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The Review - BOOKS
Published: 4 June 2009
Jock Nicholson
Jock Nicholson
The banner bright, the symbol plain,
of human right and human gain

Despite its flaws, Jock Nicolson’s auotbiography is an illuminating look at the struggles of the Communist Party of Great Britain, writes Peter Richards

A Turbulent Life - By Jock Nicholson

JOCK Nicolson was a leading Communist in Camden from 1955 for about 30 years.
He stood in four parliamentary elections as well as five municipal contests. Between elections he was actively involved in all types of local politics, and played no small role in the famous Council Tenants’ Rent Strike of 1960.
His book, aptly named A Turbulent Life, is not without its weaknesses. The manuscript was written mainly in 1992, and many of the events that he features as current are dated. Also, his account is too short (comprising just over 100 pages), which precludes examination in depth of the issues raised. Sometimes the account jumps about historically which upsets its chronology. But despite these faults, the content of what Jock has written is of considerable value to all who are interested in politics, and wish to see a better society.
For most of his time in Camden, I had the honour to be both a friend and comrade of Jock, and I am familiar with many of his Camden activities. In the latter part of his life, Jock concentrated upon trade union affairs until he retired. He died in August 2007.
Jock was born in 1922 to a poor working class family in Hamilton, a town in industrial Lanarkshire. His description of his early life, with its dreadful housing conditions, grinding poverty, and feelings of hopelessness, presents a sombre picture of the depression that prevailed in the 1920s and 1930s. Although the setting was in Scotland, the dire situation described was replicated in many areas of London, and the country at large.
As a lad, Jock’s interests were in the field of nature, not football. His nearness to the countryside provided him with the opportunity to develop his skills at bird-nesting and poaching. Conservationists may frown on his taking the eggs of birds, but his motive was to eat his findings in order to supplement his meagre diet. His progression to poaching rabbits, and his hide-and-seek antics with prowling game keepers, who were safeguarding the interests of the landowners, aroused his early feelings of class and conscientiousness.
Aged 14, Jock left school with no qualifications. The year was 1936, and although the country was coming out of the Depression, the work available was hard, the hours long, and the wages low. Jock was soon involved in industrial disputes, and he became an active trade unionist.
Today the country is in recession, but its degrees of deprivation, bad as they may be, are much less than those of the earlier period. The country is now much richer, and the lot of the unemployed, pensioners, and the sick, is much better than that of their counterparts of the 1930s. It is reasonable to claim that this improvement owes much to the likes of people like Jock who fought hard to obtain the workers a share of the country’s greater wealth. His account of his trade union work at shop floor, district and national levels of his union, the NUR (National Union of Railwaymen), supports this claim.
Jock’s description of some of the intrigues and manoeuvres within the unions makes it clear that reforms were needed. Not those of the Thatcher government that aimed at crippling the movement, but measures to improve the level of trade union democracy and efficiency.
Poverty itself does not necessarily lead to socialist thinking. If it did, capitalism would have vanished long ago. Although Jock was imbued with hatred for the misery he saw and endured, it was the political arguments that he heard that convinced him of the need for a socialist society. Henceforth, his trade union and political activities became intertwined. He joined the Communist Party (CPGB) at an early age, contested several local elections, and became a full-time worker for the Party in the 1940s.
In 1945, a post-war Labour Government was swept to power, together with the election of two Communist MPs, Willie Gallacher in West Fife and Phil Piratin in Mile End. Gallacher had already served in Parliament, having been elected in 1935. He had achieved a formidable Parliamentary record for fighting for such matters as pit-head baths for miners, and opposing Neville Chamberlain's disastrous surrender at Munich. But in the late 1940's, the Scottish Executive of the CP was alarmed that the prevailing Cold War, about to blow even colder, was threatening Gallacher's seat. An interesting sidelight is offered regarding the strong sense of discipline that the CP exerted on its leading members at this time.
About 1948 Jock attended a residential CP school in Hastings. There he met Bridget, his future wife to whom Jock became devoted. At this time, and for various reasons, Bridget could not join Jock in Scotland, and if the relationship were to continue he would have to come south to Hampstead where Bridget lived.
When he returned to Scotland, Jock asked the Party Executive to agree to his transfer to London. But he was met with the argument that as a General Election was about 18 months away it was vital that he remain to work for Gallacher. Lesser mortals would have packed their bags and headed south. But not Jock, he stayed until the election which was held in February 1950.
The results were a disaster for the Labour Party, but more so for the Communists. Gallacher had lost his seat and came bottom of the poll. Jock could scarcely believe the result. How could such a man as Gallacher, who was an unquestioned fighter for the working class, be rejected in such ignominious fashion? Jock pondered hard on this question, and blamed the result on the Cold War and the anti-Communist hysteria that had been whipped up by the press. But one may argue that the real reason for the unpopularity of the CP is revealed by Jock when his account deals with the collapse of the Soviet Union.
On coming to London, Jock married Bridget, and got a job on the railway. So began a hectic phase for him, for apart from the domestic responsibilities that he had shouldered, he undertook trade union work and political activity within the local St Pancras CP. In 1955 he became the Party's Parliamentary candidate for the constituency of North St Pancras.
Stalin had died in March 1953, and there were early signs that some of the consequences of his crimes were being rectified. This affected the standing of the British CP, and in 1955 Jock polled well in comparison the 1950 election when Tom Aherne, also a railway worker, had stood for the Party.
The curtain raiser to the next Ge
neral Election in 1959 did not augur well for the Communist candidate. Krushchev’s denunciation of Stalin in 1956, the Hungarian uprising in the same year, and various suppressive measures in Eastern Europe, combined to effect a loss of about a third of the membership of the CPGB, and cause a marked decline in the already poor level of its public support. It was hardly surprising that Jock's election address concentrated upon home affairs, albeit he castigated Labour's support for NATO.
In 1958, there had occurred the Notting Hill race riots that arose from the influx of black workers, mainly from the West Indies. This encouraged the National Labour Party, a forerunner of the National Front, to field a candidate in St Pancras. He was Bill Webster, a publican whose establishment was inaptly named “The Black Horse” wherein no customer who was black would be served.
In his election address Jock stated, “The colour bar and racialist propaganda should become legal offences.” But that of Webster's contained the claim, “I happen to be proud of the fact that my grandfather was a white man, and I want to see my grandchildren the same.” With this clash of views, friction at street corner meetings was inevitable, and Jock describes a fairly hairy encounter between himself and some of Webster's heavies when he was on the soap box at Queen’s Crescent market.
It is interesting to note that the type of racist propaganda favoured by Webster has subsequently been outlawed.
Following the election, Jock became heavily involved in supporting the St Pancras Council tenants who were facing massive rent increases and the imposition of a hated means test scheme. The recently elected Tory Council was intent on venting its spleen on its council tenants. In 1960 the situation became very ugly when riots erupted and the Public Order Act was imposed on the Borough.
Jock fought two more elections for the CP, those of 1964 and 1966. He then stood down as a candidate, thinking perhaps, and paraphrasing Oscar Wilde, to lose one election is unfortunate, to lose four is enough. It was then that he concentrated upon trade union work.
Like many Communists, Jock had far more success in the industrial rather than the political field. His hard work and abilities saw him rise to regional and national levels of leadership. It must have given him some satisfaction when, as a former poor elementary schoolboy, he found himself in the Cabinet Room at Number 10, facing senior members of the Wilson government.
When he left the Executive and retired from full-time work, Jock was active regarding his Union's pension fund and expressing his hostility to Thatcher's unfair poll tax. In the last part of his account, he dwells upon the collapse of his political dreams.
The break-up of the Soviet Union and the Communist International in the late 1980s hit Jock particularly hard. Similar to the defeat of Willie Gallacher already referred to, Jock could not believe what had happened.
On reflecting on the situation, he states, “The Communist Party of the Soviet Union was my party; for me the Communist Party of Great Britain was still a section of the international Communist Movement within which the CPSU played the leading role.” (P97)
Herein, it may be argued, lay the main cause of the Party's electoral dismal failures. While many members gave unquestioning support to the Soviet Union, it proved the country, despite the respect it deserved for its costly price in defeating Nazi Germany, that was the centre of some atrocious crimes committed in the name of Communism.
Thus, although comrades like Jock worked tooth and nail for home policies that were in the interests of the workers of Britain, the rug was being pulled from under their feet by events in Eastern Europe that could no longer be dismissed as capitalist propaganda.
Jock then suffered a personal blow when in 1997 his beloved Bridget died. Bridget was an intellectual who had her own ideas on politics, and Jock’s account pays full tribute to the support she gave to him in their 50 years of marriage.
Despite the sad ending, one can conclude that Jock Nicolson's contribution to the British Labour Movement was considerable. His book is very informative, and deserves to be widely read.

• Dr Peter Richards is a social historian and author of a war memoir Bombs, Bullshit and ­Bullets (Athena Press)
• A Turbulent Life. By Jock Nicolson, with foreword by Bob Crowe. Praxis Press, £8.99.

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