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A great Scottish democrat

The 25th anniversary of the death of Mick McGahey on 30 January 2024 was marked by a debate in the Scottish Parliament opened by Richard Leonard MSP (Scottish Labour). We publish here the contribution of Maggie Chapman MSP (Scottish Greens), who is a member of Democratic Left Scotland, and referred to McGahey's life-long involvement in DLS's predecessor organisations.

There are many things that we could say about the life of Mick McGahey and his contributions to our politics and civic life, but I want to focus on his contribution to democracy. 

At the heart of Mick McGahey’s politics – like those of Democratic Left Scotland - is a commitment to freedom: freedom from exploitative wage labour, freedom from apartheid, freedom from Pinochet’s terror and the freedom to govern ourselves. For him, that meant Scotland having democracy—and it is important to note how that conception of democracy might differ from what we have today. It was not democracy in the narrow sense—that is, about parliaments or assemblies or other institutions—but was something much more radical. It was about defending the interests of the Scottish working class, and the institutions could follow. 

As with many people in his tradition in the 1960s and 1970s, he understood what was coming. Some people have made the mistake—it is easy to do—of confusing centralisation with solidarity. In his famous speech to the STUC in 1968, Mick reiterated his commitment to workers in England. He understood that we can choose solidarity even if we do not have the same Government. 

When the STUC eventually adopted devolution as its policy in the mid-1970s, it was in defence of Scottish industry and Scottish workers. Some at Westminster made that mistake, however, and they amended the bill for Scottish devolution so that it required a qualified vote. In 1979, Scotland was denied a devolved Assembly by the Government; it was denied devolution and its own voice at a vital time. 

For Mick McGahey, as for many advocates of devolution at the time, a Scottish assembly had the potential to stand up to any future Conservative Government and its attempts to destroy Scottish industry and, with it, the Scottish working class. A Scottish assembly could have been a bastion against Thatcherism. However, centralisation gives opportunities for people such as the Conservatives to wield their destructive axe against the working class. 

As we commemorate the 40th anniversary of the miners' strike and consider the future of steel production on these islands, it is sobering to think of the impact that Scottish devolution could have had in facing down the brutal and inhumane Thatcher Government’s attacks on Scotland. We could have had a just transition for the miners and the coal industry, and we could have had control over our own steel, which is a cornerstone of the green transition that we now need to make. 

Democracy is not a distraction from the interests of workers. It is not something that we do instead of solidarity. It is absolutely at the heart of building a better world. 

Indeed, it is a cruel irony that someone so associated with democracy was undemocratically manoeuvred out of the opportunity to be general secretary of the NUM. Again, we must consider how differently the miners' strike could have ended had Mick been at the helm. Mick is here with us in his commitment to Scottish industry and to a devolution that is not about the narrow politics of institutions but about exercising power through and on behalf of the people. 

As a member of the Smith Commission, I argued for the devolution of trade union laws to Scotland. I am glad that that is now a more widely shared position, but I am sad that we have not been able to resist the latest anti-worker legislation foisted on Scotland by Westminster. 


We need a democracy that can rebuild our industry for the climate crisis that is approaching, and we need to understand that that democracy will reinforce our solidarity with others around the world, not diminish it. That would be, alongside a tribute in this building, a fitting monument to Mick’s.

Full transcript of the debate is in the Official Report here:


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