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Q&A with ‘Walter Citrine: Forgotten Statesman of the Trades Union Congress’ author Jim Moher

Q&A with ‘Walter Citrine: Forgotten Statesman of the Trades Union Congress’ author Jim Moher

By Claudia Besant |

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Tell us a little bit about yourself and your book Walter Citrine: Forgotten Statesman of the Trades Union Congress.

I’m Irish. My law degree is from University College Cork, but I have lived in London for many decades with Ruth and our family. From an early date, I’ve been involved in trade union activities and Labour politics. So, I chose the life and times of this former leading union leader and national figure, to bring back to people’s attention, as strangely, he has been forgotten (apart from his book, The ABC of Chairmanship, which is still the bible on the conduct of meetings). I was awarded a doctorate by the University of London in 1989, for some original research which I conducted part-time, about the London millwrights and engineers 1775–1825. So, this book combines my interest in history with my career as a trade union official.

What was it that motivated you to write Walter Citrine’s life story? Why him and why now?

Largely because, about ten years ago, I found a cache of Citrine’s voluminous notes and papers at the London School of Economics archive. I was drawn into thinking, ‘this deserves to see the light’ as the accurate (he had shorthand) account of what happened over a long period of time, by someone who was involved in those events. Walter Citrine’s was such an interesting life, it’s not just about trade unionism, Labour politics etc. His Marco Polo-type global travelling, world leaders he met (Churchill and the other British PMs of course, but USSR Foreign Secretary, V. Molotov to U.S. President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and many, many more. Why now? Shedding fresh light on events of the 1920s to the 1940s is especially important for today’s trade unions. There are many lessons which can be learnt from that turbulent period – the TUC got going properly and handled the rise of Communism and Fascism very well – so different from today’s ‘Faith’ politics, yet surprisingly similar in some ways.

Why did you decide to self-publish and what made you choose whitefox as your publishing partner?

That was easy. I had a publisher but they pulled out when my manuscript was almost completed, for purely commercial reasons, as far as I could see. Fortunately, a friend, Alan Johnson (formerly my ‘boss’ as a union leader), introduced me to John Bond at whitefox, who were happy to allow me to finish the book beyond the restrictive terms of a publisher. Caroline McArthur did most of the work and produced the fine volume we have. It cost me, but it was worth it.

What was your experience of writing Walter Citrine?

Doing it part-time on top of a full-time job and a growing family was strenuous, but my wife Ruth gave me full support. It took the best part of ten years, I think, as I didn’t want to skimp it. That’s the virtue of self-publishing. Trade unionism is a niche subject and they have gone out of public favour. But with the Covid crisis, union membership is growing, and the TUC were again consulted and influenced government and employer responses. I always believed there would be an audience for this central experience of millions at work who find unions strengthen their representation. However, I realised also that it’s a story which had to be presented in a modern setting.

Was there anything you discovered while researching that you found particularly fascinating?

Lots. Citrine came from a Merseyside sea-going family and his wanderlust can be attributed to that. His reports from all over the globe contain photos, maps and commentary which he took pains to enter in his diaries each night. A publication entitled The Travels of Walter Citrine, would be a wonderful travel companion for those long cruises in the Caribbean and other places he visited in the 1930s and 40s. They are accurate, illustrated, historic and not overly ego focused, whether in the Soviet Union (6 visits), U.S. and Canada (5 visits), the Caribbean (twice), the middle and far East, Australia and New Zealand – not to mention all over Europe in the 1930s.

What impact do you hope Citrine’s biography has on its readers?

There has been considerable feedback from readers, all favourable and a few have reviewed the book on Amazon. Already it has stirred considerable debate in union and Labour circles. I have used Twitter and LinkedIn quite a bit and have had some Facebook coverage. I’ve produced some spin-off articles for the History & Policy Trade Union and Employment Forum website and for the Society for the Study of Labour History journal. 

Publication coincided with the appearance of another biography of  a contemporary union leader of the same era – Ernest Bevin, former union leader, Minister of Labour and Foreign Secretary by Lord Andrew Adonis. A review of both books has now appeared in the British Journal of Industrial Relations. We are still hoping for a debate about them.

So far, my book has been reviewed very favourably by seven academics and a number of other reviews are ‘in the pipeline’ awaiting publication. This and History Faculty libraries are now my target. 

Our digital launch in March attracted 150 registrations and over 130 attendees, many key people from the union past, such as former TUC General Secretary, Lord John Monks – who wrote the introduction. A subsequent fringe meeting (again digital) at the TUC Congress in September was introduced by the current TUC President, Gail Cartmail of UNITE, and wound up with an endorsement from Paul Nowak, Deputy General Secretary of the TUC. Finally, LSE asked me to do a podcast talking about my research in their Citrine Archive and they highlighted many of the documents consulted.

I’ve been invited to do a number of talks about the book locally (Harrow and Wembley where Citrine lived) and I am aiming to have an exhibition with Brent Council library, who have bought two copies. I am also promoting it with Merseyside and Wirral Council, who are likely to award a blue plaque where an event will be held. Next up: Manchester.

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