Socialist Worker

Hugh Scanlon: from awkward to ermine

Issue No. 1887

HUGH SCANLON, who died last week at the age of 90, was president of the engineering workers' union in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He was part of the 'awkward squad' of the time. The media referred to him and the transport workers' leader Jack Jones as the 'Terrible Twins'. But Scanlon ended up in the House of Lords.

THE WALRUS, the industrial columnist on the Socialist Review monthly magazine, looks at his life.

SCANLON'S election as union leader in 1968 horrified the Labour Party leadership. It was seen as a direct challenge to the wage controls of Harold Wilson's government and seemed likely to legitimise the strength of the unofficial shop stewards movement.

Scanlon joined the Communist Party in Manchester in 1937 at the time of the Spanish Civil War and the rise of fascism in Europe. The party played an important role in organising the major factories in the area, and Scanlon was a shop steward and then convenor at the huge Metro-Vickers plant.

After the Second World War the party followed a strategy of encouraging individuals like Scanlon to take up full time positions in the unions. Scanlon became a district official of the engineering union in Manchester in 1947 and continued along the same 'Broad Left' path even after he left the party in 1954.

By the time of his win in 1968, the Broad Left approach was by far the most important pole of attraction for activists in the engineering industry in places like Sheffield, Manchester and London, in shipbuilding on the Clyde, in the Scottish and Welsh coalfields, in parts of the building industry and the docks, at the British Leyland Longbridge factory and at Ford Dagenham. Expectations were extremely high that Scanlon's leadership would really start to take things forward.

He was vehement in his opposition to attempts by Harold Wilson and then by Tory prime minister Ted Heath to introduce anti-union legislation. Scanlon's opposition was based less on the threat that legislation posed to rank and file militancy and more on it robbing full time officials of what they regarded as their primary role-as mediators between workers and their employers. In a series of confrontations deliberately provoked by the Heath government, the shop stewards organisation refused to be intimidated and scored a series of historic victories-stopping yard closures at UCS, getting the Pentonville Five dockers out of jail, and the two victorious miners' strikes of 1972 and 1974. But union leaders like Jones and Scanlon began increasingly to come into conflict with their own rank and file.

Rather than risk a full-blown confrontation with the government and employers, the 'Terrible Twins' began playing on their left wing credentials to police their own membership.

By 1973 the crisis which had engulfed the Heath government was so severe that the 'Terrible Twins' were invited to secret talks over the introduction of a wages freeze. When Labour was restored to office the following year, Harold Wilson put a few left wing faces-like Michael Foot and Tony Benn-in charge of employment affairs and installed Jones and Scanlon as go-betweens who would carry the government's concerns into the trade union movement.

This they were to do, to devastating effect. Scanlon and Jones became prime architects of Labour's 'Social Contract', which introduced strict wage controls and limits on strike action.

The network of activists who had resisted the previous Labour government's In Place of Strife anti-union plans and the Tory attacks of 1970-4 were not big enough or strong enough to withstand the political pressure and ended up being torn apart. Scanlon took the ermine. Let's hope we can stop today's awkward squad going the same way.

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Sat 7 Feb 2004, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1887
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