Brian Williams (3 January 1947 – 7 March 2002)

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Brian Williams (3 January 1947 – 7 March 2002)

Brian Williams, who died on Monday 7 March, was a lifelong Communist, trade unionist, and progressive teacher and educationalist. His ebullience, ready humour, and love for the good things in life were carefully balanced by the learning that he always wore lightly, a razor-sharp intellect, and by his gifts as a highly effective administrator with a care for both nuance and detail.

Born in Mountain Ash, in Mid Glamorgan, he was raised by a family with strong labour Movement values and was greatly influenced by his father and grandfather, who had both been trade union activists, officials, and members of the local Labour Party. Like so many of the post-war generation, education was the means of accessing new, and meritocratic, opportunities and Brian passed the 11 Plus exam with flying colours and attended Mountain Ash Grammar School. It was there he met Jan, the love of his life. The two started dating in the VIth Form and would be married for almost 53 years.

After passing his A Levels, he went to Cardiff University where he took a First in Biblical Studies. However, this seemingly curious academic choice reflected less upon his theological interests than upon his fascination for languages, both ancient and modern. Already a fluent French speaker, his university courses allowed him to study Greek and Hebrew in depth, together with the history of the Arcadian society of the Peloponnese. That Pan was the tutelary god of that people cannot have been lost upon Brian and it was, in many ways, wryly appropriate given his own high spiritedness and quick, puckish wit.

Unsure about what path to pursue after graduating, he was asked to go back to Mountain Ash as a teacher, covering for a colleague who had taken a sabbatical year. As it turned out, he liked – and excelled at – teaching and stayed-on. Posts followed at Weston Super Mare and then at two schools in Reading, where he rose to be a Head of Department and, shortly afterwards, Deputy Head Teacher. After six years in Reading, he returned to South Wales and, in 1980, was the Deputy Head Teacher at Whitchurch High School, the largest school in Wales at that time. He might have risen further in the profession had it not been for his trade union activism, his inability to tolerate dissembling and dissemblers, and his own outspokenness. School managers considered him a troublemaker as he was always there to advise a colleague who had been badly treated, while a former pupil recalled fondly his first encounter with his A-Level politics teacher who entered the classroom by banging open the door while sonorously chanting: “Maggie, Maggie, Maggie – Out! Out! Out!”           

Advancement and accolades meant little to him, when compared to union values and a vision of how liberating education could, and should, be. The first thing he had done upon returning to Mountain Ash, in 1970, was to join a union but he was, in his own words:

“amazed to discover that including ‘associations’ for headteachers, there were nine organisations a teacher could join. When I began to ask questions at union meetings concerning the multiplicity of unions, I was treated with scorn and told that my youthful fantasy would dissipate as I understood ‘the real world’”.

Well aware that multiple unions, often seeking to protect and project hierarchies based upon gender or class onto the profession, could – and in the 1980s, were – liable to be picked-off one-by-one by the government, he consistently campaigned for the creation of a single teaching union. To this end, he stood against Nigel de Gruchy for the position of general secretary of the NASUWT, taking a third of the vote on an avowedly left-wing programme. In 1996, he played a vital part in creating and building ‘Professional Unity’, which would later become the Unify campaigning group. His contribution was recognised at the merger congress of the ATL and NUT unions, in 2016, and he was an Honorary President of Unify, a position that he held until the time of his death.

If there was a march to be on, or a local cause to be championed, it was likely that he would be there. He was at the Grunwick Picket lines in June and July 1977, and was active in raising funds and generating support for the miners’ cause during the great strike of 1984-85. Having joined the CPGB at the start of the 1970s, he became increasingly active during his time in Reading attending, with his young family, the annual May Day marches held in the town and the seminal ‘Alternative Silver Jubilee’ celebrations organised by the Moring Star at Crystal Palace, in 1977.

As the CPGB tore itself apart through internal feuds and self-inflicted wounds, in the mid-1980s, Brian was one of those who felt that he had not so much left the party, as that the party had left him. He did not forgive or forget, the treatment of his friend and comrade Bob Jones, who faced expulsion from the party at the hands of a kangaroo court. However, he avoided sectarianism and always preferred to abstain from involvement in the various internecine power struggles inherent in the Left.

Like Bob, he found his natural home in the re-established CPB, of which he was a foundation member in April 1987. He was, for many years, the Chair of the Pontypridd Branch of the CPB, a member of the party’s Welsh Committee, serving as its treasurer, and the chair of the local Morning Star Readers’ and Supporters’ Group. A keen analyst of election results and statistics, he acted as the election agent for Communist candidates in both local and national elections.

Naturally convivial, he was the heart and soul of Communist Party socials and of the annual Morning Star trip to the Fete de l’ Humanite in Paris. He relished Parisian café culture and loved the ambiance and camaraderie of the festival organised by the Star’s sister paper. All roads would lead to the Le Mans tent, on Saturday afternoon, where he would meet up with Andre – an old resistance fighter and member of the PCF – who he had befriended and who was soon known to the entire Star delegation. Those trips were – for all those who participated in them – wonderful excursions into hope that saw the forging of comradeships with people from many different lands based upon a politics of the heart as well as the head. Brian was at the centre of that process: a larger than life, charismatic, figure who never preached but who nonetheless held deeply felt convictions and possessed the keenest sense of the need to organise and fight for social and economic justice. 

Alongside politics, sport was his other great and abiding interest, and he was a firm follower of Somerset County Cricket Club and Cardiff Harlequins Rugby Club. He died doing what he loved, and the end came, swiftly and unexpectedly, beside athletics track in Barry, where he had been time-keeping for an event. He leaves behind him his wife, Jan, children, Kathryn and Dai, and granddaughter, Mollie: who benefitted from Brian’s expert tutoring during lockdown and, as with all the family, from his lasting care and love. His funeral, today, will feature a Humanist celebration of his life as befitted his beliefs and long-standing service as Secretary of the Cardiff Humanist Society.

His life and legacy suggest that the politics of the Left is best served through persuasion rather than force and delivered with good sense and humour as opposed to through the dull reiteration of dogma.  A man of complete principle, Brian Williams – sportsman, orator, communist, trade unionist, teacher and devoted family man – leaves this world a far kinder, more generous, and better place than he found it. Few could ask for more. 

John Callow