Born: August 23, 1937; Died: October 28, 2011.
Campbell Christie, who has died aged 74, was one of the leading trade unionists of his generation, a shrewd strategist who maintained the influence of the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC) – of which he was general secretary from 1986-1998 – long after Scotland’s industrial base had disappeared. He had parallel influence as a civic leader, not least in the campaign to establish a Scottish Parliament, becoming, as one account put it, the “choirmaster of Scottish discontent”.
Mr Christie was born in Carsluith, Dumfries and Galloway, one of six sons of Thomas Christie and Johnina Rolling. He was seven when his father died, prompting a move to Glasgow four years later. He was educated at Albert Senior Secondary School (from which he represented the city in football and athletics), thereafter studying at Woolwich Polytechnic and Langside College in Glasgow.
In 1954, aged 17, he joined the Civil Service, moving to London to begin work as a clerical officer at the Admiralty. Having completed his National Service in 1958, he requested a transfer to the DHSS and returned to Scotland the following year to work for the National Assistance Board as an executive officer, exploring claimants’ circumstances. He campaigned for the dispersal of civil service jobs to Scotland, playing a role in the transfer of the Post Office Savings Bank from London to Glasgow.
Having drifted into what one STUC historian called the “rather soporific world of the civil service unions”, by the early 1960s he was secretary of the National Assistance Board section in the Civil Service Clerical Association, where he developed a reputation for provocative oratory that unsettled the union’s establishment.
As the decade progressed, Mr Christie and his younger brother Leslie became bright young things in what was known as the “Sauchiehall Street Mafia”, a left-wing grouping that transformed the quaintly titled Society of Civil and Public Servants (SCPS) from “a 40,000-strong apolitical staff association into a disciplined broad-left TUC union with a six-figure membership”.
It was in the SCPS that Mr Christie cemented his reputation as the Left’s leading strategist within the Trades Union Congress. He was assistant secretary (1972-1973), assistant general secretary (1973-1975), and finally deputy general secretary (1975-1985). In 1985, with the SCPS about to merge with the larger, less disciplined, Civil Service Union (CSU), he was set to be its first general secretary, while others saw him as a natural successor to Norman Willis as TUC general secretary (Mr Christie later admitted he had coveted that role).
Mr Christie, however, was looking north, a decision that disappointed many of his English colleagues. Jimmy Milne announced ahead of the 1985 Inverness STUC congress that he planned to retire as general secretary (he died suddenly a week before the following year’s congress) and the deputy general secretary of the SCPS was chosen as his successor. Meanwhile the CSU merger was called off and Leslie became SCPS general secretary.
Setting the tone for his term as general secretary, Mr Christie told journalists he was chiefly motivated by a desire to help create a Scottish parliament, signalling a determination to adapt the STUC to rapidly changing circumstances. By the mid-1980s industrial Scotland had changed enormously and he found his organisation virtually shut out of most of the Scottish economy’s growth sectors, as well as the political sphere in Whitehall and Downing Street.
Trade union membership was declining along with Scotland’s heavy industry, while successive Government legislation was eroding the power and influence of trade unions across the UK. Mr Christie, consequently, had to deal with a succession of industrial crises. In January 1987 the US vehicle builder Caterpillar abruptly announced the closure of its Uddingston plant where it had, 16 weeks earlier, announced a major investment package. The battle to save the Ravenscraig steelworks also dominated his time as general secretary.
Politically, he articulated concerns that decision-making in Scotland was moving away from elected politicians to unelected quangos dominated by businessmen sympathetic to the Conservative Government. A pragmatist, he adapted accordingly, gaining places on the boards of the Glasgow LEC, the CBI Scottish Manufacturing Group and Scottish Business in the Community, none of which had been traditional STUC concerns.
Some colleagues criticised him for this, and in 1995 the STUC’s general council instructed him to refuse an invitation from Scottish Secretary Michael Forsyth (who personally rated Mr Christie) to join the board of Highlands and Islands Enterprise on the basis that the STUC had nominated two representatives who had both been declined. The most serious challenge came in October 1990 when Mr Christie provisionally accepted an invitation to join the board of Guinness, whose 1986 takeover of Distillers had been condemned by the STUC.
Arguing he could help strengthen STUC influence in an important sector of the Scottish economy, he realised it would meet opposition but reckoned he could ride it out. He was wrong, and the general council came very close to ordering him to refuse it. A motion to strip him of the general secretaryship at a general council meeting in December 1990 was tabled by the furious General and Municipal Workers’ Union. It drew limited support but he felt compelled to capitulate. “It was a chastening experience for Christie”, judged Keith Aitken in his history of the STUC, “who, perhaps more than any of his predecessors, had become the public face of the STUC.”
Politically, his relationship with the Labour Party, and in particular its Shadow Scottish Secretary George Robertson, was also tense. Realising that Labour had downgraded the internal influence of trade unions (New Labour said they could expect “fairness, not favours”), he increasingly sought cross-party dialogue, remarking in an August 1996 radio interview that the STUC was not “in anybody’s pockets”. Later, he would liken Labour’s economic policies to “tired old monetarist orthodoxy”.
Mr Christie and Bill Speirs were criticised by some general council members for their role in “Scotland United”, an umbrella group for Nationalists and devolutionists, following the 1992 general election. The council also blocked a move by Mr Christie to have the SNP leader Alex Salmond address congress, while in 1994 Mr Christie accepted an invitation to speak to the Conservatives Party’s Scottish Council.
Devolution for Scotland was an enduring, and unusual, enthusiasm for a trade unionist, but he represented the STUC on the Scottish Constitutional Convention from its creation in 1989. He later wrote that a Scottish parliament was a “radical concept for democratic and representative equality … first pioneered by the STUC”. To an extent, the ruddy-complexioned Mr Christie became not only the public face of the STUC, but also that of the devolution movement. In 2010 he became a public supporter of “fiscal autonomy” for the Scottish Parliament he had worked so hard to create.
Ruddy complexioned, congenial, articulate and respected across the political spectrum, the former industrial correspondent Keith Aitken said Mr Christie “was comfortable in conversation in any company and on any topic. But woe betide anyone who took his easy courtesy and conviviality as the mark of a soft touch – when he needed to be, he was as stubborn and tenacious as a terrier”.
Mr Christie was appointed CBE in 1997, and retired from the STUC the following year. Thereafter he served on the boards of various public bodies, including several spells as chairman of Falkirk FC, one of which coincided with the team’s run in the Premier League. His final public role was as chairman of the Scottish Government’s Commission on the Future Delivery of Public Services, which reported in June this year.
He died at the Strathcarron Hospice in Denny following a long battle with cancer. His wife Betty, whom he married in 1962, and their son Douglas survive him. Another son, Andrew, died a number of years ago.
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