Dougie Harrison recalls why he joined the Communist Party in 1968 and and resigned from it in 1990
Few reading this article who are under the age of about sixty will have any first-hand understanding of how important the Communist Party of Great Britain remained in Scottish life for many years, and not just in the unions. Probably few even of my age will fully understand the impact the party has had on all sorts of areas of Scottish life. It was, for example, one of the driving forces behind the Peoples’ Festivals, established largely to bring Scots folksong to Edinburgh during the Festival in the early 1950s, by people like Hamish Henderson and others. And this wee folk-music add-on, along with the work of the Communist Party in helping found Glasgow Unity Theatre, has grown into the Edinburgh Festival Fringe – widely believed to be the biggest arts festival in the world. It’s possible that without the Communist Party’s cultural work, there would be no Fringe. Think that’s a fanciful claim? Just thoroughly read the history please, as I have tried to do, before you judge.
In politics, Britain’s fundamentally undemocratic first-past-the-post electoral system has not only ensured that there have been few governments in British history which have been elected on a majority vote of the people. It also meant that the Communist Party struggled to have a handful of MPs elected, just as despite a significant total Green vote today, the Greens have only one MP, and will have to work very hard indeed to increase that number at Westminster. In the Scottish Parliament, a degree of proportional representation means the Greens have been represented since the Parliament’s re-birth in 1999. There were eight Green MSPs; it became seven after one, deservedly, accepted the chair of Holyrood after election as a Green in May 2021.
By far the longest-serving Communist MP was from Scotland. Paisley engineer, Willie Gallagher, represented the west of Fife, dominated by the mining industry, between 1935 and 1950. Many believed that he was only defeated then, at the start of the Cold War, because Labour selected a candidate, Willie Hamilton, who was fiercely anti-monarchist, although otherwise conventionally right-wing. I think the largest Communist parliamentary vote since 1950 was in 1974, when Jimmy Reid, party member prominent in the UCS struggle, and by then Rector of Glasgow University, managed 14.6% of the vote in Clydebank, despite priests warning from pulpits against him, in a constituency in which the Roman Catholic church had some influence.
Well into recent history in the 1960s and 1970s, there were groups of Communist councillors in Scotland, especially in Dunbartonshire (‘the Vale’ and Clydebank), and Fife. Ex-miner, Willie Clarke, was councillor for his home community of Ballingry in Fife for over forty years, and when he recently decided to retire for domestic, not political reasons, he was in 2015 the last self-described Communist in Britain to hold public elected office.
But whilst Communists, even in Scotland, were rare in elected public office in the sixties and seventies of last century, many were elected to positions of leadership throughout the union movement – except in the electricians’ union, where they were ineligible to stand because of their politics.
So, my decision to join the Communist Party in 1968 was not as strange or irrational as may appear today. It’s always necessary to put things in context, if one is to understand them. The Communist Party was still a credible force in Scots public life then. And Marxist theory began to answer some of my hitherto intractable questions about the intellectual shortcomings of the neo-classical economic theory I’d been taught as a student.
As the seventies passed, I began to be identified with the ‘traditionalist’ wing of the Communist Party, which was largely mischaracterised as having an unthinking loyalty to the Soviet Union. Some called us ‘tankies’ as they presumed that we supported the use of Soviet tanks to crush the ‘Prague Spring’ of 1968.
I hope I was no blind loyalist to anything. I knew of Krushchev’s ‘secret speech’ to the Soviet Union’s 1958 Party Congress, in which for the first time within the Soviet state and the rest of the socialist world, at least some of Stalin’s crimes against humanity were revealed in public. I carefully studied Carr’s fine multi-volume history of the Soviet Union. I was no fool, and knew better than most folks do, of the dreadful abuse which Stalin’s leadership had used to drag a country then newly liberated from feudal serfdom into the twentieth century. I knew of Stalin’s erratic leaps in attempts to stave off the danger of invasion by Hitler’s forces, which caused Party members across the globe to jump from one political position to its near-opposite.
But the verdict of many serious historians of the Second World War was that its real turning point was at Stalingrad, when unthinkable heroism by the entire population, not just the Red Army, finally turned Hitler’s attempted invasion into a retreat. Whatever evils Stalin may have perpetrated – and we may have yet to learn the full extent of their horrors – the Soviet people had achieved remarkable economic advances, and were united in defence of their country. The Soviet Union also had some remarkable achievements paradoxically because of the some of the positive outcomes of his leadership.
We now know that the British Communist Party did receive some ‘Moscow gold’ through to at least the 1970s, and maybe beyond, of which its members were unaware. There was certainly hidden financial assistance, like the large daily orders for the Morning Star, which was until the 1980s effectively the voice of the party, although it was legally independently owned and controlled. These orders from the USSR and its allies undoubtedly helped the paper survive as a daily. It survives daily yet despite the disappearance of ‘Moscow gold’.
So, I was most certainly aware of the shortcomings of the Soviet Union, and at least some of the less attractive aspects of the history of the Communist Party in Britain and elsewhere internationally. In my view, they were overwhelmed by the positive achievements of the Communist Party, and those who were influenced by it.
By the 1970s, and increasingly into the eighties, the previously ‘monolithic’ Communist Party was divided, and increasingly publicly so. This reached the point that in the late eighties, my entire branch, Maryhill in Glasgow, was refused re-admission because we had insisted on continuing our sales of the previously party-supported Morning Star. At the time we were refused re-admission to membership, such support was still a constitutional requirement of Party membership. The divisions were deep, and the by-then crumbling party leadership resorted to remarkably divisive behaviour, including lies, to ‘defend’ their position.
Thus, I participated in the ‘reconstitution’ of the Communist Party of Great Britain as the Communist Party of Britain (CPB), and because I was then, as an STUC Assistant Secretary, one of its ‘highest’-positioned members anywhere in the union movement, I was elected to its national leadership, the Executive Committee. There I was soon to discover that at least some in that ‘leadership’ had indeed retained less-than-democratic practices, and it was this that caused my resignation from the CPB in I think the late summer of 1990.
The Executive Committee vigorously debated the draft programme it was to present for debate at the following decision-making Congress. One issue on which there was division was on energy policy. My personal political experience led me to argue vigorously that the party should continue to support the continuation of nuclear power in electricity generation. This was contentious, and there was a debate on the issue within the Executive. This went to a vote, in which I argued fiercely that we needed to retain UK nuclear capacity. (I no longer hold this view, over thirty years later, but did then – and I knew a fair bit of the issues involved.) It went to a vote, and nuclear power was retained as Party policy. Not overwhelmingly, as best I remember, but decisively. But when the Executive received its copies of the draft programme which were to put to the membership, support for a nuclear component in UK electricity generation had been deleted.
I was livid. Lies appeared to remain part of the then party leadership’s nature. I was so livid that I resigned, not just from the Executive but from the party. Despite a long political discussion with two Scots comrades whom I deeply respected, I remained unconvinced, and my resignation stood. But I refused to go down the road used by some who had previously left the party, like Jimmy Reid, and make my resignation public.
I was not going to use the right-wing-controlled mass media and give it anything with which it could attack people and policies in which I still believed. Indeed, as I write this over thirty years later, this is the first time I have made my position on this public. I have for two decades or so now unequivocally supported Scottish independence, and am as active a member of the Scottish Green Party as my age and health allow.
Dougie Harrison is a former STUC Assistant Secretary (1976-1990). He has been a school teacher, student union president, bus driver and director of a number of charities and campaigns.