Lessons for now

Bob Thomson looks at the legacy of the late Bill Spiers

Bill Spiers, former General Secretary of the STUC, died in September at the early age of 57. Many tributes from far and near have been paid to an outstanding personality and a fine human being. I knew Bill as a colleague and friend for some thirty years, working with him on the Scottish Executive of the Labour Party and on the General Council of the STUC. This article is not an obituary; there have been plenty of those. It is an examination of his beliefs and legacy and the lessons they teach us on how to deal with the issues confronting ordinary working people today.

Bill was a pragmatic socialist, never narrow or sectarian, suspicious of markets, pro home rule, an aggressive internationalist, a leading advocate for Palestine and against apartheid in South Africa. He was all these things and a key player during the Thatcher years, and had to deal with the continuation of the same neo-liberal economic policies of New Labour. With the bank-induced international recession, working people throughout the world are facing unemployment and cuts in wages, pensions and vital public services. At the same time there is no willingness by most of the main political parties to make any changes to the international financial structures and regulations, which have caused this turmoil. Here in Britain there is a strong likelihood of a Tory government, even more big business-friendly than New Labour.

Bill was a passionate believer in home rule for Scotland, a committed devolutionist. He believed the centralist model of the UK was a hangover from Britain’s imperialist past. He argued for self-determination as a human right, codified in international law in which sovereignty was invested in the people. This was exemplified in the Claim of Rights for Scotland drawn up by the Scottish Constitutional Convention, in which he played an important role: “We, gathered as the Scottish Constitutional Convention, do hereby acknowledge the sovereign right of the Scottish people to determine the form of government best suited to their needs, and do hereby declare and pledge that in all our actions and deliberations their interests shall be paramount”. Prior to the setting up of the Convention Bill had been active in Scottish Labour Action, a group within the Scottish Labour Party set up in the late 1980s to campaign for a devolved Assembly/Parliament. This included many now prominent Labour activists including Jack McConnell and Susan Deacon. It has to be remembered in the 1970s and 1980s that many in the Labour Party strongly opposed devolution, many usually silently still do and have used wrecking tactics and opposed the use of existing powers far less extended powers for the Scottish Parliament. This has often been for selfish reasons, wanting to be big fish in the bigger pond of London. This belief in the sovereignty of the people was not academic. In the late 1980s, the Tories introduced the highly regressive single flat rate poll tax using Scotland as a guinea pig. Nicholas Ridley, the Environment Minister, said, “why should a duke pay more than a dustman – only because they have been subject to socialist ideas for the last 50 years that people thinks that this is fair”. Ridley was, surprise surprise, the son of a peer. The Tories had lost heavily in Scotland at the 1987 General Election, and Bill argued that the people of Scotland had no moral obligation to pay this unfair tax. This call for non-payment from the Deputy General Secretary of the STUC and former Chairman of the Scottish Labour Parliament caused a stir amongst the establishment. Neil Kinnock called non-payers “toy town revolutionaries”. However the poll tax eventually brought down Thatcher. Kinnock and his wife ended up in the House of Lords after both had lucrative careers in Europe – there is a moral here or perhaps a lack of them.

When the Tories, losing even more seats in Scotland, won the 1992 General Election, Bill was at the forefront of Scotland United, forming a broad front calling for direct action. During these Thatcher years the STUC along with civic society and the churches were at the vanguard of resisting its excesses and campaigning for change. This required forging broad alliances, being pluralist and non-sectarian. There were not just attributes to Bill but part of his beliefs. Devolution was not just for government. We were both past chairmen of the Scottish Labour Party. Together with others, including Jack McConnell, we argued that Labour Party structures and polices must also be devolved where appropriate. These changes while receiving lip service were never carried through.

It was as a committed internationalist that Bill was a true radical. From student days he had opposed the apartheid regime in South Africa and supported the boycott and other campaigns. At the STUC he organised financial, educational and organisational support for South African trade unions and delegations for COSATU and individual trade unions were regular visitors to annual congress. He took great satisfaction and pride at being invited to the annual Burns Suppers at South Africa House in London outside which he had often demonstrated in the past. Bill’s support for a Palestinian homeland was long and consistent. He argued and campaigned for their cause when it was highly unpopular and the PLO were seen as a terrorist organisation and anyone supporting them vilified by the establishment and the media. He regularly took STUC delegations to the refugee camps in Gaza and met Yasser Arafat on a number of occasions. Ever the trade union conciliator, he ensured that delegations from both the Palestinian trade unions and HISTRADUT, the Israeli trade union federation, were invited to congress and facilitated discussions between them. With the election of a Labour government in 1997, the prospects for Palestine seemed better. I remember with pleasure dinner in a Lebanese restaurant in Brighton during the Labour Party Conference, attended by Yusuf Allan, who had been the PLO representative in Britain and a regular visitor at Congresses. He had just been appointed Palestinian Ambassador to Dublin and Bill took great delight and some mischief in calling him “Your Excellency”. The other side of the coin was the smears and misrepresentation from the almost entirely pro-Israeli media. George Galloway told the story of a Labour MP contacting Bill to say that a Daily Telegraph journalist who had told him that Bill and George owned the Lee Jeans Factory in Greenock from which they were financing the PLO campaign had interviewed him. Also they were both lovers with a love nest in St John’s Wood, London – as George said, the Telegraph were going for broke on this story. The truth was that there had been a lengthy occupation of the factory by the mainly women workers and that George as vice-Chairman of the Scottish Labour Party and Bill as an STUC official were regular attendees in those capacities to support the workers. The love nest was a chemist shop being used to gather medical supplies for Palestine. Nearer home Bill supported a united Ireland. He regularly spoke at meetings for the Connolly Association, an Irish socialist campaign group and always made the point that the Irish Congress of Trade Unions covered the whole of Ireland.

In this recession banks are being baled out with our money and no corresponding control or regulation. Unemployment is climbing and will for at least the next couple of years, real wages reduced, public services cut and 2.3 million children living in poverty. People are starving in the third world and we are waging unwinable wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. A general election next year offers little choice between the parties. What can we learn from Bill’s legacy? Central to improving world peace and reducing the threat of terrorism is the establishment of a viable Palestinian State. Muslims not just in the Middle East but also throughout the world have rightly been incensed by the unfair treatment of the Palestinians and the favourable treatment of Israel by the USA and Britain. This despite Israel being in defiance of umpteen United Nations Resolutions for more than 40 years. This has motivated Muslims including some in Britain to join terrorist organisations. Had the Palestinian issue been resolved there is a strong likelihood that 9/11 and the invasions of Iraq, Afghanistan and the London bombings would not have taken place. Gordon Brown’s assertion that we are in Afghanistan to prevent terrorism being exported to Britain is patently wrong. It is Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan, which is fuelling homegrown terrorism. Israel’s continued settlement building on occupied land is a provocation against international law, the United Nations and world opinion. The Israeli tail is wagging the USA dog with Britain as the poodle. If our political parties are not prepared to act then a campaign should be mounted to boycott Israeli goods, businesses, sport, and educational and cultural links similar to the anti-apartheid campaign against South Africa. Of course we will get the same arguments that were put up against that campaign but it motivated World opinion and forced governments to take action.

On the domestic front left parties and groups including the left in the Labour Party must, if they have to have any credibility with ordinary voters, try and unite on a platform of common basic policies. I would suggest that the People’s Charter is such a set of policy goals. This could set an agenda for action whichever party wins the election. It has six basic policies that most progressive parties, groups and individuals can support – A fair economy, more and better jobs, decent homes for all, protect and improve our public services, fairness and justice and build and secure a sustainable future for all (see wwwthepeoplescharter.com). The STUC, if it is to retain its pre-eminent position in Scotland, must reaffirm its pluralist non-party position. In 2007 just before the Scottish Parliament elections the Congress passed a controversial motion with many abstentions calling on trade unionists to vote Labour. Likewise this year Congress narrowly voted against supporting the People’s Charter even though its policies are those of all the affiliated unions – the reason was that its modest programme might embarrass New Labour. These decisions were a mistake. Most trade unions are not affiliated to the Labour Party and such partisanship could threaten their involvement in Congress. Of course the STUC should support Labour when it calls for more apprenticeships or the SNP’s social policies and opposition to PFI and privatisation but on an issue by issue basis.

The last time I was with Bill was at our local Labour Party meeting. Labour is in the last chance saloon. To regain its core vote it must reaffirm itself as a democratic socialist party (still in Clause 4) or face-continuing decline. Here in Scotland it must shake off the shackles of Westminster and be truly devolved on home affairs. In Wales the Welsh Labour Party put ‘clear red water’ with London on issues such as PFI, privatisation and abolition of prescription charges and has become stronger as a result. In Scotland because the big guns Brown, Darling, Reid etc are based here any radical initiatives were stifled so as not to show up their reactionary policies in England. Most of the unique policy initiatives in the eight years of the Lab/Lib coalition such as social care and student fees came from the Liberals. One of Bill’s great successes in the Scottish Constitutional Convention was getting trade unions, mostly controlled from London, to agree to a more proportional voting system for the proposed parliament – the additional members system. Without such a commitment the Convention would have collapsed in disarray. In its 1997 Manifesto Labour promised to consider electoral reform and “democratisation”(sic) of the House of Lords. Twelve years on and Gordon Brown has made some vague statements on the same issues. At the 2005 General Election Labour won a comfortable majority with 4 million votes less than they got in 1997, their lowest vote since 1929 – the Tories could do the same next year. Five years ago the Electoral Commission conducted a survey on including an abstention vote on the ballot paper for citizens dissatisfied with the choice before them but wishing to register their vote and not wanting to spoil the ballot paper with ‘none of the above’. This initiative received wide scale support but was killed off by the main political parties not wanting the embarrassment of abstentions coming first. Electoral reform and ensuring citizens feel their vote counts and that they not the politicians are in control will I am sure become a major issue after the General Election. All on the Left must unite to ensure that this happens. Space does not allow more on Bill’s commitment to peace and Scottish CND, his involvement in the Make Poverty History Campaign, his support for the arts and the 7:84 Theatre Company in particular.

Then rouse, ye sons of Labour!
Strike hard while yet ye may,
Break down these superstitions
That block the workers’ way.
Raise high the crimson banner
That all the world may see,
And work for retribution
And the days that are to be