Vic Collard, RIP

September 15, 2014 at 10:00 pm (Brum, class, ex-SWP, good people, Guest post, history, intellectuals, RIP, solidarity, unions, workers)

My friend Victor
Guest post by Mick Rice

Birmingham’s engineers march over the hill to shut the gates at Saltley coking works in 1972 (Pic: ©Tony Coult/ http://gallery.me.com/tony3ts gallery.me.com/tony3ts )

Above: Saltley Gates mass picket, 1972

Vic Collard was a friend of mine. We met in the late 1960’s when the heady days of revolt embraced the young. I was a “child of 1968” when the French events demonstrated that different politics were possible. Vic was 10 years older than me and a worker intellectual of the finest calibre. As well as being widely read he was also an AEU Shop Steward! There could have only been a handful of AEU Shop Stewards who knew about Marshall McLuhan never mind being conversant with his theories. Vic knew about the Frankfurt School. He was deeply interested in philosophy and psychology. He knew about Wilhelm Reich and Herbert Marcuse.

How much different the world might have been if the Left had concentrated on perfecting the “Orgone Box”! It has, unfortunately, so far, been singularly unsuccessful in promoting world revolution.

Vic once confessed to me about his role in the Second World War. I thought I was going to be entertained by a humorous Spike Milligan type – Adolf Hitler-My role in his Downfall – story. But Vic was ashamed of his behaviour. He had gone out, with a relative, for a walk by the canal. He must have been 5 or 6 years old. Alongside the towpath a group of German prisoners-of-war were clearing overgrown vegetation. Vic, our intrepid Brit, took a run at the first German POW and kicked him in the shins. No doubt thinking the juvenile equivalent of: “Take that you dirty Hun!” The Dandy and other boys’ comics of the time have a lot to answer for as they, of course, were bastions of British Imperialism. Vic had not yet read Marx.

The poor prisoner was probably just a conscripted German worker. However, if Vic felt that he had something to atone for, he certainly made up for it in later years. In the early 1970s the Birmingham East District Committee of the AEU was considering submitting motions to the union’s National Committee. One branch had sent in a motion supporting the boycott of goods to Pinochet’s Chile. If I remember right a Scottish factory with AEU members had already blocked the export of vehicles. Ted Williams, the leading right-winger, was pouring scorn on the motion. “These do-gooders want to interfere with international trade”, he thundered. “They risk putting in jeopardy AEU jobs”. Normally the later point was the ace that floored left-wing opposition as “AEU jobs” was paramount.

Vic played a blinder which completely changed the meeting. “No doubt”, said Vic, “If Brother Williams had been a member of this committee in the 1930s’ he would have been in favour of exporting Gas Chambers to Hitler’s Germany so long as they were made by AEU members”. Yes Vic was great with words and great at thinking on his feet.

Another time the full time officer was singing the praises of equality as he proudly told us he had negotiated an agreement to allow women to work night shifts! Vic had to point out that we wanted equality up and not equality down as working nightshifts was bad for men. It could not be regarded as a giant leap forward for womankind that they were going to be subjected to the same anti-social, unhealthy working patterns!

In the mid 1960’s Vic and his friend Geoff Johnson, were members of the “Labour Loyalist” group. They would go around meetings campaigning for an end to Incomes Policy which had been introduced by the Labour Government. Of course their intention was to be entirely disloyal to the Labour Government of the day. Calling themselves “Labour Loyalists” confused their opponents and, as they explained to me, it was really the Labour Government that wasn’t being loyal to the workers! A neat strategy that put Labour apparatchiks on the back foot!

Vic and I were both members of the AEU District Committee when the successful mass picket of Saltley Gates took place during the miners’ strike of 1972. It now seems almost unbelievable that ordinary workers could mobilise in tens of thousands to down tools right at the same time and set out to walk en masse to close the gates. This, the greatest act of solidarity of Birmingham’s working people, came about because of organisation and leadership. The AEU District President, Arthur Harper, the Convenor of British Leyland’s Tractors and Transmissions plant at Washwood Heath was a member of the International Socialists. Arthur Harper was a militant trade unionist. He was no socialist theoretician but he knew that trade unionism wasn’t enough on its own to change society. Arthur prided himself on being good at tactics. He was once instructed by the AEU Executive to end a strike and tell his members to go back to work. He did precisely as instructed and then said “As your Convenor, I’ve done what I’ve been instructed to do by the union – but as your mate I’m telling you, that you would be stupid to accept the union’s advice!”

When Arthur Scargill came to the District Committee to ask for help, Arthur Harper knew what to do. A meeting of all the Shop Stewards was summoned for the following evening and over 300 of them agreed to pull out their members in the morning and march on Saltley! The remarkable thing is they had the confidence to know that they could do it!

At the time Birmingham was the centre of the car industry. There were full time senior stewards and most factories had on-site union offices. The AEU had a functioning Broad Left – over 30 convenors and shop stewards would meet on the first Saturday morning of the month in the upstairs room of the White Lion in the Horsefair. There was Kenny Davis at SU Carburettors’, Pat Smiley at Serck Radiator, Peter Nicholas at Rover Tyseley, Gordon Vaughan at Pressed Steel Fisher, Joe Harris at Rover Solihull, Peter Hunt at Lucas Great King Street, Jack Lynch, (later Larry Connolly), at Lucas Shaftmoor Lane, Albert Rice at Swish. There was Dick Etheridge the Convenor at Austin Longbridge. These were all sizeable factories with thousands of workers. The Austin at one time employed over 30,000.

The union convenors were well-known and were respected. Dick Etheridge was often quoted in the local paper and when Arthur Harper married it appeared on the front page of the Birmingham Evening Mail. Of course the late 1960’s and early 1970’s saw significant industrial militancy and car workers were regarded as the well-paid shock troops always demanding better pay.

All of the Convenors were men. There were women shop stewards – particularly at SU Carburettors and Lucas. The SU women had been active in the campaign against the Industrial Relations Act in 1971 and had formed a “marching choir” for demonstrations. They were a very formidable collective force. They were the sort of women that didn’t take prisoners!

Another occasion, which is not often recognised as a victory for the trade union movement, took place over the Birmingham Pub bombings. The day after the Pub bombings the whole city was traumatised. When we came to work it felt disrespectful to just start working. Machines were not switched on. People hung about in groups and talked about the atrocity of the night before. The atmosphere was electric, it just needed some hot head – probably motivated by the Fascists – to demand a march on the Town Hall and the city-centre would have suffered an anti -Irish riot. Management did not know what to do. They got hold of the Union Stewards and demanded that we hold a mass meeting to discuss the events and try to secure a return to work. So it was that Larry Connolly, the Dublin born AEU Convenor, addressed the meeting. After everyone had their say, we walked back to work united. Similar events took place all over the city as the union shop stewards ensured that the workers of Birmingham stayed united and did not give vent to anti Irish sentiment. The atmosphere first thing that morning was so tense – one could feel a collective surge of emotion so strong – that the workers could have been led to the barricades. Complete unity of will and the need to do something. It just wasn’t the right issue but it felt like we could have led the workers anywhere that day.

For a time we shared a flat with a number of other comrades. One such was Colin Sparks an emerging intellectual in the International Socialists. I think he was attending the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham.

Young earnest left wingers of the day would debate late into the night on the differences between the theory of “State Capitalism” and “Deformed / Degenerated Workers’ States”. It apparently all revolved around whether Russia and Eastern European states would require a social or a political revolution. The later seemed to me to be a workers coup d’etat with the organs of the state staying the same but with a leadership change with real workers’ representatives in charge.

Anyway, Vic and Colin set to – debating the role of Stalinism and the precise moment when State Capitalism had triumphed in Russia. Was it the introduction of the New Economic Policy? Was it the defeat of the Left Opposition? Or perhaps it could have been the commencement of the Show Trials? Was it the commencement of the Second World War? Vic got Colin to agree with each of these in turn and then to recognise that he must be completely muddled. Eventually, Colin gave up and admitted that he could not give a precise date for the victory of State Capitalism and also accepted that as State Capitalism was a change in the social nature of the state that it needed to have a defining moment. It was a conundrum. It seemed to me that Vic had proved that the Russian Revolution was an “Impermanent Revolution”.

I don’t know whether Vic was personally pleased that the “real intellectual” had admitted defeat but I was less comradely. I thought it was great that in our flat in Handsworth we could turn over great intellects like Colin.

I don’t know what earnest left-wingers intellectualise over today. Presumably since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin wall other issues have come to the fore. Personally, I always thought that building a wall to keep the workers in a socialist paradise (or even some sort of workers’ state) was contradictory – but then I have always been state cap inclined.

At one time we had 31 AEU members in Birmingham who were also members of the International Socialists. I remember one comrade, a teacher, was involved in some School / Business Liaison meeting with a Personnel Officer from Lucas’s. He asked in an innocent a way as possible whether the company had any problems with subversives. The Personnel Officer replied that Lucas’s had IS like some people had mice! I think that Victor was rather proud of that for he was undoubtedly the “éminence grise” of the AEU group.

Unfortunately, a left-winger called Laurie Smith, who was a member of the Socialist Labour League, did extremely well in an AEU Executive election. In fact he was subsequently elected to a National Officer post. Laurie Smith was a long standing union activist in London and a Toolmaker. Toolmakers were the backbone of the AEU and, in my view, Laurie’s vote was largely due to support from fellow toolmakers as they were often regarded as “craft chauvinists” who referred to semi-skilled workers as “Tom Nods”.

The IS leadership (in the process of becoming the SWP) thought otherwise. Laurie’s vote indicated that the workers were moving to the left and ditching Labour. The IS /SWP needed to field candidates to all AEU positions to win the thousands that were moving leftwards. They called a snap meeting at the IS national conference to change the line. The AEU group in Birmingham could not go along with this triumphalism and we were systematically expelled for our failure to comply with the requirements of democratic centralism. We were characterised as “trade union routinists” by the central committee as the organisation went to rank and file extremes. I remember Tony Cliff extolling the virtues of workers who had not been tainted by trade union tradition. Shop Stewards and especially Senior Shop Stewards were the new trade union bureaucrats.

During the 1970s’ Vic smoked Park Drive cigarettes. Nearly everyone smoked. I could always find an open packet somewhere in Vic’s room to feed my habit. For many years I smoked Park Drive as I had been converted from Gold Leaf by the availability of Vic’s fags.

Vic had a great turn of phrase. He used to say things like: “It makes you want to vomit blood!” when he disapproved of anything. He said it in such a vitriolic way that it made you think that you ought to vomit blood just to prove him right! He was very sharp at knowing the right thing to do.

Vic was a checker. A checker is an industrial “weights and measures” person who verifies the stock and throughput of work. He was employed at the Lucas Chester Street factory. In the early 1980’s, Birmingham lost over 100,000 manufacturing jobs – more than the whole of Scotland. One such was Vic’s job.

The company proceeded to systematically close down the Chester Street factory. Departments were shut and the workers were told to report to another factory in the Lucas group. Not so Victor. Eventually, there was only him and the Security Guards left. This went on for months. Vic said he felt like Rudolph Hess in Berlin’s Spandau Prison as Hess was the only prisoner and had a prison all to himself!

In the end Vic was served with a redundancy notice. The union official came down and threatened the company with a tribunal case for constructive dismissal. So the company then offered to pay both the redundancy as well as the compensation that Vic could have won from a Tribunal case. The union official advised Vic to take the offer. I think that the old Chester Street factory has now been pulled down and replaced by a Campanile Hotel.

Vic was then unemployed for a while – but embarked on a second career as an administrator (eventually manager) for Greenspring Training. This was an initiative put together by Richard Bashford, Vicar of Handsworth’s New Road Church, Labour Councillor, jazz fan and TGWU activist. The funding for the project was provided by the Manpower Services Commission, a government agency. Vic likened the M.S.C. and its subsequent metamorphosis as Eastern European Stalinist bodies that were operated by rejects of the Stasi. They were only interested in targets and outcomes! Greenspring somehow kept going and as it recruited trainees with some of the worst life chances, this was no mean achievement.

When I was a Labour councillor, I would on occasion be the subject of adverse comment as somebody would want to tarnish me with all the sins of Blairism. Vic was a loyal supporter. He told me that a fresh-faced youth took to running me down in his company. In the end, Vic turned on the youngster and said: “Mick has worked for many years in the trade union movement. He has done things – just what have you done?”

The last time I met Vic he confessed that we would now have to rely on the young. Socialist advance was the prerogative of the young. He felt that it was very difficult for them – much more difficult than when he was young. Now there were hardly any major workplaces left. When he came to Birmingham from Stockport it was easy to get a job. There were loads of factories – many of which employed thousands of workers. There was collective organisation and the unions were strong. For me his death marks the end of an era.

He always took an interest in young people and measured the state of the labour and socialist movement by their capacity for combativity and organisation. He wasn’t hopeful for early successes.

Vic was right. We shall have to work with young people to discover new tactics and new forms of organisation.

But there are some things that he thought were immutable – organisation and leadership. They are as necessary as ever.

14 Comments

  1. Jim Denham said,

    Vic was a friend of mine as well. I liked him and respected him, and over the years had many good laughs and drinks with him.

    Sean Matgamna and I interviewed him in 1995 about his experiences in IS and I wrote up the results; here’s an unfortunately incomplete version, which is all I’ve been able to retrieve:
    http://www.workersliberty.org/system/files/WL20%2026.pdf

  2. David Walsh said,

    I knew Laurie Smith. I don;t think he was in the SLL, although they may have tried to court him, He was a long standing CP member. From what I recall of his campaign, it was political rather than craft based.

    • Mick Rice said,

      The Laurie Smith I refer to was definitely not in the CP. See the link here to John Deason’s article running down the Broad Left (much of which I might agree with) and his extolling the virtues of the “independent left” candidate: Laurie Smith

      http://www.marxists.org/history/etol/newspape/isj/1975/no079/deason.htm

      There may be another Laurie Smith of the same name.

      I was not suggesting that Laurie Smith ran a craft chauvinist campaign – rather that craft chauvinism could have been a factor in the result. The ballot paper showed the section of membership – Section 1 was skilled (a Green Carder) whereas Section 5 was unskilled (a Red carder). Moreover, the ballot paper also showed the trade of the candidate. It is worth bearing in mind that there were moves to establish a “National Association of Toolmakers” as a breakaway union in the early 1970’s as Toolmakers wanted to be treated as special and maintain a “differential”.

      • David Walsh said,

        Actually there was only one Laurie Smith. He worked at Sovex in Erith, was a toolmaker, convector and for a long time, the Chair of the CP Erith Factory Branch, and on the executive of the AEU Erith District Committee. I worked with him in a battle over early works closures in the late 1960’s / early 70’s. He broke with the CP over ‘reformism” and fought the election on that basis. I remember him as capable, but arrogant.

  3. History with the socialism back in | lives; running said,

    […] More here. […]

  4. John Darnbrook said,

    Vic like many principled trade union and political activists took that long and lonely walk each day to work (as described by Mick re Lucas) when the actual cost of employing him would have cost much less than the measures the employer and their union the Engineering Employers Federation took to keep him out of work and out of their sphere of influence.
    I worked directly with Vic in the mid 1980’s at Greenspring Training following the Handsworh riots. Where at one stage we applied Vic’s vast Marxist understanding to working with and alongside the exploited and oppressed young people of Handsworth and Winson Green!
    I managed to work in these conditions with one generation of young people over a 2 year period before I was worn out.
    Vic Collard worked for over 22years with many generations of young people from North Birmingham and the Black Country , keeping Greenspring afloat; it’s employee’s in work and trainees learning and directly experiencing alienation in the work place.
    A true Socialist , Comrade and Friend

    • Jim Denham said,

      Thanks for that moving tribute, John.

  5. Jim Denham said,

    Ian Birchall comments at Lives;running:

    ihbirchall on 18/09/2014 at 4:58 pm said:

    Thanks for linking to the obituary of Vic Collard. I didn’t know Vic Collard personally, but of course I knew him by repute. He was obviously a very fine militant, one of a generation who in the 1960s and 1970s showed just what working-class power could look like. Saltley and the freeing of the Pentonville Five were the high-point of an epoch, and those who played a role in them should be celebrated. My condolences to Vic Collard’s family and friends.

    It’s a pity that the death of such an exemplary working-class fighter should lead to the raking over of the 1975 split in the International Socialists. But Mick Rice had given his view, and as one who took the opposing side and backed Cliff and the IS CC, I would just make a couple of comments. After all, the best tribute we can pay to both Cliff and Collard is to examine their achievements and their mistakes critically, so that future generations can learn. I attempted to do this, doubtless inadequately, in the account of the dispute I gave in my biography of Tony Cliff.

    My own feeling in retrospect is that both sides in the dispute are open to criticism. It is far too simplistic to see the events as Cliff looking for a “get-rich-quick scheme”. It was not simply Cliff and the CC who opposed the Birmingham engineers. The CC was supported by many of the younger engineeering workers in various parts of the country; it was also supported by Frank Henderson, one of the finest revolutionary militants of his generation, who remained an SWP member till his death a few years ago.

    Finally, Dave, you are wrong to say that my review of Jim Higgins’ book is not on-line; it is at http://grimanddim.org/historical-writings/1998-review-of-jim-higgins-more-years-for-the-locust/ .
    And for the record, the “prominent Birmingham engineering worker” whom I proposed to add to the “unofficial slate” for the National Committee, and whom Higgins curtly rejected, was ….. Vic Collard. I’m afraid history doesn’t divide up neatly into heroes and villains.

    http://livesrunning.wordpress.com/2014/09/18/history-with-the-socialism-back-in/#comments

    • Jim Denham said,

      It is *not* true that Frank Henderson supported the IS leadership over the AEU dispute: I knew Frank at that time, and know what he thought – which was that Cliff was wrong. But Frank decided to stay with IS.

    • Mike Sheridan said,

      I have only just come across Mick Rice’s moving tribute to Vic Collard. A working-class militant who will, indeed, be sorely missed.

      Ian Birchall’s comments mystify this poor old soul. He states that it is a pity that Mick’s memories should ‘rake over the 1975 split in the International Socialists’. Actually, there was not a split. There were widespread expulsions of many members of the IS by the Executive Committe. Ian Birchall was a member of the EC and voted for the expulsions. Over 20 years later when debating with Jim Higgins, one of the leaders of the IS Opposition, Ian stated that time over again he would vote for the expulsions again. He again returned to the events in his biography of Tony Cliff. What is it that gives Ian the right to constantly return to the issue yet when Mick Rice devotes one paragraph to the sordid matter in his tribute to Vic, Ian accuses him of ‘raking over’ the past.

      Actually, Mick’s comment that Vic was concerned to ‘work with young people’ is spot on. Ian Birchall and I are old codgers. I well remember Mick Rice and, if he will forgive me, he is no longer in the first flush of youth! I am gratified to note that there is a wide debate on the Left proceeding at present about cutting across sectarian boundaries and achieving unity of action. But this can only be progressed by looking critically at our pasts. Sorry, Ian, but what happened in IS in the past and how it became the monstrous mess that is the SWP at present must be part of that debate.

  6. Jim Denham said,

    Any friends and/or comrades of Vic’s will be welcome at the funeral: Tues 30th Sept, 2.30 at Sandwell Crem, West Brom.

    Wake/booze-up afterwards at the ‘Black Eagle’, Factory Road, B’ham 18.

  7. S.Forde said,

    Fascinating the discussion. vic would have liked the debate I worked as his deputy for four years he taught me everything about leadership and management he was one of a kind. He made a difference to black, Asian and white young people of birmingham. Vic Collard will remain an inspiration to all that new him.

  8. VRJ said,

    I’ve not had a drink with Vic for over twenty years but we kept in touch and used to speak over the ‘phone now and again.He was always a stimulating conversationalist and his views on the contemporary left always worth listening to.He would have had a great time mulling over the Labour party conference,last time we spoke something had upset him “I’ll never vote labour again!!” I could almost see his finger jabbing and I’m sure i felt the spittle coming down the telephone line.A good stimulating friend.

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