Graham Roy Robertson OBE

Doctor of Laws

19 July 2006 - Orator: Dr Paul Burton

Mr Vice-Chancellor: Graham Robertson

In 1947 an English troop ship set sail for Mombasa in East Africa, carrying many British national servicemen, including one Graham Robertson. This journey was to change directly his life and indirectly the lives of many Bristolians. When he returned to England some three years later, he was a committed socialist, a competent speaker of Swahili and was able to drive a variety of tanks and bren-gun carriers. While his tank driving skills have probably become rather rusty during the intervening years, his ability to recognise and seize opportunities as
well as his staunch opposition to injustice have been put to good use on many occasions.

Graham Robertson was born and bred in the Hillfields district of Bristol, where his father was a carpenter. He left school at the age of 14 and eventually joined WD and HO Wills in their tobacco processing factory in Bedminster.

He worked in the pipe tobacco section at first, helping with the heating and steaming of the tobacco and then as a tobacco cutter. The fact that he is still in possession of all his fingers is a testimony not only to improved levels of health and safety in the tobacco factories but also to his skill and dexterity.

In 1947 Graham joined the army as a member of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. He received training in many skills including sewing and tailoring but also in the more traditional fields of driving tanks and bren-gun carriers. He was then posted to Kenya and at this point had his first brush with the law. Having suffered a severe throat infection which caused him to lose his voice, Graham spent some time in an army hospital before being discharged and returning home prior to embarking for Africa. Unfortunately, his orders did not reach him in time and not being present at his camp in Ashchurch, he was arrested and held in a guardhouse in Ottley, Yorkshire.

Thankfully, he was under the supervision of a sympathetic NCO who, on hearing the circumstances of his offence and arrest proceeded to waive the charges. Indeed he then travelled to Kenya with Graham, becoming his best friend and encouraging him to make use of his time on the boat by learning Swahili – which he did.

Arriving at the Army camp of Mackinnon Road, he proceeded to again make use of both his sewing skills and his newly learnt linguistic ability. He provided newly arriving soldiers with caps already displaying their regimental and campaign colours and for this charged half a crown. But it was his ability to translate between English and Swahili that was even more important. Although his superiors sometimes doubted the accuracy of his translations, perhaps struggling with his delivery of Swahili in a Bristolian accent, their limited grasp of the language meant they were in no position to question his judgement. He then applied to join the King’s African Rifles and served with them for eighteen months as an interpreter, during which time his view that injustice and bad treatment was commonplace in the relations between Africans and their colonists was reinforced.

Returning to England in 1950, he went back to work for Wills and became a shop steward and labour activist. Soon after, in 1952, he married Joyce whom he had known since his early teens when they were members of the same youth club. At that time he also acquired an allotment and both have remained with him ever since.

In 1961 Graham became a full time official with the Tobacco Workers Union and came to play a prominent role on the national stage as a negotiator, until his retirement in 1988. He describes this period of his life as ‘extremely enjoyable’ and his fellow members in the union and in Wills would no doubt agree. It is possible for this University to claim some credit for influencing Graham’s style as a trade unionist, for in the 1960s he attended a course at the University on industrial relations and always worked to the principle that hard negotiation rather than superficial militancy would best serve the interests of his members.

Having become a socialist while serving in the Army, Graham put this into practice not just within his trades union, but also when he stood successfully for election to the council of the City and County of Bristol in 1964. At that time most Labour councillors were active trades unionists and this movement into local politics was not surprising. However, it also reflected his desire to do something positive for his city by offering his skills and experience allied to a clear set of political values and principles.

He served as a member of the council’s housing committee for 22 years and as its chair for 14 years. In the early years of that period, the committee oversaw the building of around 2,000 new council houses each year, as well as the release of substantial amounts of land for private house building.

Graham became the leader of Bristol City Council in 1982 and served in this role for 13 years. This required not only the retention of his own seat, but also the continuation of an effective majority by the Labour group and the continued support of the other members of his own party.

Mr Vice-Chancellor, we are unlikely to see political leaders serving for so long in the foreseeable future, in Bristol or in any of our other major cities. Graham’s pragmatism and commitment to negotiate hard for the best interests of the city account for his political longevity. Whilst remaining absolutely true to his socialist principles, he led the council into a new era in which it began to work much more in partnership with others. Steering a course between political colleagues whose preference was for high profile battles with a hostile central government and influential figures beyond the council who believed it to be a hotbed of ‘loony leftism’, Graham Robertson helped lay the foundations for the city’s successful transformation into one of the leading provincial cities in the UK with an increasingly significant international profile.

Indeed his support for the establishment of the Bristol-China Partnership, as well as his success in attracting overseas investors to the city, means that Bristol and indeed this University, are now better placed than many to develop even more productive relationships in this direction in the future.

In the latter years of his political career Graham Robertson was elected to serve three successive terms as the Right Honourable Lord Mayor of Bristol, a unique achievement which reflects the esteem in which he is held by his political peers and during his third term he was awarded the OBE in recognition of his services to the city and its governance.

When asked what advice he would offer to anyone contemplating a life in local politics, he reiterated his belief in the importance of having clear values and strong principles and of applying these in the service of one’s own community or city.

He also spoke of the need to be realistic in how much time one can give to these duties and how much will be demanded. We know that public office can take its toll on family life and throughout his political career Graham Robertson has received unstinting support from his wife Joyce. He is also supported by his children Kim and Paul and by a growing band of grandchildren and great-grandchildren and we are especially pleased to welcome Joyce, Kim and Paul to this ceremony today.

Mr Vice-Chancellor, in recognition of a life-time of service to his country, his fellow workers and to this great city, I present to you Graham Roy Robertson, OBE, as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.


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