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International Socialism, March/April 1976


Mike Buckingham

Scottish Daily News:
End of Workers’ Co-Operative


From International Socialism (1st series), No.87, March 1976, pp.8-9.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


With only a handful of journalists .fighting a rearguard action in the Glasgow offices of the Scottish Daily News, the workers’ co-operative as a means of saving jobs has failed, at least as far as the newspaper industry is concerned.

Elsewhere, other ‘brave experiments’, as they have been hailed by Labour Left politicians, Fisher-Bendix and Norton Villiers Triumph, also look as if they will have to face the same hard realities as the News workers.

The fact is that the fight for jobs in Glasgow’s Albion Street was lost even before Robert Maxwell, the ‘socialist’ millionaire backer, pressed the button which set the presses rolling. What Beaverbrook had in mind for the Scottish edition of the Express, the ashes from which the News arose, was clear as early as September 1973, when Sir Max Aitken said in a company report:

‘The directors are presently exploring possibilities for their (property assets) development to the best advantage of the shareholders.’

Contained in the report .was information that while Beaverbrook Group pre-tax profits were £1½ million, non-liquid assets were in excess of £8.4 million and upon accurate valuation could have been as high as £50 million. (In fact a Guardian report of 17 March 1974 suggested £50 million as being the more likely figure.)

So, if the company was solvent from the point of view of non-liquid assets, why was it necessary to make savings to the extent of closing down the offices of the Scottish Daily Express?

The company realised that it was commercially viable to publish the newspaper in Manchester and send their copies to Scotland by train, as do other national dailies published without ‘Scottish’ appended to their mastheads. Glasgow had been the scene of some disturbing wage militancy and thirdly, there was a possibility that Beaverbrook would get a buyer for the site.

With this last aim in mind, negotiations for the Albion Street site were intensified just two weeks before the closure of the Glasgow operation was announced.

The company’s Scottish general manager Robin Stevenson revealed that the company’s plan was to sell the premises to neighbouring Strathclyde University, who were looking around for a site for some new halls of residence. At this time a sum of £6 million was mentioned. Beaverbrook seems to have interpreted this as an indiscretion on Mr Stevenson’s part and he was sacked.

The deal did not go through, and thus against a background of a recession in property values, Beaverbrook were anxious to get shot of the building, even if it meant selling to a potential competitor.

The timing of the Beaverbrook withdrawal from Glasgow was calculated to cause the maximum amount of confusion among the workforce. In early March 1974, Jocelyn Stevens said at a press conference in Glasgow that there would be no redundancies in Albion Street. On 19 March he announced the closure, and by 31 March the withdrawal was complete. It is evident from this telescoped timetable that Beaverbrook feared a reaction from the workforce. In the event, they need not have worried.

Except to voice its anger at the closure, the trade union movement did nothing to support the sacked press workers. In terms of the newspaper industry the problem was vast – 1,800 workers in a declining industry – but at no point was there a call for mobilisation.

In the absence of any strong leadership, the suddenness of the sackings bewildered the workforce. There was a token occupation for three days, after which the nucleus of what was to be the workers’ cooperative retreated to some huts across from the Albion Street offices.

There had been a call for a full occupation but this was overwhelmingly defeated by the workforce. At this time the International Socialists’ standpoint was that the only way to defend the jobs was a sustained occupation, with agitation throughout the rest of the media industry.

‘The time is long overdue for a real fight against the press barons ... and that can only mean an industrial fight using the occupation of Albion Street and solidarity strike action to bring them to heel. No other force is strong enough to make them go back on their objectives. If Beaverbrook still refuse to honour their obligations to the workers then the struggle must be stepped up and extended to the whole newspaper and media industry so that the Labour government is forced to nationalise the building and machinery and subsidise the production of newspapers under workers’ control.’ (IS pamphlet: The Beaverbrook File)

By ending the occupation, the workers also ended the fight for 1,800 jobs. Within a fortnight they had started along the long, weary road to establish the cooperative and salvage what relatively few jobs they could. At its peak, the Scottish Daily News employed only 500 workers.

During the 14 months of activity leading up to the launch of the Scottish Daily News, planning was in the hands of eight members who were formed into an Action Committee. The majority of the redundant workers were not involved at this period. There was never any political consistency among these eight people. From the beginning, they saw the newspaper as a marketable commodity, and there was never any intention to relate it to the trade union movement.

Having rejected proposals to occupy the building and thus place pressure on Beaverbrook by first forcing the trade union movement to act, all the workers could do was to try and produce a marketable newspaper of the kind they knew best, with its content similar to any other newspaper and supported not by donations and the support of the trade union movement, but by advertising revenue, with a smaller sum from direct sales.

To launch a newspaper, a great deal of capital is required, and it was this shortage of working capital that was to constantly dog the Scottish Daily News through its eight months of existence.

The initial capital for the Scottish Daily News came from three main sources; the money raised by the workers themselves and added to by their own redundancy money from Beaverbrook; the £1.2 million from the government argued for by Tony Benn, and the contribution of Mr Robert Maxwell.

In terms of the total amount of capital needed, Maxwell’s initial contribution of £100,000 was not huge and yet it gave him a lever by which to virtually dictate the policy of the newspaper throughout its life. Before the government money was handed over, the Department of Trade and Industry insisted that even more be raised privately. When it was found that the cooperative was £25,000 short of the stipulated sum, this balance was made up by Maxwell, who to do it, borrowed £11,000 from two unemployed journalists. His total contribution clinched his authority over a grateful workforce.

When the siren sounded and the presses began to roll on the night of 5 May 1975 there was a general belief in the newspaper’s own blurb on the front page entitled: ‘It’s Great to be Alive!’. The workers themselves had conquered the myriad problems that have to be overcome with the launch of a paper. Apart from cash-raising, they had secured supplies of newsprint, ink and metal; procured equipment such as cameras, developing equipment, typewriters and generally planned an operation right down to the last paper clip. As the first of the 350,000 first issues came off the press there was a justifiable pride, albeit mixed with a less justified optimism.

After the curiosity sales of the first few days, the newspaper was never to sell 350,000 copies again, despite an attempt to revive sagging sales by going tabloid and trivialising content. Although the exact circulation figures are now impossible to obtain it is certain that after a month sales were down to well below 200,000, and probably little more than 150,000.

Like most other policy decisions and facts which bore upon the life of the newspaper, these figures were kept from the workforce. It was felt that if the truth were known, the workers would become demoralised, and it would be ammunition for the small, but vocal group of anti-Maxwell men.

It is hardly surprising that the first issues of the paper bore a strong resemblance to the old Scottish Daily Express. The paper came from the same presses, and the same type-faces were used. Furthermore, most of the journalists were ex-Beaverbrook men, and when they returned to the building, it was to a ‘double take’ of their old jobs. The ambience was very much that of the Express.

This trend worried Robert Maxwell, at that time nominally co-chairman of the company (Alistair Mackie, a compositor, was the other) but nevertheless firmly behind the controls with promises of more capital should it be needed. Maxwell disliked the relatively serious tone the newspaper was adopting, and several times issued memos that the content should be lightened and ‘brightened’. Although at that time he was not in a position of executive power, this ‘advice’ was heeded, and the coverage of trade union matters, for instance, was given much less prominence.

The dispute over the general direction of the paper – whether it was to be a relatively serious paper or whether it was to revert to blatant sensationalism – was the cause of vitriolic scenes between Mackie, then nominally in control, and Maxwell.

The scenes in the offices of Albion Street just before the paper went tabloid on 17 August 1975, with the complete triumph of Maxwell’s viewpoint, must be unique in British newspaper history.

On several occasions Maxwell broadcast bulletins over the tannoy system accusing Mackie of being a ‘wrecker’ and standing in the way of the workers’ cooperative. Distressing as these scenes were, it was even more distressing when members of the sub-editors table actually stood up and applauded the broadcasts.

At a meeting of the workforce in late September, only seven weeks before the closure of the paper, Maxwell asked for, and got, the complete confidence of the 500 workers. Addressing a meeting of the workers, he first attacked Mackie and the role he had played in the operation of the cooperative and then called for a vote of confidence in himself as executive head of the workers’ cooperative, which the more politically astute among the spectators saw as a contradiction in terms. In any case, 300 workers voted for Maxwell, and a mere 12 against.

From this point all power was in the hands of Maxwell, who boldly stated that if necessary, he would overrule the decisions of the federated chapel and even the works council. The price of his Stake in the cooperative was absolute power.

Mackie, the man who led the cooperative through much of its stormy life and around whom the opposition to Maxwell revolved, still believes that there was no course other than the establishment of a cooperative open to the workers. He says:

‘There was no possibility of a work-in – it was out of the question. There was no newsprint, no ink, and none of the other services essential to the functioning of a newspaper.’

This is, of course, true if there is the intention to publish a newspaper, but it is not necessary to have all these things if you intend as the International Socialists suggested at the time, to occupy with the intention of mobilising support in the unions for a fight against the loss of jobs.

The address from the Express workers to the trades union movement was in terms of donating cash, rather than taking militant action to defend the Glasgow jobs. In the event, only ASLEF decided that the cooperative was worth supporting. Mackie himself recalls that the workers in Glasgow were met with at the best, indifference, and at the worst, hostility.

If the address to the unions had been pitched at the right level then support could have been enlisted and the official union argument that the loss of 2,000 jobs in Glasgow was better than a massive jobs cut throughout Beaverbrook empire could have been combated with the right information. As it was even the most militant chapels throughout Britain only heard of the struggle in Glasgow when the appeal went out for money and when the fight was already lost.

Nobody now doubts that the Scottish Daily News affair was a debacle. In the last few weeks opinion was swinging away from the Maxwell camp, but by this time it was too late. It was little comfort for one member of the International Socialists who had argued against Maxwell all along to be told by a former Maxwell die-hard that he had been right all the time.

The victims are the 500 workers now on the dole with slim chances of re-employment. When the history of the Scottish Daily News is written, it will be a story of lost initiatives and a group of workers who did not have sufficient faith in their own abilities.

Proper trade union organisation inside the Scottish Daily Express could have averted the closure in the first place. In other sections of the newspaper industry – Thomson Group houses are an example – the unions have bench-marked jobs and got this written into watertight annual agreements with the management.

In instances like these, even union members who do not normally take an active part in the life of the chapel see the sense in defending gains which have been made and which affect them directly.

The trouble at the Scottish Daily News was that while the going was good, no real attempt was made to sew up the loose ends that would put the chapels in a strong position. Trade unionists made the false assumption that Beaverbrook would ‘See them all right’ and that good pay and conditions would automatically continue, as if by some magical process.

This same lax attitude towards the trade union structure was prevalent inside the Scottish Daily News, where it was widely assumed that since there was a works council supposedly representing the interests of the workers, the traditional structure could be abolished.

The rigid defence of a trade union position leading up to a militant occupation would have saved the Express jobs, as Beaverbrook themselves knew full well. And this would have made the whole brave, sad, saga of the Scottish Daily News unnecessary.

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