Communist stalwart

Born: June 27, 1925

Died: October 29, 2019

JOHN Kay, who has died aged 94, was one of the most influential if below-the-radar figures of post-war Left politics. He may not be a household name but he was a regular fixture at all the great industrial struggles of the last 60 years and was universally admired for his integrity, humanity and good humour.

Born in Glasgow a year before the general strike of 1926, he was a bright child who won a scholarship to the prestigious Allan Glen’s school. He left education at 14 to take up an apprenticeship as a draughtsman. In the early 1950s he emigrated to New Zealand but he returned to Scotland with his wife Helen before the decade was out. John Kay became the Scottish Industrial Organiser of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB).

The veteran socialist activist Stewart Maclennan recalls, "John was no dry bureaucrat, rather an irrepressible campaigner of the old school, his green Morris van with its ‘KGB’ number-plate instantly recognisable at rallies, demonstrations and factory gate meetings throughout Scotland."

Kay was an educator to all who were in his company. His power of recall for specific details of a struggle or of a policy formulation was magnificent. His explanations left no detail behind. In argument he had those peculiarly CPGB traits of effortless articulacy, superb vocabulary and at times a delivery that could transfix, even mesmerise an audience.

What struck me about John and indeed many of his comrades was that they were just so much better than many elected politicians, but of course when they dipped their toes into electoral politics it invariably ended in failure.

He fought Glasgow Queen’s Park at the two General Elections of 1974 and again at the parliamentary by-election in 1982. Perhaps his highest profile effort was in the Glasgow Gorbals by-election of 1969. His beloved Helen once showed me his election address for that campaign and with a school girlish look at his photograph exclaimed, ‘he looks so like Ray Milland’.

For a period in the 1980s when I was briefly politically active I came into contact with Communists like Jack Ashton, Douglas Chalmers, George Bolton and the one for whom I developed a lifelong soft spot, John Kay.

Messrs Ashton, Chalmers and Kay sat on the STUCs anti poll tax committee at a time when the avuncular Campbell Christie and his razor sharp deputy, Bill Speirs, tried in vain to hold a unity line among Scotland’s political parties in opposition to the erroneously named ‘community charge’.

The SNP wanted a non payment campaign whereas Labour wanted a campaign of frustration and opposition within the law. Trying to bridge the gap were the three Communist reps who argued for a campaign of opposition initially which might move towards a campaign of non payment eventually.

Their compromise was too much for Labour and not enough for the SNP. Jim Sillars would later bemoan that he was not prepared to back the ‘graveyard unity of the STUC’.

Before the SNP walked out of the cross party effort, John Kay launched a sustained and brilliant analysis of why the SNP walking out of the committee was bad for those whom the charge would ultimately crucify. He cross examined their poll tax spokesman Kenny MacAskill in a way that had me musing if he was a closet member of the faculty of advocates.

Another big issue of the time was whether the mooted constitutional convention should embrace a multi-option referendum at the end of their deliberations. Kay was again active in trying to forge consensus. This debate was designed to get the SNP into the convention tent and a desire that the country’s opposition parties spoke with one voice against the Westminster government. That effort fell on deaf ears too and the rest as they say is history.

In 1991 the CPGB split and Kay backed the Eurocommunist position and the formation of the new Democratic Left. He was active in that organisation and for a decade was a sage voice on the editorial committee of the Scottish Left Review which he helped found.

John and Helen were a double act and the foundation of their relationship was not only a shared love for one another but a symbiotic set of values rooted in their political views. Helen spent many years working in the cause of nuclear disarmament. They were just so utterly genuine that you could not help to be both moved and impressed by them.

Their egalitarianism was in their bones and their determination to do right by the marginalised and oppressed was pursued throughout their lives. These traits were never better expressed than when they adopted their daughter Jackie and son Maxwell, children who were given life chances by loving parents.

When Jackie Kay became the Scots Makar, I travelled to Brackenbraes Avenue in Bishopbriggs to interview the proud-as-punch parents. We ended the interview with John and Helen reading to camera one of Jackie’s poems. It was read with such feeling that you thought they were just recently retired from the stage.

I left their house that day and my cameraman Danny Livingston turned to me and said "they don’t make them like that anymore Bernard, do they?" They don’t and more’s the pity, more’s the pity.

Former Scottish Labour chairman Bob Thomson recalls Kay as a "dapper, well read, good conversationalist, fine singer, concert and theatre goer who will be sorely missed".

When I think of John I will think of his intellect, of his role as educator and of his love for Helen and his family. Above all I will think of his humanity and how it shone every day of his life.

The essence of his politics was that we are all the same, all born equal, but some are just that bit special. Comrade Kay was one of them.