Issue 216 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published February 1998 Copyright Socialist Review

Why I became a socialist: Eileen McMahon

I remember Empire Day at school. We had to stand in the hall and wave flags. As I grew older I watched children running around in bare feet in the middle of winter, actually blue with cold. I remember asking myself, 'What's this empire to do with us?' I developed a horror of injustice and inequality.

The most important events, however, happened when I was 19. I was just an ordinary young woman and didn't think much about politics. A man called Leo Macrae used to come over from Liverpool to speak at the park gates. He was a member of the Communist Party and a great orator. Thousands of people used to come to hear him. He would inflame the crowds and at one time a young man called Richard Murphy became so angry he threw a policeman through a plate glass window. He was normally a amiable decent young fellow but he was sent down for two years. The police would usually move in and disperse the crowds but what Leo Macrae said began to move people from their apathy.

This was the time of the Depression and the means test. When people needed assistance the local worthies would sit round and assess their needs. They then sent a visitor to look round the person's house. If there was anything saleable they would be made to sell it. Even if they had a cheery fire they were told to use less coal. People became embittered and started to rebel. A crowd went along to remonstrate with the Conservative council, which was led by a very nasty man called Baker. The police charged the demonstrators and dispersed them. The crowd took out the park railings and went and surrounded councillor Baker's house, who was so scared he had to lock himself in.

The crowd was extremely angry and spilled out onto the streets. The police, who had begun turning over people's homes, went in again and it became very, very bad. Many of the men were ex-soldiers who had come home to unemployment and were well prepared. They took up the manhole covers and stretched ropes across the streets so that unwary policemen would go down the holes. It was like guerrilla warfare.

It was the second night of the riots when I suddenly grew up. There had been the usual mayhem but it had gone dark and all the streets were blacked out. My mother had died six months earlier and I lived with my sister and her husband. I had been out with my boyfriend and we were standing at the front door. Everything was eerie and quiet but apparently a looter ran down one of the streets and policemen stood at the top and bottom of the streets shouting nasty insults, things about people's daughters. I was disgusted - I had never heard anything like that before from policemen. I was angry but I wasn't prepared for what would happen. We had gone back into the house when we heard a crash. Every window was being smashed by the police as they rampaged down the street.

That day my father had been taken into hospital with pneumonia. He died the next day. We had brought his bed downstairs by the fire. As our window went in the glass landed on the bed where he would have lain. I was so outraged that I picked up a lemonade bottle and threw it out. It hit one of the policemen. I didn't know what I was doing. I'm not a violent person but I could have taken on all the police with the rage I had. What I've had since is a slow rage against a society where one part exploits another.

We had always been used to the police as the friendly bobby but these were a different type. Their attack on our street had been without provocation and the local press was right behind them. I began to think, 'What is this? Warfare? Why against us? What had the people done?'

All this was during the Depression. Everyone was in the same boat and we didn't have much of a window on the world. It wasn't just the poverty, it was the indignity that went with it. It grew into people's souls. And when people rebelled they were met with the big stick of authority. That galvanised me into wishing to do something in my own way. Local people became more organised. A lot of men from the town went to fight in the Spanish Civil War.

The war years were horrific and I hate to look back on them. It was a matter of survival. There was no enthusiasm whatsoever. The bitterness at the stupidity of it came later when we realised why it had happened. Some people still believed the propaganda that it had all been worthwhile. It was ironic. We had full employment then and they could find the money when they had to. However, when they did eventually get an army together most of the men round here were declared unfit as a result of the poverty.

Gradually I became a socialist - though I would describe myself as a Christian socialist. I feel for each person as if I'm part of that person. Those words - 'Ask not for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee' - that's how I feel. Even when someone does something terrible, I can't dismiss them. When Margaret Thatcher said, 'There's no such thing as society,' they were the most horrible words I've ever heard. I believe that most people are socialists deep down, except for the greedy few.

The Labour government of 1945 was met with euphoria. The health service is the one concrete socialist policy produced by the Labour Party. It showed what could be done.

Over the years I've read many books which influenced me. The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists spelled out exactly what was happening under capitalism. George Orwell's books have also influenced me, so have journalists such as Paul Foot and John Pilger.

I'm disgusted by the new government. The Tories wouldn't have done what they've done. Those of my generation who survived the war feel very betrayed. They've put fear back into people's lives.

Frank Field sent me a card with 'Minister for benefit reform' written on it. How could he, coming from a town like Birkenhead? Why not 'Minister for tax reform'? I think people will fall away from the Labour Party and form a new party which will be stronger than ever. I think there's a vast army of socialists out there.


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