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    Never on Our Knees – The Past We Inherit, the Future We Build

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    Tommy Sheridan
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    I wish I wasn’t writing this column today because it is dedicated to the memories of two giants of the socialist movement who are sadly no longer with us.

    I say no longer with us but I mean that in the physical sense for the spirit, speeches, wisdom, memories and inspiring examples of comrades Bob Crow and Tony Benn will live forever in the hearts and minds of socialists and trade unionists who fight for workers’ rights and a better socialist world.

    On this very day, March 11th, 2014, five years ago the best trade union leader in my lifetime was cruelly struck down by an aneurysm at the tender age of only 52. Three days later, on March 14th of the same year, the best Labour leader the Labour party never had and one of the finest socialists to ever be elected to the British Parliament also died, weeks shy of his 89th birthday.

    Here I share some of my personal memories of the two and urge every reader with a desire to fight against injustice and for a better world to research the lives of these two men and find yourself enlightened, energised and enthused for the many battles ahead against big business and their desire to reduce further the working conditions and wealth share of the 99%.

    I first met Bob Crow in 1996 while attending a meeting with Arthur Scargill and other socialists from across the UK in the Barnsley Headquarters of the National Union of Miners to discuss the formation of a new socialist party. Tony Blair was in charge of the Labour Party and declared his intention to purge it of socialist commitments and values.

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    He was the spawn of Margaret Thatcher and a year earlier had managed to revoke the socialist clause, Clause IV, which committed the party to public ownership of the means of production, from its aims. The Labour Party was in effect reduced to the Tory Party Mark II.

    I was thrilled to meet Arthur Scargill in person and hold political discussions with him as he showed us around the famous NUM HQ. I had heard him address scores of rallies and meetings and admired his courage and leadership during the titanic Miners' Strike of 1984/85 which was effectively a civil war without bullets across Britain.

    However I immediately bonded with the tough looking guy with the cockney accent who was introduced as the Assistant General Secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) Union as his warmth in discussion was in strict contrast to his tough exterior. He bemoaned missing watch his beloved Millwall FC to attend the meeting and his love of football chimed with me.

    From that day onwards Bob and I became friends and political associates. We from the socialist wing in Scotland couldn't agree to join Arthur's Socialist Labour Party that was formed later that year as it wouldn't commit itself to an independent socialist Scotland but we parted on friendly terms and mutually respected the positions we adopted.

    Bob went on to be elected the General Secretary of the RMT in early 2002 and I often shared anti-war platforms with him in the run-up to and after the disastrous and illegal invasion of Iraq in March 2003.

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    I was invited to speak at regional and UK wide RMT Conferences and educational schools and cherished the chats and laughs I shared with Bob. I regularly teased him about his 'baldy dome' as I used to have a full head of hair in those days and Bob's regular retort was "grass never grows on a busy road Tom". We shared a passion for socialist ideas and were keen supporters of Cuba and Venezuela.

    We discussed industrial and political tactics and Bob was always focused on what was in the best interests of his union members, especially the lowest paid members. He was absolutely and continually lambasted by the press and media but he refused to 'bend the knee' or ever be intimidated by them. 'I know when they attack me I must be doing a good job Tom' he would say to me, and 'anyway I'm a Millwall supporter I'm used to not being liked'.

    Bob Crow was in my eyes a working-class hero. He fought for his members and his class no matter the odds. At a time of declining union membership his union grew from 57,000 to over 80,000 as a direct result of his fighting attitude and spirit. The bosses despised him but his members and the wider working class loved and respected him. His integrity was not for sale at any price and his premature death was a huge loss to the trade union and socialist movement. I miss you today big man but your memory and fighting spirit will live on forever.

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    Someone else who loved Bob Crow and shared scores of platforms with him was the incredibly inspiring Tony Benn. As a young working-class student at Stirling University in 1981/82 I was thrilled by the speeches and writings of Tony Benn. His anti-nuclear weapons stance, opposition to the Monarchy, explanation of the power of the civil service and the derogatory role played by the US in British and world affairs was a superb education that has served me well in my life.

    He went on to be an ardent supporter of the Printers at Wapping fighting the union buster Rupert Murdoch and was a tireless ambassador for the Miners during their year-long battle against Thatcher and the whole British state apparatus. He was a hero of mine.

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    How uplifting it was then when I eventually got the chance to meet with Tony at a Campaign Group of Labour MP's event in Westminster to discuss the Scottish anti-poll tax struggle in late 1988. We were to be the guinea pigs for Thatcher's poll tax and faced it's imposition a year earlier than England and Wales. We were to be saddled with it on 1st April 1989.

    Tony and around 20 other left-wing Labour MP's listened to me outline the nature of our mass campaign of civil disobedience through mass non-payment of the tax. Militant supporting MP's Dave Nellist, Terry Fields and Pat Wall had arranged the invitation and backed our campaign 100% but some in the Campaign Group had doubts about encouraging illegality.

    Tony Benn was clear and candid in his support and reminded everyone present that the trade union movement itself and the Labour Party was founded by law-breakers prepared to stand up to bad laws in pursuit of social justice. 'We wouldn't be in this Parliament tonight', he reminded the assembled Labour MP's,' if it wasn't for the courage of the Tolpuddle Martyrs breaking laws against assembly'.

    From that night onwards I kept in touch with Tony and received valuable advice from him. He wrote to me when I was in prison several times in 1992 when I served a 6-month sentence for my part in preventing a poll tax warrant sale (the forced sales of a person's household belongings) against a low-income single parent from Greenock in the West of Scotland.

    He phoned me in July of that year as I had been elected from my prison cell to serve as a Glasgow City Councillor. Even though I was elected as a Scottish Militant Labour councillor and Tony was still a Labour MP he wanted to pass on his congratulations. It was always an honour to share platforms with Tony and March alongside him at anti-war events and May Day rallies.

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    One of the saddest letters I got from Tony was a week before my wedding to Gail in June of 2000. Tony and Caroline, his wife since 1949, had accepted our invitation to attend and we very much looked forward to seeing them there. However Tony explained in his handwritten letter that they would be unable to attend our wedding after all as Caroline was very ill with cancer and unable to travel.

    He then explained how thrilled they both were at the date of our wedding, 17th of June, as it was the date of their own wedding anniversary, 17th June 1949. Sadly Caroline died later that year in November and the truth is I believe Tony never ever recovered from that loss. He adored Caroline and his love for her in 2000 was beautiful and unbreakable.

    I spoke with him on the phone and he sounded so sad. I spent time with him at his home in Holland Park a couple of years later and he proudly showed me the park bench he had purchased from Oxford City Council to have placed in his garden. It was the bench he had sat on with Caroline before proposing to her only nine days after they had met in early 1949.

    On another day Tony made me lunch and we chatted for hours about Scottish politics and Blair and international affairs. It was surreal to have this political hero of mine ask me if I would prefer the Bolognese or Carbonara microwave dish before getting me to check the cooking time as he couldn't find his reading glasses. On the question of Scottish independence, Tony Benn told me the very same thing as Bob Crow.

    They both said it is up to the Scottish people to decide and if they lived in Scotland they would vote for independence. They could see that Scotland represented the chance to build a new and progressive country internationalist in outlook with communitarian values at its core.

    Today and Thursday I will think about Bob Crow and Tony Benn but my true honour to them is the continuation of the struggle for a progressive, just, peaceful and socialist world. That is what they fought for all their lives and that is what they would urge us to do in their memory. As Tony Benn often said:

    "There are two flames burning in the human heart all the time: the flame of anger against injustice and the flame of hope you can build a better world. And my job…is to go round fanning both flames".

    Bob Crow loved his union banner with the inscription "The Past We Inherit, The Future We Build", so in honour of him and Tony let's try and build a better future for our children and grandchildren and fan both the flame of anger against injustice AND the flame of hope that we can build a better world.

    The views and opinions expressed in theisarticle are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.

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