RON Brown was that rare breed, a trades union militant, who became a
Labour MP yet kept to his working-class, socialist convictions.
Unlike many others who sat on those green Labour benches, Ron wasn’t
seduced by “the Palace of Westminster”. Steeped in the trades union
movement and surrounded by a strong base of activists back in
Edinburgh, he was not the kind of man to forget the people who elected
Born in West Pilton, the son of a taxi driver, Ron was a product of
that Edinburgh which is often ignored, its working-class majority.
Nowhere is their spirit more apparent than in the people of Leith and
Ron adored them. He was a councillor for the area before entering the
Commons and was proud to represent Leithers and by extension
working-class people everywhere.
For 13 years from 1979 at Westminster he brought the day-to-day
reality of working- class life to the “semi-detached” House of Commons.
Ron found the antiquated procedures at Westminster frustrating. No
more so, perhaps, than during an infamous occasion in 1988 when
Margaret Thatcher introduced the poll tax. During an angry debate, Ron
picked up the Mace and dropped it to the floor. For his “crime”, he
was barred from the Commons for 20 days and ordered to pay for repairs
to the “bauble”. But Ron was reflecting the anger of millions over the
poll tax. He followed the advice of a predecessor Labour MP, George
Lansbury, who argued that “it is better to break the law than break
Ron was propelled to the front of the anti-poll tax movement. On one
occasion he was arrested for telling Mrs Thatcher, on one of her rare
trips north of the Border, that she was “not welcome here”.
Ron Brown was a principled socialist activist. He was not afraid to
confront the political orthodoxy of the time. He was a first-class
spokesman for the anti-poll tax movement and played no small part in
its ultimate victory.
Although he was never far from Leith, he was passionate about world
affairs as a committed anti-imperialist. His warning in 1980 to the
Thatcher government about arming the Mujahideen to overthrow the
government in Afghanistan seems prophetic in light of current events.
He went where few would dare – to Libya, for example, where he helped
secure the release of Scots engineer Robert Maxwell from jail in 1983.
Ron’s sense of humour shone through when dealing with the allegations
that he was a spy for Libya or, indeed, the Russians. “I confess I was
an agent for Littlewoods pools in the 1970s,” he said “but no-one else.”
As much as he liked a laugh he was serious about the need to change
the way the world was run. My fondest memory of Ron captures both
sides of him. We were among a group of anti-poll tax activists
gathered in Mayfield, Midlothian, to stop a poinding. When the sheriff
officers arrived Ron dashed over to the two burly enforcers and asked
if they were in the union. Ron had hoped he could appeal to their
class sensibilities and get them to turn around and go home, but,
alas, the National Union of Sheriff Officers if there was such a thing
did not count these two likely lads among its membership.
With the advent of Blairism in 1995 Ron believed Labour was no longer
a party of socialist values. A new party of the left had to be built
and Ron threw himself into the task with gusto. Together with around
500 others Ron established the Scottish Socialist Alliance. The left
in Scotland had finally begun to get its act together.
The Scottish Socialist Party emerged and Ron was one of its founding
members. He was an SSP member until his death.
Ron Brown was an active socialist for nearly 50 years. He was a member
of the engineering union throughout and latterly president of
Edinburgh Trades Union Council. He sat on the Edinburgh May Day
Committee. He was a stalwart in many campaigns, demonstrations,
protest marches, pickets and rallies. Indeed, it is hard to accept
that we will not see him again on the posties’ picket lines or the
Meadowbank stadium protest, peace marches or anti-war activities.