Issue 228 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published March 1999 Copyright Socialist Review


The great compromiser

Mick McGahey

Many people will have been surprised when Tony Blair paid this tribute to Mick McGahey, the former Scottish mine workers' leader who died in January: 'I knew him well. He had that combination of dedication to principle and toughness of mind that is the test of the trade union movement. He gave me advice often, never sneering and always sound. He was a genuine great of the trade union movement.'

This view was echoed elsewhere, with some suggesting that if McGahey had been the miners' president instead of Arthur Scargill, the British coal industry would still be flourishing today. This praise for a lifelong member of the Communist Party (CP), a man who for decades was vilified as one of the most dangerous union leaders, highlights two key features of British political life. It shows the continuing importance of the trade union bureaucracy for Britain's rulers. It also shows the debilitating impact of the politics of Stalinism, which dominated the left of the British labour movement from the 1930s until the defeat of the miners' strike in 1985.

McGahey was born 74 years ago in desperate poverty in a Lanarkshire mining village. The political culture of the Scottish coalfield was dominated by the CP and, like many spirited, class conscious miners, McGahey joined. CP members led the Scottish NUM after the Second World War but they were thoroughly reformist trade union bureaucrats who cooperated with wave after wave of rationalisation and restructuring. Mick McGahey rose rapidly in the Scottish NUM, joining its executive in 1958 and becoming president in 1967. As McGahey and the CP set about capturing the leadership of the NUM's various areas, a young Yorkshire miner, Arthur Scargill, was launching a much more rank and file oriented organisation, the Barnsley Miners' Forum. Scargill, a former member of the Young Communist League, shared many CP ideas about work in the unions. Nevertheless, the differences between his approach and McGahey's soon became clear.

The Yorkshire NUM leadership was solidly right wing and the left had to build its base among the rank and file. In coalfields like Scotland and Wales the union leadership was in the hands of the CP, and rank and file initiative was channelled into the official machine. The importance of this difference became apparent in 1969 when an unofficial strike wave erupted in the Yorkshire coalfield, led by militants from the Barnsley Miners' Forum. It soon spread to Wales and Scotland, where McGahey offered behind the scenes encouragement but refused to say anything in public.

In 1971 McGahey lost the election for president of the NUM to the right winger Joe Gormley, but played a key role in the run up to the 1972 miners' strike, the first great miners' confrontation with the Heath government. On the back of the 1972 victory McGahey was elected NUM vice-president. The miners struck for higher pay again in 1974. Heath called an election on the question, 'Who runs the country, the government or the miners?' and lost. Labour was back in office for the next five years. But through this period McGahey and Scargill were increasingly at loggerheads as they vied for leadership of the NUM left and the nomination to stand for president when Joe Gormley retired.

In the end, Gormley timed his retirement to ensure that McGahey was too old to run as president and the Scots leader threw his weight behind Scargill, who was elected NUM president in December 1981.

As the new Thatcher government prepared for a showdown with the miners, McGahey was tied up in an internal battle in the CP between a pro-Russian group and the Eurocommunists, who argued that class politics was dead and that the future of the labour movement was in creating 'broad democratic alliances'. McGahey was a pivotal figure who identified with the Eurocommunists.

McGahey's politics had a disastrous impact on Scottish miners well before the 1984 strike. He quietly agreed to a series of pit closures, and more publicly scuppered rank and file resistance to other closures. NUM membership in Scotland fell from 17,000 to 12,000 in the three years before the 1984 strike.

When Margaret Thatcher appointed Ian MacGregor, already known as the butcher of the steel industry, to head the Coal Board, McGahey called it 'a declaration of war on the British miners and the mining industry'. The government and media, stunned by the militancy of the miners, demanded a return to work until a strike ballot had been called. McGahey declared, quite rightly, 'We are not dealing with niceties here. We shall not be constitutionalised out of a defence of our jobs.'

As the strike developed, however, McGahey fell back into a familiar role. As Scargill and the militant miners tried to cut coke supplies to the steel industry, McGahey, like the Welsh and Yorkshire NUM leaders, secretly agreed dispensations for local steel works. It was, he said, essential to prevent the closure of the Ravenscraig steel works and protect the Scottish economy. During the strike McGahey publicly stood shoulder to shoulder with Scargill, but behind the scenes his politics pulled in a different direction, diluting Scargill's initiatives and undermining the militancy of the rank and file.

McGahey preferred to rely on fellow trade union leaders for help, and when the support promised by the TUC failed to materialise, he was justifiably bitter. Towards the end of the strike McGahey undermined Scargill's efforts to win an amnesty for almost 1,000 sacked miners. Instead he secretly encouraged those who engineered an end to the strike without an agreement. He retired two years after the end of the 1984-85 miners' strike, but the politics of class compromise that he championed lived on. Calls to defend Scotland's industry and the creation of broad democratic alliances could bring thousands onto the streets, but could not save the Caterpillar engineering works, the Ravenscraig steel works, the remainder of the mining industry or tens of thousands of jobs elsewhere in Scotland. The failure to save those jobs had a lot to do with the politics which McGahey espoused. No wonder Tony Blair sang his praises.
Mike Simons

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