Obituary: Dr Robert ‘Bob’ McGovern Purdie, historian
Historian, educator, bibliophile, sometime professional revolutionary, committed Christian, passionate democratic socialist and long-time Scottish nationalist, gentle Bob Purdie was a man of parts. He played an important role in the Irish Civil Rights Movement, becoming its most respected chronicler. His death, aged 74, has been mourned by prominent academic historians from Belfast to Oxford, and by friends and foes across the political spectrum.
Bob Purdie led an eclectic life. On his 72nd birthday in 2012, he listed five things that happened to him which he never anticipated. They were: being held for questioning in connection with the Great Train Robbery; meeting the man who was first into the room after Trotsky was assassinated; staying in the home of the head of the Official IRA in Belfast; being paid £3.00 by a CIA agent; and – his pride – earning a PhD in history.
Bob Purdie saw the light of day in Edinburgh at the start of the Second World War. His father was a skilled cabinetmaker who passed on to his son a deep love of craftsmanship, which Bob consciously applied in his vocation as a historian. An identical twin, Bob was always close to his brother David. They were born into what Bob described as the respectable working class: “This was the narrow ledge from which we dreaded descent into the slums, but aspired to rise into the professional middle class.”
But in 1950s Scotland, university was closed to Bob because of cost and cultural distance. Despite his passion for collecting books, the young Purdie left school at 16. He endured a series of failed starts as joiner, ironmonger and lathe operator. Increasingly frustrated, he was rescued by politics. Like many of the idealistic post-war generation, Bob was attracted to revolutionary politics. He became a leading member of Tariq Ali’s International Marxist Group, discovering an innate talent for writing.
The IMG took Bob to the Swinging London of 1968. But the stern young revolutionary avoided the pitfalls: “I didn’t smoke marijuana because no one ever offered me any… I was far more interested in Scottish and Irish traditional music”.
Bob was chief steward at the great anti-Vietnam war demonstration in London, in October 1968. He also stood as a candidate for the IMG in the February 1974 general election, in the Glasgow Queens Park constituency. Always a sardonic wit, he attributed the 90 votes he secured to elderly Tory voters mistaking him for the son-in-law of Glasgow Conservative MP, Teddy Taylor.
In 1976, disillusioned with the sectarianism of the far left, an older Bob Purdie quit the IMG and sought to reorient his life by getting a degree. He was to spend the next three years studying at Warwick University where he discovered his true vocation as a historian. Still needing a political outlet, he joined the university Labour Club, though he voted SNP in the 1979 general election.
Returning to Scotland, Bob began a postgraduate degree at Strathclyde University, where he became friends with the president of the university Labour Club – John Boothman, now head of news at BBC Scotland. Questing for a subject for his PhD, Bob returned to his lifelong interest in Irish politics. In August 1980, he moved to Belfast to do research on his thesis on the Civil Rights Movement.
Unfortunately, the next decade in Northern Ireland would prove difficult. A long-standing relationship with an Irish girl ended and he was rejected for a Research Fellowship by Queen’s University, which punctured his normally sunny optimism. Bob was forced to earn a precarious living as a part-time lecturer in adult education. That and the frequent bouts of ill-health, threatened the completion of his doctorate. Belfast also led to his re-emersion in Irish politics.
During his IMG days, Bob supported the Irish Republican struggle to oust Britain and create a united Ireland. He wrote a famous polemical pamphlet entitled Ireland Unfree in 1972. While he never took part in anything illegal, he was often close to danger. His friend Peter Graham was shot to death in Dublin in 1971. But Bob’s ideas regarding Northern Ireland had changed radically by the 1980s. Bravely, he publicly repudiated the use of violence and the conspiratorial nature of Irish Republicanism. He became involved with Paddy Devlin in what proved an unsuccessful attempt to revive a non-sectarian Northern Ireland Labour Party.
At a low ebb, Bob chanced upon an advertisement for the post of Tutor in Politics at Ruskin College, Oxford. In 1988 Bob moved to Oxford to a new, happier life and new politics. He would stay for the next 20 years, finishing his PhD and writing Power in the Streets, the definitive history of the modern Irish Civil Rights Movement. Ruskin’s mature students came to regard Bob with affection and reverence.
Oxford saw Bob complete his conversion from revolutionary Marxist to Christian socialist. In 1988 he joined the SNP, his final political home. He became active in the SNP’s energetic London branch: “I found their political outlook very amenable, against nuclear weapons, anti-racist, anti-Thatcher but without the Spanish Inquisition attitude to political disagreements that often marred the Labour left.’’
Retiring from Ruskin, Bob came back to Scotland and settled in Kirkcaldy with his book collection. He never married. Last year he published his long-awaited political biography of the poet Hugh MacDiarmid. Meticulously researched, this seminal work explodes the absurd myth MacDiarmid was a proto-fascist. It is Bob’s best work.
I last saw Bob Purdie on the Monday before the independence referendum, at the launch of a new book by the political philosopher Tom Nairn. Bob, Tariq Ali and myself reminisced about the IMG. The referendum defeat did not dishearten Bob. He remained in characteristic good humour: “Last night the Kirkcaldy SNP gathered for some intensive group therapy over a few pints. It’s worth reflecting that the losers in most liberation struggles don’t communicate by meeting in a pub, they tap the pipes in their cells.”
Win or lose, Scotland’s referendum process was of historical significance in Bob’s eyes and made final sense of his long association with Irish politics: “What we have done in Scotland shows that the IRA’s violence was not only unnecessary, it got in the way of progress.”
Shortly before his death, Bob penned his own epitaph: “I am a Scottish Nationalist as well as a socialist. My socialism began with the radical democratic ideas I learned from Robert Burns, and the ethical values of the Gospels, which I learned within a nation which is deeply imbued with Christianity.
“In democratic struggle socialism ceases to be abstract, it comes alive in the minds and hearts of human beings who are striving to create a truly human society. Socialism lives and is still relevant. I pledge myself anew to my beliefs of 40 years.”