OUR Icon this week was a Communist, back in the days when that seemed very slightly less mental than it does now and when the Left was about class warfare rather than pronoun struggle.

In Mick McGahey’s 1980s heyday, nearly everyone of proletarian stock was left wing, but even then relatively few opted for Communism. 

Many, indeed, would have considered themselves to the left of something seen as suited, sinister, grim, and quite likely to have you shot.

Communism was tactical, treacherous, inimical to individualism. It was grey. It was not for hippies and their successors, who wanted fun and freedom and, if politically engaged on the Left, remembered Communism’s poisonous role in the Spanish Civil War, its pact with Hitler, its crackdown of the Prague Spring. 

Doubtless, those who gravitated towards the creed in Britain thought their version might be  more polite and decent. The Italians had a large Communist Party that was, well, rather Italian.

As for Scotland, Communism was a phenomenon of industrial trade unions and the odd academic who read too much and lived too little. 

If you suffered badly under capitalism, as miners historically had, it’s easy to see why you might savour something hard, mean, determined, and likely to exact revenge. Not that the last named held much appeal for this week’s Icon.

The year before the General Strike, on May 29, 1925, in Shotts, Lanarkshire, Michael “Mick” McGahey was born into the l.abour movement. 

His father, James, was a miner and a founder member of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). During the General Strike, James was jailed and forcibly separated from one-year-old Michael.

Another son died while James was in prison and, despite petitions from the local minister and priest, he was not allowed to attend the funeral. 

The family were also evicted by landlord and employer the Shotts Iron Company and, blacklisted locally, relocated to Kent for work, then Stirlingshire, before settling in Cambuslang.

At the coalface
Young McGahey began work aged 14 at Gateside Colliery. At that age, he was also assaulted with a broken glass while selling the Daily Worker in a Cambuslang pub. He followed his father into the CPGB and the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), remaining a member of the former until its dissolution in 1991 and the latter all his life.

Aged 18, he became chairman of his union branch, beginning a career that saw him rise to Scottish area president in 1967. He never became UK president, being defeated for that top post by Joe Gormley in 1971. 

Thereafter, so it’s said, Gormley postponed his own retirement until McGahey was over 55 and too old by union rules to stand again. He did, however, become vice-president in 1972.

During the miners’ strikes of 1972 and 1974, he accused Gormley of “ballotisis” and vowed never to be “constitutionalised” out of a dispute. This vexed issue raised its head again in the cataclysmic strike of 1984-85.

Again, McGahey backed miners’ leader Arthur Scargill in opposing a national ballot, believing regions should make their own decisions about striking. 

The Herald: Gordon McLennan, left, Communist candidate for St Pancras, with Mick McGahey

After the strike, however, McGahey became more critical of Scargill and opposed the growing concentration of power within the NUM. 

He expressed regret about violent picketing in Nottinghamshire and did not accept that miners there were necessarily “scabs”.

To Scargill’s dismay, McGahey also insisted the NUM try to reconcile with the breakaway Union of Democratic Mineworkers.

Aye spy
MI5 SURVEILLANCE during the strike revealed he was infuriated by Scargill’s cosying up to the Libyan government, which was seeking to exploit the situation with financial aid. Michael’s phone had been tapped by MI5 from 1970 onwards. 

Alas, frequently, even their top experts could not transcribe what he was saying, on account of his gravelly accent combined with occasional inebriation. Fair to say Michael was fond of the traditional hauf ’n’ hauf.

Fair to say also that, while conciliatory towards other miners with different views, he wasn’t hauf-hearted when it came to the class enemy. In 1998, on the death of strike-busting National Coal Board chairman Ian MacGregor, he said: “It’s no loss to people of my ilk. MacGregor was a vicious, anti-trades unionist, anti-working class person, recruited by the Tory government … for the purpose of destroying trade unionism in the mining industry. I will not suffer any grief, not will I in any way cry over the loss of Ian MacGregor.”

McGahey’s Communism was complete and unrepentant. “I was born a Communist. I have always been a Communist and I would like to die a Communist.”

He was elected to the CPGB’s executive in 1971 and, when the party dissolved in 1991, joined its successor north of the Border,  the Communist Party of Scotland. He encouraged visitor exchanges between British and Soviet miners and, at one point, stayed at a convalescent home in East Germany.

McGahey remained in the CPGB following the exodus of party members after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956.

However, later he criticised Soviet foreign policy, with his stance on the Prague Spring particularly infuriating his father. “I went to see Auld McGahey and he wouldn’t let me in the door. All he would say was, ‘So you and Jimmy Reid condemned the Soviet Union’.” The door was then shut in his face.

Rule measured
MCGAHEY opposed the Soviet invasions of Afghanistan and Czechoslovakia, believing countries should run their own affairs, an approach that he also took towards Scotland.

Indeed, as venerable Scottish journalist Keith Aitken wrote in The Herald letters page recently, he should be remembered for his commitment to home rule as much as anything else. After his death on January 30, 1999, Mick McGahey’s ashes were scattered on the foundations of the Scottish Parliament.

Last month, former Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard called on the Parliament to erect a bust to “the working-class hero”.

Perhaps the last word should go to a friend and comrade since youth, the aforementioned Jimmy Reid, who said in a Herald obituary: “There is an image of Mick as a Stalinist, a tankie, a Communist sectarian. He was nothing of the kind. He embraced what was known as Euro-Communism, a model of socialist transformation and renewal through a democratic process.”

Reid added: “We were enriched by his life. We are warmed by the memory of that life.”