Abe, Alex and Dave Moffat
(Note: unusually, the entries for these brothers are combined, for reasons that will be evident upon reading the text! Although the entry is somewhat skewed towards Abe, the more famous of them. The main source is Abe’s biography, which, though generous to his brother Alex, who served the Communist Party and the miners with distinction – understandably focuses upon his own life. Sadly, there is little detail about David Moffat to draw upon.)
Abe Moffat (left) was born in Lumphinnans on 24th September 1896. He and his brothers, notably Alex, who was seven years younger than Abe, and Dave, were remarkable leaders of the Scottish miners and life-long Communists. Their village became known as a `Little Moscow’, one of several pit villages that became dominated by the Communist Party. They came from a strong tradition of mining unionism; their grandfather had been a pioneer of mining trades unionism in the Lothians during the 1860s but had been forced to move to Fife due to victimisation.
Abe Moffat worked in the pits from 1910 until he was victimised in 1926 and was active in all the miners’ strike actions from the moment he joined the industry. By late 1922, or early 1923, he had joined the Communist Party. He was involved in the publication of the `Buzzer’, a bulletin for militant miners at the Glencraig Colliery, Lochgelly. This was a Communist Party publication, produced on a typewriter and duplicator and costing 1d.
Within two years of joining the Party he was elected as a Communist councillor on Ballingry Parish Council. Parish councils had up to then proved to be a useful form of entry by Communists into the elective arena where the main challenger was Labour, by virtue of their small sized and concentrated electorates. They were abolished as a form of local government in 1929.
But Communism’s roots were to grow even deeper in Fife, largely as a result of the role of Party members in the mining industry. The Scottish miners’ unions, which were county based, were largely in the hands of Labour’s right wing but such a leadership was severely challenged by the Left. The Labour-led executive of the Fife miners’ union refused to support the popularly supported strikes between 1919 and 1921 and, a ‘Reform Union’ had been formed in 1923. This was not largely a consequence of action by Communists but arose from a personality conflict between senior officials of the union. In 1926, Fife miners held out longer than the rest of Britain. The split was overcome during the General Strike and the nine months lockout of miners and a reunified union emerged in 1927. But continued tensions arising from bureaucratic repression of Left forces and the manoeuvring of the right led to a split.
In the new atmosphere of organisational unity, an exhaustive round of elections, which had not taken place in Fife since 1925, saw a massive swing to the Left. Now, the Fife union was massively in arrears in its affiliation fees to the Scottish federation, largely due to the organisation chaos that has ensued over the previous period. This was used as an excuse to delay the convening of the federation conference and the now de-selected officials continued to hold office in the county. Amidst the obvious reaction from the Left to this manoeuvring, the Scottish federation in the meantime changed the rules so as to expel the Fife county union from membership and thus disenfranchise the Communist-led winners of the election. The right wing in Fife then promptly declared a new union had been formed (the Fife, Kinross and Clackmannan Miners’ Association, to give it its correct title – FKCMA). This was accepted as an affiliate of the Scottish federation – the National Union of Scottish Miners.
Perhaps with hindsight wrongly, a minority but a significant number of miners in Fife accepted this as de-facto expulsion from a tarnished union. In mid-1929, Communists led the setting up a new union, the United Mineworkers of Scotland. Whilst there were UMS members elsewhere in Scotland, in Shotts in Lanarkshire for example, it was based mainly in Fife. Just before the formation of the UMS both Alex and Abe were elected checkweighmen at the No XI pit in Lumphinnans (a position of some importance to miners since it encompassed a legal role in overseeing the amount of cal cut and hence the value of earnings).
This sequence of events is rarely referred to by critics of the decision to form the UMS. Perhaps it was, in retrospect, something of a mistake but participants at the time felt that legitimacy was on their side and it did not feel wrong. Contrary to much academic and ultra-leftist criticism, the creation of the UMS was not a reflection of the left-turn in the Comintern from 1929 but an organic reaction to local circumstances. In short, the UMS was a reaction to election fraud, exacerbated by the unhealed frictions over attitudes to taking strike action.
Abe Moffat was not, again contrary to some academic persuasions, a key force in the creation of the UMS. He was, at the time of its foundation, a pit delegate – an important but not leading position; however, he was UMS secretary from 1931 to 1935 and, given the importance of this role, unsurprisingly was a delegate to the 7th Comintern Congress in 1935. His leadership of the UMS was primarily devoted to finding a way to achieve organisational unity amongst miners once again. In 1933 attempts to merge with the official union were rebuffed and, in 1935, with some support from the national miners’ federation and arising from a proposition by Abe Moffat himself, UMS members balloted to apply for membership of the official Fife union, to maximise the possibilities for unity. Despite this, both Alex and Abe were victimised from working in the pits.
In 1938, Abe Moffat (left), who had been Willie Gallacher’s agent in between elections, was himself elected a County Councillor, beating his Labour opponent by two to one and making the Communist Group of councillors five strong. He remained unbeaten as a councillor until 1944, when he left public elective office to become a full-time official for the miners� union. His brother, Alex Moffat also became an elected Communist Fife County Councillor, serving for 19 years in a seat that was held by the Party for 40 years!
In 1938, with the discreet connivance of a full-time union official, both Alex and Abe were able to obtain work at a small private mine, not part of the county owners’ association, largely due to their reputation for hard work. Fortunately, the union was then structured on localities not pits, so, in 1939, Abe Moffat was elected delegate for Lumphinnans, amicably replacing another brother, David, who had kept the seat warm for him! The following year he was elected to the EC of the Scottish miners’ federation.
He was elected President of the Scottish miners in 1942, with 32,000 votes to 19,700 for his challenger and then proceeded to lead the campaign for a single Scottish miners’ union to be created out of the county associations. After the formation of the National Union of Miners (NUM) in 1944, across the whole of Britain, he was elected the Scottish President with a three to one vote, a position he held with considerable distinction until his retirement in September 1961. By that time, he served on the Scottish Communist Party District Committee for at least 25 years and the Party’s national Executive Committee for 30 years.
Left: a wartime pamphlet by Abe
Sources: Abe Moffat `My life with the miners’ (1965) and other material