Obituary: Trevor Clay
Tuesday 26 April 1994
TREVOR CLAY was nationally and internationally known as a nursing leader. He came to the fore during the 1980s when he was General Secretary of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN). During his time there it became the fastest-growing trade union and the largest outside the Trades Union Congress. By the time he retired it had over 285,000 members. He was one of the first trade-union leaders to recognise the power of all-party political lobbying, introducing parliamentary officers for the first time to the RCN. He also understood and used the might of the media to win over the public and politicians to the nurses' case for better pay and the retention of nurses in management.
Clay was many things to many people but he was first a nurse and proud of it. But memories of his great contribution to the development of nursing during the past two decades bring forth his other attributes. He led the Royal College of Nursing at a time of great change and thrived on the challenge. His political acumen was second to none. He was a skilled media commentator, and at ease on radio and television: he spent so much time in the Radio 4 Today studio that the late Brian Redhead referred to him as the 'district nurse' who popped in to see them every morning.
Clay had powerful skills as a speaker and an ability to sway an audience in minutes through the power of his words. He was at his best at the annual congress of the Royal College of Nursing, with a thousand or so nurses to woo with the magic of his speeches. It was not unusual for Clay to receive several standing ovations in ihe course of that week. His strength was his utter honesty; a conviction and clarity of thinking that made people sit up and take notice.
The day before he took over as General Secretary in July 1982 he said: 'I passionately believe in nursing . . . I feel as much a nurse now as I did when I started my training. Nursing has shaped my life.' But when Clay was just 37 years old he was diagnosed as having emphysema, a chronic and debilitating lung condition. He was forced to retire early from the RCN, in September 1989. He said recently that it was one of the hardest decisions he had ever had to take. 'Inside I felt I could go on for ever, I had given the job my heart and soul for as long as I physically could. I realise now how tremendously lucky I am to have been part of it.' By the time he retired he was dependent on oxygen for 14 hours a day.
When he took over as General Secretary in 1982, he was thrust headlong into a long and bitter pay dispute with the government. At that time a staff nurse was paid between pounds 4,784 and pounds 5,833 per annum. He proved a tough negotiator and a very astute politician. His polished media style and reasoned arguments won him recognition and respect among MPs and the public alike. The outcome of the pay dispute was an improved pay offer and the establishment of an independent Pay Review Body for nurses.
In the course of his seven years in office Clay instigated the establishment of a special commission on nursing education which informed the wholesale reorganisation of nurse training; he negotiated a new clinical grading structure for nurses' pay and launched the first RCN national media advertisement campaign against the introduction in 1984 of general managers into the NHS under the Griffiths Report. At the time of his retirement in 1989 he campaigned just as vigorously against the present NHS reforms, which were then set out in a Government White Paper.
He was widely known internationally and actively involved in the International Council of Nurses of which he was First Vice-President until last year. The plight of nurses worldwide was something he spoke and wrote about many times. He used conference platforms and articles to press home to British nurses how much better they fared compared to their colleagues in other countries who were victims of oppressive regimes and who were imprisoned and tortured. In the years following his retirement he devoted his energies to helping others who shared his debilitating lung condition. In April 1991 he launched a new consumer group called Breathe Easy under the auspices of the British Lung Foundation.
When I interviewed him two years ago he said: 'Life's too short not to take the opportunities it offers.' There weren't many opportunities that Trevor Clay missed - but there was so much more that he wanted to give.
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