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Obituary: Alec Kitson

There is the true story of two lads, in charge of a horse and cart, clanking the cobbles and delivering the milk to the more prosperous citizens of Edinburgh Morningside in the early 1940s. Their names: Alec Kitson, 40 years later to be Chairman of the Labour Party Conference, as Deputy General Secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union; and one Sean Connery, by that time known the world over as James Bond or 007.

When I asked him, "Alec, whatever did happen to that horse?", he replied, "H'mm, Connery and I knew all about animal welfare, long before there was any lobby on animal rights at the Labour Party conference or anywhere else. You can take it that that horse and all our horses were extremely well cared for and lived a happy life with us. As usual, I was before my time!"

Indeed, in many matters, Kitson was before his time. The notion put around that Kitson and some of his contemporary trade union leaders were out of Jurassic Park is ludicrous and unfair. Ancient Labour they may have been, but ancient Labour had values, passionate beliefs in right and wrong, and an enormous interest in the world beyond Britain and Europe. My memory of Kitson above all others is the work that he did year in and year out for the International Committee of the Labour Party. He was a close colleague of the late Dame Judith Hart and was the driving force behind many of Hart's reforms to change the nature of aid to be focused on the poor rather than generalised.

He was a genuine champion of civil rights when liberties were suppressed. As Chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party Foreign Affairs Committee in 1975-76, I accompanied him on numerous delegations to support the cause of President Salvador Allende in Chile. Those who went with him, like Ron Hayward, the General Secretary of the Labour Party, and shadow ministers such as Peter Shore, were struck by how much he knew about the detail not only of Chile but of Nicaragua and other heart-rending situations. For example, Lord Carrington, then Foreign Secretary, told me how impressed he had been with Kitson's advocacy of causes on which they disagreed.

Few people in Britain had such an intimate knowledge of the Soviet Union. Together with Jenny Little, the long-serving International Secretary of the Labour Party, Kitson built up contacts around the world hugely to the benefit of Britain, as leaders of those nations who had been befriended by him grew into power.

Kitson was born of a family involved in the transport and mining industries at Kirknewton in the Midlothian coalfield. Leaving school at 14, he drove a horse and cart and, as soon as he was of an age to complete a driving test, became a lorry driver. This was a reserved occupation during the Second World War. As soon as the war ended, at the young age of 24, he became a junior official with the old and proud Scottish Horse and Motormen's Union.

I first met him in 1962 when there were problems at the British Motor Corporation's truck and tractor division at Bathgate involving delivery men. Whereas other unions were a bit light-hearted about going on strike, Kitson was careful to consult his members and reflect their view that they did not wish to lose money unnecessarily. Throughout his life, Kitson was contemptuous of futile rhetoric, especially by those who would not be disadvantaged while causing others to lose wages.

Although it was inevitable that the Scottish Horse and Motormen should, for their own advantage, join up with the then mighty Transport and General Workers' Union, it was said at the time that the merger was all about Kitson's wider ambitions. Indeed, the rumour went that he had been promised succession to the leadership of the entire Transport and General Workers' Union itself. My enquiries suggest that no such undertaking was ever in fact given.

He became, in 1966, Chairman of the Scottish Trades Union Congress. Mick McGahey, the miners' leader, said of him, "Alec Kitson, along with Jimmy Jarvie, Bill Tweedie and Jimmy Milne, transformed the Scottish TUC. He was a fervent supporter of Scottish devolution, very much the child of that STUC." More than any other trade union leader of his generation, Kitson played a central role on the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party, chairing not only the International Committee, but at one time or another the then important Home Policy Committee, the Finance and General Purposes Committee and the organisational sub- committee of the party. I used to see him late at night on the Edinburgh aircraft with a huge canvas rucksack on his back full of papers. He was a dynamo, and yet on the plane was often slumped up fast asleep. The ability to cat-nap, he claimed, was one of his great strengths as a trade union leader. But his real strength was that he was an extremely skilful and constructive negotiator.

In 1977, Kitson and Moss Evans contested the General Secretaryship of the Transport and General Workers' Union. Evans, who had represented the motor industry in the union, told me "Kitson was an exceptionally good colleague and very, very loyal. I never experienced, despite all the difficulties of the late 1970s and early 1980s, any reproach from a man who had come second to me in an election".

Evans recalled that Kitson had been marvellous during the road haulage dispute which preceded the winter of discontent of 1978-79. "I only saw Kitson really angry on one occasion. That was in December 1978 when he thought that he had an agreement between the employers and the union on the critical matter of the strike of the lorry drivers in oil distribution. He came back to me absolutely livid that the agreement had been scuppered, as he perceived it, by Bill Rodgers, then James Callaghan's Transport Secretary." Kitson held to the end of his life that, had he been allowed by the Government to go snap on this agreement, that the whole winter of discontent would not have occurred.

Perhaps the high peak of Kitson's career was the 1981 Labour Party conference and the ferocious battle between Tony Benn and Denis Healey for the non- position of Deputy Leader of the Party. Despite his natural inclinations as a man of the left, Kitson was fastidiously neutral, as Chairman. Kitson, with his cheerfully bossy "you's get back - I called you's over there" was a treat. The only offence he really gave was to the women, some of whom he called by the Scots word of endearment "hen" - and told one delegate that it was time she went away and made the tea. In spite of initial consternation and fury, at the end of the day upon the last Friday of conference, a group of formidable Labour ladies, led by the redoubtable Alice Mahon, now MP for Halifax, presented him with a teapot - a treasured possession.

When he retired from the Transport and General Workers at the age of 65, in 1986, Kitson became Director of the Lothian Regional Transport Board and in 1990 its Chairman. As a local MP, I know at first hand that he did a stupendous job in giving us and the city of Edinburgh one of the best transport systems in the country. Nor, on retirement, did he vegetate on national issues; for five years he was a prominent and influential member of the War On Want council.

If the Labour Party now has a huge Commons majority, those who are the beneficiaries should never forget that it was Alec Kitson and his contemporaries, sustained by passionate beliefs as to what was right or wrong, and what was good for working people, who kept the Labour Party alive in the dark and difficult days. The loss of his wife Annie some weeks ago, deprived him of his great quality of battling.

Tam Dalyell

Alexander Harper Kitson, trade unionist: born Kirknewton, Midlothian 21 October 1921; General Secretary, Scottish Horse and Motormen's Union (later Commercial Motormen's Union) 1959-71; Chairman, Scottish TUC 1966, Treasurer 1974-81; Assistant General Secretary, Transport and General Workers' Union 1971-80, Deputy General Secretary 1980-86; Member of National Executive Committee, Labour Party 1980-86; Chairman of the Labour Party 1980-81; married 1942 Ann Brown McLeod (died 1997; two daughters); died Edinburgh 2 August 1997.