By Patrick Sawer
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David George Sawer 1940-2004

This article is over 19 years, 10 months old
DAVID SAWER, a longstanding member of the Socialist Workers Party who has died suddenly aged 63, defied early expectations.
Issue 1910

DAVID SAWER, a longstanding member of the Socialist Workers Party who has died suddenly aged 63, defied early expectations.

He was one of that small band of English middle class men who moved to the left as they got older, rather than the standard rightward drift expected of all once-youthful socialists.

Like Tony Benn, he graduated from mainstream Labour to something far more radical.

But unlike Benn, David’s politics were formed in the continental crucible of the late 1960s.

As an English teacher and writer living in Rome, he witnessed the convulsions of Italian society.

Italy was then still close to fascism in deed and memory.

But its proud revolutionary tradition was being rediscovered by students and workers hungry for a new and better world.

Like many British left wing intellectuals, David was the product of a public school education. But here too there were differences which would one day make themselves felt.

He was born in Sheffield, the son of a skilled tool maker and factory manager who sacrificed much to send him to Christ Church College in Oxford.

After graduating, David travelled to Rome to teach English.

He returned to London to marry his Italian girlfriend, have his first son and canvass for Harold Wilson in the general elections of the 1960s.

Back in Rome he came into contact with the first stirrings of the new left among university students and intellectuals.


He became involved with the sit-ins, neighbourhood campaigns and workplace disputes that would flower into the “Hot Autumn” of 1969.

Marches, demonstrations and occupations to turn scrap land into playgrounds were a family affair for the Sawers and their Roman comrades.

His love of Italy—its people, food, culture and history—also became a love of the best of its political traditions.

The family returned to England in 1972 and in Chelmsford he joined the International Socialists, the forerunner of the SWP.

David was active in supporting many strikes which formed the high point of workers’ militancy in the early 1970s.

As an editor of English language teaching books, he was among a small group of activists that unionised workers at the Oxford University Press (OUP).

They set up a branch of the ASTMS union (now part of Amicus) and negotiated wide-ranging improvements in working conditions.

When OUP relocated from London to Oxford the branch work continued and deepened. There was a memorable dispute and active support for the struggle of other workers, in Britain and abroad, particularly South Africa and Chile.

David campaigned long and hard for the release of his colleagues and friends Richard and Chistina Whitecross, who had been detained by the military regime in Argentina.

When OUP refused to get involved he worked through the branch to force the firm to get the couple back to the Britain as OUP employees.

The Great Miners’ Strike of 1984-5 saw him throw himself into the work of the Oxford Miners’ Support Group, which was particularly active.


The defeat of the strike knocked the stuffing out of him, as it did thousands of militants and trade unionists.

But David was not given to depression. He managed to sustain a long term optimism even in the face of successive victories for Margaret Thatcher.

In later years his enthusiasm and hope was re-awakened by the anti-capitalist movement growing across the world and the international peace marches.

“Rubbish,” he would say in his direct Yorkshire manner when confronted with some formerly radical doomsayer.

“Look at all the gains we have made in the past few decades. Look at the way they are marching again in Madrid, Rome, Rio and London.”

For David, revolutionary politics was just one part of a rich and full life.

He had an academic mind, but he was also a skilled woodworker, finally abandoning editing in favour of his beloved furniture restoration.

He was an enthusiastic gardener and voracious reader, whose shelves could accommodate science fiction and thrillers as easily as the weightiest political tracts.

His death has left a deep sense of loss not only among his family, but his political and union comrades and wider circle of friends.

As one wrote in a message of sympathy to his widow: “He was a warm, gentle man with a true sense of justice and a belief in the good of human nature. An example to us all.”

Donations to the Nick Burdon Memorial Fund for overseas trade unionists, c/o Clive Ford, 129 Fernhill Road, Oxford OX4.

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