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Myrna Shaw

Ian Burge – A Personal Appreciation

(June 1980)

From Militant, No. 506, 6 June 1980, p. 6.
Transcribed by Iain Dalton.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Myrna, who modestly told us: “I was a political ‘nothing’ in all respects when I first met Ian,” is now Secretary Keep BGH Hospital Campaign, Secretary JSSC at BGH, EC member City & East London Area Health branch NALGO, Metropolitan District Council NALGO, Minute Secretary and Co-ordinator Tower Hamlets Health District Branch NUPE, Asst. Sec, Tower Hamlets Health District JSSC.


I first met Ian in the corridors of Bethnal Green Hospital in 1977 when the Campaign to save the Hospital was just getting under way.

We had a fairly mild exchange of views on the role of a shop steward which nevertheless left me strangely smarting and with a renewed conviction that I had never liked men with red hair! However, he had made me think, and a few minutes later I turned round and followed him into a meeting which I had been intent on avoiding.

This encounter started an association which has only ended in the bitter anguish I feel at his death.

But the incident was typical of him. If you only opened your mind to Ian he continually made you think and no matter how many people he was involved with, it always seemed like a one-to-one encounter of your mind with his. While he would accept that you had been brainwashed by the system we live under, he constantly made you question that system, observe its contradictions and inspired you with the will to fight for a socialist future.

Ian had an infinite patience and understanding with the rank-and-file worker, but was completely implacable in opposition to those he considered politically mature but who were attempting to take the movement in the wrong direction.

In the early days it was Ian’s personal commitment to Militant that won my admiration and respect. No effort was too great to make for the paper and nothing was too good for it. What was the magic formula he found in it? If I read it too, would I get to think as he did?

As I drew nearer and nearer to making my own personal commitment I agreed to look over one of his articles on the Campaign for Bethnal Green Hospital and to give him my comments. I did this and decided to type the amended article in draft form on a superb electric typewriter. Comrades, you should have seen the look of joy on his face. Obviously I was coming nearer to his beliefs, I had ‘improved’ his article, and Militant was going to get beautifully typed copy!

No one would pay more attention to copy than Ian Burge. Each word, each sentence was considered – once, twice, three times, then torn up to be started at all over again. If it was an article for Militant it would then be sent in, but if it was to be considered by a trade union committee it was something else again.

It would have been too easy sometimes to get blind acceptance of a letter or article for publication. But that wasn’t Ian’s way. Everyone had to read, accept or argue the points put forward. Laziness was not allowed. You had to know what you were doing or what was the point of doing it? This was something that Management would not believe or accept, but that was because they never knew Ian as we did.

Ian’s range of activities was enormous. Always with a bundle of Militants under his arm, he organised and attended meeting after meeting. Secretary of his own branch of ASTMS, he was also a Divisional Council member. He was on the Tower Hamlets Trades Council and the Health Sub-Committees. As Secretary of the London Hospital Joint Shop Stewards’ Committee, his greatest achievement perhaps was the transformation of the Tower Hamlets Health District Joint Shop Stewards’ Committee, holding together by sheer hard work and dogged determination nine separate unions in six different hospitals.

Such was the stature achieved by the DJSSC that he had the unprecedented distinction as a trade unionist of being allowed to speak from the Public Gallery to the City & East London Area Health Authority, when they suspended standing orders to allow him to do so. The result was that the Authority, although heavily weighted by “Regional Appointees”, forced the Tower Hamlets District Health Management Team into direct negotiations with the DJSSC on the question of Bethnal Green Hospital. The quality of our literature since then inspired a Labour Councillor on the AHA to ask why they never consulted, unless forced to, “the people that really matter.”

A pattern was thus established at the time of the Campaign that we kept up for three years. With some personal inconvenience Ian came over almost every lunch-time usually with other health workers. A lunch-fund was established that even after many deductions for paper, postage, etc, now stands at over £50. We would have a bite to eat, discuss the political news of the day and the health news in the hospitals.

How could we strengthen trade union membership? How could we best fight the cuts? Other shop stewards would come for a quick chat, members of staff would look in having adopted a catch-phrase “where’s my shop-steward, I’m in trouble,” while many a hospital doctor would audibly groan at the sight of our tiny, packed, kitchen – “plotting again!”

If Ian didn’t come over on any particular day he would telephone instead to ask if everything was all right, what’s been happening to you, did you manage to read this or do that? In times of crisis there was a virtual hot-line between BGH and The London, and many a press-cutting went backwards or forwards on the hospital van to be filed for future reference, always with an article for Militant in mind.

Now he has gone, unfairly, unjustly, with so much he would have been able to contribute. In odd moments of dejection he questioned the effectiveness of his work. If only we told people while they were alive how much we loved them and valued what they were doing! If only he could see mature men and women, people who sometimes thought they disagreed with him, crying their eyes out at his death.

Good-tempered usually, aggravating occasionally, obstinate to the point of pig-headedness if a principle was at stake. Ian was also a jazz musician, bacon-butty lover, cheese-on-toast expert, tutor, comrade, friend.

What more can you say? What more can you do? Plenty! OK so he has had to clock out early and the Foreman is prowling around. Traditionally, we always close ranks, dodge around a bit and pretend our mate has just popped out for a second and we cover the work that needs to be done.

Always finish on a positive note, Ian would say. It’s very hard, because it breaks my heart that he will not see socialism. But for us, whether or not we all realised it, Ian was our glimpse of that new society. In his own way he personified the new man – caring, loving, generous to a fault with his time.

It’s up to us now – organise!

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Last updated: 11 July 2017