Comment: Manufacturing a stronger community for all

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I READ with interest John Paul McHugh’s recent comments in these pages on the decision of the union Community to support the No campaign in the forthcoming independence referendum.

Community is no different from most other UK unions, the membership base being mostly from south of the Border. In this case, that number is 92.5 per cent, so it is no surprise they could deliver such a decision at their national conference.

I would have felt more comfortable if the decision had been made by our members who live in Scotland – the ones who will be directly affected. As the STUC correctly states, while recognising the interest of all non-Scottish-based citizens in constitutional change affecting the UK, it is an interest of different order and magnitudes.

I am a lifelong steelworker and union member, first joining the industry and the union in 1947 at the Dalziell Works, Motherwell. With the exception of serving nine years in the Royal Navy from 1949 to 1958, I have worked in the steel industry all my life, rejoining Dalziell in 1959 then transferred to Ravenscraig in 1960, where I remained until I was made redundant in 1991.

For the last 17 of these years I was the union convenor at Ravenscraig. During that time, I led the fight for the retention of steel in Scotland. I lived and worked through the years of rationalisation, nationalisation, privatisation, and finally the devastation of a once great and proud industry – an industry that contributed greatly to the Scottish economy.

Ravenscraig was an excellent plant with a highly skilled professional workforce, making high quality steel at the right price and specification and delivering on time to our customers. There was never an economic argument or case for its closure.

In fact, I challenged Bob Scholey, the then chairman of British Steel, during a hearing of a select committee in the House of Commons, that if he had an economic case for the closure of Ravenscraig then put it on the table for examination. And, if proved to be correct, we would immediately sit down and negotiate closure terms for the plant. We are still waiting.

Having won the hearts and minds of all of Scotland in relation to the Scottish steel industry, we had to take the case south, to the prime minister and UK parliament. In January 1986, 12 of us representing the Gartcosh and Ravenscraig plants, the four main political parties, the churches, and the communities of Lanarkshire in particular and Scotland in general marched from Gartcosh to London to present a petition to the prime minister and attend a special debate on the Scottish steel industry in the House of Commons.

Our greatest concern at the time was the threatened closure of the Gartcosh works, which was the finishing mill for Ravenscraig, giving our product its added value and ensured we could continue to present an economic case for the retention of steel in Scotland.

We arrived in London 15 days later and presented ourselves at 10 Downing Street with our petition. Alas, Margaret Thatcher would not see us because she was having tea with Ian Botham at the time and refused to be disturbed. Did someone say Better Together?

To add to our misery, the Commons debate was cancelled due to the Westland Helicopter affair and the resignation of Michael Heseltine as the defence minister. The following day we had to make our way home having achieved nothing and with a huge question mark over the future of steelmaking in Scotland. The rest is history. Gartcosh closed later that year and Ravenscraig followed six years later. So much for stronger together.

We must ask ourselves: would the decline and death of such a successful industry have happened in an independent Scotland? The obvious answer must be: it would not.

In his article, Mr McHugh clearly says: “Trade unions are about solidarity. The very name of our movement is symbolic of the fact that we are bound together by ties that go beyond nationality and location.”

That is so very true, and will not change with the advent of an independent Scotland – it will make the ties that bind stronger. The fact that we are bound together as trade unionists will ensure that we will continue within our movement to support our colleagues in pursuit of social justice, wherever they may live, whether on a national or international basis. That is what the movement is all about.

In his article, Mr McHugh takes issue with the SNP on a number of matters. As the political director of the Community union, that is to be expected of him, but I leave that between him and the party.

Like many others in the Yes campaign, I have no political ties. However, in his reference to companies evading tax and enjoying corporation tax cuts, may I remind him that many companies evaded tax during the 13 years that New Labour were in power in Westminster. And more importantly, I would remind him of the 1991 Budget of Gordon Brown, when he gave huge tax cuts to big business, while awarding a paltry 75 pence per week to the pensioners in this country. People in glass houses…

I am happy and comfortable to say Yes to an independent Scotland, as I sincerely believe it is fundamentally better for all when decisions about Scotland’s future are taken by the people who care most about Scotland – the people who live here.

Finally, I’d recommend the Scottish TUC report A Just Scotland from November 2012, and the website, which gives a balanced view while at the same time covering most of the matters of concern to the members of our movement.

• Tommy Brennan was the convenor of shop stewards at Ravenscraig works