Britain’s last communist

Councillor Willie Clarke …
Councillor Willie Clarke … Photograph: DC Thomson & Co Ltd

Clarke is the only self-described communist holding elected office anywhere in the UK. Although now technically an independent, Clarke has for more than 40 years sat as a communist councillor for Ballingry, a former mining town of pebbledashed terrace houses laid out on the escarpment of Benarty Hill near Cowdenbeath in Fife. The craggy-faced septuagenarian’s politics have survived the fall of the Berlin Wall, the break-up of the Soviet Union and the loss of his left ear to cancer. “I am still a communist. My beliefs haven’t changed,” the former miner says as his small grey Renault Clio trundles through the pit villages ribboned along the low hills of central Scotland.

Cowdenbeath was once the centre of the Britain’s largest mining enterprise, the Fife Coal Company. For decades, the most serious threat to Labour’s electoral supremacy here came not from Scottish nationalists, but the communists. West Fife returned Britain’s last Communist party MP, Willie Gallacher, between 1935 and 1950. A housing estate on the outskirts of Cowdenbeath with a street called Gagarin Way is nicknamed “little Moscow”.

The Communist Party of Great Britain soon declined from its postwar peak of 50,000 members and over 200 councillors. But in West Fife “the Party” remained a political force. In 1973, the Communists won 12 seats on the then Lochgelly and Cowdenbeath council. Clarke was among those elected. There is footage of him during that election night. The Communist candidate looks tired, his tie askew, his face puffy and red. But he smiles and receives the interviewer’s congratulations on his unexpected victory over the Labour incumbent in a firm, bass-heavy voice that had by then already become a fixture at miners’ rallies.

Two days after his election, Clarke received a phone call. He had to come to the Seafield Colliery right away. A roof in a steeply inclined coalface beneath the Firth of Forth had collapsed. Five miners were dead. It took rescue workers a week to reach the last three bodies. “You were away up here. And then bang, you were back to reality.” Clarke lifts his right arm in the air. The sleeve of his jumper falls away slightly to reveal a thin, bright blue scar caused by trapped coal dust in a five-decade-old wound from his own stint in the mines.

Clarke began working in the pit at 14. His first job was separating stone from coal on the surface for 40p a shift. He soon joined the Communists. “I was always rebellious. Always asking, ‘why?’. ‘Why should that happen? Why has that not happened? [The Communists] caught your imagination. They were radical, wanted change, they were not prepared to accept things as they were.”

Clarke grew up in an unconventional home. His mother was a young, unmarried domestic servant when she became pregnant. In school, classmates would tease: ‘Who is your father?’ The Clarke house, like many in the area, had a subscription to the Daily Worker and during the war his uncle, also a miner, collected short paperback biographies of Russian generals and pinned up two maps of Europe on the wall so that he and his nephew could mark the progress of the allied and axis forces.

Clarke’s uncle died in 1947. That same year, the coal industry was nationalised. Its future seemed as steadfast and dependable as the hard Fife soil on which it rested. In 1957, the Queen travelled to the Fife town of Glenrothes to open a new colliery. Mining seemed in rude health but, beneath the surface, the ground was starting to shift.

The Glenrothes colliery was a failure, and by the time it shut the following decade, mines across Scotland were being closed. In 1973, the National Union of Mineworkers declared a work-to-rule. By then most of the pits in Fife were closed. Nevertheless, Clarke and his colleague kept the communist faith.

Clarke still speaks fondly of weeks spent in Moscow at the height of the cold war. Denunciations of the Soviet Union, he maintains, were motivated by anti-communism, not a desire to shed light on repression. “They just wanted to attack it. We saw the Soviet Union as the vanguard of the working classes of the whole world.” Today, the material conditions that sustained Fife’s pit villages – and its communists – are gone. Clarke is able to win votes not because of his belief in a new socialist order but because of his tireless work for the local community.

Willie Clarke and Gordon Brown at an official event in 2012.

Pinterest
Willie Clarke and Gordon Brown at an official event in 2012. Photograph: Fife Council/Fife council

“People like Willie, he’s a great guy and he gets things done,” says Michael Payne, who works at the Benarty community centre in Ballingry. The Benarty centre is, in part, a testimony to the ageing communist’s political effectiveness. Clarke was instrumental in securing funding for the state-of-the-art facility that replaced a series of disparate, often dilapidated facilities dotted across the pit villages.

As we sit in the centre’s cafe before one of Clarke’s weekly constituency meetings a mobility scooter silently sidles up to our table. An elderly woman in a heavy coat complains that her front door was so stiff she could barely open it. Clarke nods. He takes out a scrap of paper and a small, stubby bookmaker’s pen. (He likes a bet on the horses.) “Leave it with me, I’ll get it sorted.”

Later Clarke takes me to a picturesque lakeside park built on what was the former dump for the pits. “The Meedies” was once the largest land reclamation scheme in Europe. Now it is Fife’s most popular tourist attraction. A group of teenagers on mountain bikes cycle across what had been a rail line for coal wagons. The white wooden frame of the old pit shaft peeks out behind a smattering of trees and brambles. When the park was built many locals wanted all traces of the mines removed. Clarke successfully lobbied for the shaft to remain: “Now if you tried to take it away there’d be a revolution.”

Clarke has not lost hope of a communist insurrection, but these days his main political goal is probably more achievable: Scottish independence. In the months leading up to September’s referendum he worked flat out facilitating meetings and debates, organising canvasses and leaflet drops. “Independence will come, whether it comes now or in 20 years. It’s like the tide you cannot hold it back, it’s going to happen. People will have to look at what is going to provide a fairer society, and it’s certainly not the capitalist system.”

This piece originally appeared in the print Guardian.

UK communists and the fall of the Berlin Wall

Once a hotbed of left-wing agitation, socialists in Cowdenbeath still mourn the beginning of the end of communism.

A November 1989 image shows people celebrating the opening of the border between East and West Germany [EPA]

Cowdenbeath, Scotland Twenty-five years ago the heavy thud of the Berlin Wall falling resonated around the world. The Cold War was over. There were parties and celebrations, laughter and tears of joy.

But among communist supporters in Western Europe, images of armed guards standing idly by as elated East Germans danced on the barricades were a source of consternation, not jubilation.

More than a thousand kilometres from the Brandenburg Gate, in the Scottish mining town of Cowdenbeath, Mary Doherty sat sobbing in front of the evening news on November 9, 1989. For decades she ran the weekly Socialist Sunday School.

“Her world was shattered,” recalls veteran local communist Jackie Allan. “Everything was the Soviet Union, then it was gone.”

A few kilometres away in Ballingry, a small hamlet of post-war suburban pebbledash terrace houses at the foot of green hills, councillor Willie Clarke remembers being “stunned” when the Berlin Wall fell.

“It was something you didn’t see happening, and it happened so quickly. It took a long time to recover,” says Clarke.

[Communism] caught your imagination, they were radical, wanted change, they were not prepared to accept things as they were.

– Willie Clarke, councillor

Standing in Cowdenbeath today, its quiet streets dotted with “to let” signs and bargain stores, it is hard to imagine that this was once a hotbed of communist agitation. In the 1920s, the red sandstone town hall – still the most impressive building on High Street – flew the Red Flag on the anniversary of the Russian revolution. At the time, the government in London feared that any left-wing insurrection in Britain would start in Cowdenbeath.

As late as 1973, communists won 12 council seats in Lochgelly and Cowdenbeath. Clarke was among the councillors elected that day. Remarkably, Clarke, now in his late 70s and having lost his left ear to cancer, is still a local councillor for Ballingry.

Clarke is technically an independent, but he campaigns on an avowedly communistic platform. “All the literature that goes out is communist,” says the craggy-faced septuagenarian. “Nobody can say I’m trying to gild the lily. I’m still a communist.”

In the last local elections in 2012, Clarke was returned on the first round of voting.

Communist curiosity

Communists were not always a curiosity in UK politics. In the 1945 general election, the Communist Party of Great Britain took 14.6 percent of the vote and two seats, including Willie Gallacher, whose constituency included what is now Ballingry. In local elections the following year, the number of communist councillors increased from 81 to 215.

This was proven to be an electoral high-water mark for the party. Members left in droves after the Soviet invasion first of Hungary in 1956, and then of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Nevertheless, the communists remained a presence in outposts of industrial Britain, in South Wales, East London, and in the coalfields of Scotland.

In Cowdenbeath, communism was inextricably linked with the local coal mining industry. In the early years of the 19th century, rich deposits of coal were inadvertently discovered when iron ore shafts were sunk. Almost overnight Cowdenbeath, a tranquil cluster of farmers’ cottages, was transformed into a noisy, dirty, ramshackle settlement. By the turn of the 20th century, the town’s population had swelled to 14,000. Three-quarters of the menfolk were employed by the Fife Coal Company, Britain’s largest mining enterprise.

Willie Clarke was born in Glencraig, a “very militant” village with a reputation for communism. Active communists included Laurence Daly, a prominent miners’ leader who would leave the Communist Party in 1956 in protest at Nikita Khrushchev’s denunciation of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. Aged 14, he began working in the mine, and not long afterwards he joined the Communist Party.

“[Communism] caught your imagination, they were radical, wanted change, they were not prepared to accept things as they were,” says Clarke.

‘Opium of the people’

Communists were renowned for their iron discipline. Local MP Willie Gallacher, the last communist in the House of Commons, was a lifelong teetotaller.

Willie Sharp, the first communist provost in Britain when he was elected in Cowdenbeath in 1973, did not smoke or drink. Communists decried religion “as the opium of the people”, but party and church often operated along similar lines. Both organised community events and Sunday schools – one teaching the bible, the other political economy and the works of Karl Marx.

The legacy of Cowdenbeath’s communist past can still be seen today. In the adjacent suburb of Lumphinnans, people live on streets named “Gallacher Place” and “Gagarin Way”. Locals call this “Little Moscow”.

Former communist activist Jack Allan recalls asking his father why the family always voted communist. “His answer was simple: ‘They’re the people who help ye the most.’ I still believe that.”

The demise of communism in Cowdenbeath and the surrounding pit villages was a product of rapid economic and political change. The discovery of huge deposits of oil and gas in the North Sea hastened the demise of smaller, less productive mines across Britain. By the 1970s, most of the mining jobs in Cowdenbeath were gone. Nowadays, the region has one of the highest rates of unemployment in Scotland.

Demise of communism

The fall of the Berlin Wall sounded the death knell for British communism. By the time the party voted to disband itself in 1991, there had already been numerous splits and its vote had collapsed.

People like Willie, he’s a great guy and he gets things done.

– Michael Payne, Cowdenbeath resident

For communists in Cowdenbeath, the fall of the wall was “like telling a Christian there was no God”, as former communist councillor Alex Maxwell put it.

With the barrier between East and West gone, the brutal reality of life in the Soviet Union could no longer be dismissed as anti-communist propaganda.

“What you believed was happening in the Soviet Union wasn’t happening at all. It was something different,” says Clarke.

Four decades on, the material conditions that sustained Fife’s pit villages – and its communists – are gone. The mines are closed and Clarke is able to win votes not because of his belief in a new socialist order, but because he works tirelessly to get council houses renovated and community centres opened.

“People like Willie, he’s a great guy and he gets things done,” says Michael Payne, who works at the local community centre in Ballingry.

Clarke was instrumental in securing funding for this state-of-the-art facility that opened in 2012 to replace a series of diffuse, dilapidated facilities dotted across the adjacent pit villages.

Clarke has one last political wish: Scottish independence. He was very active in the “yes” campaign in the recent referendum. Although the vote was lost, he says Scotland will become independent someday.

“If it doesn’t happen now it’ll be happen in the future. Maybe I’ll not see it, but it’ll happen,” Clarke says.

This piece originally appeared on Al Jazeera.