Helen Eadie: Labour activist who fought for the creation of a Scottish Parliament and championed the European Community
Tuesday 12 November 2013
Helen Eadie was the best kind of honourable and tolerant issue politician, at the epicentre of Labour Party affairs for nearly half a century. I am in a position to say this since on her most cherished cause – the creation of a Scottish Parliament, of which she was to become a founding member, representing Dunfermline East – I took a diametrically opposing view.
She was born in the Stirlingshire village of Stenhousemuir, known to most in the UK as the last or penultimate football result intoned by James Alexander Gordon on Sports Report, to Jack Miller, a soldier with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders who became a moulder in the Carron ironworks, famous since the Industrial Revolution. Her mother was a home help – important for Helen's later life since she became a champion of local authorities allocating resources to home helps. She went to Larbert High School; one of her causes in later life was the need to tackle bullying on school buses. She would point out in no uncertain terms that this was a far from trivial matter in the psychological development of many children.
She left Larbert sat 15 to work in a laundry, from which she was unfairly dismissed. Her case came to the notice of Alex and Charlie Donnett, titans of the trade union movement; for the rest of her life she was to be highly involved with the GMB. She moved on to Falkirk Technical College, from which, at the instigation of her young but extremely thoughtful and well-qualified husband Robert, whom she had met as a 17-year-old at St Andrews University summer school and who later became a senior official of the ETU, she gained entry to the LSE.
There she specialised in trade union studies; it was a turbulent time in student politics, some of the Houghton Street students wanting to emulate Daniel Cohn-Bendit at Nanterre. She told me she found it thrilling, particularly as the young women there played a part unimaginable in the Scotland of the 1960s.
The LSE's imperious Professor of Economics, Lionel Robbins had been succeeded in 1974 by Ralph Dahrendorf, former European Commissioner, a German, and at that time a challenging appointment. Eadie attended a series of lectures by Dahrendorf which sparked an idealistic passion for the European Community cause. She had a deep concern about the integration of Eastern Europeans into British society, and about developments in Eastern Europe paving the way for membership of the EC. She told me that her interest had been fostered by her experience in her twenties of the Polish community in Fife.
In 1940-41 the Polish First Armoured Division had been formed by Poles who often had harrowing stories of escape from the clutches of Hitler and Stalin; in 1945 almost all preferred to set up homes in Fife, where their Division had been stationed and trained (and where many had found girlfriends) rather than risk returning to Gomolka's Communist Poland, where they suspected, rightly in the 1940s, that they would get their throats cut. Eadie befriended the Polish community many years before she was looking for their votes, and helped them make their huge, skilful and energetic contribution to Scottish life. Later in her public life Eadie extended this involvement to Bulgaria, and a week before she died she made a plea to colleagues in the Scottish Parliament that her Bulgarian work should be continued.
Perhaps Eadie's most significant contribution to British politics was in the late 1970s, when she was research assistant to her father-in-law Alex Eadie, MP for Midlothian, and to his great friend Harry Ewing, a Fifer who was MP for Falkirk. Alex Eadie was a minister in the Wilson/Callaghan government responsible for the coal industry, and as a former miner (and distinguished chairman of Fife Education Committee) he had some of the most delicate responsibilities, particularly in relation to Joe Gormley, Arthur Scargill and the NUM. As my party neighbour and close friend for 25 years Alex told me how much he owed to his daughter-in-law for her help.
From 1976 Harry Ewing was the minister in the Scottish Office representing that department in the devolution legislation and directly responsible to Ted Short (Lord Glenamara), deputy leader of the Labour Party. Short told me how much he valued the work of his own departmental assistant, Vicky Kidd, and of Helen, who worked for Ewing. They also earned the respect of the discerning Sir Michael Quinlan, who had been loaned to the Cabinet Office from the Ministry of Defence.
Helen had one stab at Westminster, at the behest of the Scottish Labour Party, standing in the no-hope constituency of Roxburgh and Berwickshire. Albeit trailing behind the well-established Liberal Archie Kirkwood and the Conservative candidate Douglas Younger, she drove a surprised SNP into fourth place. As one who had been a candidate in Roxburgh 38 years earlier I went to speak for her in Hawick and can testify how her rumbustious championing of women workers won votes.
In 1986 Eadie was elected to Fife Regional Council. She was superb. In 2003 she brought a number of colleagues in the Scottish Parliament and local government to complain bitterly about the introduction by the parliament in Edinburgh of any element of proportional representation, on the grounds that it would lead to indecision and fracture the links between constituents and an identifiable councillor. Latterly she became "mother of the house". One of the rising stars in Edinburgh, Neil Findlay, told me: "Eadie deeply cared about people much more than her career or status. She was a great example to younger members of the Parliament; she was steeped in the values of the Labour and trade union movement, decent, honest and principled."
It was the essence of Eadie, knowing that the grim reaper was nigh, that she should have been arranging for the case of discontented night nurses at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Kirkcaldy to be dealt with in the appropriate quarters before she was transferred to the Queen Margaret Hospice in Dunfermline.
Helen Miller, trade unionist and politician: born Stenhousemuir 7 March 1947; Equal Opportunity and Political Officer, GMB; Member, Fife Regional Council 1986-99, Deputy Leader 1992-96; contested Roxburgh and Berwickshire 1997; MSP Dunfermline East 1999-2011, Cowdenbeath 2011-; married 1967 Robert Eadie (two daughters); died Dunfermline 9 November 2013.
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