Mick McGahey - a product of
his class and the movement
Michael "Mick" McGahey (29 May 1925 -- 30 January 1999)
was a Scottish miners' leader and life-long Communist, with a distinctive
gravelly voice. He described himself as "a product of my class and my
Michael McGahey obituary
The red and the black
By Vic Allen in the Guardian Newspaper
Michael Mcgahey, who has died of emphysema aged 73, was a self-taught,
working-class intellectual and a life-long Communist Party loyalist. As
vice-president of the National Union of Mineworkers, he was a driving force
behind the transformation of the union from its inconsequential status in
the 1960s to one in which it gave moral and political leadership to the
Labour movement as a whole in the 1970s.
McGahey was born in Shotts, the militant centre of the Lanarkshire
coalfield, but moved as a child with his family to Cambuslang, near Glasgow.
His mother was a devout Catholic but his father, who worked in the local pit
as a checkweighman, was a founder member of the Communist Party of Great
Britain. At the age of 14, Michael followed his father into the mining
industry; later he followed him into the Communist Party.
He matured in that peculiarly Scottish working-class environment which
emphasised learning and literature, so though he had little formal education
he quickly became absorbed into a culture that regarded books as treasures.
He became an avid reader. He went to Communist Party classes and schools
organised by the Scottish Area of the NUM. His hero was John Maclean, the
Scottish revolutionary and teacher.
Michael first came to public notice in 1948 when he spoke passionately to
end an unoffical strike, which he believed would harm the recently-nationalised
coal industry. Abe Moffat, the leader of the Scottish miners, who was
campaigning against unofficial action, was impressed and encouraged
McGahey's passage through the union hierarchy. Within 10 years he moved from
branch delegate to full-time area president in 1967. He then went to live in
Liberton, just outside Edinburgh, with his wife, Cathy, and his three young
By 1971 McGahey was nationally known and stood against Joe Gormley for the
presidency of the union though without success. Two years later he became
the union's vice-president, a position he retained until his retirement in
1986. From 1982 until 1986 he was a member of the TUC General Council.
This list of formal positions, however, does not reflect either the breadth
of his vision or the real influence he exercised in the mining industry.
During his transition from being a coalface ripper to union leader, McGahey
became an intellectual in the genuine sense. He had an acute understanding
of social forces and of the history of British socialism. But he could also
recite Robert Burns endlessly, debate the merits of Lewis Grassic Gibbon,
quote Shakespeare and discuss working-class poets.
When Lawrence Daly, also a Scot and then the general secretary of the NUM,
ended a speech in favour of an incomes policy with a quotation from
Shakespeare, McGahey immediately attacked him by saying 'Comrades, Lawrence
should have completed the quotation' and then went on to do so, and turned
the tables. He once argued fiercely with Daly as to whether Lanarkshire or
Fife was the cradle of British socialism. Conversations with him were never
Until McGahey became area president, the Scottish miners were politically
insular and regarded all the other coalfields with suspicion. He broke that
insularity and, backed by the resources of the Scottish Area, campaigned
throughout Britain to politicise miners and persuade them, as he would say,
to get off their knees. He became the unofficial leader of the uniquely
talented group of activists in the NUM who mobilised miners for the 1972 and
1974 strikes, which humiliated Edward Heath's Tory government twice and led
to its electoral defeat. For him, though, strikes were a means to an end. He
wanted miners to be able to shape their own destinies.
The media vilified him during the 1972 and 1974 strikes on a scale exceeded
only by its subsequent treatment of the NUM president Arthur Scargill, and
he was one of the few union leaders condemned by a House of Commons motion
signed by members of all parties. Edward Heath singled him out in his 1974
election campaign as a leader of the small group of unelected communists who
wanted to run Britain.
It was a different matter in trade union circles. This heavy drinking
activist, who when he was not addressing a conference could always be found
at the nearest bar with a whisky and a half, smoking Capstan full strength
cigarettes, was regarded with deep respect. When delegates heard his gritty
voice say 'comrades' on his sorties to the rostrum, they listened intently.
When he spoke at the Trades Union Congress the hall would always suddenly,
and quite exceptionally, become quiet.
McGahey's speeches were political to the core and were delivered with
consummate skill, always from a scrap of paper. He exhorted delegates with
many memorable phrases. 'The bosses will stop chasing you', he said, 'when
you stop running'. When referring to the press demand for a ballot during
the 1984 strike he retorted: 'We shall not be constitutionalised out of
action'. 'The working class,' he said, 'would go from defeat to defeat to
Though occasionally he savoured victory, he knew well the meaning of defeat.
When he joined the mining industry, Scotland's 426 pits employed 92,000
miners, but at his death there was only one pit at Castle Bridge, in the
Longannet complex, employing 900 miners.
McGahey was nurtured as a communist during the cold war period, when
uncritical loyalty to the party was needed for its survival. By the 1980s
that loyalty had become a matter of principle, so when divisions occurred
between the Morning Star and the Communist Party, there was no question in
McGahey's mind that, irrespective of the issues, he had to support the party
executive. This led him to acquiesce in expulsions that led to a split. Such
was his influence amongst ordinary members, however, that it is questionable
whether the Communist Party would have suffered so much if he had acted
He was the logical person to succeed Joe Gormley as president of the NUM,
but Gormley refused to retire until McGahey was 55 years of age, by which
time he was prevented by the union rules from standing for election. Once
out of the race McGahey gave his full support to Arthur Scargill, graciously
moving his nomination as the candidate for the left, campaigning for him,
collaborating closely with him as vice-president and endorsing all the major
decisions during the 1984-85 strike. His goodwill towards Scargill was
affected by the rancour in the post-strike situation but he retained his
respect for 'the young man', as he called him.
Right to the end McGahey insisted that the 1984 strike was unavoidable and
that the union's tactics had been correct under the circumstances. He never,
in his own words, 'deserted his class' and he maintained his belief in
communist values despite the enormous problems there had been in applying
Michael McGahey is survived by his wife and three children.
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