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20 September 2012

An ode to a socialist on his 90th birthday

Bert Ward
Old-style Communism inspired Bert Ward

Today, on the 90th birthday of a great unsung hero, my good friend, Teesider Bert Ward, I want to sing of him a little. When we met, in the 1980s, he had long been an active member of the Communist Party and I was a Thatcherite, but we bonded over matters Northern Irish. As he had fought the excesses of capitalism, Bert had long challenged the perversions of nationalism.

Bert sought to persuade Irish republicans and their British allies and sympathisers that the British presence in Northern Ireland had nothing to do with imperialism and that the Protestant people of the province were not an enemy to be bombed into a united Ireland. He did so with reason, understanding and humour. One of the pleasures of working with Bert was that while he was deadly serious about politics, he never took himself, or, indeed, anyone else, too seriously.

Bert’s first few decades were tough: at 15, in 1938, he joined the navy and just the titles of some of the jobs he held briefly after being demobbed in the 1946 make me feel like becoming a retrospective member of the CP: try being a slag shifter, a bar dragger, a fire-stoker or a foundry labourer.

I’ve always delighted in the wryness Bert brings to his recollections. He wrote of his first CP branch meeting: “I remember thinking that this resembled hostile caricatures of communists; a group of people huddled conspiratorially in a dank basement, plotting. The only thing that seemed to be missing was the bomb on the table with its fuse dangling.”

But the CP offered him a life of the mind. It was the CP’s educational programme that started Bert reading seriously and equipped him to study at Ruskin College in Oxford where so many working-class adults got their second educational chance. The London School of Economics followed and Bert became a college lecturer

Having informed himself about Ireland by asking questions and listening to answers, in the late 1980s Bert inspired and co-founded a cross-party peace group called New Dialogue. Steadfast in its opposition to paramilitary or state violence, through debates, vigils and his monthly digest of important speeches and articles from all sides, the group educated politicians about the complex realities of Northern Ireland. The Labour Party (of which Bert was by then a member) moved from knee-jerk anti-partitionism and Troops-Outery towards the more neutral stance Tony Blair would make party policy. As Tony Benn and Ken Livingstone were hosting Gerry Adams while his IRA was still killing soldiers, police and civilians, New Dialogue was giving unpopular views an airing: it first gave David Trimble a platform at a fringe meeting of the Labour Party Conference.

Bert writes short stories, poems and essays with wit, truth and clarity: like Orwell, he wants anything he writes to be accessible to the manual workers whose hard lives he chronicles. I will nag him now to reissue “Who’ll Take the Collection?” – which tracks his political journey – and the slim collections of short stories about ordinary people that I have always admired and enjoyed.

“I’ll See Socialism in My Time” is one of his essays. I hope you’re wrong, Bert, but at a time when we are afflicted with the curse of viciously polarised politics, I’m proud to be your comrade and sing your praises.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

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