The story of the Scottish workers’ solidarity against Chile’s General Pinochet is more relevant than ever, writes Lesley Riddoch.
It’s 1974, East Kilbride. Bob Fulton, a Rolls-Royce engine inspector, returns to his section, upset and anxious.
He’s just told colleagues that a Chilean Air Force jet engine has arrived in the factory for maintenance and he’s refusing to let it go through, in protest against the recent military coup of General Pinochet. He’s seen the images of people packed into football stadiums awaiting charge, torture and execution. He’s seen the Chilean Air Force jets bombing Santiago on TV News, and now one of the engines from those very planes is right there, waiting for inspection. He can see his supervisors approaching, he knows he’s about to be fired yet he feels a responsibility to people he will never meet, from another continent, hemisphere and culture.
Why? Well if Bob was living in Chile, not Scotland, he would likely have been in those trucks, on those torture tables and maybe finally in those gutters.
As a trade unionist, survivor of war, skilled craftsman and active citizen, the shape of Bob’s entire life produced the conviction that he could and should take a stand.
So Bob and his colleagues refused to service the Rolls Royce engines and began the astonishing train of events that placed an almighty Lanarkshire spanner in Pinochet’s mighty killing machine, saving the lives of countless Chilean folk.
This story of everyday heroism is being told for the first time – and just in time given the age of participants -- in a film called Nae Pasaran, showing in art-house venues around Scotland and the UK right now. It’s a moving, painstakingly researched, funny and beautifully made film which demonstrates the power of solidarity and comradeship among men lucky enough to complete their working lives before our diminished and precarious world of de-unionised, casual employment, out-sourcing and zero hour contracts drew breath. It shows the dogged determination of one filmmaker to track down interviewees across generations and two hemispheres. And, as we stand on the brink of a shameless, corrupt and nakedly greedy milestone in British history – it shows with searing clarity how British society has changed.
The relatively confident, moral and organised society of the 1970s produced citizens able to make easy connections between workers across the world. That society has gone – though it’s not completely extinguished in Scotland.
Over four intervening decades, Britain has become a byword for political hostility to immigrants and indifference to Windrush citizens; a country where scapegoating the EU for every British problem and accusing EU nationals of queue-jumping has poisoned the well of democracy so badly that no rational decision about Brexit can be taken for fear of further infuriating a ripped-off underclass of workers with no hope of change in their lives, except a downward spiral into the abject poverty described recently by an UN envoy whose report has been dismissed as impertinent by the UK government.
Over the 40 years that Bob and his friends grew older, retired, watched families grow up and passed on their values to children and grand-children, Britain has morphed into an elitist, market-led society where citizens experience the state as atomised consumers and humiliated claimants – not primarily as well-resourced workers. The British economy depends on the privatisation of natural monopolies and the deregulation of almost everything else. Our state acts without pity or mercy, lies as it breathes and uses a balance sheet for a moral compass.
So it’s no surprise that Britain refuses to end arms sales to Saudi Arabia despite the international outcry over Jamal Khashoggi’s killing, the role our weapons continue to play in perpetuating war and famine and the principled stand by Germany, Finland and Denmark who’ve ended arms sales. What a contrast to the 1970s Labour Government which led worldwide condemnation of the military coup in Chile and created an escape route for dissidents until Margaret Thatcher won power and helped prop up Pinochet and his murderous regime.
A friend to dictators – that’s what Britain has become.
And that’s why Scots desperately need an injection of the insight, determination, morality and clarity of Bob Fulton, John Keenan and Robert Sommerville right now, because we face some massive moral decisions – as voters, workers and citizens.
Can every union and worker at Scots-based arms manufacturers just ignore the powerful parallels with 1973 or will just one worker draw inspiration from the men of East Kilbride, and refuse to supply weapons to the Saudi regime?
Nae Pasaran’s Facebook page contains this powerful observation from a recent viewer: “Many of the folk making bombsights for despots will never work again if they down tools for political reasons. It’s going to take decades to reverse that situation... if we ever do. But when I come to be judged, the crime that will send me to the underworld is that my generation allowed the present political class to take power uncontested.”
Such abdication of responsibility is just not possible now. Scotland is set to be hauled out of the EU in coming months – out of an arena in which workers rights are taken seriously, trade unions are part of enduring social contracts and respect for human rights underpins international law.
If that happens, the journey back to something resembling an equal, caring society will look so long and arduous that many Scots will simply give up. And we can’t. That’s why every Scot should see this film if they possibly can.
Nae Pasaran is testimony to how much Scotland has lost as a society but also how much is retained – above all the knowledge that we have a choice about serving the super-rich, facilitating their wars and creating tools of repression and a choice about remaining in a union that demands our compliance and ignores our political priorities. The old heroes of East Kilbride will stir something in every person lucky enough to see their story.