#SluggerSoapBox: In praise of Bob Purdie 1940 – 2014…

From Stephen Howe who is currently a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Bristol, having previously taught for many years at Ruskin College Oxford and worked at the New Statesman.  Irish writings include the 2000 book Ireland and Empire, and contributions to Irish Political Studies, Irish Historical Studies, and the new Oxford Handbook of Modern Irish History.

Bob (Robert McGovern) Purdie has died, in his hometown of Kirkcaldy, Scotland, on 30 November. He was 74. Many people in Northern Ireland, especially its political, academic and faith communities, will share the present writer’s deep sorrow at this news. Some will have known him from his writings, as the first and finest historian of the Civil Rights movement and as author of many another intervention, both analytical and polemical, in Ulster’s politics and contemporary history.

Some will recall mainly his role as political activist and organizer – whether his early, important part in generating British Left support for Republicanism and the Troops Out campaign (causes he came to see as having been deeply mistaken) or his untiring later engagement in sustaining and trying to revive cross-community, anti-sectarian Labour and leftist politics. Some, too, will have followed him in the great twin causes of his last years, Scottish Nationalism and his late-flowering Christian faith: both always of a distinctively radical, egalitarian, inclusive and passionately humane kind.

Many in NI, though, will also have been exposed more directly to Bob’s exceptional personal qualities, especially during his years as a citizen of Belfast (1980-88), but also as a frequent visitor before and after that. As he always recalled, he came to love the city – more, perhaps, even than he did the Edinburgh of his birth, the Glasgow where he also spent much of his early adulthood, or the Oxford where he lived and taught at Ruskin College from 1988 to his retirement.

Among his mature students at Ruskin were many from Northern Ireland (including both Republican and Loyalist former paramilitaries), and they, like his other former students from across the world, and like his Belfast friends from all points on the political spectrum, invariably recall him with affection, admiration and profound gratitude.

In his teaching role, as in his later writings, he combined a stern-seeming intellectual rigour with immense human warmth, a capacity for all-embracing empathy, and a sense that the tutorial relationship was – even with the most naïve and/or dogmatic, ill-prepared or seemingly incompetent student or political neophyte – not about asserting ‘mastery of a subject’ or ‘training in skills’ but was a shared exploration, a search for understanding.

His Ruskin academic colleagues (this writer taught together with Bob for 15 years there) recall him also as the most selfless, dedicated co-worker one could well imagine or hope for. And, as tributes since his death from Ruskin domestic and secretarial staff are now reminding us, no-one could have been less status-conscious, or more all-embracing in his concern for others, than was Bob.

There was also a quietly delightful sense of humour. I remember for instance how, on the 250th anniversary of the Battle of Culloden, I mischievously suggested that we should together celebrate ‘when your people [Lowland Scots] beat the Highlanders’. He might well, I thought, be outraged at this subversion of so treasured a national myth – but instead he was delighted. He also, though – again characteristically, and correctly – pointed out that I had my history wrong: there were both Lowlanders and Highlanders on both sides at Culloden, just as there were both Prods and Taigs in both armies at the Boyne…

Bob also, though, knew when not to laugh. Another poignant memory is of the occasion when one young student – from Portadown of all places – who’d become a (brief) convert to the wilder shores of Presbyterianism, innocently proclaimed at a Ruskin seminar that ‘I used to be a Catholic before I became a Christian’. He then had trouble understanding why other students burst into incredulous and scornful laughter. Bob’s response was gently to rebuke the laughter, and to urge that one must seek to understand the historical and cultural roots of such a (to most of us) strange-sounding worldview  – though also, of course, to understand why it was wrong.

Bob Purdie was born in Fountainbridge, Edinburgh in 1940, as one of identical-twin brothers. Brother Dave, happily very much still with us, went on to become a highly-regarded Lallans poet. His father was a skilled woodworker, ‘a superb craftsman’ who later became a teacher of and manager in the skills of that ancient industry. Bob, initially following directly in those footsteps as a skilled industrial worker, then seemingly moved fast and far away from them, becoming a fulltime political activist, then a teacher and scholar. But, he always insisted, the appearance of abandonment was on one level deceptive, for:

‘I didn’t inherit his ability but I did absorb his way of thinking about a job of work. Thorough preparation, keeping your tools in good condition, getting the basic things right, attention to detail, keeping in mind the structure of the finished product, creativity and a sense of the beauty of what you are making. That is why I have always regarded being an historian as practicing a craft and I have tried to follow these principles.’

Bob also, though, plunged very early and very deeply into the world of far-left – specifically, Trotskyist – politics: first in Edinburgh and Glasgow and in the Socialist Labour League. This, later to become the Workers’ Revolutionary Party and always dominated by the charismatic but authoritarian and abusive figure of Gerry Healy, was a hard political apprenticeship.

Bob’s memories of Healy were always suitably acerbic: and this well before the range and depth of that man’s personal, sexual and political misbehaviour became known. He soon moved on to the equally ‘ultra-leftist’ but friendlier and more intellectually open and challenging milieu of the International Marxist Group. The IMG’s leader, Tariq Ali, who became and remained a lifelong friend of Bob’s, once recalled wryly to me that Purdie was probably the only prominent IMG member with a genuinely working-class background! But Bob’s socialism was always, even in these very early days, both intensely internationalist and anti-authoritarian.

It was issues like South African apartheid, oppression in Algeria and the US South, and dictatorship in Spain, at least as much as any more local issue, that first drew him into that political world. And there is still in circulation a lovely photograph from 1968, showing the young Bob (in Bob Dylan cap and drooping moustache) with a placard denouncing the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia as a crime against socialism.

Moving down to London in 1968, he was also very much caught up in the heady atmosphere of the time and place, enthusiastically embracing the music, the politics, the general air of boundless possibility in its ‘counterculture’, while wisely avoiding all the drugs.

The same impulses drew him into Irish politics. He had, he says, always been interested in it, never deaf to the multiple echoes from Ireland that always sounded so loudly in the Edinburgh, Glasgow and Kirkcaldy of his youth. The engagement first became intense, though, when in 1970 the IMG sent him to Dublin and Belfast to make or renew a range of political contacts: fellow Trotskyists and other leftists, of course, but also soon leading members of both Official and Provisional IRAs.

He kept going back, he kept expanding that range of friends and contacts (Billy McMillen, the Officials’ Belfast commander, became a good friend, as did Géry Lawless in the Irish Workers Group, but soon thereafter Bob also met, greatly liked and was surprised to find himself often agreeing with Gusty Spence), and he began and kept on writing about Ireland. He became the main originator, organiser and propagandist of the Troops Out Movement, as well as the Anti-Internment League and Irish Solidarity Campaign, and – amidst a small flood of related writing –  produced in 1972 the pamphlet Ireland Unfree.

This was surely the finest – most eloquent, best informed, most historically knowledgeable – early exposition of a pro-Republican, ‘anti-imperialist’ view of Northern Ireland from a British leftist. But Bob’s views on the question were to change far and fast: so fast as, perhaps, almost to obscure how careful, painstaking and sometimes painful was the rethinking which went into the shifts. Later work including Divided Nation, Divided Class, which he and Austen Morgan co-edited in 1980 (it came out of 1978 conference at Warwick) pioneered a critique and rethinking of those same positions.

Bob’s own essay in that collection was a strikingly original, independent-minded investigation of the historical roots and international ramifications of Irish Republican political thought. It still stands as one of the most penetrating studies of that theme ever penned: too few other analysts or historians have ever since followed in its footsteps. Characteristically of all his work, his rethinking seamlessly blended an ever-sharper moral rejection of armed struggle (the Birmingham pub bombings were, he later reflected, a crucial turning point) and a rigorous intellectual critique of the ideologies, historical interpretations and international analogies which sustained it. He came equally to reject the Leninist notion of the vanguard party, and the parallel vanguardism of urban guerrillas and self-appointed ‘national liberationists’.

Meanwhile Bob had ‘gone back to school’ as a mature student, first at Ruskin, then at Warwick University, then completing a Ph.D. on the Civil Rights movement at Strathclyde. The book which eventuated from the latter, Politics in the Streets (1990) is widely seen as his greatest achievement. Although further studies of the movement have accumulated since, Bob’s is surely not just the first but still the best. It is, of course, not ‘only’ a fine piece of academic research, but one suffused both with political insight and with carefully-controlled but unmissable moral engagement.

The strength of the personal commitment, and the personal relationships, which lay behind it is hinted at in Paddy Devlin’s Foreword. Devlin says that ‘Bob may speak with an Edinburgh accent, but we count him as one of us.’ Anyone who knew either Purdie or indeed Devlin will know also how inclusive, non-sectarian, indeed visionary was that sense of ‘us’. There’s a hint of the personal element also in the book’s cover photograph, which shows a young Kevin Boyle, in 1968, addressing a student civil rights demo while surrounded by police – for the much-missed Kevin was also a dear friend of Bob’s, (as he was of this writer).

That spirit was reflected too in everything Bob did during his Belfast years, which embraced scholarly work, Labour politics (he played a crucial role in seeking – with sadly limited success – to sustain the Northern Ireland Labour Party and to create a successor in Labour ’87), and multiple bridge-buildings both intellectually and on a more simply human level. The annual Lipman Seminar, which he co-ran with Austen Morgan, had a vital, too-little-recalled part in initiating and fostering multiple kinds of dialogue and thus paving the way for future peacemaking. So too, of course, albeit in a very different idiom, did the Corrymeela community, in which Bob became very active even before his own, slightly later, turn to religious faith.

On retirement from Ruskin College, Bob returned home to Kirkcaldy in Fife: ‘home’ because, though of course nearby Edinburgh was his birthplace, his family had moved there when he was a very young man. He had already, well before this, become ever more engaged with Scottish Nationalist politics and with writing on Scots history and literature. He had long been the convenor of the SNP’s London (in effect, its all-England) branch: the breadth and internationalism of the debates he sponsored there is hinted at by the range of guest speakers he would invite: from Owen Dudley Edwards to Tariq Ali or, more humbly, the present writer.

These were also, invariably and again typically of Bob, wonderful social occasions; as were the many events he sponsored at St. Columba’s Church in Oxford, in whose community he became a stalwart. (He also naturally relished the mingled Scots-Irish historical connotations embodied in the Church’s very name.) Such engagements never ceased in his last, Kirkcaldy years. One notes that the local MP there, Gordon Brown, announced his retirement just two days after Bob’s death. Obviously Brown decided that, with his ablest and most thoughtful local opponent gone, there was no point in carrying on!

Irish activities, too, continued to the end. Despite failing health, Bob remained a very energetic participant in conferences and seminars on Irish history and politics: I last saw him at one such, in Galway last year, and shall treasure the memory. And his last great work, his study of Hugh MacDiarmid’s political thought, includes not only many side-glances at Irish affairs but also, more broadly, profound reflection on the relations between nationalism and socialism, art and politics, which are of crucial relevance to Ireland too.

Dearest Bob, your passing leaves a vast hole in the lives of all who knew you. One day, when a true and full history of modern Northern Ireland, its conflicts and its peace process, is written, your contribution to peace and to social justice will be properly honoured. In the meantime, and in the words which your beloved MacDiarmid wrote for his own father:

The sunlicht still on me, you row’d in clood,

We look upon each ither noo like hills…

And the great darkness o’ your death comes up

And equals it across the way.

A livin’ man upon a deid man thinks

And ony sma’er thocht’s impossible.

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