October 02, 2009
Bill Speirs obituary, Brian Wilson, guardian.co.uk, Sunday 27 September 2009
Scottish TUC general secretary and key figure on the left
Bill Speirs, who has died at the age of 57 after a long illness, was an able and articulate trade union leader who served as general secretary of the Scottish TUC for eight years before standing down in 2006. He was a well-known and generally well-regarded face of the Labour movement in Scotland; an ever-present force over a 30-year period on platforms of the left. He chaired the Scottish council of the Labour party in the election year of 1987 and could probably have acquired a parliamentary seat if he had pursued that ambition.
However, Speirs's first love was the trade union movement and the battles it engaged in at home and abroad. He had a strong internationalist commitment which, as with many on the Scottish left during this period, expressed itself through an intensive involvement in the affairs of Palestinel, on which he worked closely with his old ally, George Galloway.
Throughout the 1980s, Speirs was involved in factions associated with the Bennite left: the Labour Co-ordinating Committee, Scottish Labour Action and so on. However, his politics also had a pragmatic streak that allowed him to maintain decent relationships with Labour leaders who needed the STUC as an ally, if not always a bosom friend.
The STUC was one of the last bastions of Communist party influence in British politics, and its leadership well into the 1980s included major figures such as Jimmy Milne, Michael McGahey, Jimmy Airlie and Hugh Wyper. This led the STUC into a tradition of "broad front" political campaigning, and it was a strategy that characterised Speirs's own philosophy. The "broad front" approach had particular relevance to the debate over Scottish devolution, of which Speirs was a committed and influential advocate. The STUC, under successive general secretaries from the early 1970s, sponsored a series of cross-party initiatives which created recurring pressure on the Labour party to put aside its own considerable doubts about the wisdom of the enterprise.
In 1992, after Labour's general election defeat, this approach reached its zenith with the creation of Scotland United, an organisation run out of STUC headquarters in Glasgow that brought together Labour's "left" devolutionists, Scottish Nationalists and assorted others in a campaign for constitutional reform.
By then, Labour – under the influence of John Smith, Gordon Brown and Donald Dewar – was heading irrevocably in that direction anyway, but were wary of stirring up a cross-party clamour. The approaches were reconciled through the Scottish Constitutional Convention, which became the quasi-official architect of post-1997 devolution, with the Nationalists refusing to participate. Speirs was a member of the group that drafted the key document Scotland's Parliament, Scotland's Right in 1995. One of the paradoxes of devolution has been that Scottish civil institutions that campaigned in support of it, including the STUC, were themselves marginalised by its creation. This was part of the changing environment that Speirs had to cope with as leader of an organisation that was, due to the general decline in union membership, already living in somewhat reduced circumstances. The pressures took a personal toll.
Speirs was born in Dumbarton and educated at John Neilston Institute in Paisley before taking a first-class honours degree in politics from Strathclyde University. He worked for a few years as an academic before joining the staff of the STUC in 1979, serving as deputy general secretary to Campbell Christie from 1988 before succeeding him 10 years later.
Christie described Speirs as "one of the outstanding personalities of the trade union movement", who had been the strategist behind many of the campaigns to preserve Scotland's industrial base. The Scotland secretary, Jim Murphy, said that Speirs was "never narrow or exclusive in how he stood up for working people".
Speirs was a passionate advocate of the national minimum wage and other measures to benefit the low paid. He brought an unmistakeable sincerity, concern for social justice and wry good humour to everything that he was involved in – a combination that helped him to transcend the political intrigues that he also thrived on.
Speirs is survived by his second wife, Pat Stewart, and a son and daughter from his first marriage.
• William Macleod Speirs, trade union official and political activist, born 8 March 1952; died 23 September 2009