On the eve of the People’s Vote March Ronnie McGowan explains why his participation is in part the repayment of a debt of gratitude to his parents, and to the generation which forged a new Europe.
There was a chill wind blowing through Europe in the 1930s. It was felt in the tenements on the north banks of the river Tay; more precisely it was felt in Kinnaird Street, on the Hilltown in Dundee.
Archie Brown, a ship’s carpenter from Port Glasgow, was chopping up household furniture to be burned in order to help keep warm his youngest daughter, Florence McGillivary Brown. My mother. Not exactly the best use of a skilled craftsman’s talents – he was more like an artist really – but in those dark days, needs must.
This difficult start in life burned a fierce stoicism, earthy humour and deep passion into young Flo’s psyche that was to last a lifetime. She was born in 1927, leaving school at fourteen with no qualifications, and starting work as a laundry girl. She loved ice skating. It’s where she met the love of her life, Norman Anderson McGowan, my father.
He was two years older and brought up on Hill Street at the foot of the Law, on the Hilltown, where else. He left school at fourteen too, without certificates, although he was brilliant at mental arithmetic and algebra, which I only learned, to my shame, after he died; I was in my fifties and had been teaching maths for thirty years. His was a reserved generation.
On leaving school he worked as a ‘message laddie’, delivering groceries on a bicycle. In his spare time he went ice skating. When war came Norrie wanted to enlist, but his eyesight wasn’t great. Eager to do his bit for king and country he joined the Merchant Navy as a ‘ship’s flesher’, and was involved in the D-Day operations.
I saw him cry once, during a documentary about the navy’s role during the war and the part played by HMS Hood. “There were Dundee boys on the Hood”, he said. He’d wanted to crew on that iconic battlecruiser.
After the war, out of the rubble and the broken hearts, there came visionaries. Jean Monnet was one. He had plans for a different kind of Europe.
The post-war period was politically exciting for the young couple embarking on a marriage that would endure for fifty nine years. They saw in the Attlee government, and the NHS which nursed their four children. They joined the Labour Party and, on their patch, on the northern periphery of Dundee, they became the Labour Party. Dedicated, unstinting in effort and energy, in pursuit of a better place for everyone.
This commitment was eventually recognised with the title Lord and Lady Provost, quite an achievement for a bingo-loving retired school dinner lady. Florence McGillivary Brown, the late bloomer. The family was very proud as it assembled from all parts to witness the chains of office being bestowed; but they were not half as proud as the parents were of their children and many grandchildren, who devoured and still benefit today from the opportunities social democracy offered, argued for, fought for and won. Teachers, university lecturers, lawyers, precision engineers, trade union activists and, yes, a ship’s carpenter too. All carrying forward in diverse ways the values of the socialist couple from the Hilltown.
And it’s really no coincidence that the confidence and drive of these ‘baby boomers’ ran in tandem with an emerging European Union with opportunity at its core. Indeed the family all campaigned hard for their member of parliament, George Thomson, who would later become an EU commissioner.
This sense of being a vital part of a continent, forging strong fraternal links in a peaceful environment of cooperation and trade was something of which my parents were keenly aware and they played their part in delivering it. They’d lived through the dark times and would never countenance a return. Their ambition was always upwards, never dwelling on their past. And the Labour Party was their guiding beacon, shining across a Europe in union.
That’s why I’ll travel to London this Saturday to join the march for a People’s Vote. I’m repaying a debt of gratitude, to family history and to the European Union. The stakes are high. We will march together in hope for a peaceful, gentler future. And for me every step will be a reminder of that young shivering girl who overcame adversity and helped in so many small ways to make a better world.
Put It To The People, the People’s Vote March, will assemble in London at 12 noon on Saturday 23 March. Full details of how to get involved are here.