He was certainly no saint. But behind the demonic caricature of him to be found in the right-wing press and media, there was a good man. A very good man. As good a man as any deserving to be included in a 20th-century pantheon of great Scots. Michael McGahey was arguably the best of the Scottish working class in that century.
Let me begin by mentioning George Kerevan. Some will say why George Kerevan? Others will ask who is George Kerevan? George Kerevan was a one time international Marxist. Then he became a Labour councillor and finance convener in the city of Edinburgh. Then he became an SNP candidate for Holyrood. Now he is a journalist on the Scotsman and that paper's cheerleader in chief for global capitalism.
I mention him at all because he recently wrote a piece in the paper in which he described the day he attended the funeral of Mick McGahey. What he wrote matters much less than the fact that someone like George should have bothered to turn up at all.
The fact that he should want to stand outside a packed crematorium, on a cold February day, in the rain, trying to sing those words of the 'Internationale' he and the others there could remember, in order to pay his respects to a man he himself described as a 'crusty old follower of Uncle Joe Stalin,' is I think significant itself.
Because there was something about this crusty old follower of Uncle Joe that drew hundreds of people to that crematorium in February 1999: many of them, like myself, who had never been down a pit, never belonged to the NUM, never been a member of the Communist Party, but who were there because they recognised that, with the death of Mick McGahey, the Scottish and British working class had lost one of its finest voices and one of its most inspirational leaders.
At first glance, the high points of Mick's life's work do not appear to be all that outstanding. In 1971, he lost the election for NUM president to the right-wing moderate, Joe Gormley. Joe then stayed on as president just long enough to ensure that, when he finally did retire in 1980, Mick would be age-barred from standing to succeed him under the union's rules. Mick was then forced to stand aside to allow a young Arthur Scargill to take on the top job, and go on to dominate the union's affairs during one of the most critical periods in its history. Throughout that time, Mick's role was relegated to that of loyal lieutenant, very much subordinate to the high-profile Arthur.
Indeed, when he finally retired himself, Mick was the vice-president, never having led the union to which he had dedicated his entire life. It could be said, therefore, that Mick was a kind of 'nearly man' – a man who almost made it to the top but in the end just missed out, who never had the opportunity to make his mark on the history of his union and his country. Yet, when he died, even right-wing papers like the Daily Telegraph and the Financial Times praised him as 'the best president the NUM never had.' The even more right-wing Daily Mail hailed him as a 'miners' hero.'
The prime minister, Tony Blair, described him as 'a genuine great of the trade union movement.' John Monks, TUC general secretary, spoke of him as 'hewn from the rich seam of Scottish communism.' Politicians as different as Donald Dewar and Alex Salmond spoke of his 'warm humanity' and 'unflinching integrity.'
Almost without exception, those who knew anything about the industrial, social and political history of 20th-century Scotland mourned the passing of one of its great figures. The phrase 'we'll never see his like again' falls far too easily from our lips when people we know, respect and love die. But in Mick's case, it is literally true that we are unlikely to see his like again.
His is a generation that is slowly fading into the pages of our history. Willie McIlvanney once described Mick's generation as having been constructed out of the hard experience of their own lives, the serious possibility of a socialism that would transform the lives of all those who followed them. A possibility that our own generation now appears to be almost casually casting aside as worthless. What is certain is that Mick's life was overflowing with hard experiences.
He was born into a mining community in 1925, the year before the general strike. His father, a miner, was described by the Daily Mail as a 'hardline communist.' His mother was described by the same paper as a 'devout Catholic.' The use of these particular adjectives probably tells us more about the prejudices of the Daily Mail than it does about either Mick's father or his mother. Mick himself would go on to describe himself throughout his life as a 'devout communist,' thereby confounding his prejudiced right-wing critics.
Certainly, there are not much harder starts in life than having a father who is an NUM activist, a founding member of the 'Communist Party of Great Britain,' and working in the militant centre of the Lanarkshire coalfield on the very eve of the general strike.
Mick's family, and others like them, suffered extreme hardship in the bitter seven-month-long sequel to the general strike as the miners, after being abandoned by the TUC, were slowly starved into submission and forced back to work on the coal bosses' terms. When the return to work finally happened, Mick's father was victimised and forced to uproot the family and move from Shotts to Cambuslang in search of work in a pit where his militancy was less well known. Mick later admitted to learning from his father a bitter resentment at the conditions and exploitation of ordinary working people in the Scotland of the 20s and 30s. It was a lesson he never forgot.
It's worth contrasting at this point Mick's early experiences with those of another Scot who was later to play a big part in Mick's life. That Scot was Ian McGregor who was brought into the Coal Board in the 1980s to take on and smash the NUM. At the time of the general strike, Ian McGregor would have been 13 or 14. In his autobiography, he describes a childhood and family lifestyle very different from that of his contemporaries, the McGaheys.
He writes about how his parents paid for a private education that later guaranteed his access to a place in university. He tells of summer-long family holidays in Argyll, of fishing and rowing on the lochs. He speaks about tinkering around with the second-hand cars of his two elder brothers, of the family gathering together in the evenings to swap stories and drink Ovaltine before going up to bed.
He boasts about how these two same brothers were out in 1926, driving tram cars in Glasgow to help break the general strike, teach the workers a lesson and drive the miners back to work. His only regret was that he was too young to join them. History would later afford him the opportunity to do his bit.
So we see in two of the main protagonists in the 1984-85 miners' strike a clear echo of 1926 and close personal links that lead back to the two opposing sides in the general strike, thereby reminding us of Marx's famous dictum in the Communist Manifesto that 'the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.' It's a lesson, I'm sure, Mick would not want us to forget.
Certainly, without any of the privileges enjoyed by Ian McGregor, Mick went on to fashion the tools, not so as to escape out of his class, but in Nye Bevan's wonderful phrase 'to rise with his class.' At 14, he followed his father down the pit. He quickly joined the union and the Communist party, and also began the long process of self-education that would make him more than a match for the likes of the university-trained McGregor.
Bill Shankly once said that he never had an education, so he'd had to use his brains. That is exactly what Mick now began to do. He went to Communist party classes. He attended NUM day and weekend schools. He read everything he could get his hands on. He steeped himself in the history of socialism and its struggle against capitalism. He taught himself to analyse and understand the economic and social forces that shape all of our lives. He quickly became an accomplished speaker and a recognised leader among his fellow miners.
He soon came to the notice of Abe Moffat, the Scottish miners' leader, when he spoke passionately against an unofficial strike that he judged to be damaging the recently nationalised industry. Thereafter, he rose quickly through the ranks of the union to become a player on its national stage.
The NUM then had a national left that was a mixture of communist and Labour activists from left coalfields. They met regularly to organise within the union and contained within their ranks many individuals of talent and ability. Lawrence Daly, Arthur Scargill, George Bolton and Eric Clarke were just a few of those prominent on the left. Very quickly, Mick became their recognised leader and their candidate for the presidency of the union. He was literally the best that a very talented left had to offer.
So what was it that made him stand out? Partly, it was sheer talent: his self-taught ability to analyse and to understand where the true interest of the union lay in an increasingly complex world. Partly, it was his powerful speaking. He was certainly one of the finest speakers it has been my privilege to hear.
Partly, it was his skills as a negotiator. Eric Clarke told me how, when they would go in to negotiate with management, Mick would always begin by asking for the names of wives and children of the men opposite, thereby disarming them before negotiations began.
And partly, it was his tremendous political sense of the direction in which the working class as a whole should be moving. When he died, Campbell Christie pointed out that it was Mick's speech to the STUC in 1968 that swung the congress behind Scottish home rule and set off the train of events that led to the establishment of the Scottish parliament a few months after Mick's own funeral.
Yet there was much more to Mick than even all of that. There was the sheer breadth of his learning. He was never a dry-as-dust or textbook boring Marxist. He adored Rabbie Burns and quoted endlessly from his poetry throughout his days. He would have loved Sheena Wellington's rendition of 'A man's a man for a' that' at the opening of the Scottish parliament, especially given the context of it being performed in front of a frozen-faced and not at all pleased royal family.
He argued over the merits of authors like Lewis Grassic Gibbon and swapped Shakespeare quotes with the best. He littered his speeches with literary quotations and references, making them a joy to listen to. One of my favourite memories of him was the occasion during the 1984-85 strike when he brought an audience in Dundee to its feet stamping and cheering by ending a wonderful speech with a quote from Shelley:
Rise like lions after slumber,
In unvanquishable number,
Shake your chains to earth like dew,
Which in sleep hath fallen on you.
Ye are many, they are few.
With his gravelly voice and Scottish accent, it really was something to hear. There was also his tremendous wit and splendid sense of fun. He was delivering soundbites long before the phase was invented. Telling workers: 'If you don't run, the bosses can't chase you.' Reminding them: 'The working class will go from defeat to defeat to final victory.'
Eric Clarke told me of the occasion when he considered he had been overcharged for a whisky at an airport in London. Glowering at the young English waitress, he told her, 'Lassie, had you charged as hard as Bannockburn, we would never have beaten you.'
There was the occasion when the union was to go into court and Arthur Scargill commented they would win because he had employed an excellent lawyer with good left-wing credentials. Mick responded by reminding him that left-wing lawyers were all very well but he would begin to put his faith in the courts when they had left-wing judges presiding over them.
There was his wonderful integrity. During his life, he had cause enough to harbour resentment against huge personal disappointments that hit him hard. In his defeat by Joe Gormley in 1971, Mick stuck religiously to the rules that candidates must not canvass for support. Joe's side did not and won. Mick never complained but accepted unquestioningly the verdict of his fellow miners. When he was cheated of the chance to run again in the 1980 as the left candidate, he was conscious of the danger that the left in the union might split over the candidacy of Arthur Scargill. He immediately swung his support unconditionally behind Arthur, secured left unity and guaranteed his election.
During the 1984-85 strike, despite clearly having doubts about the conduct of the strike, and being under pressure from leading members of the Communist party to go public with them, he loyally stood behind the NUM and its elected president. In the bitter aftermath of the strike, when Arthur Scargill was being hounded by friend and foe alike, it was Mick who warned that 'there will be no sacrificial lambs' because the miners had no choice but to go on strike. His loyalty once given was without condition. In his own words, he never deserted his class.
Finally, and above all, there was his humanity. Eric Clarke told me that Mick used to remind him before going into negotiations that the men on the other side of the table were human beings. They were somebody's husband, son or father and therefore always to be treated with the respect that every human being deserves. That was a consideration he gave to everyone.
After the strike, when it could be argued that the miners lost because the Notts miners had kept on working and producing the coal that helped the Tory government see out the strike, it would have been understandable if the beaten miners had been bitter against them. Yet Mick said about the Notts miners: 'I think if, as an executive, we had approached Notts without pickets, it might have been different. Because I reject, I have made this clear since the strike, that 25,000 to 30,000 Notts miners, their wives and families and communities are scabs and blacklegs. I refuse to accept this. We did alienate them during the strike.'
On the violence during the strike, while recognising the role in it of the Tory government's mass use of police and scab lorries, he commented: 'I find it difficult to argue that there was not violence on our side, and that violence did not help us. It was played up to the maximum. Many people would say – the miners have a case but we can't have this business of harassment; the vilification of people; it's against the best traditions of British people – so we didn't have the mass support we had in 1972 and 1974.'
He was no hardline Stalinist, but a compassionate, committed and humane communist who – had he been given the chance to lead the union he loved – might have changed its history and the history of this country. There are lines in Hugh MacDiarmid's poem about Willie Gallacher that could have been written especially for Michael McGahey:
Not many men tested in the acrid fires
Of public life come through so intact and unsullied,
Pure gold thrice refined…
…(he) shines out, single on purpose,
Lovely in his integrity, exemplifying
All that is best in public service.
Such a man was Michael McGahey. Scotland has need of more of his kind.
This article was first published in SR in 2002