The British Gandhi

The Troublemaker: Michael Scott and his lonely struggle against injustice

Anne Yates and Lewis Che

The late David Astor, editor of the Observer from 1948 to 1975, said that he had known three truly heroic figures in his life. The first was Adam von Trott, who was hanged in 1944 for his part in a plot to assassinate Hitler. The second was George Orwell. The third was Reverend Michael Scott.

Today Scott is almost forgotten. Yet he was once a hero, almost a saint, not just to Astor but to millions of poor black and Asian people. His lifelong commitment to anti-colonialism and non-violent protest, combined with his indifference to material possessions and even fixed abodes, turned him into a sort of British Gandhi. He was profiled in Time magazine and the Observer, which compared him to Albert Schweitzer. He was the first white priest to fight racial oppression in South Africa, shortly before it was formalised as apartheid. He was jailed four times and deported from three countries, including post-colonial India. The white settlers in British-ruled Kenya sang hopefully of killing him on safari. ("Oh my God, look who we've shot/We've shot the Reverend Michael Scott.") He attended the independence celebrations of Ghana, Tanzania and Zambia, at the personal invitations of their first prime ministers.

It is hard now to imagine the extent to which Scott had to go out on a limb to launch his campaigns for racial justice. In the 1940s, the UN included only two independent black nations in the whole of Africa. Scott went to New York and took up the cause of the Hereros, a black tribe in South-West Africa, now Nami-bia. They had virtually nobody else to speak for them. The UN was supposed to resolve conflicts between big-league white countries; nobody thought colonialism was any of its business. It was largely thanks to Scott that South Africa never managed formally to annex its neighbour.

At that time, too, the churches, never mind western governments, expressed only mild disapproval of South Africa. Scott was more or less sacked from his position in the Johannesburg diocese and never again had a regular income, apart from a small annuity settled on him by Astor. Everything changed after those great radical priests Trevor Huddleston and Canon John Collins began to de-nounce and campaign.

But as Huddleston acknowledged - Scott and Collins detested each other - Scott "was ten years ahead of us in vision and achievement". Trace the road back from Nelson Mandela's release from prison in 1990 and you will find Scott and a handful of others at the beginning of it.

His life is not easy to capture and summarise. His campaigns, ranging from CND to the grievances of the Nagas, an Indian minority, were diffuse and unpredictable. He wrote books and pamphlets, but his writing was too convoluted to make them memorable. He had no talent for soundbites. He had still less for organisation. His genius was for inspiring others through personal commitment and example. For much of 1947, he lived illegally in Tobruk, a shanty town of awesome squalor outside Johannesburg. He was the solitary white person in an area which even armed police rarely entered. Later, when the South African government frustrated his attempts to hold meetings with the Hereros, he camped for months in a dry riverbed near Windhoek, the South-West Africa capital. Oliver Lyttelton, Tory colonial secretary in the early 1950s, probably summed him up best. "Ah," he would say, as Scott walked into his office, "here's my conscience."

The late Anne Yates and Lewis Chester have done a magnificent job in charting this extraordinary life. The task defeated one would-be biographer, who gave up after three painstaking years. The struggle was to grasp Scott's elusive and strangely obsessive personality. This man of Christian faith was a communist agent (without actually joining the party) in India in the 1930s. Though he defined his life by Christian principles, and never renounced the clerical collar, he confessed that his was a religion of doubt. Most curious, at least to late 20th-century eyes, was his apparent lifelong chastity, which survived two long romances (leading, in one case, to cohabitation) with attractive women who clearly loved him. Sex, in his own words, was "an object . . . of fear and perverted preoccupation". He was once charged with indecent exposure in Oxford, an episode that would have finished him as a public campaigner but was skilfully hushed up by his close friend Astor. To the end of his life, Astor, though he commissioned and largely financed this biography, was reluctant to have Scott's full story published.

Yates and Chester suggest the repeated abuse he suffered at prep school from an outwardly devout, God-fearing headmaster can explain not only his scrambled sexual responses but also his dedication to fighting oppression. Maybe, maybe not. Scott's shambolically agonised liberalism wasn't unusual among Britons of his generation; his was just an extreme example. He lived long enough - he died aged 76 in 1983 - to have his beliefs assailed by new doubts as Africa's liberated nations themselves turned into tyrannies. Asked to sum up his own life, he would probably have quoted T S Eliot: "For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business."