Pictured left in a mock-peasant costume in a 1980s poll tax demo
Born Elizabeth Lynette on March 14th 1914 in Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) to an Australian farmer father and Scottish teacher mother, she came to England in 1936. Having joined the Communist Party, she debated risk forfeiting the fees promised from her Scottish aunt for her further education by refusing to be a debutante and presented at court, a long outmoded coming of age social custom for young women of the elite to be seen in society. She was successful in her objection but did, in the end, pragmatically go along with being presented to the King as a `deb’, without protest, as otherwise her private funding would have been cut off. Though there was some discussion in her student party branch as to whether she should drop a copy of the Daily Worker at the King’s feet! Betty then went to the London School of Economics, where she and Eric Hobsbawm knew each other.
Betty was heavily involved in Cable Street, meeting her husband at this time, George Matthews, who was preparing to become a Bedfordshire farmer. In the November 1945 municipal elections, Betty Mathews missed being elected a Communist councilor by a mere 40 votes in Luton, a remarkable achievement. [Daily Worker November 3rd 1945]
Both she and George became full-time party workers after the war. She was initially district secretary for the South-East Midlands District, then London District Organiser. This latter post, she later said, was the unhappiest period of her political life. For a long time she was associated with the Organisation Department at King Street, which was particularly linked to maintaining ideological orthodoxy through disciplinary means. But, from 1967 to 1978, she was national education organiser.
Perhaps it was the contrast between these two experiences that, coupled with the Matthews’ enjoyment of annual visits to Italy, that became a factor in making Betty, in particular, open to the interpretations Antonio Gramsci’s writings that became, by the mid-1970s, the hallmark of the British revisionism – often then called Euro-Communism. Certainly, as some of the key 1970s Euro-Communists became CP full-timers, Betty gave them quiet support. By the time of her formal retirement, the Party formation that then existed was facing a great crisis.
As an editorial board member of Marxism Today, as it was being recast in a new and critical role by Martin Jacques, she was a key supporter, whom he regarded as one of the architects of the magazine’s studied iconoclasm, that ironically ran in the opposite direction to its very title.
Her childless marriage with George lasted 62 years, until her death on May 24th 2002, aged 88 after a car crash.
Sources include the Morning Star May 30th 2002