Donald Bruce, who died this week, was for most of his political life Lord Bruce of Donnington – possibly the most anti-European Labour peer of them all, though there was some competition. He was an MP very briefly (1945-50), in which role he served as parliamentary private secretary to Aneurin Bevan, then spent a quarter of a century making money as an accountant before being given a peerage by Harold Wilson in 1974. During the 1970s he was an MEP in the days before the European Parliament was elected or had any power – and after that, until not long ago, he made inumerable obsessive anti-European speeches in the House of Lords.
A dull cove? Yes. But in the 1980s and early 1990s, he played a bizarre but important role in the story of Tribune, which is why I’m noting his death here. Appropriating the mantle of Nye – has any Labour figure since Nye had a mantle? – he and John Silkin took it upon themselves in the early 1980s to rescue Tribune from the predations of Bennism, in the form of Chris Mullin, then the struggling weekly’s editor (now a struggling minister), who wanted to turn the paper into a workers’ co-operative.
Bruce acquired the shares owned by Bevan’s wife Jennie Lee, and he and Silkin threatened to use the full force of the law to assert their rights as proprietors to prevent the workers seizing the means of production. In the end, it fizzled out: Mullin left to write books and the dispute was sorted out by his successor as editor, Nigel Williamson, the late and much-lamented Norman Buchan MP and Michael Foot, leaving de facto control of the paper in the hands of the staff.
But Bruce hung around for ages. As a worker-director of Tribune in the late 1980s (no, I was, really), I sat opposite Silkin and Bruce in board meetings once a month to put the case for workers’ control – well, actually, to keep the two daft old gits happy by noting their concerns and carrying on regardless. And we kept on humouring Bruce for the best part of a decade afterwards, long after Silkin died and their tired and crazy anti-Europeanism had lost any credibility.
I am not speaking ill of the dead. Bruce was a man of his time. When I knew him, he was a red-faced old buffer who was pretty much compos mentis and perfectly pleasant socially on most of the occasions I met him. But politically he was – as Neil Kinnock might have put it – completely, totally and utterly useless. He lost every battle he fought. It's not entirely his fault, but Tribune is now owned by the trade unions. RIP.