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Significant Scots
Michael McGahey

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 movement".

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 children.

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 mundane.

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 final victory.'

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 differently.

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 them.

Michael McGahey is survived by his wife and three children.

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