Cowdenbeath, Scotland – Twenty-five years ago the heavy thud of the Berlin Wall falling resonated around the world. The Cold War was over. There were parties and celebrations, laughter and tears of joy.
But among communist supporters in Western Europe, images of armed guards standing idly by as elated East Germans danced on the barricades were a source of consternation, not jubilation.
More than a thousand kilometres from the Brandenburg Gate, in the Scottish mining town of Cowdenbeath, Mary Doherty sat sobbing in front of the evening news on November 9, 1989. For decades she ran the weekly Socialist Sunday School.
“Her world was shattered,” recalls veteran local communist Jackie Allan. “Everything was the Soviet Union, then it was gone.”
A few kilometres away in Ballingry, a small hamlet of post-war suburban pebbledash terrace houses at the foot of green hills, councillor Willie Clarke remembers being “stunned” when the Berlin Wall fell.
“It was something you didn’t see happening, and it happened so quickly. It took a long time to recover,” says Clarke.
caught your imagination, they were radical, wanted change, they were not prepared to accept things as they were.”]
Standing in Cowdenbeath today, its quiet streets dotted with “to let” signs and bargain stores, it is hard to imagine that this was once a hotbed of communist agitation. In the 1920s, the red sandstone town hall – still the most impressive building on High Street – flew the Red Flag on the anniversary of the Russian revolution. At the time, the government in London feared that any left-wing insurrection in Britain would start in Cowdenbeath.
As late as 1973, communists won 12 council seats in Lochgelly and Cowdenbeath. Clarke was among the councillors elected that day. Remarkably, Clarke, now in his late 70s and having lost his left ear to cancer, is still a local councillor for Ballingry.
Clarke is technically an independent, but he campaigns on an avowedly communistic platform. “All the literature that goes out is communist,” says the craggy-faced septuagenarian. “Nobody can say I’m trying to gild the lily. I’m still a communist.”
In the last local elections in 2012, Clarke was returned on the first round of voting.
Communists were not always a curiosity in UK politics. In the 1945 general election, the Communist Party of Great Britain took 14.6 percent of the vote and two seats, including Willie Gallacher, whose constituency included what is now Ballingry. In local elections the following year, the number of communist councillors increased from 81 to 215.
This was proven to be an electoral high-water mark for the party. Members left in droves after the Soviet invasion first of Hungary in 1956, and then of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Nevertheless, the communists remained a presence in outposts of industrial Britain, in South Wales, East London, and in the coalfields of Scotland.
In Cowdenbeath, communism was inextricably linked with the local coal mining industry. In the early years of the 19th century, rich deposits of coal were inadvertently discovered when iron ore shafts were sunk. Almost overnight Cowdenbeath, a tranquil cluster of farmers’ cottages, was transformed into a noisy, dirty, ramshackle settlement. By the turn of the 20th century, the town’s population had swelled to 14,000. Three-quarters of the menfolk were employed by the Fife Coal Company, Britain’s largest mining enterprise.
Willie Clarke was born in Glencraig, a “very militant” village with a reputation for communism. Active communists included Laurence Daly, a prominent miners’ leader who would leave the Communist Party in 1956 in protest at Nikita Khrushchev’s denunciation of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. Aged 14, he began working in the mine, and not long afterwards he joined the Communist Party.
“[Communism] caught your imagination, they were radical, wanted change, they were not prepared to accept things as they were,” says Clarke.
‘Opium of the people’
Communists were renowned for their iron discipline. Local MP Willie Gallacher, the last communist in the House of Commons, was a lifelong teetotaller.
Willie Sharp, the first communist provost in Britain when he was elected in Cowdenbeath in 1973, did not smoke or drink. Communists decried religion “as the opium of the people”, but party and church often operated along similar lines. Both organised community events and Sunday schools – one teaching the bible, the other political economy and the works of Karl Marx.
The legacy of Cowdenbeath’s communist past can still be seen today. In the adjacent suburb of Lumphinnans, people live on streets named “Gallacher Place” and “Gagarin Way”. Locals call this “Little Moscow”.
Former communist activist Jack Allan recalls asking his father why the family always voted communist. “His answer was simple: ‘They’re the people who help ye the most.’ I still believe that.”
The demise of communism in Cowdenbeath and the surrounding pit villages was a product of rapid economic and political change. The discovery of huge deposits of oil and gas in the North Sea hastened the demise of smaller, less productive mines across Britain. By the 1970s, most of the mining jobs in Cowdenbeath were gone. Nowadays, the region has one of the highest rates of unemployment in Scotland.
Demise of communism
The fall of the Berlin Wall sounded the death knell for British communism. By the time the party voted to disband itself in 1991, there had already been numerous splits and its vote had collapsed.
People like Willie, he's a great guy and he gets things done.
For communists in Cowdenbeath, the fall of the wall was “like telling a Christian there was no God”, as former communist councillor Alex Maxwell put it.
With the barrier between East and West gone, the brutal reality of life in the Soviet Union could no longer be dismissed as anti-communist propaganda.
“What you believed was happening in the Soviet Union wasn’t happening at all. It was something different,” says Clarke.
Four decades on, the material conditions that sustained Fife’s pit villages – and its communists – are gone. The mines are closed and Clarke is able to win votes not because of his belief in a new socialist order, but because he works tirelessly to get council houses renovated and community centres opened.
“People like Willie, he’s a great guy and he gets things done,” says Michael Payne, who works at the local community centre in Ballingry.
Clarke was instrumental in securing funding for this state-of-the-art facility that opened in 2012 to replace a series of diffuse, dilapidated facilities dotted across the adjacent pit villages.
Clarke has one last political wish: Scottish independence. He was very active in the “yes” campaign in the recent referendum. Although the vote was lost, he says Scotland will become independent someday.
“If it doesn’t happen now it’ll be happen in the future. Maybe I’ll not see it, but it’ll happen,” Clarke says.