George Robertson, Baron Robertson of Port Ellen

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The Lord Robertson of Port Ellen
Official portrait of Lord Robertson of Port Ellen 2020 crop 2.jpg
Official portrait, 2020
10th Secretary General of NATO
In office
14 October 1999 – 17 December 2003
DeputySergio Balanzino
Alessandro Minuto-Rizzo
Preceded byJavier Solana
Succeeded byJaap de Hoop Scheffer
Secretary of State for Defence
In office
3 May 1997 – 11 October 1999
Prime MinisterTony Blair
Preceded byMichael Portillo
Succeeded byGeoff Hoon
Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland
In office
21 October 1993 – 2 May 1997
LeaderJohn Smith
Margaret Beckett (Acting)
Tony Blair
ShadowingIan Lang
Michael Forsyth
Preceded byTom Clarke
Succeeded byJacqui Lait (2001)
Member of the House of Lords
Lord Temporal
Assumed office
3 February 2000
Life peerage
Member of Parliament
for Hamilton South
Hamilton (1978–1997)
In office
31 May 1978 – 24 August 1999
Preceded byAlexander Wilson
Succeeded byWilliam Tynan
Personal details
George Islay MacNeill Robertson

(1946-04-12) 12 April 1946 (age 77)
Port Ellen, Argyll, Scotland
Political partyLabour
Sandra Wallace
(m. 1970)
Alma materUniversity of Dundee

George Islay MacNeill Robertson, Baron Robertson of Port Ellen, KT, GCMG, PC, FRSA, FRSE (born 12 April 1946), is a British politician of the Labour Party who was the 10th Secretary General of NATO from 1999 to 2003; he succeeded Javier Solana. He was Secretary of State for Defence from 1997 to 1999, before becoming a life peer as Baron Robertson of Port Ellen, of Islay in Argyll and Bute, on 24 August 1999.[1][2]

Early life[edit]

Born in Port Ellen, Isle of Islay, Scotland, the son of George Philip Robertson (1916–2002), a policeman, and Marion Isabella Robertson Nee MacNeill (1913–1996). His mother taught French and German.[3] His maternal grandfather Malcolm McNeill was the police sergeant at Bowmore during World War One, and wrote about the kindness of local people in shipwreck tragedies of SS Tuscania and HMS Otranto.[4] Robertson was educated at Dunoon Grammar School and studied economics at Queen's College, Dundee. When he was 15 years of age, he was involved with protests against US nuclear submarines docking in Scotland.[5]

During Robertson's time at Queen's College it broke away from the University of St Andrews to become the University of Dundee, of which Robertson was one of the first graduates (MA, 1968), and one of a minority of graduates that year who opted to take a Dundee, rather than a St Andrews, degree.[6][7] During his time at University he played a full part in student life. He wrote a column for the student newspaper Annasach, launched in 1967, and took an active role in student protests.[6][8][9] Robertson used his newspaper column to back the new University and encouraged his fellow students to take a University of Dundee degree (students who had started before 1967 could opt to take a degree from either the University of Dundee or the University of St Andrews).[9]

In 1968, Robertson was one of a number of Dundee students to invade the pitch during a rugby match at St Andrews involving a team from the Orange Free State to protest against apartheid.[10] The same year he organised a 24-hour work-in by students in the university library in opposition to proposed cuts by the government in student grants.[10]


Robertson married Sandra Wallace on 1 June 1970. They have two sons and a daughter.[11]

Traffic collision[edit]

Robertson survived a serious car crash on 19 January 1976[12][13] when a Navy Land Rover, which was carrying 100 lb (45 kg) of gelignite and a box of detonators, hit his car head-on in the Drumochter Pass, one mile south of Dalwhinnie leaving him with two injured knees and a broken jaw. In May 1976 the driver of the Land Rover was found guilty of careless driving.[12] Robertson was wearing a seat belt at the time and attributed his survival to this.[14]

Political career[edit]

Robertson entered the House of Commons as a Labour MP in 1978, having won the Hamilton by-election in May of that year, caused by the death of the incumbent Labour MP Alex Wilson in March of that year. The seat was contested by a SNP candidate, Margo MacDonald, who came second. Robertson retained the constituency with an increased majority and obtained 51% of the overall vote. He was re-elected to Parliament at five subsequent general elections, was Chairman of the Labour Party in Scotland, and was appointed to the Privy Council.[15]

After Labour won the 1997 general election, Robertson was appointed Secretary of State for Defence. He initiated the Strategic Defence Review,[16] which was completed in 1998, presenting a coherent political and strategic narrative themed as 'a force for good'. The review created the Joint Rapid Reaction Force and inaugurated the ambitious project to build two new large aircraft carriers for force projection, the Queen Elizabeth-class, and its new warplanes, symbolising the new government's commitment to defence. However the new Labour government had come to power promising to follow the previous Conservative government's spending plans for its first two years, and this required a defence budget cut of £2 billion. Though the defence budget was subsequently expanded, it was not sufficient for the increased ambitions of the review. Tom Bower, in his book on that government, argued that "Robertson had created an unaffordable dream in 1998."[17][18]

In 1999, Robertson was appointed Secretary General of NATO after the German defence minister Rudolf Scharping declined to the position, and doubts were raised about the suitability of the British politician and former Royal Marine Paddy Ashdown (at that time the outgoing leader of the Liberal Democrats) due to his never having held a position in government.[19][20][21]

In September 2022, during the 7th month of the Ukraine War, interviewed by Channel 4 about his nine meetings with Vladimir Putin, Robertson said, "At the first meeting (in Moscow, Oct 2001) Vladimir Putin clearly said, 'I WANT RUSSIA TO BE PART OF WESTERN the 2nd meeting (in Brussels) he said..'WHEN ARE YOU GOING TO INVITE RUSSIA TO JOIN NATO?'...I started to sort of reach out and engage them in so many activities that they basically couldn't fight with us.. but after I left NATO (in Dec 2003), the American administration, the Bush administration (during their own illegal war on Iraq opposed by Putin), lost any interest basically in doing business with Russia, they saw it as a threat..they didn't really want to make it part of the overall partnership. I think we missed an opportunity at that time because I think it's what he (Putin) wanted, and we could have grabbed hold of him!" [22][23][24]

Quote on devolution[edit]

In 1995, Robertson, while he was Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland said, "Devolution will kill Nationalism stone dead".[25] This quote was designed to assuage hopes that devolution would provide a greater platform for the Scottish National Party (SNP). Robertson's quote is frequently recalled, usually in a mocking fashion, since the SNP won Scottish Parliament elections in 2007,[25][26] 2011,[27][28] 2016 and 2021.

Dunblane libel action[edit]

Robertson's three children are former pupils of the school in Dunblane where gunman Thomas Hamilton murdered 16 children and their teacher in 1996. After the massacre, Robertson, a long-time resident of the town, acted as a spokesman for the victims' families. He was also a key figure in the subsequent campaign that led to the ban on handguns in Great Britain.[29]

In 2003, the Sunday Herald newspaper ran an article entitled "Should the Dunblane dossier be kept secret?", a reference to documents relating to the Cullen Inquiry into the massacre which are to remain classified for 100 years. In a discussion board on the newspaper's website, anonymous contributors claimed that Robertson had signed a recommendation for a gun licence for Thomas Hamilton in his capacity as Hamilton's MP. However, Robertson had never been the gunman's MP, and the claims were unfounded. Robertson sued the Sunday Herald and the paper settled by paying him a five-figure sum plus costs. A subsequent action by Robertson, related to the terms of the newspaper's apology, was unsuccessful. The first case became an important test case as to whether publishers can be held responsible for comments posted on their websites.[30][31]

Independence referendum interventions[edit]

Robertson opposed Scottish independence in the 2014 referendum. In an article in The Washington Post, he wrote: "The residual United Kingdom would still be a major player in the world, but upon losing a third of its land mass, 5 million of its population and a huge amount of credibility, its global standing would inevitably diminish."[32]

He said in a speech to the Brookings Institution on 8 April 2014: "The loudest cheers for the break-up of Britain would be from our adversaries and from our enemies. For the second military power in the west to shatter this year would be cataclysmic in geo-political terms."[33] Robertson also likened the efforts of Unionists to keep Scotland tied to the UK with those of Abraham Lincoln's fight against slavery when he stated, "they might look more relevantly at the Civil War where hundreds of thousands of Americans perished in a war to keep the new Union together. To Lincoln and his compatriots the Union was so precious, so important, and its integrity so valuable that rivers of blood would be spilt to keep it together."[34]

After NATO[edit]

Robertson has received numerous honours (including a total of 12 Honorary doctorates from various universities).

In addition, he is a Senior Counsellor at The Cohen Group, a consulting firm in Washington D.C. that provides advice and assistance in marketing and regulatory affairs.


Robertson is a supporter of Hamilton Academical.[35]


Other former or present posts[edit]

Honours and awards[edit]

Foreign Honours
  • United Kingdom 24 August 1999 life peer as Baron Robertson of Port Ellen



Honorary military appointments[edit]

Coat of arms of George Robertson, Baron Robertson of Port Ellen
Coronet of a British Baron.svg
Robertson of Port Ellen Escutcheon.png
An oyster-catcher statant Proper.
Per chevron Gules and Argent on a chevron counter-compony Sable and the second between in chief a cinquefoil Ermine between two wolves' heads erased of the second and in base a representation of the Port Ellen lighthouse Proper a portcullis chained of the third.
Dexter a blackfaced tup sinister a Highland cow both Proper.
Furachas Is Duchas[41]


  1. ^ "No. 55596". The London Gazette. 31 August 1999. p. 9355.
  2. ^ "No. 24663". The Edinburgh Gazette. 27 August 1999. p. 1821.
  3. ^ "The Lord of the isles". The Scotsman. 27 August 2006. Retrieved 26 August 2019.
  4. ^ MacPherson, Hamish (3 October 2021). "Remembering the tragedy off Islay that claimed the lives of 470 sailors". The National. p. SevenDays supplement Back in the Day section page 11. Retrieved 4 October 2021.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  5. ^ "The Future of NATO". C-SPAN. 4 February 2000. Archived from the original on 25 July 2011. Retrieved 3 April 2008.
  6. ^ a b "General Election Special 2". Archives Records and Artefacts at the University of Dundee. 30 April 2010. Retrieved 18 April 2016.
  7. ^ "Student protests at Dundee". Archives Records and Artefacts at the University of Dundee. 2 December 2011. Retrieved 18 April 2016.
  8. ^ "Making Contact. 12 decades of staff and student magazines" (PDF). Contact: 27. June 2011. Archived from the original (PDF) on 18 January 2012. Retrieved 11 September 2011.
  9. ^ a b Baxter, Kenneth, Rolfe, Mervyn and Swinfen, David (2007). A Dundee Celebration. Dundee: University of Dundee. p. 34.
  10. ^ a b Baxter, Kenneth, Rolfe, Mervyn and Swinfen, David (2007). A Dundee Celebration. Dundee: University of Dundee. p. 35.
  11. ^ "In sickness and in health but not in tow". The Herald (Glasgow). 11 September 1996. Retrieved 26 August 2019.
  12. ^ a b Aberdeen Press and Journal – 19 May 1976
  13. ^ Aberdeen Press and Journal – 20 January 1976
  14. ^ Grove, Valerie (11 February 1998). "Black sheep plays the white knight – Interview". The Times (London). Retrieved 25 January 2019.
  15. ^ NATO (6 January 2004). "NATO Secretary General (1999–2003) The Rt. Hon. Lord Robertson of Port Ellen". Who is who at NATO?. NATO. Retrieved 22 February 2007.
  16. ^ Strategic Defence Review (PDF) (Report). Ministry of Defence. July 1998. Archived (PDF) from the original on 18 October 2012. Retrieved 3 March 2019.
  17. ^ Michael Ashcroft; Isabel Oakeshott (2018). White Flag?: An Examination of the UK's Defence Capability. Biteback Publishing. ISBN 9781785904196.
  18. ^ Bower, Tom (2016). Broken Vows : Tony Blair : the Tragedy of Power. Faber & Faber. pp. 407–409. ISBN 9780571314201.
  19. ^ Fitchett, Joseph (15 July 1999). "Paddy Ashdown of Britain Is Seen by Some As Leading Candidate for Secretary-General : Hunt for NATO Chief Moves Into New Phase". The New York Times. Retrieved 18 April 2014.
  20. ^ Ulbrich, Jeffrey (16 July 1999). "Secretary-general sought by NATO". Amarillo Globe-News. Associated Press. Archived from the original on 19 April 2014. Retrieved 18 April 2014.
  21. ^ Whitney, Craig R. (31 July 1999). "Britain Nominates Its Defense Secretary to Be Head of NATO". The New York Times. Retrieved 18 April 2014.
  22. ^ "Did Nato get Putin and Ukraine wrong?". 23 September 2022.
  23. ^ "NATO Media Library: Meeting Robertson & Putin - 3 October 2001".
  24. ^ Sharon LaFraniere (18 March 2003). "Russia's Putin Calls Iraq War A 'Mistake'". The Washington Post. Washington, D.C. ISSN 0190-8286. OCLC 1330888409.
  25. ^ a b Warner, Gerald (6 May 2007). "How Bulldog Brown could call Braveheart Salmond's bluff". Scotland on Sunday. Edinburgh. Archived from the original on 2 February 2008. Retrieved 6 May 2007.
  26. ^ Devine, Tom (11 May 2008). "Old Scotland took the high road. New Scotland is upwardly mobile". The Independent. London. Retrieved 17 September 2008.
  27. ^ Watt, Nicholas (6 May 2011). "Tony Blair's Scottish nightmare comes true as Alex Salmond trounces Labour". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 4 August 2011.
  28. ^ "Q&A: Scottish independence referendum". BBC News. 29 May 2011. Retrieved 4 August 2011. The 2011 result has blown out of the water the claim once made by Labour veteran Lord Robertson that devolution would "kill nationalism stone dead" – ironically, Labour, the party which set up devolution – has never managed to gain the overall majority achieved by the SNP.
  29. ^ "Robertson driven by 'a safer world'". BBC News. 4 August 1999. Retrieved 1 April 2016.
  30. ^ McDougall, Dan (October 2005). "Robertson sues over Dunblane killer allegations". The Dunbane Shootings and Gun Law. Martin Frost. Archived from the original on 14 March 2007. Retrieved 22 February 2007.
  31. ^ Thompson, Bill (10 September 2004). "Be careful what you say on the net". BBC News. Retrieved 22 February 2007.
  32. ^ Robertson, George (5 January 2014). "Scotland secession could lead to re-Balkanization of Europe". The Washington Post. Retrieved 1 April 2016.
  33. ^ "Scottish independence: Lord Robertson says Yes vote 'would be cataclysmic'". BBC News. 8 April 2014. Retrieved 1 April 2016.
  34. ^ Fred Dews (7 April 2014). "Lord George Robertson: Forces of Darkness Would Love Scottish Split from United Kingdom". Brookings Institution. Retrieved 1 April 2016.
  35. ^ "Putting on a front: George Robertson may seem rather priggish, but what lies behind the inscrutable facade of the man deemed to be the most powerful Scotsman in the world?". The Herald (Glasgow). 10 June 2000. Retrieved 26 August 2019.
  36. ^ Borger, Julian (8 September 2009). "Nuclear-free world ultimate aim of new cross-party pressure group". The Guardian. London.
  37. ^ "Clan Donnachaidh Society".
  38. ^ [1][dead link]
  39. ^ "Golden Plate Awardees of the American Academy of Achievement". American Academy of Achievement.
  40. ^ "Honorary Doctors of the University of Paisley 1993–2007" (PDF). The University of the West of Scotland. Retrieved 25 August 2021.
  41. ^ Debrett's Peerage. 2011.

External links[edit]

Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by Member of Parliament
for Hamilton

Constituency abolished
New constituency Member of Parliament
for Hamilton South

Succeeded by
Political offices
Preceded by Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland
Title next held by
Jacqui Lait
Preceded by Secretary of State for Defence
Succeeded by
Diplomatic posts
Preceded by Secretary General of NATO
Succeeded by
Orders of precedence in the United Kingdom
Preceded by Gentlemen
Baron Robertson of Port Ellen
Followed by
The Lord Birt