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Mick McGahey: A Miners’ Hero

Scottish miners’ leader Mick McGahey was born on this day in 1925. A fearless trade unionist, he brought Scottish miners down to Grunwick to stand with Asian women, championed internationalism, and, in his own words, was a product of his class and movement.

(Photo by Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

On 30 January 2024 a rare unanimity was evidenced at the Scottish Parliament. Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs) gathered to debate a motion brought by Richard Leonard, Labour MSP for the Central Region, to remember miners’ leader Michael ‘Mick’ McGahey on the twenty-fifth anniversary of his passing. The motion was signed by representatives from the Scottish National Party, the Scottish Greens, and the Liberal Democrats.

McGahey was a prominent communist and a leading supporter of the Scottish Parliament as president of the National Union of Mineworkers Scottish Area (NUMSA) from 1967 to 1987, and vice-president of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) from 1972 to 1987. Having retired in 1987 as the industry disappeared from Britain’s landscape, he passed away in 1999, months before the first elections to the new Scottish Parliament took place.

The fortieth anniversary of the great strike is an invitation to understand McGahey’s life through another prism. So far this year, two major documentary series on the dispute have been broadcast by Channel 4 and BBC. Both focused exclusively on the ‘Central Coalfields’ — Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire, and Derbyshire — meaning that the strike’s origins in the opposition to pit closures in South Wales and Scotland, along with the contribution of Durham and Kent miners, were overlooked.

As a union leader, McGahey embraced Scottish distinctiveness but prized the unity of what he saw as a singular British coalfield. In that, he is an important symbol of the formative role coal played in twentieth-century politics and economy throughout Scotland, England, and Wales.

A Life on the Picket Line

McGahey was born on 29 May 1925 in Shotts, Lanarkshire. Shotts lies within a conurbation of canals, railways, mines, and foundries stretching back to the eighteenth century, an industrial ecology that formed the backdrop for James Neilson’s invention of the hot blast technology in the 1820s. A century later, 60,000 miners were working there in Scotland’s largest coalfield. It was an auspicious time: McGahey was born two months before ‘Red Friday’, which saw the government subsidise coal wages to prevent conflict. The concessions only lasted a year.

The infant Michael was mired in class struggle. His father, Jimmy, was arrested and imprisoned for activities during the 1926 general strike and the miners’ lockout that followed. While in jail Jimmy McGahey lost a daughter, and Michael a sister. Despite the pleadings of a sympathetic priest, Jimmy was not given temporary release to attend the funeral.

Once free, following the miners’ defeat, Jimmy was blacklisted out of Lanarkshire. He found work in Kent and Stirlingshire before resettling in Cambuslang on Glasgow’s fringes. While the McGahey family’s mobility was expedited by repression, these movements were not atypical. In an extractive industry beholden to the shifting economics of production, miners often relocated, taking their political ideas with them, discovering new ones, and developing cosmopolitan, autodidactic communities.

Like most men of his class and background, Michael McGahey began work aged 14, at Gateside Colliery in Cambuslang. He followed his father into union activism and joined the Communist Party of Great Britain soon after. Intergenerational learning was a hallmark of coalfield culture: McGahey was educated by his father and other older men. Yet as a maturing activist he exercised judgement and rejected being dictated to. He led miners out on strike at just 18 years of age to the chagrin of his father, who saw this as an insult to the Soviet people then fighting German fascism.

By the time McGahey became president of the NUM Scottish Area, the industry was in steep contraction. There had been over 80,000 Scottish miners in the late 1950s; by the mid-1970s there were fewer than 30,000. McGahey demonstrated a more combative approach towards the nationalised coal industry than his predecessors and played a formative role in developing a ‘broad left’, which centred on an alliance of communist-aligned and Labour-left-aligned miners. When 15,000 Scottish miners walked out on strike to support a surface worker wage claim in 1969, the NUM Scottish Area made the strike official.

In 1972, miners embarked on an official national wage strike. Popular narratives emphasise the importance of ‘flying pickets’ to the dispute, but what is less commonly understood is that they were used to blockade energy supplies. McGahey led a picket of Longannet power station in Fife, a mammoth coal-fired unit that supplied a third of Scottish demand, and therefore represented the issue at the core of the strike: the public’s dependence on the miners’ work. The blockade saw thirteen picketers arrested and charged with mobbing and rioting, before being found not guilty months later. McGahey was kicked by a policeman and taken for medical treatment.

Facing defeat in a second major coal dispute two years later in 1974, Tory Prime Minister Edward Heath called an election, asking: ‘Who governs Britain?’ In the right-wing press, McGahey was cast as a communist bogeyman plotting to force a change of government. McGahey insisted by contrast that he wished to bring the Tories down through the ballot box. This was one example of the obvious contours — and limitations — of McGahey’s position. A communist, he acted as a radical labourist in his broad left mould, undertaking industrial action for economic ends and avoiding the implications of political motivation.

What appears to have driven McGahey above all was a democratic politics that extended from the workplace to Parliament. He brought delegations of Scottish miners to the mass picket lines at the Grunwick photo processing company in West London during 1977, and those miners stood alongside the largely Asian strikers, themselves often refugees from East Africa. McGahey condemned their employer, George Ward, as an archaic ‘industrial vandal’ intent on reducing workers to the status of nineteenth-century servants rather than twentieth-century citizens.

Unfortunately, Ward represented Britain’s future, not just its past. Backed by the Special Patrol Group of the Metropolitan Police, he won, and was lauded by supporters on the Tory right. Margaret Thatcher, the then leader of the opposition, condemned the picketers’ ‘violence’. Grunwick prefigured the state violence and attack on trade union strength that would engulf the coalfields seven years later, bringing the industrial order McGahey advanced and defended to a crushing end.

Honouring a Legacy

Coal’s centrality to Scotland’s economy drove McGahey’s support for a decentralised political order. By the late 1960s he was a leading advocate of a Scottish Parliament, driven by opposition to the pit closure programmes directed from the National Coal Board’s London headquarters. This strategy, centred on building an alliance of labour movement and ‘progressive’ liberal and nationalist forces against Tory rule, was approximated in the MSPs who this year signed Leonard’s motion. By the early 1980s, the case for devolution was posed starkly in terms of the interests of Scottish miners, steelworkers, and shipbuilders against what McGahey termed not just job losses but ‘deindustrialisation’.

Realising a Scottish Parliament has achieved some part of McGahey’s aims: an enhanced role for unions in policy discussions and commitments to a fair-work agenda. Nonetheless, devolution has not substantively delivered economic security or a union movement significantly more active than its English counterpart. Workplace relations across Britain look more like Grunwick than the 1970s Coal Board: anti-union and driven by authoritarian managers pursuing cheap, ‘flexible’ labour. Sports Direct infamously has warehouses in the former Midlands pit villages, Shirebrook, and Rugeley. In Scotland, Amazon operates from Fife, and Lanarkshire is a centre for logistics.

Towards the end of McGahey’s tenure, the NUM Scottish Area supported extending associational membership of the union to miners’ wives but was initially blocked in achieving this by delegates from Yorkshire and other coalfields. These aims demonstrate McGahey’s expansive perspective on union and political organisation, along with his objective of emboldening participation in workplace and political life. The most politically developed speech at the Holyrood debate, given by Green MSP Maggie Chapman, emphasised these qualities in McGahey — his political thought and ability to affect industrial mobilisation.

Ultimately, it was McGahey’s understanding of state and workplace power, and the importance of broad alliances in both contexts, that marked his contribution. A physical tribute to McGahey at Holyrood should be accompanied not only by opposition to rigid orthodoxies, but also by a commitment to advancing workers’ interests even when it is most difficult. As MSPs in the chamber noted themselves, McGahey insisted on advocating not for a monument, but for a movement.