The most influential Scots of the last 60 years? They have to be joking


By Kenneth Roy

You have heard of Room 101. Let me take you to a place in the vaults where even stranger things go on – Room 6045 of Broadcasting House, London. It is here that a distinguished panel has been meeting to compile a list of the 60 most influential figures in Britain, including a few foreigners, during the reign of our dear queen. Sixty years, 60 names – no doubt you get the drift.

The great task has been accomplished; ‘The New Elizabethans’ (the collective name for the 60) have been selected; and each will be the subject of a Radio 4 profile.

I have met the only two members of the selection panel whose identities are commonly known – Tony (Lord) Hall, who used to work for the BBC and is now head honcho at the Royal Opera House, and Max Hastings, Torygraph editor turned military historian. Hastings has invoked the ultimate get-out clause by acknowledging that they probably got it wrong. I bring Sir Max news which will not surprise him: they have. The word that springs to mind is shallow.

Let us concentrate, by way of example, on the Scots among the 60. They need not detain us long. There are only three of them.

Few would seriously quarrel with the inclusion of Alex Salmond, although there would have been a strong case – perhaps a stronger one – for Donald Dewar, whose practical statesmanship made the devolution project a runner. He loathed being called the ‘Father of the Nation’, but if anyone was the architect of the Scottish Parliament he was. I had thought for a while that he was in danger of becoming an overlooked, if not wholly forgotten figure, and his non-appearance on this list confirms the unhappy suspicion. He must be rescued from his present humble position as a green man at the top of Buchanan Street.

Then we have Fred Goodwin, with and without his knighthood. Please. Scoff no more. He was without doubt a figure of considerable influence in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I of Scotland. He taught the world how to make lots of loot incredibly fast and then how to blow it. This dazzling performance by a Paisley Grammar School boy earned from David Cameron the ultimate tribute that he had single-handedly brought the UK economy to the brink of collapse in the autumn of 2008. Even if this exaggerated Sir Fred’s role in the calamity – for one supposes that elected politicians had some hand in it – he deserves the accolade of New Elizabethan for another reason. He changed the public perception of financial institutions and perhaps of institutions in general. He helped to engender the present corrosive mistrust.

Eck and Fred: you really can’t see past them. But I do wonder about the third Scot on the list.

Though an admirer of Chic Murray, I would not have seen him as one of the most influential people of the last 60 years. It follows that I would not have thought of nominating Billy Connolly.

When I asked a colleague in this office yesterday to name the most influential Scot of the queen’s reign (explaining briefly the context of my question), she replied at once: ‘Billy Connolly’.

‘Spot on,’ said I.

My colleague looked a little shame-faced. She said she had not been entirely serious about her nomination. She said she had uttered the first cliché that came into her head.

Is Mr Connolly a cliché? One of his achievements has been to introduce many old nursery words – bum, fart, etc – to a wider audience. We have relaxed in the company of these words, enjoyed them communally, and it seems it has been a liberating experience. Not that ‘etc’ is a nursery word; but, if it was, you can be sure that Mr Connolly would have made it as funny as all the others.

He is one of Scotland’s greatest comedians, a high compliment in a nation of comedians, some of whom even get paid for it, but not in the same class as Chic Murray. Unlike Mr Connolly, Murray was lugubrious, broke, and not married to a glamorous Australian. The last time I spoke to him he was divorced from Maidie – the wife who was not a glamorous Australian – and looking terribly sad in the BBC canteen, where most people ignored him. It was only after he was gone that he became a legend. It is our sweet Scottish way of recognising exceptional talent: wait till they’re deid.

Yet, though an admirer of Chic Murray, I would not have seen him as one of the most influential people of the last 60 years. It follows that I would not have thought of nominating Billy Connolly, whose way with words, other than nursery ones, is not quite as impressive.

Eck, Fred and Billy – that’s our lot. Poor Scotland. Yet it would not take long to add a little lustre to this meagre representation.

James Black, whose beta-blocking drugs saved millions of lives.

Jimmy Reid, whose humanitarian vision inspired working people across the world.

Alastair Hetherington, who created Britain’s first serious broadsheet newspaper of the left (the Guardian). If Alastair did not exercise influence for at least 20 of the 60 years in question, who did?

Magnus Magnusson, who popularised scholarship and whose catchphrase, ‘I’ve started, so I’ll finish’ I repeat most mornings as I stare at the screen having committed the first faltering word of this column to print, trying hard to think of the next one.

As it happens, I can’t think how to end this column, so I’ll just finish it instead. Thanks, Magnus.

Courtesy of Kenneth Roy – Read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review