Obituary: Sir Harry Nicholas

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The Independent Online
The Labour Party just cannot ignore its past links with the Transport and General Workers Union. The use of Millbank Tower as their general election campaign headquarters is a reminder that Frank Cousins, the General Secretary of the TGWU 1955-69, located his office there when he became Minister of Technology in the 1964 Labour Government. Harry Nicholas became Acting General Secretary of the union while Cousins served in the government. The responsibility of leading the union stretched over a two-year period. Nicholas carried it out with distinction.

When Cousins resigned from Harold Wilson's government, because of his opposition to the Prices and Incomes Bill proposed by George Brown, the Minister for Economic Affairs, he returned to his union post and membership of the TUC General Council. In the re-shuffling of union positions which followed, Nicholas took over the seat I had occupied on the National Executive Committee (NEC) of the Labour Party. From 1960 to 1964 he had served as Treasurer of the party: for old Labour this had been most important because of its dependence on union financial support.

With this background it was not entirely surprising that his name should appear in the frame to fill the vacancy for a new General Secretary of the party in 1968. Nicholas was well known and highly regarded by influential people like Jim Callaghan and George Brown. His age may have counted against it - he was then just over 60 - but this also meant that he was able to take early retirement from the union, ensuring his pension whilst enabling him to take the Labour Party post.

Harold Wilson claimed in his book The Labour Government 1964-70 (1971) that, contrary to widely held opinion, it was he who initially suggested Harry Nicholas for the post. It was thought at the time, by Wilson and others, that Nicholas might be unwilling to take it up, so other trade union leaders were approached but without avail. Wilson wrote that two names emerged: Tony Greenwood and Harry Nicholas. Greenwood was a government minister, and Wilson wanted him to remain in that capacity and not run for the post. Despite this, Wilson claimed, a story was leaked to the press that he had demanded support for Greenwood and had been rebuffed. He wrote: "A great press legend ran for weeks on the subject, and was taken by the Conservative press as conclusive proof that I had lost any grip I had ever had on the party."

Wilson's claim that the story was totally untrue was affirmed by the Labour Party NEC in an approved statement released at the time. I was close to affairs in the Labour Party personally and believe Wilson's version but I do not doubt that much of the mischief had something to do with George Brown.

Raising money was a major concern at the time and probably was not unrelated to Nicholas's appointment. Certainly it became his main preoccupation immediately after his selection. His approach for financial aid to union leaders whom he knew brought results. He also conceived the idea of persuading Labour Party members and friends to donate pounds 5 to a finance-raising effort. He called it the "fighting fivers campaign". His campaigning was good and emphasised that there were few millionaires around the Labour Party then.

He worked hard, although facing criticism from some quarters which he found difficult to accept. Despite these endeavours, Nicholas got some of the blame for Labour's disastrous loss in the 1970 election. But other factors beyond his control were the main cause, not least Ted Heath's successful line of bringing prices down "at a stroke" and Harold Wilson's lacklustre performance, plus the over-tight budget of Roy Jenkins. Even football entered into it - with England's defeat in the World Cup.

The son of an Avonmouth docker, Nicholas's first job was as a clerk in the port of Bristol. From 1936 until his move to the secretaryship of the Labour Party he was employed in the full-time service of the TGWU and operated as a national officer from 1940 onwards in the road haulage, chemicals and engineering industries. He justifiably earned a reputation for meticulous presentation at industrial conferences and arbitration proceedings - I remember well an occasion during the Second World War when Nicholas was highly complimented by a judge who presided over the National Arbitration Tribunal for a submission he had made, much to the resentment of colleagues present from another major union.

We both had a high regard for Ernest Bevin but had differences over policies adopted by the late Arthur Deakin when the latter was General Secretary of the TGWU (1946-55). Nicholas managed however to avoid the wrath of many of Deakin's opponents (including myself) by his courteous and friendly nature. But there was no doubting his conformity with Deakin's ultra-right wing approach, especially so within the confederation of ship- building and engineering unions. He found it difficult nevertheless to apply Deakin's authoritarian stance in dealing with members in dispute and the shop stewards in the various industries. His smooth, polished nature helped to avoid too much trouble but he did not fit in easily to the rough and tough problems of the shop floor. In trade union circles generally, he was renowned for smart debonair appearance, invariably wearing an Anthony Eden hat and nice clothes. One newspaper reporter during the automation strike in the West Midlands during the 1950s mistook him for a Scotland Yard detective.

As union policies changed in the latter years of his service Nicholas moved slightly to the left. On one occasion, in response to press criticism about his change of approach on TUC policy, he said he was merely carrying out decisions made by the 39 lay member- executive of the union, with which he now agreed.

Towards the end of Nicholas's period as acting General Secretary of the TGWU a decision was made by the TUC to sell the full rights of the old Daily Herald to the Mirror Group. The TGWU had distributed 200,000 leaflets and used publicity in its journal to try to increase the circulation of the Herald to prevent its demise, but without success. Nicholas reported: "It is to be hoped that the new newspaper, the Sun, will make some contribution to the wider interest of the trade union and Labour movement."

Jack Jones

Herbert Richard Nicholas, trade unionist: born Bristol 13 March 1905; Clerk, Port of Bristol Authority 1919-36; District Officer, Gloucester, Transport and General Workers Union 1936-38, Regional Officer, Bristol 1938-40, National Officer, London 1940-56, Assistant General Secretary 1956-68, Acting General Secretary 1964-66; OBE 1949; Member, National Executive Committee, Labour Party 1956-64, 1967-68, Treasurer 1960-64, General Secretary 1968-72; Member, TUC General Council 1964-67; Kt 1970; married 1932 Rosina Brown (deceased); died 15 April 1997.

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