Obituaries: Two miners’ heroes
David Douglass remembers Brian Robson and Davey Hopper
Brian Robson, 1940 - July 6 2016
Brian Robson, who died on July 6, was my workmate - ‘me marra’ - a fellow red. He was an official of Thorne Trades Council, a section 123 pit inspector, an official of the Hatfield Main branch of the National Union of Mineworkers, and a dear personal friend.
Brian wore many hats, intervened in many sections of the labour and trade union movement, the anti-fascist movement, the mass community rent strikes and tenants associations, the miners’ union and community struggles of 1969, 72, 74, and 84-85. But the thing which characterised him more than anything was that he was a kindly, thoughtful, nice bloke with not a nasty bone in his body. That’s what people think of most when they think of Brian. Deeply serious at times, highly politically motivated, but when he smiled it was like the sun coming from behind a cloud and your face couldn’t help but break out in sympathy too.
I first met Brian in the late 1960s. I was working underground and had been thrown into action with a big ugly machine boring what seemed like granite rock. Brian brought his considerable skill and sinew to my aid, helping drive that drill home, while we discussed his newly awakened interest in class politics - and the world revolution. By the time we drilled the final hole we had solved the world’s problems. Brian was committed to a path which led him to the famous Thorne branch of the Communist Party, under the inspiration of communist councillors Sam Cairns and Bill Carr. Brian was eventually to become secretary of Thorne CPGB.
Not many people now remember the Thorne and District Trades Council, but it operated in the Goole parliamentary constituency and drew fascinating affiliates from Finningley RAF base, the Goole docks and maritime services, and Hatfield and Glasshoughton collieries. Brian was president.
In the 1970s Ted Heath’s so-called Fair Rents Act and a joint offensive by the National Coal Board estates department saw Brian and myself at the head of a massive community rent strike, in which every single house in the coalfield areas refused to pay their rent. It was a struggle which was deeply inspirational, with torchlit processions in the villages, mass assemblies, ‘soviets’ with elected representatives from each street, and the beleaguered rent collectors followed by gangs of women and kids cheering support for the tenants. Mass protests at council offices and the homes of councillors warned that evictions would be met by counter-evictions - and, boy, did we mean it.
1969 saw a wind of change blowing through the nation’s coalfields, with a national unofficial strike. The world was ablaze with revolution and debate on the way forward for the working class - of course, Brian and I disagreed about exactly what was possible and how to achieve it, but we were side by side on what had to change. Then 1972 and 1974 were heady days for us. There were mass national strikes, which we won - and overturned a government in the process.
Of course, Brian became an official of the NUM branch and during the miners’ Great Strike of 1984-85 was chair of the strike committee, which often acted independently of the branch. He was a calming voice in often fraught and violent situations, as tempers frayed and frustrations reigned.
After the strike we had some tyrannical managers, who seemed to verge on the edge of psychopathy in their world of rage. While one such gaffer referred to me as “that little twat”, he still called Brian “Brian”, not because he gave him any less welly than the rest of us did, but because he did it with such dignity and self-respect that even the most Napoleonic of managers had to respond in kind.
But I don’t want to give the wrong impression. With Brian and Harry Harle (the comedic branch treasurer) in that union office it was a laugh a minute and sometimes it was impossible to get any work done - they had us laughing till we cried.
Brian wrote his own autobiography, which is a lasting and loving memorial to his family, to whom he was clearly devoted and to whom our hearts go out. The book was a celebration of love of freedom and nature - he describes how he was given full licence in childhood - in contrast to the lock-down short rein, which today’s kids have to endure.
He rarely ceased to amaze me. Having organised a big commemoration in Doncaster to mark the 80th anniversary of the 1926 General Strike and miners lock-out, I invited him to speak. When he rose to give his presentation, he did so flawlessly without notes, giving a perfect chronology of events, characters and the key turning points of the nine-month-long action and its aftermath - quite some feat.
His politics continued to evolve. He and his old comrades still held regular get-togethers and discussed the world, our class and where we were going. My last disagreement with Brian came when I last visited his house at the end of last year and moaned about the damn stupid wind turbines they had planted at the end of his road. He confessed that he found them rather majestic, and concluded that in the interests of his grandchildren it was finally time to close the coalhouse door and embrace a new, cleaner future.
I know Brian was immensely proud of the new branch banner, delighted it featured his personal friend and comrade, Mick McGahey, and I am quite sure Mick, together with Brian and fellow CPGB mining stalwart Billy Matthews, are knocking back the wee drams right now, as they fill their celestial home with blather.
We will all miss Brian immensely. He made a deep and lasting contribution to our union and our communities and earned the only prize a true socialist seeks - the affection and gratitude of his workmates and neighbours. It was an honour to have known the comrade.
Davey Hopper, 1944 - July 16 2016
It is impossible to overstate the importance of the role played by the ‘two Davies’ - Davie Guy and Davey Hopper, respectively the late president and general secretary of the North-East area of the NUM and Durham Miners Association.
The North-East, though no longer the senior coalfield area in size or NUM influence it was in the pre-war and early post-war years, still commanded a considerable position of influence in the early 1980s. It had a mixed history of entrenched political moderation and occasional outbursts of revolutionary trade unionism and militancy. Its size as a coalfield had dwarfed most of the other areas and, by the time it had been won to Labourism away from radical liberalism, its political influence was remarkable. In the post-war years, when Durham Miners Gala crowds reached 200,000 and more, no Labour or radical union leader could ignore its platform. In many ways it was the platform of labour debate, movement discussion, argument and rehearsal for party leadership challenges and struggles for the direction of the unions.
If Davey Hopper did nothing else, he placed the Durham Miners Gala right at the heart of the labour movement debate. He opened up its platform to voices stifled elsewhere, to mass ranks of solidly working class families and whole communities. There were 150,000 at this year’s event, held just a week before Davey died, with Jeremy Corbyn as the star speaker and dissident rightwing MPs publicly banned from the platform.
It was Davey and the broad left within the miners’ movement which had swung that whole coalfield from the ‘moderation’ of the post-war years and led the rank and file as part of the great revival of militancy in the 1970s. Even more centrally the agenda had been sufficiently changed, the debate sufficiently opened up, to ensure that, when the great crunch came in 1984, the Durham and Northumberland miners would strike as coalfields, despite the ballot that had declared to the contrary. This in a coalfield for whom ‘the constitution’ and doing things by the book had been a religious obsession. It ensured that Durham and Northumberland miners would be fighting it out on the picket line, along with the Yorkshire, Kent and South Wales miners, and not crossing it with official approval, as they were doing in Nottinghamshire.
Following our final defeat as a union in 1993, many areas wound down and more or less gave up any political or trade union role, simply concentrating on welfare work. Not so the DMA. While areas like Yorkshire - many times bigger - abandoned their annual gala, the Durham gala refused to die. It continued to discuss the struggles within the industry, mining across the world, together with wider labour, trade union and international political developments. Those bedrock communities of the Durham coalfield refused to die with their collieries, and year by year they have marched back with restored banners, and bands in ever increasing numbers - and now once again the gala platform is too big and too important to miss. Have no doubt: this is not nostalgia. This is the relevance of the labour movement and socialist message in the here and now - with, of course, hefty genuflections to our past struggles and heroes, and why not?
But Dave was much more than that. He set agendas, called conferences, intervened in protests with our bands and banners, marked triumphs and tragedies other union leaders cared not to remember. The Durham miners occupied pride of place during the Easter Rising commemoration this year, and marked the birthday of Jim Connell (the Irish republican and working class hero, who wrote ‘The red flag’) in Co Meath every year with our band and banners. In Durham we marked and discussed all the great turning points of the miners over the last two centuries - and drew out the lessons for this one.
The DMA under Davey was up to its armpits in the struggles for compensation for miners - although, of course, Arthur Scargill likes to take credit for our massive victories on chronic bronchitis and vibration white finger. In fact those cases were spearheaded by the Durham miners, when Arthur did not want to risk the funds. Recently the Durham miners lost a high court case to win £2 billion for crippled miners and their families in compensation for ‘miners knee’, when much bigger, richer areas invested nowt.
Davey ensured that DMA influence within the regional Labour apparatus continued, though he was frequently at war with Blairite councillors and MPs.
Apart from all that, Davey was a brilliant man for cracking a joke, as anybody who ever spent five minutes in his company would tell you. He had an encyclopaedic knowledge of characters and events from the coalfields and his tales would keep you in stitches all night long. He had a great love for the region’s music, not least its brass bands, was a great historian and the most enriching of company.
Selfishly, I suppose, we tend to think, ‘What are we going to do now without you? We really didn’t need you to die.’ Nobody seems ready or able to fill Davey’s considerable boots or replace his ingenious, spontaneous and larger-than-life capacity for organisation and intervention in life. But the DMA must live on. The last mine in the Durham coalfield closed in 1993, yet in 2016 we staged the biggest gala in 60 years, discussing the most seismic labour movement events in decades. If we can survive without a coalmine as a centre of labour and trade union gravity, we owe it to Davey, and all he stood for and contributed, to carry on as he would have done.
Our deepest sympathy goes to Davey’s family and friends, who are totally shocked by this sudden and unexpected loss. The funeral will be held at the DMA’s Miners’ Hall, Flass Street, Red Hill, Durham DH1, at 9.45am on July 29.