Obituary: John Boyle
Wednesday 20 September 1995
At the time that John Boyle was Convenor of its joint shop stewards committee in the early 1960s, the Truck and Tractor Division of the British Motor Corporation plant at Bathgate, near Linlithgow, could boast that it had the biggest concentration of machinery under one roof in Europe. Bathgate, along with the Rootes plant at Linwood and the stripmill at Ravenscraig, was "Harold Macmillan's gift to the Scots" - at a time when Scottish unemployment was higher than the national average partly on account of the decline of shipbuilding and coal and the closure of the shale-oil industry around Bathgate.
Boyle was precisely one of those middle-aged men whom the Cabinet had in mind when it forced the motor industry, against the better judgement of the crusty boss of Austin, Sir George Harriman, George Turnbull, Alec Issigonis, designer of the Mini, and others to diversify out of its Midlands heartland to Scotland.
In the 1960s it was conventional wisdom that the motor industry was the solution to unemployment problems and particularly those in an ageing coalfield and in Britain's only shale-mining areas, where the shale was outpriced by abundant Middle Eastern oil.
Born into a family which had migrated out of hunger to Scotland from Ireland in the early years of the century, Boyle left school at the age of 13 in 1928. Two hours later, he was down the Polkemmet pit, and ordered by an oversman to undertake a task by himself in a dark remote corner of the mine. "In the pitch black and creaking seams I was simply terrified," he told me. "Like other laddies I had never been underground before."
Thus was forged Boyle's determination to provide proper education and training for every young person. On councils and in trade unions, in innumerable well-written letters to the press, and to Members of Parliament, Boyle campaigned for higher taxation of the wealthy to provide for better education for all.
He was proud that his daughter Carol became a most well-respected teacher. Even crumpled with bone collapse in his hospital bed Boyle demanded last week that I explain to him the pros and cons of New Labour's policy for schools.
A natural leader, Boyle was chosen as pit delegate at Whitrigg Colliery, employing over 500 miners. For his generation in the Scottish coalfield, the price of coal was the price of pneumoconiosis and, too often, life itself. So he transferred to the motor industry assembly line in 1959 and as many of his workmates were ex-miners Boyle was a natural choice as Convenor of Shop Stewards.
The original BMC Scottish Management were happy to have Boyle as Convenor, partly because he was sceptical about the value of strike action - he was intelligent about industrial relations - and partly because, wearing his other hat as a key councillor, later Provost, of Whitburn, he had been instrumental in providing an excellent crash housing programme for incoming workers to BMC's factory and in masterminding with Robert Mickel, the Town Clerk, the transfer of 500 overspill families from Glasgow. It was a triumph of sensible social engineering.
Following a ludicrous complaint about his timekeeping on the assembly line (owing to the demands of council business, involving drainage for the rapidly expanding plant), Boyle was sacked in 1963 by new management from the Midlands. Without Boyle's authority, built up over years in the pit, and canny negotiating skills, the Longbridge headquarters of Austin could hardly have been surprised that they got involved in a series of damaging mini-strikes and industrial action.
Looking back a third of a century and reflecting on events in which I was immersed as the young MP for West Lothian, it is my considered judgement, supported later by the engineer Jack Smart, Bathgate's most successful manager, that had Boyle not been sacked the whole atmosphere of the truck and tractor industry in Scotland would have been different. And it just could have attracted the ancillary industries which would have provided a firm base.
John Boyle and his wife of 58 years, Jean, were examples to constructive socialists of following generations.
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