Campbell Christie began to make his mark in the trade union movement when, as a newly appointed full time official in the early 1970s, he became the main figure of the left in the Society of Civil and Public Servants. By the late 1970s, Christie was Depute General Secretary of his union when a new mood of militancy over pay had swept the public sector unions. He came to prominence in 1979 in the first national civil service strike action during a dispute that lasted eleven weeks and ended with the highest pay increases ever achieved in the civil service.
This was followed in 1981 with a twenty-week dispute, involving selective strike action by all the civil service unions. This time the outcome was not as successful but Christie was seen as the key strategist and soon became well-known outside civil service circles. It was not long before he was tipped for a number of key positions in national unions. But Christie was keen to succeed the highly respected Jimmy Milne at the STUC who was due for retirement in 1986. Many of his friends tried to persuade him to stay in London and could not understand why he saw the STUC role as more important than some of those on offer.
He took over the STUC at a time when union membership had already started to slump as Thatcher’s economic policies began to decimate Scotland’s manufacturing base. Campaigns against factory closures dominated his period in office but Christie always looked for fresh ways of campaigning, such as the 1993 Scottish People’s March For Jobs.
The Government sought to marginalise the trade unions but Christie managed to build broad alliances and relationships with political and civic leaders to enhance the role and influence of the STUC. He recognised that the STUC needed a much higher media profile and closer contact with the leaders of business and commerce. By following this strategy, Christie managed to place the STUC at the heart of every major issue that was taking place in Scotland.
But some issues were embarrassing for the STUC. A bitter wrangle broke out in 1988 between the Transport and General Workers and the Amalgamated Engineering Union after the latter signed a single union agreement with Ford. The company abandoned plans to build a factory in Dundee that would have employed thousands of workers, but the row did not lead to the expected split in the STUC. Although the Engineering Union was supported by the media, they were blamed by the rest of the unions for provoking the issue and were left isolated. But the image of the trade union movement was tarnished by the events and Christie needed all his public relations skills to rescue the situation.
On the General Council he lost some arguments but was powerful enough to shrug off the opposition. He proposed to invite Alex Salmond to address the annual Congress in 1986 but received only a few votes. In 1990 he was forced to turn down the offer of a position on the board of Distillers Co after pressure from affiliates. A leading figure during the anti-poll tax campaign, he was accused by some General Council members of being too close to the non-payment position, and questioned about allegedly tearing up his tax demand notice. A split on the General Council took place over the issue of proportional representation for the Scottish Parliament. At first they refused to back Christie’s support for the principle, but a month later he had won them round.
One of the qualities that made him so effective was that he was genuinely radical while always conveying the impression of being reasonable, amiable and calm.
If Christie had been asked to identify the most important issue during his time as General Secretary, it would probably be the establishment of the Scottish Parliament…..
I first met Campbell shortly after he had come to the STUC. My late husband, Tom McAlpine who was SNP industrial spokesman, and I had asked for a meeting to discuss relations between the unions and the SNP. Campbell gave us a very warm welcome and emphasised that the STUC should reach out to all trade unionists in Scotland and not be confined to narrow party boundaries. He made it clear that his door was open to non-Labour politicians and campaigning groups. He was an intuitive Gramscian; he had both an intellectual understanding of the importance of building coalitions for change and the personal qualities to achieve this. While firmly on the left in his values, he was non-doctrinaire and always open to new ideas.
The year following Campbell’s return to Scotland saw an initiative that was to result in probably his most important and lasting contribution. After the third Tory victory in the 1987 election, the Campaign for a Scottish Parliament decided the time was right to try for a Constitutional Convention. They set up the Claim of Right committee to prepare proposals chaired by Sir Robert Grieve. Campbell and the STUC were strong supporters. John Hendry, the veteran STUC assistant secretary and Pat Kelly, a close Campbell ally, were on the committee and when the report was published, the STUC gave its full backing and did what they could to get Labour Party participation which was still very much in doubt. Throughout the Convention process, Campbell used his negotiating skills and trade union influence to get the most radical scheme possible. He was not the most popular person among sections of the Parliamentary Labour Party, something of which he was well aware, but he had a strong institutional position and wide respect beyond the core trade union movement so he could not easily be marginalised. He, together with Bill Spiers, played a key role in persuading the unions to back a proportional voting system and it was these votes that were crucial in changing Labour policy. He was a feminist and was a strong supporter of attempts to get gender equality in representation written into the constitutional scheme and while this was not successful (largely because of the opposition of the Liberal Democrats), it did have a strong influence on internal Labour Party arrangements.
Campbell and his deputy Bill Speirs made the STUC the central hub for a wide variety of radical causes – peace movement, anti-racism, anti-poverty, feminism – all clustered round the STUC. It helped to give Scotland a more integrated ‘progressive’ consensus.
Campbell always had a vision for the broad social partnership model of governance. He supported the Scottish Civic Forum during the 1990s and became its Convener. After Holyrood was established, it was difficult for him to get STUC support for the Forum and the same was true of another strong Forum supporter, Martin Sime of SCVO. There was concern in both organisations that if the politicians took the Civic Forum seriously, it would undermine their role. While he put considerable effort into the project, neither the social partners nor the politicians did take it seriously and withdrew funding as soon as they felt they could. Campbell typically regretted this view and believed there needed to be a new vision of governance for Scotland which would strengthen, not marginalise the civic dimension.
One of the qualities that made him so effective was that he was genuinely radical while always conveying the impression of being reasonable, amiable and calm. I never heard him raise his voice or give outward signs of losing his temper no matter how trying the circumstances. He was the right man for the time but there was so much he could still have contributed.