Born on September 9th 1912, Tom Driver came from a poor family in Barnsley and was brought up in the South Yorkshire coalfield. What he called "gritty resilience", learned in his youth, "stood him in great stead" when he became President of both the Association of Teachers in Technical Institutes and later the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (NATFHE now part of UCW). His sharp wit, impish sense of humour and keen intelligence fed a remarkable political insight, which was in evidence all his life.
As a youth, the pit explosion at Warncliffe Woodmoor (Old Carlton, Barnsley) that killed 58 miners had a profound experience upon him. His literary ability was put to the task of writing a pamphlet explaining the employers’ responsibility in the disaster, anonymously published for him by the Communist Party. But, during the early 1930s, Tom Driver was also a highly visible political figure in the village of Kexborough, near Darton, where he was born, which was “in the firm grip of a family of Methodist solicitors … considered to be the local `squires’, expecting obedience from local people”. [source Charlie Bennett letter]
pic: Tom Driver in 1945
His remarkable ability and intelligence saw him study English and Literature at Sheffield University, where he became the editor of `Arrows’, the university magazine. In 1933, he joined the Communist Party and participated in sales of the Daily Worker in Sheffield, outside the steel and engineering factories, and in the University. Among the 750 students at that time, the Party Group sold up to 100 copies.
Tom Driver was Chair of the Sheffield University Socialist Club from 1933-35. Along with Norman Dodsworth, Tom was the thinker of the Group and, under their leadership, the Communist Party had leading positions in almost every student society, even the Christian Society! The Communist Student Group was often called upon to lead demonstrations of the unemployed, so as to stand in for and prevent the arrest of NUWM leaders. The University Socialist Society, largely led by Communists, staged a demonstration on May Day 1935. This was the first time that students in Sheffield other than Communists had ever identified themselves with working class struggles.
When Tom found himself several times in hospital with rheumatic fever, he met, and later married, his nurse, Thora, with whom he had two children. He was Secretary of the Kexborough Labour Ward Labour Party from 1936-37. Being unemployed for several months after university, he was reduced to potato picking for a while, until he got a job as a teacher of French and became an NUT activist. For a number of years, he was an influential member of the NUT executive.
Eventually, he joined the staff of Doncaster Technical College, where he earned "the respect of staff and … management alike with his steerage of the implementation of the 1944 Education Act in its most difficult area, the `Cinderella’ department of state-administered post-school education".
He represented the NUT, and was a member of the Executive Committee, on the combined Barnsley Trades Council and Labour Party from 1937-1939. Such a role required him not to belong to the Communist Party, although it is likely that he retained allegiance if not formal membership of the Party until 1941, when he publicly renewed his membership for the rest of his life.
A key figure throughout the period thereafter on the powerful Yorkshire District Committee of the Party, Tom Driver was for many years its Marxist Education Organiser. His skill with words was in plentiful use and there is evidence that some of his words went into various drafts of the Party’s programme, the `British Road to Socialism’. (Today, `Britain’s Road to Socialism’.)
First elected to its National Council in 1945, he was a key activist in the Association of Teachers in Technical Institutes (ATTI), becoming a member of the NEC in 1960, President in 1961 and General Secretary in 1969. ATTI had been formed during the second world war and was largely based in further education colleges and, later, the former polytechnics. ATTI rapidly grew in the post war period and, in 1961, Driver became its President. He also led the union side of the Burnham Further Education Committee from 1969 to 1977 and was the secretary of the Technical and Vocational Committee of the World Confederation of Organisations of the Teaching Profession. In that capacity, he played a considerable role in seeking to heal the rift between the WCOTP and FISE, the Federation International des Syndicats d’Education.
Perhaps his greatest achievement was to be the decisive force in talks to form one college lecturers’ union. ATTI merged with the Association of Teachers in Colleges and Departments of Education, which had been formed in 1943 from an amalgamation of the Training College Association and the Council of Principals, to form NATHFE on 1 January 1976. He had effectively tripled his union’s membership at a stroke; a final concrete achievement was to bring the new union into affiliation to the TUC.
He was both an inspirer of the new formation as well as its first President and in this role, Driver also negotiated a working agreement with the Association of University Teachers (AUT) that not only stood the test of time but also lay the basis for the eventually merger in 2006 of NATFHE and the AUT to form the University and Colleges Union (UCU). In retirement, Tom Driver played a role in the pensioners’ movement and lived in Doncaster with Thora, who had also been an active Communist all during their marriage and who predeceased him. He identified himself with the Morning Star during the period of the 1980s internal struggles of the Party and died on 4th November 1988, aged 76. A portrait sculpture of Tom Driver was created by Ian Walters and placed in NATFHE headquarter in 1989. (In 2006, NATFHE merged with the Association of University Teachers to form the University and Colleges Union.)
Sources: `Notes from Jim Atkinson and Jim Ashford’ (Bill Moore), Note on Tom Driver by “CB”, note on Tom Driver by Harry Hyde (?), Charlie Bennett letter; Oration by Frank Watters at Tom Driver’s funeral 11th November 1988 (all from the papers of Frank Watters; Frank Watters “Being Frank” (1992); NATFHE Journal January/February 1989; NATFHE website; undated cutting from the `Guardian’ c. November 1988; 1945 Barnsley Communist Party election leaflet; GS personal knowledge.