Alex Eadie: MP who devoted his parliamentary career to championing the miners
Saturday 28 January 2012
Alex Eadie, Labour MP for Midlothian from 1966 until 1992, was my parliamentary neighbour for a quarter of a century.
Members of Parliament who share a local newspaper covering both their constituencies often develop edgy, and sometimes icy, relationships with one another. Rivalries and petty jealousies can ever so easily rear their ugly heads. But I can truthfully say that, as the MP for West Lothian, I never had a less than excellent relationship with Eadie. He was a coalminer and a gentleman. These two often go together.
For a period in the 1970s and early 1980s, Eadie had a position in British politics infinitely more important than that which would normally be accorded to shadow or actual parliamentary under-secretaries of state at the Department of Energy. He had been a miner with three decades of experience at the coal-face of Lochhead Colliery near his home, the coal-town of Wemyss in Fife.
He had grown up in the Fife National Union of Mine Workers with Mick McGahey, and had the grudging respect of the brothers Abe and Alex Moffatt, the powerful Communist leaders of the Scottish miners. He had risen, in the hard ambience of the Fife County Council, to which he had been elected in 1953, to be the respected chairman of the Housing Committee for nine years and of the Education Committee. His chiselled features and powerful frame made him physically formidable.
Throughout the turbulent Heath, Wilson-Callaghan and Thatcher years at the political coalface, Eadie commanded attention, not only in Labour circles but among civil servants and many Conservatives, as a force for sanity. He was contemptuous of cheap political advantage – his talisman was any proposal which would bring benefit to miners and their families.
His father Robert was killed in a mining accident, and Alex was brought up by his mother, Sarah. After Buckhaven Secondary School, Eadie applied himself in the Buckhaven Technical School. In 1958 he was elected to the Labour Party's Scottish Regional Council and the following year was selected to fight Sir Thomas Moore Bt for the marginal seat of Ayr Burghs.
He was unsuccessful, but for the next five years nursed the constituency vigorously. I spent many weekends in Ayr canvassing with him; we would have won in 1964 but for the outstanding Tory candidate, George Younger. Eighteen months later the Communist leadership supported Eadie for the traditional miners' seat of Midlothian, where he romped home in 1966 and held the seat until his retirement in 1992.
I sat next to him during his maiden speech on 9 May 1966 on the Budget. "We should help to restore confidence in the mining industry if we accelerated the inquiry into the distribution of coal," he said. "It is ridiculous that it should cost more to distribute coal than it costs miners in the bowels of the earth to produce it."
It was one of the few maiden speeches which actually led to government action. There was an inquiry and distribution costs did improve. And Eadie became the Parliamentary Private Secretary to Margaret Herbison, then the Minister for Social Security outside the Cabinet. However, later that year he was sacked on Harold Wilson's orders for refusing to back the government on entry into the EEC. This did not worry Eadie, an issue politician relatively uninterested in the greasy pole of promotion. He thought nothing of threatening the Minister of Power, Dick Marsh (obituary, 13 August 2011), with the revolt of the miners' MPs unless he changed his policy on pit closures.
After the fall of the Labour government in 1970 Eadie was promoted to the front-bench team on energy. He expressed fury with the Industry Secretary, John Davies, for threatening the miners with cheap oil and warned that oil would not be cheap for all time. In fact he trumpeted the problems of the 1973 oil crisis before it happened.
In November 1973 he successfully introduced a Private Member's Bill to help the mentally handicapped.
Seldom can a Minister have known at first hand so many of the gut issues in the mining industry. Eadie was particularly concerned about disease and injury, not least because he himself suffered excruciating back pain as a result of a pit injury. He was able to do much to improve miners' health.
I saw him daily during the miners' strike in 1984. He was travelling endlessly between the coalfields, the NUM headquarters in Sheffield, Westminster and his home. He was deeply offended by Margaret Thatcher's referral to the mineworkers as "the enemy within". On 7 June he said bitterly, "The miners' dispute is probably costing twice as much as the Falklands War. I restrain myself with great difficulty from going into details about [Hansard records laughter] – Conservative members should not laugh, because there is nothing to laugh about – the misery and suffering that miners and their families are undergoing. "
I had a cup of tea with Eadie afterwards – he was a strict teetotaller – and found him incandescent with anger. Politics were of secondary importance to the proud profession of coal-miner.
In September 1978, Eadie was a possible candidate to succeed Derek Ezra as the chairman of the National Coal Board. I believe that that appointment would have been made had it not been for the incipient illness of Eadie's devoted wife, Mima. Had he become chairman, I do not think that Thatcher would have removed him and the whole confrontational saga of Ian McGregor might have been avoided. Eadie had always handled Thatcher well and would have built on what she had said about St Francis of Assisi and harmony.
Mima died in 1981 and, for the two decades following, Eadie, with mounting health problems acquired by 30 years underground, was cared for in his beloved Wemyss by Janice, his second wife, and his son Robert, a senior trade union official, and daughter-in-law Helen, a member of the Scottish Parliament for Dunfermline East.
Alexander Eadie, coalminer and politician: born Glasgow 23 June 1920; coalminer, Lochhead Colliery 1934-65; BEM 1960; MP (Labour) for Midlothian 1966-92; Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Energy 1974-79; married 1941 Mima Ritchie (died 1981; one son), 1983 Janice Murdoch; died East Wemyss 25 January 2012.
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