The death of Lord Scanlon of Davyhulme, at the age of 90, closes a chapter of British labour history the like of which we shall not see again.
As Hugh Scanlon, he was one of the last of the trade union barons – a label he reluctantly accepted long before he became a baron of the realm. Indeed, there was a time when the mere suggestion that he might, one day, become a member of the House of Lords would have been laughed at all the way round the vast, now defunct, industrial estate at Trafford Park, Manchester, where the militant young shop steward – a member of the Communist party from the age of 23 – was commissar of all he surveyed. Yet, as was reflected in so many aspects of his life, Scanlon was a mass of paradoxes.
He was, and indeed largely remained, a convinced Marxist and an admirer, albeit increasingly critical, of the old Soviet Union. He was a serious political thinker, yet with a profound disregard for the kind of organisational rigour that is generally associated with such intellectual pursuits.
He loved the trifles of bourgeois life, being just as much at home on an exclusive golf course as at a trade union conference. He would rarely sacrifice a good dinner party for a political meeting. He could laugh at himself in the style of the most sophisticated political satirist, and move on to threaten thunder and revolution from the rostrum. He was a loveable revolutionary, with a taste for gentle self-mockery, even of his most serious beliefs – certainly one of Arnold Bennett’s natural “cards”.
When Scanlon was president of the Amalgamated Engineering Union (AEU), he reigned, for a large part of that period, in parallel with Jack Jones, then general secretary of the Transport and General Workers’ Union. They were the two dominant figures in Britain’s two most powerful trade unions, and, in the decade 1968 to 1978, they were linked in the most formidable partnership of leftwing union leadership the country had known – certainly since the end of the second world war, if not at any time during the last century. They were, as the headline writers insisted, the “terrible twins”.
Together, Scanlon and Jones exerted a more profound influence on Harold Wilson’s governments than the duet of the American president and the Soviet general secretary. When, in 1969, Wilson was forced to retreat in the face of union opposition to the proposed white paper, In Place Of Strife, Barbara Castle’s programme to curb trade union strike powers, it was the Jones-Scanlon partnership that effectively killed off the cabinet vote in favour of the plan.
There is the famous account of the final surrender, said to have been rehearsed at Chequers one weekend in May 1969. Wilson had invited Castle, Jones, Scanlon and the TUC general secretary Vic Feather for tea and a chat. As Wilson warned of the dangers of any government retreat on their trade union legislation plans, Scanlon is said to have been practising his golf swing. Exasperated by his guest’s intractability, the prime minister exploded: “Get your tanks off my lawn, Hughie.” Scanlon later claimed that he had never heard this from Wilson’s lips.
Even so, that afternoon saw the end of In Place Of Strife. It was also the end of the Wilson government. Having lost that battle, Wilson went on to lose the 1970 election to Edward Heath, and a Tory government’s first attempt to legislate against trade union power.
Curiously enough, the “terrible twins” did not really like each other. Scanlon admired Jones, but did not actually love him. He regarded Jones as too autocratic, too much the stern disciplinarian and meticulous organiser, who, unlike himself, made a virtue out of his frugal tastes and habits. He was certainly the far more austere figure; although Scanlon himself had some of these characteristics, he never elevated them to a cult. He enjoyed social life; he had a fund of jokes, many of them against himself or his union. His golfing handicap was almost as important to him as a vote of confidence from his union executive. And none of this, he was convinced, detracted from his commitment to socialism.
Scanlon was born in Melbourne, Australia, where his parents had emigrated, but was brought back to Manchester at two by his mother, after she was widowed. They were hard times. Scanlon’s mother scraped and worked to bring up her son, and he never forgot those beginnings. When he left Stretford elementary school at 14, he was apprenticed to an instrument maker at a local engineering firm. He studied hard to learn his craft, and graduated to the famous Metro-Vickers engineering plant at Trafford Park, where he soon became a vocal shop steward and, eventually, convener of all the shop stewards at the plant.
In 1947, he was elected to his first full-time union post, as AEU divisional organiser in Manchester. That was the job he held until 1963, when he was first elected to the AEU national executive. Then, in 1968, he succeeded Lord “Bill” Carron as union president after a series of legal battles.
Scanlon had gone to court to challenge an election result, and eventually he won – a rare and interesting example of a leftwing election victory in the high court. The result produced a dramatic switch of AEU political posture from the right, where it had been under Carron, to the left under his successor.
Yet Scanlon was always conscious of his limited powers in a union which has always been finely balanced between right and left, and where one major change in personality at the top could tilt its political direction. He had already left the Communist party (in 1954), yet he had never publicly denounced his former comrades: that was not his style. He left quietly, and always kept his privacy about that separation.
Perhaps because of this, and the suspicion, in some quarters, that he still maintained his connections, Scanlon latterly demonstrated his independence by sometimes unusually moderate political attitudes. In later years, he admitted to me that he regarded the militant policy in the motor industry during the 1960s as often mistaken, and accepted that union shortsightedness contributed to the industry’s problems. He upset many leftwing buddies by approving Labour’s idea of a social contract, promoted before its return to office in 1974, even in the face of opposition from within his own union. He was denounced as a “traitor” by the left – a charge he found deeply offensive.
In fact, Scanlon never moved from his old Marxist beliefs, but simply tailored them to a changing world. He was a kind of Gorbachev before his time. Even when reflecting on his acceptance of a peerage, he confided to his old pal Jimmy Reid, leader of the 1971 Upper Clyde Shipbuilders dispute: “I can’t get it out of my head that, perhaps, if I had been accepted more – as someone trying to do his best instead of someone who had sold out – it may have strengthened me not to do what I did.”
Scanlon’s final years were mostly spent in retirement, and increasing ill-health, in the attractive villa at Broadstairs that he shared with his wife Nora, overlooking the white cliffs. Only occasionally did he venture up to the Lords, and even less frequently did he speak in the chamber. He remained an awkward peer to the end, uneasy in the surroundings, unpersuaded by the trappings. He was far happier pottering about at home, with far more golfing trophies and photographs than revolutionary posters.
Even so, in our last conversation, he told me he had not abandoned any of his old ideals, nor had he fallen into line with New Labour. His granddaughter, Kerrie Ryan, has completed a still unpublished biography.
Nora, and his two daughters, Carole and Janet, survive him.
•Hugh Parr Scanlon, Lord Scanlon of Davyhulme, trade union leader, born October 26 1913; died January 27 2004
Geoffrey Goodman, The Guardian