Matt Lygate was born on 26/12/1938 in Govan Glasgow. From early on, he became an accomplished artist, orator, and thinker. He always loved the great outdoors and would often dissapear for hours up hills and down gullies to the distress of his parents. As a teenager, he moved to Sunderland with his family and became one of the best renouned tailor’s cutters of his time. Matt loved his family and family life, however when ordered to join the British Army (forced conscription was still in place at that point, even after the war), Matt, like his father during WWI, refused stating he would never join an imperialist British Army. That same week, he was on a boat to New Zealand before the powers that be could abscond him. Matt had been an avid member of the British Communist Party as well as a devout Christian, believing that Christ himself was a revolutionary socialist.
Once in New Zealand, Matt’s fervour and passion for justice as well as adventure blossomed. In his years on the islands of New Zealand, he travelled from village to village without map or tent, taking on local hard labour jobs as he went. He was institutional in the setting up of the first railway worker’s union and fought for the rights of the Maori people across the island. His travels took him from the heights of the Alps, picking deadly weeds in the snow, to the fields of grain where he worked along side many of the industrious indiginous people of the island. On leaving New Zealand to return to his family, the New Zealand secret service met him at the docs to make Matt aware he would not be allowed back any time soon. Such was the impact Matt left everywhere he went. Many took inspiration from his great work and polemics on justice, liberty and equality, others saw him as a grave threat to the established order. Matt excelled at and loved playing both the saint and the sinner in the eyes of different beholders. He was never one for cult status. He always insisted people judge him on what he said and not who he is.
On return from New Zealand, Matt’s political and social work continued. He became heavily involved and a leading figure in the Scottish and Irish republican and socialist movements. He was a leading founder of the Workers Party of Scotland which was a Marxist-Leninist Republican party advocating the establishment of a Scottish socialist republic in the same tradition of John Maclean’s vision. He was also instrumental in the establishment of the John Maclean Society which did much work to reserect the memory and life’s work of Maclean. He believed in the emancipation of mankind worldwide. He was a true internationalist, involved in the struggle for Irish and Palestinian independence, meeting many world figures over his time. In fact when nominated years later for Glasgow University Rector, he stood down to allow votes for Yassar Arafat. Over his time he has been nominated and rejected two honourary degrees from both Glasgow and Edinburgh University. He rejected them on the political grounds that they might corrupt him and remove him from his working class route, but in truth it was also because Matt was a brutally modest man and shunned any idolisation or cult status.
In 1972, Matt and 4 others were convicted of bank robbery and handed out the longest sentences in Scottish legal history for non murder crimes. During the case, Matt dismissed his defence team and represented himself. Knowing the fact he was to be tryed, not on bank robbery, but his politics, he used the court rather than to defend himself, but to attack the very system he knew aimed to destroy him. In his closing statment, he told the judge it was not his violence that had brought him to court, but that of the state against the working class. The same violence that had put 150,000 people out of work at the time in Scotland and stolen children’s milk leading to the return of Rickets in Scotland. He announced that the day would come when those who judged him would themselves be judged, an announcement that Lord Dunpark did not take too kindly too. On announcement of his 24 year sentence, Matt looked to the public gallery and with clenched fist shouted “Long live the workers of Scotland” and with that began the longest bank robbery sentence in Scottish history. Although the judge himself admitted the crimes to be political and although it was proven in court, none of the alleged stolen funds went to Matt, he was not allowed political prisoner status. He was also denied appeal, a basic right in Scots law based on the statement by the presiding Judge that Matt openly supported bank robbery and so did not require appeal. A political belief in the redistribution of money in s capitalist society did not account to acceptance of guilt of specific robberies, yet the judge refused to accept this and Matt was denied appeal against his unequivically long sentence.
Once in prison, Matt’s work against injustice continued and as ever, he remained a thorn in the establishment’s side. On issue of a boiler suit and ID number for instance, Matt refused both. The suit did not fit nor did the shoes. He was told to like it or lump it and lump it he did, choosing to spend his first experiences in prison in solitary confinement naked and on hunger strike. Matt’s flare for art and creativity never dulled at any point in his life. Many of the prison inmates were illiterate and Matt spent much of his time actively teaching some of Glasgow’s most hardened criminals to read, write and paint.
He would often write poems and paint minature Burns portraits and the likes for other inmates girlfriends and mothers, so much so that he was called to the Governor’s office in Peterhead and told “You’ve outgrown this place”. By this point much of the mail leaving Peterhead had Matt’s imprint directly or indirectly. Matt seen this as an opportunity to address the hypocricy of a system that refused to help and educate those in need and instead punish those who tried to do so. Matt was eventually moved round from prison to prison, however not before forcing the governor to introduce reading, writing and art classes for Class A prisoners in Peterhead for the first time ever. He set up organisations to protect the rights of prisoners and object to the antiquated Victorian style prison systems where ‘slopping out’ and three to a cell were still common place. Despite often spending much of his sentence in solitary confinement, under constant light (even through the night which is a documented form of torture) and regular movings, Matt never capitulated or lost his passion for his beliefs. If anything, Matt only ever became stronger in the face of adversity. After 8 years behind bars, Matt was offered his first parole hearing. Matt’s response was unique in denying his opportunity for parole. In a letter of explanation to the hearing, he demonstrated his view that the parole was a sham and had no intent of releasing him yet. As such he chose to not waste his time in their presence and in doing so giving his family false hope that there was ever a chance of his release at that time. Matt knew the system and was never afraid to challenge it, even (and most often) at the expense of his liberty. He had a clean record his entire time in prison and yet was kept in Class A for 8 years, much of which in solitary confinement. One lawyer once commented publically on Matt’s case that he was given 8 years for robbery and 16 for his politics.
His fight against adversity and injustice continued further after his eventual release 12 years later. He reinstated the Workers Party of Scotland and began one of the biggest political movements Britain has ever seen. From humble beginnings, the anti-poll tax movement was born in Maryhill. Some of the earliest ‘non-payment of poll tax’ movements began when Matt and a friend tramped the entirety of Scotland, just like he had back in New Zealand. They knocked on people’s doors and explained what the poll tax was and how they could resist it. The movement picked up pace, however to begin with neither the Labour party nor the Communist party nor any of the left would support Matt. They all claimed the anti-poll tax to be a Scottish phenomenon and thought nothing of it. How wrong they were.
During this period, Matt met his first love who helped create the success that was the anti poll tax movement ran initially from their small Phoenix Press shop. After the success of the anti-poll tax movement, Matt began to move out of public life and became the family man, raising 3 happy children and looking after countless others. Matt the family man was just as passionate a man as Matt the political fighter. He raised his children open mindedly and lovingly but just as they flourished into their own lives, Matt himself was struck with the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. This however never for one day removed Matt’s ultimate passion for life, liberty and nature. Over the next 8 or so years, Matt’s short term memory slowly deteriorated, but his character remained the same as ever. He remained the firebrand optimist he ever was and every day was greeted with a smile and a laugh. Every leaf on every tree was just as beautiful and every moment just as fullfilling. Right up until Matt’s final moments on this earth, he never passed another human being without acknowledging them and offering comment on how beautiful a day it was. He never walked without noticing a new colour or pattern on a bush or flower he maybe had passed every day for years. He never lost his love of nature, walking and talking. He remained a thinker and philosopher of epic proportions. Even in the latter stages of his Dementia, he could still recite Burn’s quotes that could epitimise the feeling of a million words. He still loved his beloved books from the many book stores he had ran in his life, and his house was always adourned with many of the great artworks he and others had completed.
His life is a story of adversity, a fight against injustice and for the liberty and freedom of all men and women. His life is a story of love, of love for his fellow man, of every creature and living thing on earth, of his beloved partner Linda whom he shared so many of his adventures and loved so dearly, of his children who he passed so much of his wisdom and passion for life, for his beloved dog/s who saw him through to the end, sharing in his delight of nature and his epic walks, a story of love of all life itself. His life is a story of passion and adventure, adventures that spanned the globe, that influenced untold thousands, and whose ripples can still be felt today. His life is a story of hope, hope for humanity, of never ending optimism in the face of all adversity and seeming impossibilities. Hope that even in all our darkest hours, light, laughter and beauty can always be found. His life is a story of many lives, of many faces, of many chapters hardly even touched upon here.
His exit from this world in fittingly dramatic circumstances ends the final chapter in a life that touched so many, that changed so much and that even today, continues to inspire and motivate others. In that way his life lives on after a death that outlived the old enemies like the News of the World,a life that saw Scottish republicanism move from a fringe movement to the very centre of Scottish politics and watched over all of his children becoming the flourishing adults they are today.
In the end, Matt Lygate was never consumed by his disease. He died the “giant inside a small man’s body” he ever was. He died a fundamentally happy and independent man on his own two feet living by no one else’s but his own will. What more could any of us ask from the game of life and death ?