I’ve written before about my favourite by-election. Garscadden 1978. Because in the end winning is essential to the complete experience.
But, at the time of the campaign, I had a better time still at another by-election. In retrospect, a by-election from which I also learned a good deal more. Hillhead 1982.
And, dare I suggest, lessons that others might yet learn today.
I’m conscious that I am close now to writing history so I need to provide a bit of setting, particularly for those under fifty or not from the West of Scotland.
By the aftermath of the 1979 General Election, Glasgow Hillhead was the final Conservative seat in Glasgow. Cathcart, stronghold of Teddy Taylor, last of the working class Tories, had fallen to us as a consolation prize while Mrs Thatcher swept to power.
But Hillhead was different. It wasn’t just posh in bits. It was posh in really quite large bits. And its MP Sir Thomas Galbraith wasn’t some poujadist like Teddy. He was a proper Tory. Member of Parliament since 1948; Baronet; Graduate of two Universities, importantly one of them Glasgow: served in the War; held various Offices of State under McMillan, perhaps past his best but still someone whom it felt disrespectful to vote against. “Tam” as he was universally known, had held on against the steadily encroaching socialist tide. Until, in January 1982, he suddenly and unexpectedly shuffled off his mortal coil.
And at what a point of opportunity for the Labour Party! For the Tories were at their most unpopular EVER! (or so it seemed). Mrs T might have swept the country a mere eighteen months earlier but her mixture of populism and monetarism was persuading nobody. Unemployment was soaring and both her Party’s and her own popularity were plummeting. Even significant sections of her own Cabinet were widely believed to think neither she nor her policies were up to the job. If Labour couldn’t take Hillhead now then we surely never would. Particularly since the Tories selected as their candidate someone who could scarcely have been more different from Sir Tam. P.G(erald) Malone. Known, by virtue of his initials, as Piggy. An arraviste Thatcherite of the worst sort who announced that his platform would be a combination of cutting unemployment benefit while bringing back hanging. Bring it on!
But there was a fly in the ointment. For six months before, the Gang of Four: Roy Jenkins (spit), David Owen (spit) and Bill Rogers (spit) together with Shirley Williams (Please come back Shirley! Please. Even now) had been so disillusioned with the infighting and toleration of ultra-leftism in the Labour Party that they had left to form the SDP. And this was to be their first electoral opportunity. So what better (for them) and more provocative (for us) than for the new Party to see this as an opportunity to return their leader from Brussels to the Commons? But what better chance still for us to smother the infant Party in its cradle. Particularly as there was scant evidence that Jenkins had ever previously set foot in Glasgow. Indeed. Bring it on (again)!
For on the eve of Battle, Labour felt it had assembled a political fighting force equalled by nothing since Napoleon’s Grande Armee of 1812.
Hillhead might have been the poshest seat in Glasgow but it also had, by some way, the largest active Party membership.* And not just any membership. For it contained within its activist ranks most of the Scottish Party’s Imperial Guard. Those who not only ran the local constituency but indeed dominated the higher ranks of the Glasgow City Party and even those of the Party’s Scottish Executive itself. And that was before one considered the others who resided in the Constituency: Senior white collar Trade Union leaders; journalists, perhaps for professional reasons not actually in the Party but sufficiently sympathetic to the cause enough to assist in the drafting of literature; officials of the leading left wing causes of the day: Anti-Apartheid; Scottish CND; Chile Solidarity. Dozens, scores, with their own, hand annotated, copies of Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, capable of delivering, extempore, half hour speeches on each and every subject that might reasonably be raised on the doorstep.
And all clustered around two hubs. The first was Norman and Janey Buchan’s home in Peel Street, at the very heart of the constituency, the intellectual focus point of the entire Scottish Left, where Pete Seeger had once slept in the loft and where argument would rage wide and long into the night even in less immediate times. But the second was better still. The University of Glasgow, where most of these activists had at one point attended and from where came the icing on the cake in the form of the University Labour Club with its three hundred members. “Birthplace” of John Smith and Donald Dewar; a Young Guard of boundless energy and plenty of time on their hands to be spent delivering local leaflets and knocking on local doors.
What an army! And at its head, the greatest of generals. Jimmy Allison. Scottish Organiser of the Labour Party, election agent of election agents. Victor of Garscadden, of the second battle of Hamilton and of the rout which had been the Berwick and East Lothian by-election.
Even the fact that the man actually to be put before the electorate, Dave Wiseman, might perhaps have not quite been Demosthenes on a public platform was a mere incidental. We were ready. Bring it on!
(to be continued....)
*Cathcart had a higher actual membership but only by virtue of its Social Club of which you had to be a Labour Party member to join