Jimmy Reid died in hospital last weekend after suffering a brain haemorrhage. He was the best known member the British Communist Party ever had.
As the spokesperson for the shop stewards at Upper Clyde Shipbuilders (UCS) during their fight for “the right to work” in 1971-2, he earned the respect and admiration of many thousands of workers.
He also became a familiar and – from a working class standpoint – a popular face on television during the UCS campaign. Jimmy was articulate, charismatic and funny.
He was elected Rector of Glasgow University by its students in a fierce contest during the UCS work-in. His memorable election speech described the rat race as being for rats, not human beings. It caught the mood and was printed in full in the New York Times, which hailed it as “one of the greatest speeches since Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address”.
At the time of the work-in Reid was also a Communist councillor in Clydebank, campaigning against the Tory attacks on council housing
Born in Govan in the hungry 1930s, Jimmy was a product of the Clydeside working class movement. The way he joined the Communist Party – politicised as a youth and finding that the leading militants in the factory were all Communists – was an experience shared by many young socialists on Clydeside at the time.
In his twenties he was appointed national organiser of the Young Communist League (YCL) and was soon on familiar terms with what he described in his autobiography as “the Stalinist old guard of the CP” – people like Willie Gallacher, Harry Pollitt, and JR Campbell. As a youngster he became friendly with Arthur Scargill, another leading light in the YCL.
Labour lost the 1970 election and the Tories’ strategy was best summed up in their catchphrase “no lame ducks”. Like David Cameron today, Tory prime minister Ted Heath’s cabinet was far to the right of any government since the 1930s.
It set out to crush workers’ living standards by a combination of rising unemployment, tough wage controls and savage anti-union laws.
At first the Tories were successful and in June 1971, despite a huge demonstration on Clydeside, they felt bold enough to butcher UCS by closing most of the yards and sacking two thirds of its workforce. Another 30,000 ancillary jobs were put at risk
When the UCS shop stewards took control of the yards in July, they were the first group of workers to defy the new Tory anti-union laws. Demanding the right to work – and not just in words but in deeds – they signalled that redundancy was neither inevitable nor acceptable.
Some 1,200 West of Scotland shop stewards met and called a one day strike and demonstration in solidarity with the work-in. In response 200,000 Scottish workers struck and 80,000 marched to Glasgow Green – Clydeside’s biggest demonstration since the 1926 General Strike.
In a rousing speech Reid told the demonstration, “We are not going to be led like lambs to the slaughter. This is the breaking point for Scottish workers. We have taken over the yards because we refuse to accept that faceless men can make these decisions. We are witnessing an eruption here today – not of lava but of labour. And unless Heath takes heed this eruption will engulf him and sweep him into political oblivion.”
Under Reid’s direction the stewards opted for a work-in rather than a sit-in, which meant cooperating with the official receiver to finish the ships under construction. Concerned primarily with winning public opinion, the work-in was conceived and conducted as a Scottish popular front and not as a confrontation with government.
Despite these limitations, it raised the hopes of thousands of militants and became a symbol for all those who wanted rid of the Tories. It won massive support and inspired hundreds of other workplace occupations across Britain. This rising struggle and the miners’ strike of 1972 shattered Tory morale.
The work-in ended 15 months after it started. Unnecessary concessions were made on demarcation and only some of the yards were kept open with a reduced workforce. But, under attack on all fronts, the Tories had been forced into a humiliating U-turn at UCS. As Reid pointed out, “If we are lame ducks, Heath’s a dead duck.”
Jimmy stood for the Communist Party in the February 1974 general election, but despite polling a decent vote he could not unseat the Labour MP – partly because he was denounced as a communist at every local Catholic mass during the election campaign.
The CP increasingly stressed an orientation on the Labour Party and Jimmy took this to its logical conclusion and joined the party. He stood for Labour as MP in Dundee East in 1979, losing to then SNP leader Gordon Wilson.
In the 1980s Jimmy moved further to the right. He backed Labour leader Neil Kinnock’s “new realism”, broke with his old comrades Arthur Scargill and Mick McGahey, and ended up on the wrong side of the miners’ strike. His low point was writing a regular column in Rupert Murdoch’s Sun.
But he could never stomach Tony Blair’s New Labour and concluded that the Labour Party was finished. Finally he moved to Alex Salmond’s Scottish National Party (SNP).
Since the 1930s the CP has accommodated to Scottish nationalism. During the work-in the shop stewards and the Scottish TUC courted the SNP as part of its popular front approach – an all-Scottish alliance to save the yards.
Of all the mainstream political parties, it was the SNP who benefited from the UCS campaign, winning Govan from Labour in 1974.
Today Jimmy Reid is best remembered as the spokesman of a struggle that asserted people should come before profit and that unemployment can be resisted.
UCS gave lie to the argument that globalisation means workers cannot fight to save jobs because production can be moved around the globe. The UCS work-in happened in an industry that had once been centred in places like Glasgow but which had spread across the world. The perceived wisdom was that low paid foreign labour meant that UCS had to close. The work-in kept it open and inspired others to resist.
Jimmy Reid’s funeral: Thursday 19 August, 1.30pm, Govan Old Parish Church, Govan Road, Glasgow.