Matt Lygate: the passing of a Scottish leftist

Submitted by Matthew on 25 January, 2012 - 2:24

Matt Lygate — founding member of the Workers Party of Scotland (Marxist-Leninist) in the 1960s, bank-robber in the 1970s, and briefly a political celebrity in the early 1980s — died last week.

Born in Govan in Glasgow in 1938, Lygate emigrated to New Zealand in 1959 in order to avoid national service. After his return to Scotland six years later he was increasingly drawn into the political orbit of dissident Communist Party members and Scottish nationalists.

In 1967 he became a founding member of the Workers Party of Scotland (Marxist-Leninist). The WPS declared itself to be “based fundamentally upon the Communist Manifesto of Marx and Engels and the subsequent development of Marxism by Lenin, Stalin, Mao Tsetung, Enver Hoxha and John Maclean”.

The WPS were also great admirers of William Wallace: “We have persistently upheld the memory and example of our heroic and martyred William Wallace, a highly successful pioneer in guerilla warfare because he was a man of and for the people.”

And it helpfully made its own contribution towards the revival of Gaelic: “We have consistently encouraged the Gaelic language and have published selections from the writings of Mao Tsetung in that language.”

In 1969 Lygate stood as the WPS candidate in a by-election in the Gorbals — a constituency rich in historical symbolism for the WPS. Lygate won just seven votes.

Despite “the emergence of fascist and neo-fascist bodies and politics in Britain, as a reflection of the crisis of western capitalism,” the WPS recognised that its role as “the vanguard revolutionary party of the workers of Scotland” might not be immediately apparent. Its paper, Scottish Vanguard, soberly commented in 1970: “Of course, we do not expect all the workers here in Scotland to assimilate immediately the advanced ideas prevailing amongst the workers and peasants of China.”

In 1971 Lygate, by now the WPS national chairperson, and another WPS member were arrested for (alleged) involvement in a series of armed bank robberies, after a police raid on the WPS bookshop which he ran had uncovered the proceeds of the robberies.

At his trial in 1972 Lygate dismissed his defence and attempted, very unsuccessfully, to emulate John Maclean’s famous Speech from the Dock.

After the judge’s imposition of a punitive prison sentence of 24 years — worse than for murder, and four times as long as the usual sentence for armed robbery — Lygate told the public gallery: “I will be released very soon, when the revolution comes.”

But the WPS was deeply embarrassed by the trial’s revelations: “[The two WPS members] seriously misused, without any authority from the Party, the bookshop premises in Glasgow and they maintained a close association with non-party persons for purposes contrary to the Party’s interests [i.e. robbing banks].”

It was 1983 before Lygate was released from prison, following a campaign the previous year which focused on the excessive length of the sentence imposed on him.

Lygate claimed then to have evolved politically: “I am not a Trotskyist. I was a Maoist in the 60s. But now I am a Marxist-Leninist and an anarchist in the true sense.” Whether his politics actually had changed is open to debate.

According to a report of one conference which he attended in November of 1983: “As befits a conference attended by such veteran anti-imperialist supporters of the Asian socialist countries as Comrade Matt Lygate, delegates repeatedly stressed the vanguard role of the Asian communist tradition and the teachings of the great leaders Comrade Mao Zedong and Comrade Kim Il Sung.

“A reception was held in a warm atmosphere overflowing with proletarian internationalism, at which the delegates joined together in singing revolutionary songs including the ‘Song of General Kim Il Sung’, ‘Scots wha hae’, ‘the Soldier’s Song’ and ‘the Internationale’.”

In the early 1990s Lygate campaigned against the poll tax, subsequently claiming to have been the initial driving force behind the non-payment campaign, before dropping out of politics and suffering from increasingly poor health.

It is easy to portray Lygate and the WPS as Dave Spart-esque caricatures of revolutionaries, politically incoherent even by their own standards, but with the added frisson of a record of bank robberies. And such a portrayal is certainly an accurate one.

But at the same time, Lygate’s politics were typical of the politics of a section of the Scottish far left in his time: a wild and incoherent attempt to marry up “Marxism” with Scottish nationalism, Irish Republicanism, Third Worldism, peasant vanguardism and (in some cases) non-Soviet varieties of Stalinism.

Confronted with the broad sweep of the burgeoning “World Revolution” and the upsurge of armed struggle in the Third World, that section of the left largely dismissed the British trade unions and — even more so — the Labour Party as irrelevant backwaters of political reaction (at a time when both unions and Labour were more combative).

The strange political brew of Lygate and his WPS was really only a cruder and less “sophisticated” version of the admiration of Third Worldist guerillaism expressed by even relatively orthodox elements of the Trotskyism movement.

In fact, as far as the bank robberies were concerned, Lygate could have argued with some degree of justification that he was merely taking such politics to their logical conclusion.

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