Gorbachev’s Porridge

Sanny Doolan contributed more than most to the tremendous unity of Ayrshire’s striking miners. His son, John Doolan, speaks to Cailean Gallagher.

Nicky Bird, Donald Fulton, East Ayrshire III. Courtesy ofthe artist and National Galleries of Scotland. Featured in the exhibition ‘Before and After Coal’, which will feature in the next issue of the Scottish Left Review.

John Doolan is a child of the political culture of Scotland’s mining unions. From his early days he absorbed the stories and strategies of the communist miners who worked in Ayrshire’s coalfields. When his father Sanny joined the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1960, John and his brother feared that the rest of the street would stop talking to them. But Sanny went on to earn enormous respect as local NUM secretary during the struggles of the following decades. Stories of these years often miss the importance of his party’s ethic in generating the structure and unity of the strongest strike in Scotland’s history.

1984 is remembered as the last great struggle and ultimate defeat of the miners, but the height of the miners’ power in Scotland was during the previous decade, culminating in the victory of 1974. I met John last year with Sarah Collins, SLR’s newest editorial board member, and he told us of the strikes that took place during these years. Freshly poured pint in hand, he said: ‘I can always remember what some miners told me after 1974’.

We were standing talking, waiting on the pit bus, and some miners said to me, “we’ll pay for this one day”. It was true. It took a few years of course, but when the woman won an election in 1979 she made sure she would destroy the backbone of British trade unionism and of course she went ahead and carried that out.  

But it is not the strike of 1984-5, nor 1974, he said, that should be remembered above all.

As a great Welshman said to me one day – his name was Dai Francis, he was general secretary of the South Wales area of the NUM. He was an old red as well. He said, we can say what we want about 1974, but 1972 was the time, he said, because there was a tremendous unity.

Doolan family and friends celebrate the victory in 1972.

In an anniversary year, analysis of defeat and the deindustrialisation that followed risks distracting from the far more extraordinary fact that through the course of the earlier decades – since the war, since the general strike, since the turn of the century and before – the labour movement had created the structures and the strength to engage in open class struggle. What had made this tremendous unity possible, and what ultimately undermined its power?

John’s father was one part of it. Nobody embodied miners’ power in Ayrshire more than Sanny. If every leader has a lineage, what had brought him into the Communist Party? The answer: the comrades he met on the local NUM committee, and perhaps one in particular.

Nationalisation was on the 1st January 1947, and at that time there were two full time officials of the NUM in Ayrshire. One was a boozer and no user, and the other was Guy Stobbs, this wee rigid communist. And I’ll tell you something, he was bloody tremendous. You couldn’t bribe him, and you couldn’t push him. I always remember the first time I heard him speaking. I thought, who’s that wee guy there? And see when he stood up… This wee man, he stood up, and by God was he great.

Stobbs was a product of the British Communist culture well-described by Raphael Samuel as a ‘lost world’. He was a teetotaller who learned Russian, visited the USSR, and ‘never forgot his politics’. But histories of individuals do not explain the tremendous unity that Doolan described and there is more to learn from the organisation of the union during times of pressure and struggle. Some of the declining degree of unity was reflected in the reduced use of democratic processes in the series of strikes between 1972 and 1984. One major issue of the time was whether miners would be balloted, or whether the NUM executive ought to use its prerogative to call strikes. For John, even if the NUM was well within their constitutional right to call strike action without a ballot, the weakening of the NUM’s muscles of engagement had an effect on the strength of the strikes. 

In 1972 the miners won the strike ballot. It wasn’t by much, but they won. At that time they required 55% of a majority to win the national ballot for industrial action, and [they won] only by 58% or something. By 1974 they were much more confident, and at the ballot there was a far greater majority in favour of coming out, and the strike at that time lasted for four weeks.

Ballots strengthen unions like dumbbells strengthen deltoids,but in 1984, there was no ballot.

[A] great deal of miners didn’t get over the fact they didn’t ballot. The national assembly of the NUM used its constitutional right to call a stoppage. But although they recognised the problem of pit closures, the miners themselves were resentful of the fact it should have been our decision, and they felt they were being commanded and it was not their democratic decision.

In the face of disgruntlement with the democratic process, the question for local NUM leaders in 1984, John said, was ‘how to try and achieve, if you like, some sort of unity’. The answer was through a welfare operation that was tight and trustworthy, efficient and egalitarian. In Ayrshire, this operation was administered by around twenty-five strike centres, and coordinated by Sanny Doolan at the HQ, 22 Miller Road, in Ayr. 

‘It was a phenomenal situation, when all these strike centres had to be supported as best we could.’ There were rotas for the distribution of any funds that came in. Every centre had facilities to prepare and provice food, parcels, Christmas presents. Money came from Belfast which collected for Ayrshire, from communities, and from weekly lifts at factories organised by convenors like Alex Baird at the Wallacetown Engineering factory in Ayr. There was also support from the state. As Margaret Petrie explains elsewhere in this issue, local authorities defied the UK government by distributing benefits to striking workers’ families. When Thatcher discovered that these payments were being made to miners’ families, insisted that miners pay the money back. John was still paying 50p a week well into the 1990s.

Milton Rogovin, Alex and Jeanie Doolan, 1982, from John Doolan on behalf of Ayrshire and Scottish Mineworkers and their families. Rogovin’s work is the subject of the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery that will feature in the next issue.

Despite the best efforts of the internal operation, pressures were building outside the union to urge workers back to work. In ‘72 and ‘74 the Orange Lodge didn’t interfere but ‘1984 was a different story’. The strike had started in March. By June ‘there were some rumblings. Then it comes July and people are running out of funds despite all the efforts.’ The story of one Saturday underlines the erosion of unity. The most vociferous return to work organiser, Hugh Robertson, was based in the village of New Cumnock, and he organised a return to work meeting one Saturday afternoon, which soon turned ugly.

All these people turned up and one of the things was the more militant among the striking workforce wouldn’t argue with him logically. It was just a howl, they wouldn’t let him speak. It was ugly because they weren’t really getting to the bottom of it. I said at the time, “just let the man say what he wants to say”, but the other militants, they booed him and they jeered him, and he never got what he wanted to say, and the police were there to protect him. So things were really getting fractious.

This meeting was also recorded by Rob Wilson, whose new book contains a diary which provides a perspective on the degree of miners’ unity from a position outside the organised structures of the union and party. It describes how difficult it was keep striking from the point of view of someone not integrated into the networks and structures of the class. His entry about this meeting detected growing class division:

The community centre was packed with men from Kirkconnel, Cumnock and Dalmellington there, but when Hugh Robertson go up to speak he was howled down by the militants. … There was a lot of ill-feeling and the meeting broke down in disarray about 11.15am.

There were also divisions emerging within the union. Antipathy between different areas of the NUM was longstanding, with animosity between Yorkshire and Nottingham going back to the General Strike. In the 1970s the CPGB were the dominant political influence in the NUM. By 1984 that had changed. Divisions erupted with the election of Arthur Scargall as NUM leader, and his decision to move the HQ from London to Yorkshire. ‘My father said that was a mistake, because here was Arthur building his castle.’ Before Scargill’s time, ‘when the different constituent bodies of the union all met, it was a sort of common task. Now the different groups had to come to Yorkshire.’ In John’s eyes, and in Community Party eyes, Scargill was not a symbol of unity. ‘In modern times you might call it the cult of the individual.’

The effect of individuality and individual interest seeped into the local level too, corroding the commonality that held striking communities together. ‘Let me tell you this wee story’, he said.

Ayrshire had 25 strike centres; it might have been 25, 26. There was an NUM rep from Cumnock strike centre who came and said to me, what’s going on with this strike, because I want to know why Cumnock strike centre is very limited in what we can do to support the guys, but up there in Netherthird, it’s unbelievable what the striking miners are being issued with, in terms of rations, food, drink. How come they’ve got all that money, this phenomenal amount of gear, which includes drink and all, while there’s not another strike centre in Ayr can match it?

It turned out that while most of the strike centres had funds distributed centrally from the Ayrshire office, those running the centre at Netherthird were accumulating their own funds through collections and donations. ‘Here was Netherthird in a far, far better financial position than all the other strike centres, and it sowed the seeds of a great disunity.’ The moral of the story was clear. ‘See if you have an industrial dispute, it really becomes quite critical that everybody feels they are treated the same way.’

While the lack of unity locally caused difficult rifts, the lack of coordination across a global movement had a tragi-comic dimension. John laughed as he described the substance and the timing of one offer of solidarity. ‘You know something,’ he chuckled. ‘We even got porridge oats from Gorbachev. These porridge oats arrived in big packs with the hammer and sickle on them. We got these polythene bags to hand them out in. I’m so sad about it.’ ‘Why sad?’, I asked through our laughter. ‘Because by the time the porridge oats arrived,’ John explained, ‘the big back to work movement was already going.’

There was less unity, too, across workers in different sectors of the economy by 1984 than there had been in the early 70s. In Kilmarnock in 1972, the engineering workers came out in solidarity. John shared an example of the cross-class solidarity across Britain that year.

In 1972, a few hundred miners were turning up at the Saltey Gate in Birmingham, and they were getting absolutely nowhere. But one particular Friday afternoon, the second last Friday of the strike, here’s what happened at the Saltley Gate. Probably a couple of hundred thousands of engineering workers all round about Birmingham stopped work early, and all marched – it makes my blood run cold – they all marched to the Saltley. And the chief constable, standing there, when he saw all these people marching to support this thin picket line; the chief constable says, “close the gate”. By the time you come to 84 that didn’t happen in Birmingham any more. There had been a change.

I asked how he compares the strikes with those of today. John answers with another question:

Where are the engineering unions? This is how I look at it. You can have postmen, you can have doctors, you can have nurses, you can have schoolteachers, you can have telephone engineers, they can all be taking industrial action, but the difference between now and the 1970s in my opinion is, where are the engineering workers? There’s got to be a reason. See in England, and to a certain extent in Scotland, so much of the economy is the manufacture – of what? Arms and munitions, aircraft, weapons. And where does it all go? It goes to places like Saudi Arabia. Where are the engineering unions? They’re all doing alright, that’s why they’re not on the forefront.

John Doolan in the Red Lion

There are material and cultural reason for declining unity too. Certain workers kept doing alright and ‘as the decades wore on,’ John said, ‘things were changing quite drastically.’ Cars, televisions, consumerism, all affected the potential for a party to sustain community and unity. ‘The CP are not there,’ he said. ‘The CP are not there. The workers have all got cars now, you know. Who needs the CP when we’re all consumers now? There is no political leadership any more and the ideological battle is not there. Would you agree with that Alex?’

I didn’t mention before that while John had been talking, Alex Baird (who I interviewed in the last issue) had joined us. While John’s answer to my question about strikes today had more than a touch of pessimism, Alex was a little more stoic about the structural and pedagogical reasons workers are losing the battle. ‘The whole world’s changed, he said.

It’s alright for the John to say how the NUM was, and for me to say how the engineering union was then. But the establishment learn quicker than us, they move quicker than us, they have more than us. To have strikes like we had in the 70s and 80s isn’t going to work now. … They are winning the battle because they were educated to govern, whereas folk like us weren’t educated to govern. We had to learn, think about it, and organise people.

We still do. And John’s answer also resounds today, as engineers make weapons for Israel to bomb Gaza and Saudi to bomb Yemen. What can bring engineers back into solidarity with other workers whose jobs and lives are under threat. How can unions’ strikes today advance the wider effort of communists and socialists to build a world that may in some way vindicate the struggles of Scotland’s twentieth-century communists? Perhaps in this anniversary year, as well as telling the story of 1984, the answer is to look back – not to 74, 72, or even the general strike of 26, but to a time when the structures and parties of the working class were weak, uncertain, disparate; when the challenge was learning and thinking anew about how to organise; and when the striking workers’ porridge bowl was filled not with late Soviet oats but with a fresher variety.

Cailean Gallagher is editor of the Scottish Left Review