Eric Heffer

Look Back in Anger

by Dick Barry

Eric Heffer: Never a Yes Man: the Life and Politics of an Adopted Liverpudlian. [1]

The pre-launch publicity surrounding Never a Yes Man concentrated exclusively on Heffer’s criticism of Neil Kinnock’s betrayal of socialism and his style of leadership which, according to Heffer, led to a rigid party discipline and the expulsion of Militant supporters (though not, it has to be said, of Frank Field, who is alleged to have urged Party members on the Wirral not to vote for official Labour candidates).

Since the launch, most reviews have also dwelt on Heffer’s known dislike of Kinnock. It is understandable that the Evening Standard should wish to highlight the differences between the two, but not even such a bastion of right-wing Toryism stooped as low as Mike Craven, of the so-called ‘soft-left’ Labour Co-ordinating Committee, whose review in Tribune was nothing more than a personal attack on the dead author. It would also be understandable if Heffer’s views on Kinnock formed the most interesting part of the book, but they don’t. They account for less than one sixth of the book’s length. and were well aired publicly long before the author’s death.

Heffer was justifiably praised from all sides for his political principles .. But for a principled politician, and a well-read one at that, he could be touchingly naive on occasions about political issues. And, if this book is anything to go by, he was not averse to sweeping unpleasant facts under the carpet if they did not fit his political views.

Liverpool and Ireland are a case in point. There is an interesting section in which he attempts to describe the religious divisions which existed in Liverpool between the wars, the reasons for them and their eventual demise. Not a word is said about the role of the Labour Party in bringing Catholics and Protestants together after 1945 when a Labour government was establishing the Welfare State. Admittedly, other factors played their part – slum clearance, for example, from the 1950s – but there is no denying the role of Labour.

Heffer’s experience of the Orange Order in Liverpool undoubtedly shaped his attitude towards Ireland, as did his Marxism in the early period of his political life. He says that T. A. Jackson’s Ireland Her Own

“gave me new insights and heightened my interest. I became convinced that a united Ireland is essential”. It is a sorry state of affairs when the opinion of a Marxist is permanently shaped by the reading of a single book. Heffer deplores the sectarian divisions of workers and the use of the Orange card by the Tories in Northern Ireland under Carson and F. E. Smith which he describes as “a further example of the divide and rule policy of the British”.

Carson wasn’t a Tory and was bitterly opposed to the British government’s attempts to cut Northern Ireland adrift, with its own government, from the rest of the UK. So blind is Heffer’s rage, however, against the ‘Orange Tories’, that he fails to appreciate the heavy responsibility which the Labour Party bears for the sectarian divisions which continue to this day in the six counties. By its refusal to bring workers together within the only party of labour with a prospect of forming the government of the state in which they live, Labour has condemned Northern Ireland workers to political limbo. Under such circumstances bigotry and prejudice will always triumph.

Heffer’s views on the 1984 miners’ strike and Scargill’s leadership of it are illuminating. He sets out the background to the strike and describes the meticulous preparations made by the Government and British Coal. He writes not, apparently, with hindsight, but in the full knowledge that the miners could not have won the strike and yet he says that Scargill was right to lead them the way he did. “The miners had to win,” he writes. I remember a conversation I had with Jim Mortimer, who was Labour’s General Secretary at the time of the strike. He too said that the miners had to win. I said that although I hoped they would, they could not possibly win for the very reasons given by Heffer. He was not convinced. It is perhaps no coincidence that the politics of both men were heavily influenced by the Communist Party.

I said earlier that Heffer could be touchingly naive at times. He could also be very confused. He supported Britain’s application to join the European Community, yet he quickly changed his mind and became virulently anti-EC, although pleading that he believed in a united Europe. I believe him. Towards the end of the book he says that “There is no doubt that our future lies in Europe … ” I agree with him and for the very same reasons. Yet how, other than working within an increasingly large European Community, are we going to avoid being Little Englanders, as he hopes, or escape from the suffocating embrace of the USA?

I had the highest regard for Eric Heffer, both as a man and as a politician. I could, therefore, forgive him anything – well, almost anything. Among the many revelations about him in this absorbing book is the one where he admits that, although he had a passion for the city of Liverpool, when it came to football, he was an Evertonian. As a Liverpudlian, that really hurts.

This article appeared in November 1991, in Issue 26 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  You can find more from the era at 

[1] Verso, 1991, 242 pp.