OBITUARY:Margaret McKay

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The Independent Online
On being informed that Margaret McKay, his parliamentary colleague for Clapham, had set up a replica, tent and all, of a Palestinian refugee camp in Trafalgar Square, the exasperation of the then Foreign Secretary, Michael Stewart, knew no bounds. Any comment to convey his outrage was too mellow. "And I'm expected to run a constructive British foreign policy in the Middle East with this woman's vote!"

The felony was compounded by the fact that on 12 June 1968 McKay, who was chairman of the Jordan Refugee Week Committee, donned Arab robes to lead a deputation of fellow British and Jordanian MPs, along with Mrs Ahmed Elayan and her baby son Ghada and Mr Ismael Mohammed Ismael from Palestine, to the Foreign Office. Contrite McKay was not - and poured petrol on the flames by telling Her Majesty's Principal Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs that she thought, as a Cold Warrior, that he was quite unsuitable for this job in government.

Some months earlier she had retaliated to a verbal onslaught from George Brown, Stewart's predecessor as Foreign Secretary, by telling him (unfairly) that his attitude to the Arabs was such that she thought that he ought to have learnt to behave properly when he was a shop assistant dealing with furs in a store.

Alex Kitson, chairman of the International Committee of the Labour Party, who knew Mc-Kay well, recalls: "When she was around the Trades Union Congress she was a rebel on behalf of the staff who, ironically, were not as well unionised as they ought to have been. In particular she did not like the general secretary of her own trade union, Arthur Deacon; and he liked her less."

However, Kitson adds that though she was a thorn in so many people's sides she was always prepared to be of help to those who needed it and his memories of her are good. She had been for a decade the women's officer of the TUC and was no great respector of persons in authority. When I said to her, "Margaret, you're an MP for the constituency of the underdog", she replied a trifle tartly: "And, Tam, the under-bitch!" I knew I had been rebuked.

To understand Margaret McKay's behaviour, it is more than usually necessary to reflect on her life before she became MP for Clapham at the age of 54. In her moving autobiography Generation in Revolt (1953, written under her maiden name Margaret McCarthy), she begins Chapter 1: "My mother was a rebel. She married a foreigner - an Irishman, and a Catholic, and she became a socialist!" The flagrant defiance of these steps, the utter flouting of the traditions of her family, can only be understood against the background of the life of the Lancashire moors. "My mother's father was Catlow. The Catlow family reaches back to the days of the Norman lords of Oswaldtwistle. As far back as the 13th century records reveal the existence of the Catlows of Oswaldtwistle. Pete son of Richard de Catlow was there in 1305."

McKay outlines how the family were landowners; how the old families had been accustomed for untold generations to live in close units on their ancient holdings, watching their flocks. Her mother was the first known member of the Catlow family in all the centuries to break out of the old tradition and marry outside the family circle. Worse still, she married one of the despised and feckless Irish families who had come to Lancashire to seek work in the cotton mills. Margaret's father died when she was four and, the eldest of three children, she was brought up by her struggling mother. Politics, she writes,

ran in our bloodstream from my grandfather through my mother and on to her children, likewise from my paternal grandfather, a Sinn Feiner, through his son, an Irish home ruler, and so to us, to be merged into a potent mixture which was eventually to drive us "politics mad", impel us into strange places among alien people and in my case to bring me political disillusionment and despair which forced me into the necessity and effort of building for myself a new philosophy. This was to be at variance with the traditional Methodism of my mother's family, the careless Catholicism of my father and even, in the end, antagonistic to the materialist conception of history in which I became steeped in the days of my youth.

In 1927 at the age of 16 Margaret McCarthy joined the Accrington Weavers Winders and Warpers Association. Soon she was chosen to be part of the youth delegation which went to Russia for the 10th anniversary of the 1917 revolution. She had enrolled for classes at the local branch of the National Council of Labour Colleges, where her first tutor, who taught her economic geography, the theory of surplus value and the inherent contradictions of the capitalist system, was one A.L. Williams, later, as Len Williams, the long-serving national agent of the Labour Party, created governor of Mauritius by Harold Wilson.

On 29 October 1927 the delegations both youth and adult met on Tower Hill, London, where a farewell demonstration was held and the veteran Labour leader Tom Mann came down and boarded the Russian vessel Soviet which was moored at Free Trade Wharf "to carry us all away, and there kissed us a hilarious, beery God speed. At three o'clock next morning we sailed off to a Socialist new world, a load of gay enthusiasts. Will Lawther, then a young, laughing , handsome man, was the leader of the adult delegation." McKay grew up with the future trade union leaders; Will Lawther who, as the boss of the Durham miners, achieved fame by telling delegates of the Labour Party conference to shut their gob was later Sir Will Lawther, one of the all- powerful knights of the TUC.

McKay was captivated by Russia at that time. The delegation was housed magnificently in one of the grand Leningrad hotels with enormous rooms, the inevitable stuffed bears and potted palms, and whisked off on the first evening to see the ballet The Snow Maiden. For McKay it was as if she had been conveyed straight into fairyland. She met Krupskaya, Lenin's widow, Madame Sun Yat-Sen and Russians such as Rykov and Bukharin and the youth leaders Chaplin and Shatsky.

As a Member of Parliament in her fifties looking backwards to the 1920s and considering the social conditions of the times and the circumstances of her own life she did not see in all honesty what else she could have done other than rebel:

I did not want to be a rebel. I was a

normal, life-loving young teenager, interested in fun, dancing, boys and art. I just wanted to live with all my being and to the full extent of my capacities but this was denied me. Therefore, in sympathy with the spirit of those years I was possessed by a frenzy for change; and since a change, any change, could hardly be for the worse, it must inevitably be for the better. The Communist Party embodied and symbolised that great change, appeared as the instrument of it, pointed the way, even led us to audit, teaching us how, by revolutionising the economic pattern of society, we could solve the remainder of our problems and cure all the ills to which humanity, and particularly the workers, were subjected.

Her disenchantment with Communism began on a visit to Germany in 1929 as the guest of the Communist Young Red Freedom Fighters Association. In 1931 she left the Communist Party over their attitude to the National Socialists in Germany. She was prescient about this trouble as she was to be prescient 30 years later about the difficulties which would be caused by the Palestinians.

It would be a wrong impression to suppose that McKay was all about exotic foreign causes. In 1929 with the build of a bantamweight boxer she had been one of the leaders of the Bradford hunger march of the textile workers to London. In the Second World War she organised the Civil Service Clerical Association in Lancashire, vigorously persuading workers to do as much to win the war as she possibly could.

In 1951 she was appointed chief woman officer of the TUC, and her 1954 book Women in Trade Union History recalls how she and her friends used every device and ruse to approach Margaret Bondfield and Jennie Lee during the time of the 1929-31 Labour government. When she was elected MP for Clapham she pursued mainstream issues. Her maiden speech was made at 2.30am on 27 November 1964 in an adjournment debate on occupational hygiene service:

I will do my best to prove to the House that a new member can take

a hard day's night in the same spir-

it as any of the older members. I wish to draw to the notice of the House what lies behind the fact that 20 million working days are lost by workers suffering accidents and scheduled industrial diseases and that the position is not improving but is deteriorating.

Ernest Thornton, Parliamentary Secretary at the Ministry of Labour, praised her for a "truly remarkable maiden speech".

A defining moment came when she was chosen as a member of the UN Commission on the Status of Women at their conference in Tehran in 1965. From then on she devoted herself to Arab causes. I asked her whether as a gentile I could inquire as to whether she was anti-Semitic. McKay was furious, perhaps understandably. She was not anti-Semitic, she was anti-Zionist, and that was a very different matter.

She had been elected for Clapham in 1964, defeating Dr Alan Glyn, later MP for Windsor, by 556 votes and winning against the late Ian Gow in 1966 by 4,176. However, by 1968, the Clapham press was referring to her as "the woman on the Abu Dhabi omnibus". MPs who "take up causes" have to be assiduous in looking after their own constituencies and McKay was not. She was not re-selected for the 1970 general election, when Bill Shelton defeated the Labour candidate, the late Lord Pitt.

She then went to live the next quarter-century of her life in Abu Dhabi, where Sheikh Zayed was kind and hospitable to her. Alex Kitson and I and her many friends prefer to remember her when she was a great force on the Left in the 1950s and early 1960s. I hope New Labour has room for latterday Margaret McKays.

Tam Dalyell

Margaret McKay (nee McCarthy): born Oswaldtwistle, Lancashire January 1911; chief woman officer, TUC 1951-62; MP (Labour) for Clapham 1964-70; married (one daughter); died Abu Dhabi 1 March 1996.

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