Stewart Maclennan writes: The genteel ambience of Moyra Jane’s Brasserie in the Glasgow suburb of Pollokshields would seem an unlikely setting in which to reprise the glory days of the young Josef Vissarionovich Djugashvili. But fifty years ago it was on these same premises – then a branch of the Bank of Scotland – that officers of the Workers’ Party of Scotland, with the aid of two accomplices, undertook Stalin’s favoured method of party fund-raising, earning them record-breaking jail terms.
When Mao Tse Tung proclaimed “Let a hundred flowers bloom!”, he might have been predicting the effulgence of groupuscules which followed the Sino-Soviet split of the 1960s. The initial British grouping, the Committee To Defeat Revisionism, For Communist Unity rapidly disintegrated following the early death of its founder, Michael McCreery, and in Scotland seven of its members established the Workers’ Party of Scotland (Marxist-Leninist) in 1965.
The founders of the WPS were veteran Communists, led by the stern and imposing figure of Tom Murray. As a young farm labourer, Murray had been a lay preacher and a member of the Independent Labour Party, but he joined the Communist Party in 1931 and, as a “secret” member, was elected as a Labour councillor to Edinburgh Town Council. Volunteering for the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War, he served as political commissar to a machine-gun battalion: on his return he played a leading role in the Communist Party and the left in Edinburgh’s trade union movement.
A serious man, then, but like his cohort perhaps of a vintage which required an element of younger blood and vigour to promote the new party. This was substantially provided by the hero-martyr of our tale, Matt Lygate. A tailor’s cutter by trade, the diminutive Lygate had, by his mid-twenties, already compiled an interesting background. Combining teenage membership of the Communist Party with ardent Catholic beliefs, when called up for National Service Lygate denounced the armed forces as imperialist and decamped to New Zealand. There, he spent several years as an itinerant agitator until effectively deported by the country’s security forces. Lygate’s dynamism brought him rapidly to prominence among the WPS’s few dozen members, as their standard-bearer in elections and as party Secretary.
“Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, right on to Mao Tse Tung
The working class applauds you for the work that you have done.”
Thus Lygate set out the WPS pantheon in one of his frequent excursions into verse: these names were augmented with the socialist republicans John Maclean and James Connolly. Although capable of strident sectarianism – ‘Traditorem vermes!’ (traitorous vermin), one headline in the WPS paper Scottish Vanguard roared of Trotskyists in general – the genial and hyperactive Lygate managed to give the WPS a part quite beyond their relative weight in the founding of the John Maclean Society, working with such notably non-sectarian luminaries of the left as Nan Maclean Milton (John Maclean’s daughter and biographer) and Harry McShane.
Despite this success, however, the WPS was left behind in the widespread upsurge of the far left in the late sixties and increasingly identified in the ambit of Scottish republicanism, which had its ample share of oddballs and provocateurs. One such was the former counter-intelligence agent Major Frederick Boothby, founder of the clandestine and corporatist 1320 Club, proscribed by the Scottish National Party for its right-wing extremism. Boothby’s comic-opera Army of the Provisional Government would bring him a three-year stretch for conspiracy in 1975. Curiously – particularly so given that Boothby’s profile was as plain as a barn door for anyone to see – Lygate was an erstwhile confidante and endorsed his para-military fantasies.
In 1971 the Secretary of the Workers’ Party of Scotland, ensconced in the tiny party bookshop in Paisley Road, Glasgow, had formed the conclusion that a major barrier to its growth was its lack of funds. He shared this view with the WPS Treasurer, Colin Lawson, Lygate’s flatmate at an address not far from the Bank of Scotland in Pollokshields. Lawson, once a trainee monk and now a psychiatric nurse, would find God again when in the dock with Lygate, turning evidence and receiving a significantly lower sentence.
The pair were joined in enterprise by Bill McPherson, a professional gambler and one-time WPS member, and Ian Doran, junior scion of a well-known Glasgow crime family: these two were there to do the “heavy lifting” in more ways than one. Together, they carried out several robberies across Glasgow, accounting for a haul which included the £14,000 found in a shoebox during a police raid on the Paisley Road shop again, not far from one of the robbed banks.
In 1972 Lygate, Lawson, McPherson and Doran duly appeared at the High Court, where they had the ill fortune to encounter Lord Dunpark, a bilious reactionary with a record of erratic sentencing, or – in the view of the high Tory MP Sir Nicholas Fairbairn – “a most humorous man”. Among the “humours” entertained by his Lordship was that the defendants should have been charged with treason. Lygate saw the trial as his opportunity to emulate his hero John Maclean, whose speech on being jailed for sedition during World War I is one of the great classics of socialist oratory.*
Dunpark, however, was channelling another figure from Scottish radical history – the infamous Lord Braxfield who, in 1794, sentenced the French Revolution sympathiser Thomas Muir and his Friends of the People to transportation.
The outcome saw the heaviest sentences recorded in a Scottish court for non-violent crime: 26 years imprisonment for McPherson; 25 for Doran; 24 for Lygate; and 6 for Lawson. Despite widespread astonishment, appeal brought a reduction of only two years for Lygate: in the words of one legal authority, he had received eight years for his crime and sixteen years for his politics. A third WPS member, Alec Watt, handed himself in to police later and admitted complicity: he, too, had apparently encountered the Almighty on the way, and received a sentence of months rather than years.
In a statement of 1 June 1972, ‘A Crisis Met and Overcome’, the WPS roundly denounced the trial, sentences and responsible judiciary, but also Lygate and Lawson whose “political immaturity” brought about their expulsion. Lygate embarked upon his sentence claiming status as a political prisoner and campaigned tirelessly for prisoners’ rights and welfare: eight years of his term were spent under the draconian Class A regulations and he was released having served over eleven years in 1983. The Workers’ Party of Scotland expired with Chairman Murray that same year.
Emerging from prison with an exalted sense of mission intact, Lygate set about reincarnating the WPS around himself, his allegiance progressing from Enver Hoxha’s Albania to Kim Il-sung’s North Korea as he did so. The revival, however, was brief, located as it was between the eccentric orbits of Scottish republicanism and post-Maoism, although its place among the early campaigners against the Poll Tax was to its credit. He himself retained and, if anything, expanded his ideological heterodoxy, latterly describing himself as as “a Marxist-Leninist and an anarchist – in the true sense”.
Post-prison life for Lygate also brought other new experiences: he established a small printing business, characteristically named the Phoenix Press, and embarked upon a family life that would raise three children. His son, also named Matt, was to the fore in the derision which engulfed a parade of Labour MPs through Glasgow in support of a ‘No’ vote in the Scottish independence referendum of 2014. Lygate sustained a lifelong love of art, poetry and nature and the Alzheimer’s disease which befell him in his final years was fiercely resisted. But in January, 2012, he stepped in front of a train and brought his life to an end, aged 74. Following his express wish, Matt Lygate’s funeral was conducted in accordance with the rites of the Roman Catholic Church.
Stewart Maclennan is Chair of the Scottish Labour History Society
* available in its most recent reprint from www.scottishlabourhistorysociety.scot