Many and various have been the tributes to Jimmy Reid, hero of the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders work-in in 1971. The occupation was a success, the yards saved, but politically it was downhill all the way from then on for Scotland’s favourite communist. I don’t mean that to sound negative or unsympathetic: Jimmy had a great life and was much loved by friend and foe alike. He became a national institution: successful journalist, university rector and genuine working class hero. Latterly, like many on the Scottish left, he gravitated toward nationalism, became an influential voice in the home rule movement and ultimately joined the SNP. So, no tears necessary, and he wouldn’t want them. He’d want us to reflect instead on the history and politics of his times. But it’s not a comfortable history for the Left.
It may be a cliché to pronounce the ‘end of an era’ when a well-known figure dies, but in Jimmy’s case it really is. The era that has ended is the one in which a socialist transformation of Scottish society seemed possible, inevitable even. The kind of Scotland Jimmy Reid fought for: an industrial democracy under workers control through state ownership of the means of production never happened. We can now see, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, that it was never going to happen – indeed, that it would arguably have been a disaster if it had. That doesn’t mean that the eternal fight for social justice is over, or that his brilliant oratory was just a waste of breath. But events just didn’t turn out as planned by socialists of his generation. Capitalism didn’t collapse; it just changed the rules.
To the Jimmy Reid of 1971, with the sideburns and the warnings about “bevvying”, the Scotland of today would be unrecognisable. Back then, home ownership here was at Eastern European levels – now Scotland is overwhelmingly a “property owning democracy” as Margaret Thatcher styled it. Scotland ceased to be an industrial nation in the 1980s, following two savage recessions which left the industrial communities of West Central Scotland in a state of devastation from which they have yet to recover. Trades union membership, outside the public sector, declined dramatically as the working class lost faith in industrial and political struggle, and as economic change destroyed the demand for skilled manufacturing workers. Working class culture became infantilised by consumerism, then addled by cynicism, drink and drug abuse. The collapse of industrial Scotland been a slow motion tragedy that must have been heartbreaking for Reid, who retained a Marxist perspective long after he left the Communist Party of Great Britain.
It certainly knocked the life out of the Left. In the last forty years we have seen Marxist and other progressive modes of thinking about society atrophy and ultimately became politically irrelevant. Today, facing the deepest cuts in public spending in modern history and with a brutal assault on the living standards of pensioners, the unemployed and the low paid, there is practically no coherent challenge from the Left. We’ve just been through the worst capitalist crisis in eighty years and yet it’s business as usual with bankers’ bonuses larger than ever. Even the public anger has faded. The only thing that seems to be motivating political Scotland right now is fiscal autonomy – a worthwhile enough ambition, but hardly a manifesto for new stage of humanity.
Yet back in 1971, nothing seemed impossible as the Clyde-built men took on the Conservative government of Edward Heath and ran their own yard in their own way. To many, including young Gordon Brown in his “Red Paper on Scotland” days, this workers control of industry seemed to the the future. Working people would increasingly take charge of their own destiny and manage the industrial system in the interest of all. The workers of Upper Clyde were fiercely high minded and hard working; their leaders self educated intellectuals who were demonstrably more able than the useless public school types who ran British industry in those days. They would overcome the capitalist “alienation” that Jimmy Reid condemned in his celebrated Glasgow University rectorial address in 1972 and become ‘whole’ again. This was not just an industrial movement; it was a secular religion and he was the prophet.
It seemed as if this was the way history was going – it just needed a shove by charismatic individuals like Jimmy Reid. But instead of a new socialist Jerusalem, history went backwards and forty years on Scotland is more privatised and market-oriented than at any time since the Second World War. Meanwhile communism has long been consigned to the dustbin of history. We’re all business-friendly now, and no one seriously thinks any longer that the state can replace the market as the driving force of a consumer economy. The most dynamic force in Scottish politics today is nationalism, or neo-nationalism as Jimmy might have preferred to call it. The politics of identity has triumphed over the politics of class. And all in the space of one short lifetime. Perhaps the greatest irony of all is that, forty years on from UCS, the most dynamic sector of the Scottish economy is not shipbuilding but financial services. Who would have thought it: proud socialist Scotland turned into servants of mammon, agents of finance capital. Well, you win some you lose some.
But was the naive romanticism of socialists like Jimmy Reid partly responsible for Scotland’s economic and social decline? Did socialist prophets like him foster unrealistic ambitions among working people which led them to economic and social disaster? Had it not been for industrial militancy, might Scotland have evolved more like Germany into a sophisticated high-value manufacturing nation? No – I don’t think you can lay the blame for Scotland’s industrial clearances to militant trades unionists. They were only doing their job. It was a combination of Scotland’s subordinate status within the Union, coupled with the pigheaded and Anglo-centric monetarism of Margaret Thatcher’s governments that destroyed industrial Scotland. No need to blame the victims.
But you can’t remake the past. Jimmy Reid’s life and his progression from communism through Labour Party reformism and ultimately towards nationalism, tracked Scotland’s own political journey. The nation has gone from economic romanticism to a realisation that taking responsibility for your own affairs is a precondition for making any dreams work. Jimmy Reid was an essential part of that history Farewell, comrade.