Reading this book is like skiing down a mountain. There’s the grand panoramas and promise of exhilaration ahead. It feels rewarding but as you approach the bottom the going gets tougher as the slope levels out, where the quality and depth of the snow diminish. The completion brings its own final flourish.
Gall’s biography starts by outlining his method and setting out the personal and political context through which Crow came to trade unionism and politics. This made the first few chapters the strongest.
Here Crow’s upbringing, his political allegiances and the environment in which he found himself are all amply illustrated, These events may have faded from memory but are critical to framing the climate within which Crow’s ascendency occurred, charting his progress up to and including his role as general secretary of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT).
There’s a great exploration of the structures that Crow inherited, the limitations they placed on him and what he did to change the situation, thereby encouraging the development of the RMT on the trajectory that it became renowned for. In doing so the real strength of the books lies in what Gall doesn’t say, but exposes for the reader. These are the limiting factors for any would-be left leader of a union in just how much can be achieved in that environment. It also serves to underline the achievements of Crow all the more for overcoming those obstacles.
The reader is treated to many of the colourful, entertaining and especially uncompromising quotes that Crow achieved notoriety for. On those merits alone, the book is well worth reading. That said, much of Gall’s material is drawn from the vast array of news articles and interviews. While underlining the fact that Crow was an outstanding class leader and an embodiment of hope and resistance in the face of a worthless Labour government, it is also perhaps the book’s weakness.
The limited material prevents Gall’s analysis from making any substantive comparisons between what is said in front of the cameras, what is rhetorical and what was actually being said and done behind closed doors. Or for that matter how they changed in response to changing circumstance.
Consequently Gall’s conclusions can seem a bit superficial, especially in the sections covering the struggles around austerity. There are also a couple of events described that would have benefitted from a little more research.