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Obituary: Vic Allen – 1923-2014

JOHN HAYLETT pays tribute to a working-class intellectual and academic who wrote histories of the British and South African miners’ unions

VIC ALLEN, who died on November 2 aged 91, was a working-class intellectual who put his talents to the service of his class.

His histories of mining and mineworkers’ unions in Britain and South Africa reflected the commitment, personal involvement and trust he enjoyed among miners and their leaders.

He was born in Hawarden in Flintshire in January 1923, the son of a Shotton steelworker who was not keen on him following his career path, so, on leaving school at 14, he became an apprentice bricklayer.

His introduction to Marxism came during his on-site lunch breaks, sharing books brought to the workplace by another worker, which impelled him to the local library to discover more.

The insight given by his comrade’s literature was a complete revelation and Allen always felt that he owed that workmate a lot.

When the second world war broke out, he volunteered for the RAF and was sent for flying training in Britain and then to Canada, but this didn’t go well and he took up navigator/bomber/wireless training before catarrhal problems forced his transfer to ground duties.

He boxed regularly in the RAF, having taken up the sport after being bullied at school. Allen joined a club in Birkenhead and became a British schoolboy champion. He always stressed that he saw boxing as the art of self-defence not a means of hurting people.

At the end of the war, he returned to his studies while continuing to work as a bricklayer before entering the London School of Economics in 1946, where he completed his BSc and doctorate and became a research fellow.

He was taught there by Harold Laski for whom he had great regard and subsequently, decided to do further studies on trade unions, working in Staffordshire on adult education.

By then a member of the Communist Party, Allen moved to Yorkshire where he met Bill Ronksley, later to be elected as president of train drivers’ union Aslef.

“During that period I was active in the British-Soviet Friendship Society and Vic assisted me considerably by organising and addressing public BSFS meetings,” Ronksley recalls. “Vic was a brilliant, courageous and dedicated leader.”

His PhD thesis was published in 1954 as Power in Trade Unions, followed by Trade Union Leadership and Trade Unions and the Government.

He began a lecturing post at Leeds University in 1959, later progressing to the chair of the Sociology of Industrial Society within the economics school.

Allen’s internationalism was manifest in his decision to work for the International Labour Organisation in Geneva, from where he was sent to Africa to study trade union organisation in countries south of the Sahara, all of which he visited.

This activity was truncated by his arrest in Nigeria where he was charged with plotting to overthrow its government on the basis of various notes in his handwriting replying to questions about what measures would be crucial in a revolutionary situation.

His friends described the case as a set-up, but he was sentenced to a lengthy jail term. Amnesty International took up his case and he was released after serving just six months.

Shortly after his return from Africa, Allen began his long association with Britain’s National Union of Mineworkers, helping to organise the broad left of Communist and Labour miners to win a more militant approach and elect new leaders in the Yorkshire coalfield.

He worked closely with the new leadership, especially Arthur Scargill, who will speak at today’s funeral in Shipley.

This link opened up a new front in his life in 1988 after he retired from his post at Leeds when Scargill approached him and NUM legal adviser John Hendy to accompany two South Africans, Cyril Ramaphosa and James Motlatsi — general secretary and president respectively of the NUM — to Cuba for a meeting with Fidel Castro.

South Africa was in the final stages of the apartheid system, but government awareness that these workers’ leaders had sought assistance from Cuba would have resulted in imprisonment, so the visit was hush-hush.

Allen gave a detailed account of the visit some years later in Cuba Si, the magazine of the Cuba Solidarity Campaign, but he didn’t mention the game-changing proposal to him from Ramaphosa and Motlatsi.

The NUM leaders told him that the union’s national congress had passed a motion calling for its history to be written and they asked him, on the basis of having read his The Militancy of the British Miner, to take the project on board.

His wife Kate Carey remembers being told on his return from Cuba — she didn’t know where he had been — that he had received “an offer I can’t refuse.”

She accompanied him to South Africa as guests of the NUM, where they compiled questionnaires for workers in all the country’s mining areas and she played her role in helping to gather research.

“He realised then that he couldn’t write a history of the union without dealing with the history of mining operations. It just grew and grew. From one book it went into three volumes and took 10 years,” says Carey.

NUM general secretary Frans Baleni paid tribute last week to Allen as “a historian, stalwart and an anti-apartheid activist.”

Acknowledging his scholarship in writing the NUM history, Baleni added: “He was also a fearless, committed and dedicated fighter who helped the NUM and campaigners in the fight against the brutal apartheid regime in South Africa.”

The South African NUM awarded Allen its highest honour Kgao ya Bahale in April 2010 for his contribution to the lives of mineworkers. Baleni and Motlatsi will head a five-person NUM party to the funeral today.

Allen was always a firm friend of the Morning Star, serving from the mid-1980s to mid-1990s as a member of the management committee of the PPPS co-operative that owns the paper.

He was always committed to the peace movement, serving on the leadership of CND as a vice-president for many years.

This association was the basis on which BBC2 reporter David Rose cooked up a cock-and-bull yarn for the TV programme The Spying Game “exposing” Allen as a spy for the German Democratic Republic.

Neither Allen nor Carey knew anything of the storm that was about to break over their heads until they received a family phone call while on holiday in Greece.

Rose, who has worked for the MI6 intelligence service, had contacted him saying that he wanted to make a programme about US influence in the END peace organisation.

Carey remembers her husband telling Rose that he couldn’t say very much because he’d never been an END member but by all means come over for lunch.

“I was out at work and they discussed things and he said he would like to come back and film him for the programme. There was no mention of spies,” she says.

“They set up their camera and filmed him. I read the transcript and it was clear that Vic wasn’t really listening to the questions. He was going along his own stream and the questions were getting more and more angled.

“He was asked about his visits to the GDR. He’d had several visits. Once he’d been to a peace conference there with Bob Cryer MP who was also in Shipley CND.”

Rose was in possession of Stasi records which branded Allen an “agent of influence” on the basis of discussions at the GDR embassy where he had briefed officials on debates within CND, making clear his own position which he had defended publicly in articles and letters to the media.

He had also published a book in 1987, aimed at peace campaigners and called The Russians are Coming.

“He said that the Russians posed no threat, that they weren’t going to invade the West, and these were arguments for Britain giving up its nuclear weapons,” says Carey.

“He never gave any information about other people or anything else. He was never, ever a spy. It was horrid, horrid, horrid.

“I was very angry that [Rose] came and got a free lunch and was invited and treated very courteously as a guest,” she adds.

Vic Allen has been married three times and is survived by twin sons Nicholas and Julian, daughters Sophie, Lucy, Hannah and Emily, nine grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.

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