classes (this is before the First World War where dances were where you met people)  if you had attended another class. Worked like a charm!

What was his main achievement?

The building of the Hydro in the north of Scotland – power from the glens, light to the glens, all that – is obviously the one that stands out. It was a titanic task made all the more difficult by the post-war shortages of men and materials, by the terrain and the weather. On the Loch Sloy scheme above Loch Lomond, it rained consecutively, if not continuously, for 357 straight days. But there is so much more. He founded what has, over the years, become Highlands and Island Enterprise, he brought the headquarters of the Forestry Commission, which he later chaired, to Scotland from London. He put the hospital beds set aside for civilian war casualties to use in what was a fore-runner of the NHS, he instituted the Scottish Tourist Board, now VisitScotland, and let’s not forget, that in his capacity as junior minister in the Scottish Office in 1930s, he organised the evacuation of St Kilda. He was forever keenly aware of Scotland’s interests.

Was he a nationalist, then? Would he have voted “Yes” in the 2014 referendum?

A really interesting question. Technically, he was a life-long member of the Independent Labour Party. And the Scottish National Party, in its present form, didn’t even exist when he first entered Parliament. But Keir Hardy, his political hero and founder of the ILP, always believed in Home Rule for Scotland, which in today’s terms meant something like the Devolution package we have now. And Johnston undoubtedly worked hard for what he saw as Scotland’s interests, not least during the war. We’ll never know.

Why has he been forgotten?

“All political lives … end in failure” said Enoch Powel in his biography of Joseph Chamberlain, so perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised. How many other members of the war cabinet can you name? But I think Johnston was perhaps unusually modest for a politician. He refused all the usual honours that usually go with a political career. He refused a knighthood, decorations, a seat in the House of Lords and died in discreet obscurity in a bungalow in Milngavie. The only one he ever accepted was to be designated a Companion of Honour, an honour which was and remains in the personal gift of the Crown. He also refused the additional salary to which he was a entitled as cabinet minister, and took no payments for his various chairmanships he took on after he left Parliament, preferring to live on his MP’s salary and pension.
So is the play about building dams? That must be hard to do on stage!

It certainly would be! And that extraordinary achievement is the background to the play. But that story - the engineers, the tunnel tigers, the camps - has been well covered already in several excellent books and films. So the foreground to the play is more about what choices and compromises a politician has to make to achieve their ends. And that, in one sense, is a topic as old as politics – as we can see only too clearly in the current Brexit shambles.

What do you hope audiences will take away from the play?

Well I hope they will have an interesting an enjoyable evening of course. And while the play is not intended to be a history lesson, they may well pick up information and insights that they did not have before about how the whole project was conceived and carried out. But above all, I hope they will go back home arguing with each other about whether Johnston was right, or at least how right he was, how far one can or should bend the rules, how much the ends justify the means, all those questions which are the very stuff of life. And I hope they will want to find out more Johnston, a figure who, for his achievements but also for his decency, deserves to be better remembered.  

The Electrifying Mr Johnston premieres at Mull Theatre on Friday 8 February, details here