Tales of everyday heroes
As long as there’s injustice, there’s the chance to fight to set things right – says Neil Findlay in his new book, If You Don't Run, They Can’t Chase You
Ordinary people often become unsung heroes, but in his new book, Unite member Neil Findlay shouts out loud about the achievements of some of those in the front line of social justice campaigns over the past 50 years.
The epic miners’ dispute, blacklisting, the Shrewsbury 24, Spycop scandal and Grenfell Tower tragedy are all covered in the words of those actively involved, giving a fresh insight to their struggles.
Some of those featured were mentors of Neil as a young political activist, or were public figures he admired, before he became an MSP in the Scottish Parliament.
The title of the book – If You Don't Run, They Can’t Chase You – is from a quote by Michael McGahey, former Vice President of the National Union of Mineworkers during the 1984-85 miners’ strike, which Neil says exemplifies the spirit of the people he features, because “none of them ran.”
Dave Smith ran into trouble – but only because he was blacklisted after raising concerns about unsafe working conditions on building sites.
His story is well known to Unite after it supported Dave’s part in the shocking revelation of a list of workers drawn up by the shadowy Consulting Association and supplied to construction firms.
Workers on the blacklist – including Dave – were either unfairly sacked or faced problems getting a new job when a contract ended.
As Dave explains, one of his friends was named simply for asking building workers to sign a petition against homelessness, while another was on the list for wearing an Anti-Nazi League badge.
Workers were also listed for being members of the Labour Party, attending union meetings or complaining about a lack of toilets, washing and eating facilities on building sites.
Dave helped set up the Blacklist Support Group, which has to continue campaigning for justice amid ongoing suspicions of discrimination against workers who speak up for better conditions.
The Shrewsbury 24 campaign lasted an incredible 47 years, culminating in March in a Court of Appeal decision to quash charges against workers involved in a national building strike.
Terry Renshaw charts the staggering events of going back to work after 13 weeks of picketing in the early 1970s, only to be arrested five months later - on Valentine’s Day - along with other workers including Ricky Tomlinson.
Terry received a suspended sentence, but a number of his colleagues, including Tomlinson, went to prison.
Tomlinson later became a popular actor, including playing Jim Royle in The Royle Family, and became the public face of the Shrewsbury 24 campaign.
He regularly spoke at union and political meetings, often breaking down when describing how appallingly his friend Des Warren was treated, as he was moved around 17 different prisons.
Terry says that Warren was given injections of drugs against his will, was diagnosed with drug-induced Parkinson's disease, and stuck in a wheelchair after he was released, before his death in 2004, aged 62.
"The lesson from it is that when the state can gather all its forces together against you, there is only one answer and that is to fight them"
Dennis Skinner, former MP
‘Unity is strength’
Terry ends his chapter saying, “I have learned many things but the most important is the truth of the old cliche ‘unity is strength’. One voice will not be heard but a thousand voices will be heard.”
Many thousands of voices rang out during the miners’ strike, and Neil interviews an ex- miner and a politician who tell stories of their part in one of the longest, most bitter disputes in the history of British industry.
Neil worked with Alex Bennett on a campaign for a Scottish public inquiry into the strike, seeking pardons for those convicted.
Alex was born in a house in a village near Dalkeith which was owned by the National Coal Board, he left school aged 15 to work in the local pit where his dad and uncles worked, and he remained in the industry for 35 years, so no-one has a better view on the events which shook his industry in 1984/85.
Arrested for ‘inciting a riot’
He tells of the worsening relationship with local and national management in the run up to the start of the strike, the dramatic change in police tactics on picket lines when local officers were replaced, his arrest for ‘inciting a riot’, his sacking and subsequent blacklisting, while eventually he took part in a workers' enterprise to run Monktonhall pit.
Despite the trauma of living through the strike, he says he would do it all again, stressing the need for unity and solidarity.
Dennis Skinner gave more solidarity to the miners than any politician, joining picket lines, including the infamous Battle of Orgreave, speaking at three or four public meetings a week, and raising the case against pit closures by speaking in Parliament as Labour MP for Bolsover.
He concedes in his story that the Tories timed the strike to their advantage, picked the first pit closure to provoke the NUM, and deployed the full weight of the state to defeat the miners.
But in a defiant message looking back at the strike, he writes, “The lesson from it is that when the state can gather all its forces together against you, there is only one answer and that is to fight them.”
Neil writes in an epilogue to the book that it would be easy to despair at the state of the world today, but in his characteristic fighting mode, he adds, “As long as there is injustice, there is the opportunity to join, or even start, a campaign to set things right.”
If You Don’t Run, They Can’t Chase You, is Neil Findlay’s third book, and is published by Luath Press.
By Alan Jones