Book review by Anne Field
The Battle of Grangemouth – A Worker’s Story, written by former Ineos convenor Mark Lyon, is as “a vital new book”, “a book which had to be written”, and “one of the most important books in modern working-class history.”
That is what Unite claims in its advertising campaign for the book, published last week by Lawrence & Wishart in association with Unite itself.
In one of the multiple endorsements which preface the book Unite General Secretary candidate Len McCuskey describes Lyon as “one of our most respected activists”. By writing the book he has “done the movement another service”.
McCluskey’s Chief of Staff, Andrew Murray, is of the same opinion: “Mark Lyon’s credit rating is triple A. Through his part in the struggle (at Grangemouth), and then through this memoir, Mark has laid two stones on the highway to the future.”
Lyon finished writing “one of the most important books in modern working-class history” in January of 2016. Fourteen months were then allowed to pass before this “vital new book” saw the light of day.
But every cloud has a silver lining. By the purest of coincidences, the book’s publication conveniently falls just ten days before ballot papers go out in Unite’s General Secretary and Executive Council elections.
“Why don’t we start out on the story – and I will see you on the other side for your thoughts,” writes Lyon in the book’s Introduction. This invitation soon turns out to be as enticing as an offer by Charron the boatman to ferry the souls of the dead across the River Styx into Hades.
The book begins with a potted history of the Lyon family dating back to the beginning of the last century, reminisces of the author’s childhood, and self-congratulatory memories of his apprenticeship and earliest years of paid employment.
The tenor of Lyon’s autobiographical sketches is the usual ‘life was tough, but that didn’t stop us having a good laugh’: “Hardy folks with gallows humour were clearly the order of the day.”
The book concludes with more reminisces on the part of the author: his experiences as a guitar player and member of a band, his musical tastes, a visit to evening mass in his local church, and random half-thought-through comments about the Scottish referendum of 2014 and the general election of 2015.
Unfortunately, what fills the gap between the opening and concluding sections of the book does little to enhance the style or content of Lyon’s literary endeavour.
The book is peppered with homespun homilies (“I think everyone should see Auschwitz at least once during their life”), useless titbits of information (“you can enjoy cherry vodka, fine beer and jazz in Krakow”), new paradigms of Scottishness (“Scottish is a condition and a philosophy; there is no automatic qualification by birth”) and some particularly excruciating turns of phrase:
“The only things missing were sackcloth, ashes and a pig’s bladder on the end of a stick as Tom tried to cajole and humour his master like a seventeenth-century court jester. … They may take our bicycles but they will never take our freedom! …”
“They had been smashed, wasted and destroyed and now lay prostrate and face-down in the street before the majesty and might of Unite the Union. … Even without reference to Old Moore’s Almanac, you can tell that the future is littered with certainties.”
A variety of themes run through the substance of Lyon’s literary endeavour. One of them is the contrast between Good People and Bad People. Good People are simply brilliant:
“As a contract welder I met some brilliant people … (Scottish Regional Secretary) Pat Rafferty and all the union sections were just brilliant … our brilliant members at Grangemouth … our brilliant Unite officer Scott Foley … individual Labour Party members were brilliant … it was brilliant for our members to know that Len was there beside us … Thompsons Solicitors have been brilliant … Canon Leo is the most brilliant man you could meet … we were given brilliant support.”
That’s a lot of brilliance. And things “fantastic” and “magnificent” do not lag far behind:
“Our fantastic political department … the response from our branch was nothing short of magnificent … it was a fantastic response from our members … our branch was simply magnificent … our magnificent branch members.”
Bad People, on the other hand, are bad. They are dishonest, they spread gossip and lies, they stifle criticism, they act out of personal vindictiveness. On a deeper level, they are cowards and sycophants who willingly stab their former colleagues in the back in order to advance their own careers.
Fortunately, there are people like Lyon who – insofar as one is prepared to attach any credence to the contents of his book – stand up to Bad People:
“Declan Sealy (Ineos director) was clearly terrified. Needless to say, Sealy was revealed as a very small man that day. People of low character like Sealy must be confronted and must answer for their actions. Now that I have gained personal satisfaction and put this man in his place, I feel a bit better.”
And one of Lyon’s purposes in writing the book is clearly to settle some personal scores: “Let me tell you most solemnly that there is no way we are squared up. There is still outstanding personal business to be completed on this.”
The result is a succession of anecdotes in which Lyon appears to take delight in revealing the contents of private conversations – or the alleged contents of private conversations – in which managers criticised each other or criticised Ineos owner Jim Ratcliffe.
It was particularly odious for Ineos manager Sharon Hooper to have given “false testimony against me which contributed to my unfair dismissal” given that “she had been so critical of Ineos in the past and of Ratcliffe in particular.”
Ineos HR director Ian Fyfe is similarly ‘exposed’ by Lyon: “Fyfe said to one of our team – in what could be seen as an act of treachery against Ratcliffe and once again acting as a double agent – that we should try and make the case to Harry Deans (Ineos CEO) while Sealy was not there.”
A conversation between managers Gordon Grant and Helen Stewart which involved a joke about Ratcliffe serves as the basis for Lyon’s conclusion: ““The senior managers were demotivated and intensely disliked Jim Ratcliffe. … Our main conclusion from that was that the Grangemouth management must have really disliked this guy.”
Sealy, whom Lyon clearly dislikes intensely, was “often the victim of ridicule from his own colleagues for his behaviour and failure to grasp the most basic information. He also had a reputation, conveyed to us by site managers, who I will be happy to name on request, for bullying contract companies.”
According to Lyon, the greatest collective failing of the on-site Ineos management was “their failure to tell Jim Ratcliffe about all the problems that were going on at the site”:
“This was not because of malicious intent on the part of Gordon and his team. They just lacked the backbone to stand up to Ratcliffe. The majority of his managers lacked the necessary courage to challenge him.”
Ratcliffe himself therefore ends up as an almost tragic figure – arrogant and out-of-touch, but simultaneously a Tsar-like character who makes the fatal mistake of taking guidance from the Grangemouth Rasputins:
“I shudder when I think of about the negative and destructive energy this (disinformation by on-site managers) created in the mind of Ratcliffe. You can see how this might have been reported back to Ratcliffe, and how it could have added to his unjustified anger at what he would have seen as our impertinence.”
“No-one had told Jim the facts. I wonder if our Jim will ever read this. I am willing to bet that if he does he will be saying to himself that this account sounds very credible, and that he has been well and truly done over by his own team.”
Although Lyon repeatedly refers to the events of late 2013 as the culmination of a longstanding plot, he also portrays the same events as a tragic misunderstanding and a matter of personal spite by Ratcliffe:
“He was being falsely briefed from the site with negative reports about us (the Unite reps). He then, predictably, goes off like a threepenny whiz bang. This is a man who broods. ..This was his chance to further his personal agenda. … He (Ratcliffe) hated me personally.”
But the book suffers from a problem far more fundamental than Lyon’s insistence on seeing events in intensely personal terms: Although the book is entitled “The Battle of Grangemouth”, its pages contain little or no sign of a battle in any meaningful sense of the word.
In fact, the main thrust of Lyon’s argument throughout the book is that union organisation in Grangemouth was not militant, was only too willing to co-operate with management, and was even prepared to accept everything management demanded:
“(When Ineos bought the plant) I asked Ratcliffe only that we would have a seat at the table so we could work well together. We just wanted to get on with life and industrial relations without conflict…
We were to some extent in cahoots with the company (in political work). We worked hand in hand with all levels of Ineos management on many political issues. …
Our union made significant contributions to good practice and harmony. Ineos has worked hard to portray us a militant, inflexible branch. But it is not the case. It is the most democratic and pragmatic body you could imagine. …
In 2012 we had agreed to a difficult discussion on potential detrimental changes to the pension scheme. Often pragmatism comes above principle. It is one of the prices you pay for effective union representation.”
As the plot – and Lyon is correct for once in referring to unfolding events as a plot – approached its climax in October of 2013, the same fatalism permeates Lyon’s interpretation of events:
“My desire, as always, was to avoid conflict and a damaging strike at the plant. The only credible option was to suggest to our members that we withdraw the notice to strike. In the end there was no real option other than to agree to their demands. …
We simply had to give the company all it wanted at that stage. We have always tried to act in a responsible way and, given the situation we were in, there was only one possible way to go.”
In dealing with the specific events of October 2013 Lyon argues: “I do not think, and still do not think, that the company had any intention of closing the plant if we had held our nerve. It might have been an option to call their bluff.”
But if the company had no intention of closing the plant, there was even less reason to agree to Ineos’s demands and give it all it wanted. Lyon attempts to square the circle by arguing that defiance “was not really an option, given the unrelenting pressure exerted by Ineos on our members.”
The result of this “battle” is well known: A three-year pay freeze, worse redundancy terms, an end to the final salary pension scheme, cuts in bonus payments, scrapping the posts of full-time union convenors, and a three-year no-strike guarantee from Unite.
It was a brutal defeat for the workforce, for Unite and for the labour and trade union movement as a whole. An honest assessment of what went wrong and what could be done to avoid similar defeats in future is long overdue. But that is not provided by Lyon’s book.
This is not just because of Lyon’s style of writing, his focus on posing issues in terms of “outstanding personal business”, and his lack of any substantial analysis and consideration of possible alternative courses of action by Unite in Grangemouth.
Nor is it just because the voices of the Grangemouth workers themselves are absent from the book. This is most definitely “a worker’s story”, not “the workers’ story”. Lyon’s repeated references to “the troops” unintentionally sums up his view of the relation between himself as full-time convenor and the workplace membership.
The book’s basic deficiency lies above all in the fact that it is irredeemably tainted by having been written by Lyon. In the binary universe he inhabits, where there are only Good People and Bad People, Lyon has spent the last ten months cultivating a role for himself amongst the latter.
During that time Lyon has worked tirelessly to split the United Left Scotland (ULS), create a pretend Progressive United Left Scotland (PULS) in alliance with fellow trade union bureaucrats, and wage a divisive and dishonest campaign against Unite activists.
His efforts have involved the creation of sham e-mail accounts, the deliberate misrepresention of meetings as ULS meetings, the exclusion of elected ULS coordinators from such meetings, and personally handpicking PULS candidates for the forthcoming Executive Council elections.
Tirades of personal abuse are his stock-in-trade. He has denounced the United Left national chair for an alleged “deeply personal, vicious and unwarranted attack”, dismissed the ULS as “an oppressive and undemocratic body”, and scorned critics of PULs as “a few self-centred individuals”.
He now busies himself running campaigns for PULS candidates standing in opposition to candidates of the ULS.
But the demonstrably false accusations levelled by Lyon at Unite activists in Scotland calls into question the credibility of his book – especially given that such accusations share the same tone of self-righteous indignation as his criticisms of Ineos managers.
How convenient for Lyon, however, that on the eve of the despatch of ballot papers for Executive Council elections Unite has published a book boosting him as “one of our most respected activists” and as a veritable worker-hero with a “triple A credit rating”!
Some may wonder how anyone could find the time to be a full-timer for the International Transport Workers Federation, split the ULS, singlehandedly run their very own PULS, and yet find the time to write “one of the most important books in modern working-class history.”
But maybe that’s what makes Lyon such a worker-hero. Like Lermontov’s Pechorin, Mark Lyon is a true Hero of Our Time.