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Guest post: Dr Robert ‘Bob’ McGovern Purdie (1940 – 2014)

October 28, 2015
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We are very pleased to publish Jacob Murphy‘s appreciation of Bob Purdie.

Born: 9 September 1940
Died: 29 November, 2014, aged 74.

Historian, political activist, Christian socialist, and Scottish nationalist, Bob Purdie was all these things at some point in his life. His death, aged 74 in his hometown of Kirkcaldy, has been mourned by academic historians and by friends and foes across the political spectrum. People such as George Kerevan, Stephen Howe and Connal Parr have already published excellent tributes and obituaries documenting the life of Bob Purdie. It is my intention here to write my own tribute for Bob Purdie by focusing on his time as a political activist from 1961 to 1976.

Purdie first became involved in far-left political activism when he joined the Edinburgh branch of the Socialist Labour League (SLL) in 1961, a proscribed entryist group within the Labour Party. By the following year Purdie had committed himself as a Trotskyist, a commitment which would see him join and lead organisations such as the International Marxist Group (IMG), Irish Solidarity Campaign (ISC), Anti-Internment League (AIL) and Troops Out Movement (TOM). Through humble beginnings, Purdie’s role in the SLL was simply to sell Keep Left pamphlets and to join an SLL caucus which met at El Cubana bar. Moving to Glasgow in 1961, Purdie embarked on his first political campaign, an anti-nuclear weapon group opposing the US Polaris base stationed on the Holy Loch. It was in this working class city that Purdie made the commitment to become a revolutionary.

The 1960s witnessed a rising tide of radicalism throughout the continent. The ‘Long 1968’ period, dating from the 1950s and continuing into the 1970s, witnessed a reciprocal relationship of radicalism between Northern Ireland, Britain and the continent. International events such as the African American Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam War established an anti-imperialist ideology which was adopted by Trotskyist groups in Britain throughout this time-period. Bob Purdie was a product of this time in history. He himself said, “being a revolutionary was morally justified. It was the moral thing to be at the time”. Purdie left the SLL in 1965 due to his rejection of its centralised authority under Gerry Healy. Instead, Purdie began to concentrate more on agitation on the Vietnam War and to join a “more intellectually advanced, more open and less sectarian Trotskyist organisation”, the IMG.

Purdie joined the International Group (IG), the precursor of the IMG in 1966 because he wanted an organisation that supported united work with others on the left, in other words, a broad-based movement campaigning on a particular anti-imperialist issue. Purdie, like many others, entered the IG through their local branch of the Vietnam Solidary Campaign (VSC), a coalition of groups opposed to the US war in Vietnam. The IMG was formed in 1968 by the IG and continued its support for the Fourth International, the largest grouping of World Trotskyism. Purdie immediately became a member of the IMG National Committee and moved to London in July 1968 to start his new life of political activism. As soon as Purdie moved to London, he plunged into preparations for the big Vietnam demonstration on 27th October 1968. An ‘Ad-Hoc Committee’ was set up to gather the broadest support possible for the demonstration. As part of the committee, Purdie began to find his voice as a speaker, stirring up support for the October 27th demo at meetings throughout London. The demo on October 27th, 1968 was huge and involved local VSCs, CNDs, trade union branches and local Labour Parties. About 60 – 75,000 people had turned out and a meeting was held at Speakers Corner, stewarded by Purdie and the Ad-Hoc Committee.

In April 1969, Pat Jordan and Purdie attended the Ninth World Congress of the Fourth International (FI) as IMG delegates, in order for the IMG to be recognised as the official British section of the FI. The Congress agreed that the IMG would become the official British section of the FI. In response to this, Purdie became London organiser of the IMG and left his job as a factory worker to become a full-time political activist. At this time Purdie started his career as a journalist, writing for the IMG’s newspaper Red Mole. John Weal created a printing shop, with premises at 182 Pentonville Road which were used as offices for the press, IMG and for the Red Mole. It was in that building that Purdie learned how to organise and how to write.

Purdie’s career as a journalist, speaker and historian stem from his interest in Ireland. Trotskyists dominated pro-Irish republican solidarity campaigns in Britain from the civil rights march in Derry in October 1968 until, arguably, the formation of the TOM in 1973. Members of the Irish caucus in the IMG, which included Purdie, were the main originators, organisers and propagandists of the broad-based AIL and TOM, both of which campaigned for Irish self-determination and the withdrawal of the British Army from Northern Ireland. The far-left in London started the Irish Civil Rights Solidarity Campaign in October 1968 and Purdie decided, as a journalist, speaker and political activist, to make the situation in Northern Ireland his main area of political work. In July 1970 the IMG sent Purdie to Dublin and Belfast to establish a range of political contacts, including Trotskyists and soon-to-be leading members of the Official and Provisional IRA. His experiences and impressions of Belfast were published in Red Mole, in what became a stream of journalism about Northern Ireland.

Purdie immediately blamed the situation in Northern Ireland on the British Army and Government, and justified such claims with the introduction of internment in 1971 and Bloody Sunday in 1972. Bloody Sunday transformed the Irish issue for the British Left with the IMG setting up new branches of the Irish Solidarity Campaign (ISC) and circulating their Irish Citizen newspaper. It was in this newspaper that Jack Clafferty, IMG member and later Labour Party Co-ordinator of the TOM, designed the cartoon showing the island of Great Britain with a helmet and riot shield about to baton Ireland. It has since become a famous piece of Irish republican propaganda.

Tom

Figure 1: Jack Clafferty’s cartoon, re-used for a TOM poster with their slogan ‘Troops Out Now’

Purdie moved back to London in order to resolve the rift between the ISC and newly-formed AIL. He was instrumental in persuading Trotskyists to drop its ‘Victory to the IRA’ slogan and for members to join the AIL. By 1972 Purdie had dissolved the ISC and called on members to join the AIL in order to build a genuine united front organisation. Purdie was elected Organiser of the AIL and organised the annual Bloody Sunday commemoration demonstrations. However, by 1973 the AIL was more or less defunct due to lack of funds. In response, it was necessary to think about a new direction for the IMG’s Irish work. In a discussion between Purdie and Lawless, the idea for a troop withdrawal campaign was proposed which was to be modelled on the American anti-Vietnam War movement. Purdie wrote an internal document proposing the IMG launch a “Troops Out Movement”, using the acronym TOM. The Irish caucus of the IMG accepted Purdie’s proposal but the leadership opposed it. Nevertheless, the Irish caucus went ahead and formed the TOM in September 1973. This organisation led the formidable British Left campaign for the withdrawal of troops from Northern Ireland.

Purdie was kept out of the loop in the TOM so that his status on the IMG leadership was secure. Nevertheless, Purdie was at the centre of two important episodes in the history of the TOM. In May 1974, the possibility of withdrawal was at its zenith due to the Ulster Worker’s Council (UWC) strike and Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s secret document which called for phased withdrawal from Northern Ireland. On 22 May 1974, Purdie and three other TOM members attended a meeting in the House of Commons with five Labour Party MPs to discuss Irish self-determination and the issue of withdrawal. Stan Thorne, MP rejected the notion of self-determination as a precondition of a united Ireland but did outline initiatives such as a Bill of Rights. Purdie stated that such a bill was desirable and should be supported as a step towards democracy. This was an early indication of Purdie’s gradual move towards a ‘reformist’ stance on Northern Ireland, accepting reforms which supported a more gradual/phased withdrawal of troops from Northern Ireland.

The greatest challenge to Purdie and those who supported withdrawal was the argument that there would be a bloodbath if troops were withdrawn. By 1975, Purdie had realised, amidst the British-PIRA truce, that both sides were set for a “long war” and therefore immediate withdrawal was not possible. In response, Purdie drafted ‘A Programme of Withdrawal: A New Advance for the TOM’, which was to be discussed by the IMG at their conference in December 1975. In this document Purdie accepted that a bloodbath was likely in the event of a withdrawal and admitted that the physical presence of the British Army had prevented loyalists carrying out a pogrom against Catholics. As a result, Purdie argued that the TOM must accept “British government policies which fall short of immediate withdrawal, but which demoralise the loyalists, thus creating more favourable conditions for the eventual victory of the Irish national struggle”. In addition, he proposed the setting up of demands which would tolerate the existence of the British Army in Northern Ireland, but only if it demoralised loyalists, such as ‘withdrawal from nationalist areas’ and ‘disband the Ulster Defence Association’. The document shows Purdie’s attempt to persuade members of the IMG and TOM to take a more ‘reformist’ position on Northern Ireland, that is, to prepare a programme and set of demands which would assist and invigorate the British Left withdrawal campaign. The document was to be discussed by the IMG’s Irish Commission in December 1975 and was rejected on the grounds that it was too reformist. Purdie, in his resignation letter to the IMG in October 1976, lambasted the IMG for not grasping the real content of the document and the politics on which it was based. The rejection of this document by the IMG was certainly a contributing factor to Purdie’s decision to abandon his career as a political activist, in favour of a career in academia as a reformist socialist.

Purdie realised that he could no longer be an IMG student activist after gaining a place to study History at Warwick University in 1976. He wrote a letter of resignation in October 1976. However, Purdie still regarded himself as a sympathiser of the IMG, but for the first time in fifteen years, he was no longer a member of a revolutionary organisation. Purdie decided to leave revolutionary politics behind completely whilst studying at Warwick University, where he became a reformist socialist and trained to become a Historian.

In conclusion, although it is well documented that Purdie rejected his revolutionary Marxist position from 1976 onwards, he always referred to this period as “enriching years”. When reflecting on his years as a political activist from 1961 to 1976, Purdie told me “I thoroughly enjoyed it. I was developing as a leader and a thinker. It got me to the point where I could go from being a factory worker to taking advantage of higher education… I was building up intellectual capital for the future”. If there is one thing I have taken from my brief encounter with Bob Purdie in his hometown in July 2014, it was his advice that “In life and politics, you always have to be changing and moving on”. It was Purdie’s willingness to accept the good and bad of his politics which enabled him to move on and become a respected figure by people across the entire political spectrum.

Jacob Murphy graduated with an MA History at Newcastle University in December 2014. During this time he researched the Troops Out Movement, a grass-roots, extra-parliamentary organisation which shaped British responses to the ‘Troubles’ in the 1970s. He is currently in the process of publishing Bob Purdie’s ‘Memoirs’, a selection of work based on Purdie’s ‘I Remember’ series as posted on Facebook between 2012 and 2014.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. October 29, 2015 11:50 am

    Reblogged this on JACOB MURPHY and commented:
    Read my post about Bob Purdie and his time as a political activist from 1961 to 1976

  2. November 10, 2015 10:17 pm

    Very interesting piece. I am ashamed, as Bob’s twin brother, that I knew so little of his revolutionary activities. My only excuse is that I was absorbed with my family and the need to work to support two wee daughters (who have grown up to be splendid young women whom Bob adored). I still find myself weeping with the pain of losing that other part of me, my much loved twin. I can’t get my head around the fact that he is no longer at the other side of the phone to give me wise counsel in my SNP involvement

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