THE LOSS OF A GREAT FRIEND
Tommy Brennan and I were close friends and colleagues throughout the fight to try and save Gartcosh and Ravenscraig Steelworks. Tommy was the Convenor of the Trade Unions at Ravenscraig and I first received a letter from Tommy when I was the Chairman of the Conservative Parliamentary Candidates Association in Scotland. He was inviting me to meet him and some other Union leaders to discuss how the Gartcosh Finishing Mill could be saved.
Being a businessman I wanted to assure myself that both Gartcosh and Ravenscraig were viable in business terms. Tommy sat me down with the Union’s financial wizard George Quinn, now also sadly deceased, but though self taught, George had an enormous command of finance and in particular British Steel finances. I asked my questions, George supplied the answers and within around a week supplied the documented evidence to support those answers.
From that point forwards I determined to do everything I could to help them in that battle. The shop stewards had a strategy of talking to everyone they could to try to win them into supporting the Scottish Steel Industry, political leaders, Church figures, business groups, chambers of commerce, local councils were all visited and the workers case was expertly presented, all the time looking for these people to be voluble in their support.
Tommy was at the centre of all these efforts and he was greatly aided in this by his two main men George Quinn and Bill Irvine both of whom were hugely knowledgeable about the industry. Tommy was always the first to volunteer that while he often fired the bullets a lot of that ammunition was coming from the work of George and Bill in the background.
Their efforts worked. I have never been involved or witnessed any industrial or political campaign with the levels of public support all across Scottish society that the steel campaign achieved.
Tommy was a member of the Labour Party but as the campaign progressed he became increasingly frustrated with them. The Labour Party were becoming politically embarrassed by their failure to take any meaningful steps to defend the industry. Here they were with all these Labour Mp’s dominating politics in Scotland but they were powerless to do anything practical to help. As the campaign progressed that frustration turned to real anger when he correctly identified that the Labour leadership wanted the campaign to save Gartcosh to end as quickly as possible. The reason? Every day it continued it was exposing how powerless Labour Scotland was in the face of Westminster rule. Labour were scared stiff of the SNP.
Any doubt about that desire to end the campaign disappeared when they came to the point in the campaign where it could cost the workers money in terms of lost benefits if they decided to carry on the fight for their jobs.
Tommy and the shop stewards called a works meeting in the Gartcosh Social Club as he had a duty to explain that information to the workforce. While the workers met in the larger hall, the political leadership including several Labour Mp’s, myself and representatives of the SNP ,Liberals, Church representatives met in the smaller hall. Labour in the form of Donald Dewar was convinced the campaign had come to an end and he read out a statement he had prepared congratulating the men on their brave fight and recognising it had come to an end. When he finished reading it he put it on the table and asked everyone to sign and several MP’s did passing it along the table. I was sitting next to the SNP Steel Spokesman Jim Wright and we had both decided we would not be signing the surrender document.
As it turned out we never got the opportunity to protest in this way as Tommy Brennan entered the room and announced “GREAT NEWS THE MEN HAVE VOTED OVERWHELMINGLY TO CARRY ON THE FIGHT” I have never seen Donald Dewar move so fast he was out his seat and moved along the table like a flash grabbing the document and tearing it up before he got back to his seat”
To the great credit of the other parties present, in especial the SNP, this would have been a great opportunity to inflict serious political damage on Labour by revealing their willingness to surrender but to do so, of course, would have also damaged the overall campaign, so nobody said a word to any journalist.
There was a price to pay for Labour though, because from that moment on Tommy’s suspicions about the Labour commitment to the campaign were completely confirmed. He would not have to wait long to have it confirmed again.
Labour offered to use one of their “supply” days at Westminster for a debate on Gartcosh. I suggested to Tommy we should organise a March on London in advance of this debate, building maximum pressure through extensive daily publicity, in the lead up to the debate.
It was January 1986, there was snow on the ground and we needed to get to London in time for the debate. We worked out a relay system that could be achieved with twelve marchers. We would need accommodation so Tommy came up with the plan of mobile camper vans. We needed three of them. We needed other financial support and so we went to a meeting with Labour controlled Strathclyde Regional Council looking for a grant to cover the cost.
When Tommy set out our plan it was abundantly clear they were not happy at all with it. The talking continued until lunchtime with lot of reasons why it could not be organised in time and a host of other doubts were raised and it was agreed we would reconvene the committee in the afternoon.
Along with the shop stewards I retired to the Griffin Bar to get a bite, and a few drinks. We discussed what we would do if they rejected our request. I offered on behalf of my company that I would cover the costs of one vehicle and the four people in it. Tommy then phoned the Editor of the Evening Times and convinced him that it would be worth it to the Evening Times to cover the costs of the other two vehicles and the eight marchers in them in return for having the sole embedded reporter and photographer on the March.
So after lunch we returned to the meeting with Strathclyde Region and announced we were leaving for London on the 3rd January, with or without their assistance. All of a sudden all the objections, doubts and delays became a thing of the past as the Labour Party struggled to get back involved in the March. I never had to pay a penny, of course they would cover the cost, what a silly misunderstanding!
The rest is history we got to London, but Thatcher chose to have afternoon tea with English cricketer Botham rather than meet a delegation from the shop stewards, we delivered the petition to Buckingham Palace rather than Downing Street in the hope of embarrassing Thatcher. The Queen wrote a nice letter to the shop stewards. More than they ever got from Thatcher. The ultimate Labour betrayal was they postponed the Gartcosh debate substituting a debate on the English helicopter company, Westland, instead.
As everyone knows both Gartcosh and Ravenscraig closed. British Steel wanted to close them both in 1980 so the campaign, while not successful, won the workers at Gartcosh six years and at Ravenscraig twelve years. So that was many thousands of workers who benefited through extra years of wages and pension contributions thanks to the campaign. What is more the campaign forced Westminster to come up with huge investment in the area both before and after the closures. Money that would never would have been spent without the campaign having stirred those demands in Scotland.
One very significant thing the campaign also delivered was it turned Tommy Brennan, a Unionist member of the Labour Party into Tommy Brennan, the Yes campaigner who was happy during the 2014 Referendum campaign to visit locations all over Lanarkshire with Jim SILLARS and myself on the Margo Mobile advocating Independence for Scotland as Tommy learned through bitter experience that even with the most massive public support in Scotland that was insufficient to stop London doing what it wanted at the end of the day.
I had not known Tommy had passed in January earlier this year. I was in the USA at the time and therefore missed that news and his funeral. This article today is my tribute to a man whose hobbies included fishing and his love of Robert Burns played a big part in his life. He was kind enough to invite me to speak at the Ravenscraig Burns Supper and I was deeply honoured to do so. Tommy was not alone in admiring Burns Work, far from it and if I came away with anything from the steel campaign it was an enormous respect for the talent and skills among the often self taught working class whose broad knowledge and literacy was a pleasure to admire and behold. My total respect to them all and my genuine pride in being considered their friend. They taught me a lot and made me a better person.
In conclusion a forecast of mine at the time from the Herald “If Ravenscraig closes, the Tories will be wiped out in Scotland.” In the 1992 General Election the Tories had 11 Scottish MPs. In the 1997 election they returned precisely none.”. I was delighted.
I am, as always
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