Sidney Wilfred Scott was born in Ifield, Sussex, England, on 20 July 1900, the son of Walter Joseph Scott, a grocery manager, and his wife, Minnie Florence Church. In 1910 the family emigrated to New Zealand, settling in Onehunga, Auckland, where Walter again worked as a grocer. Walter and Minnie Scott were Methodists and Sid was a regular attender at church, Sunday school and Bible class until he was 19, although at 11 he became a Presbyterian.
He did not attend secondary school, but was a voracious reader from a young age. Between leaving school and about 1930 he had a series of jobs – in a solicitor’s office, and as a carpentry apprentice, a casual farm worker, a waterside labourer and a file clerk with the New Zealand Herald – none of which he was particularly committed to. Instead, his early passions included physical culture (especially running) and vegetarianism, which he practised between the ages of 17 and 25. He also attended night classes to gain his matriculation. From 1927 he studied part time at Auckland University College and in 1932 graduated with a diploma of social science.
Scott also became intensely interested in politics. After joining the New Zealand Labour Party in 1917, he dabbled with various socialist ideologies before becoming a founder member of the Auckland branch of the Communist Party of New Zealand (CPNZ) during 1921. Around the same time he met Helen Jane Hartwell, known as Nellie, at an Auckland socialist Sunday school. The couple were married in a civil ceremony in Auckland on 21 October 1924.
Although Nellie joined the Communist Party, she was not a prominent member until she was sent to Moscow in 1930 to study for nearly a year at the Lenin School for communist leaders. On her return she wrote a pamphlet on her experiences and toured the country promoting the newly established New Zealand Section of the Friends of the Soviet Union. For a short time she was a member of the CPNZ national executive, with a special responsibility for women; but due to ill health during 1932 she largely withdrew from political work, although remaining a member of the party.
From around 1930 Sid Scott devoted most of his energy to political work: he did not have a regular income for several years and later described himself as a professional revolutionary without pay. He was particularly active in the Unemployed Workers’ Movement and its Anti-Eviction Committee, and he was the founding secretary of the Friends of the Soviet Union. In 1934 he was the main organiser of a free speech campaign seeking to regain the right to engage in soap-box politics, which had been curtailed by the Auckland City Council following the disturbances in Queen Street in 1932. At a street meeting in July 1934 he was arrested with six others for defying the council’s by-law, inciting disorder and obstructing the police; he served a week in gaol. He had suffered bouts of ill health throughout his life and during his time in prison fell seriously ill with eye problems that caused extensive loss of vision in his left eye.
Scott became prominent nationally within the CPNZ at the end of 1935. After joining the national executive late in 1936, he moved to Wellington, where the party headquarters was based. In early 1937 he became a paid employee of the party and took over the editorship of the Workers’ Weekly, the party newspaper. During this period he was a strong advocate of a conciliatory approach to the Labour Party and the building of a united front against fascism. In addition to his newspaper work, he was a prolific pamphleteer and, along with Gordon Watson, was the major force in developing CPNZ policy.
Scott and his family moved back to Auckland in 1938 when the CPNZ headquarters was shifted there. However, deteriorating health, particularly failing eyesight, became an increasing problem and the party helped him seek specialist treatment in London and Moscow. With Nellie and their daughter, he left Auckland in early 1939, spending several months in London before going to Moscow in August. While there he engaged in political work and had discussions with the leadership of the Communist International. After their return, in late 1940, Nellie wrote another pamphlet about her time in Russia and Sid threw himself back into intensive work for the CPNZ.
Attempts to cure his eyesight were a failure and by the end of 1942 Scott was totally blind, a consequence of glaucoma. Despite this impairment he continued as one of the major players in the New Zealand communist movement. From 1943 he was editor of the People’s Voice and the New Zealand Labour Review, relinquishing the editorship of the former in 1949 when he became general secretary of the party. He edited the New Zealand Labour Review until 1956. Scott learnt Braille and touch-typing, which helped him with his work, but he was very reliant on his capable secretary, Bessie Dini, who worked with him for a decade. From 1952 he relied almost entirely on Nellie as his unpaid secretary, a role she had also played in 1937–38 when he was suffering from eye problems and fibrositis.
Throughout the 1950s Scott found himself increasingly out of step with the views of the rest of CPNZ leadership who were becoming more and more influenced by a Marxism filtered through the lens of the Communist Party of China. He gave up the secretaryship of the party in 1951, and although remaining a member of the top echelon of the party leadership took a less prominent role. During 1956 he became openly critical of central tenets of communist theory and of the CPNZ leadership, taking his lead from Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalinism in February that year. Scott believed there was an opportunity to build a more democratic form of socialism and to establish a peaceful co-existence between capitalism and socialism. The Soviet Union’s invasion of Hungary in October 1956 was for him the last straw: he publicly denounced the Soviet action and as a result his party membership was suspended. In January 1957 he resigned from the party, attacking it as irrevocably lost to Stalinism: the party responded by formally expelling him. Nellie Scott also resigned at this time.
In early 1957 a group of dissidents, who had also recently left the party, hoped Scott would assist in building a new and more democratic left in New Zealand. However, while Scott spent the next few years vigorously attacking the Communist Party – in radio talks, pamphlets and his autobiography, published in 1960 – he played no part in developing an alternative movement.
Sid Scott died in Auckland on 17 September 1970, survived by Nellie and their daughter. His last years had been spent in proselytising against the communist movement, in part as a mechanism for finding a private reconciliation with his own past. He continued to write, dabbling with fiction, but without great conviction or success. More significantly, he rediscovered his Christian faith and became a member of the Wesley Methodist Church in Mount Albert. Nellie Scott also joined the church and became a more active member after Sid’s death, managing the Methodist market during the late 1970s.