Frontline Index





Remembering Jimmy Reid

Jimmy Reid was a figure of enormous prominence on the Scottish left for decades. He was the leader of the UCS work-in and a member of the Communist Party before joining Labour and ultimately the SNP. His criticisms of the NUM during the miners strike of 1984-85 led to many on the left distancing themselves from him but he continued to be a prominent commentator on Scottish and international politics up until his recent death. In this article Chik Collins remembers the life of Jimmy Reid.

At the recent 10th Anniversary reception and awards ceremony of the Institute of Contemporary Scotland (publisher of the Scottish Review), the late Jimmy Reid was remembered – for work he had done with the Institute’s Young Scotland Programme. Reid’s daughter, Eileen, spoke very movingly of her father, and of how he would be missed. She had spoken similarly on the day of Reid’s funeral, together with notables from the worlds of politics, sport, the media and entertainment – as well as some of Reid’s greatest friends. All of this was as expected, and as it should have been.

Around the time of the funeral, there was a flood of tributes in the media. Here things were not quite as might have been expected. The tributes highlighted Reid’s role as a leading shop steward in the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders work–in of 1971-72, and a fair few emphasized the key significance of his great facility with language (some of which Eileen has clearly inherited) to its success. Yet few commentators, if any, seemed seriously inclined to draw out the contemporary relevance of the circumstances, and the skills, which saw Reid rise to prominence.

The Circumstances of Reid’s Prominence

The relevance in terms of the circumstances is maybe the more surprising omission. Reid’s prominence was predicated on the election of a right wing government which set out, with great bravado, to radically alter the political economy of the UK. This was the government of Edward Heath, elected in 1970, and committed to its neo-liberal Selsdon manifesto.

The overt ideological conviction of this government has often since been forgotten. Heath has been remembered as the prime minister who was – unlike the subsequent leader of the Conservative Party – ‘for turning’; as a kind of a ‘wet’, lacking in both ideological principle and political conviction.

Yet this is to remember what became of Heath: firstly as a result of the opposition which forced his u-turn; secondly as a result of the realignment within the Conservative Party, in which Nicholas Ridley’s ‘Selsdon Group’, formed in 1973, was to play a crucial role. Prior to all of that, Heath’s government was perceived, and acted, very differently.

Indeed, while many see the early period of the Thatcher government as the key comparison for the current Con-Dem coalition, a case could be made for the comparison with 1970-72 being at least as – if not more – apt. As John Gray has observed, for all Thatcher’s ideological conviction and confrontational style, she was ultimately a political pragmatist and a proponent of statecraft. Her correspondence with a disconcerted Friederich von Hayek reveals this clearly – she was, certainly in the early 1980s, no neo-liberal ‘impossible-ist’.

Cameron and Osborne, on the other hand, are intent on going boldly where Thatcher failed to go. And rather like Heath’s government, their excessive bravado is suggestive of a mission in which ideological zeal exceeds political pragmatism and calculation.

Most obviously, this is not a Conservative government – but a coalition with a partner which campaigned quite firmly against that which it is now implementing. Heath at least had a working parliamentary majority of his own. And while it is one thing for people to acquiesce in the thoroughly unconvincing conversion of the Lib Dems to so much of what they opposed, it will be another thing for them to continue to acquiesce as the real implications affect their lives.

Similarly, the government seems unaware of the likely implications of its actions for many of its own current supporters. Some may currently feel enthused by hyperbole about a new, pristine age of enterprise. They will soon begin to see that the cost of getting there could be rather high for them personally. The public sector cuts will have a huge impact on the private sector, and not even the CBI thinks that the latter will be able to respond, as the government suggests it will, to the task of job creation. Such new jobs as may be created will tend to have inferior terms and conditions. In short, many of those currently supporting the government will soon be able to envisage themselves squarely on the receiving end – taking their hides to market to receive, rather than administer, a hiding.

One could continue along these lines. The point is that Con-Demism is not at all a well-nailed down political project. The same might be said of Thatcherism, but by comparison the latter was rather longer in incubation, and led by rather more seasoned political operators. The latter also had oil revenues at their disposal. In this light, the comparison of our current context with Heath seems particularly useful, and this brings us back to the UCS work-in and to Jimmy Reid.

Heath’s U-Turn and Reid’s Language

The political vulnerability of Heath’s Selsdon project is a matter of historical record. By the spring of 1972, as the contemporary observer Andrew Roth put it, Heath had abandoned his proto-monetarism, “rediscovered Keynes, turned reflationist”, and reconceived the erstwhile “lame ducks” – in the semi-state industrial sector – as “golden geese”. This was the u-turn, and the UCS was central in creating the political context in which a government, which had not previously seemed to be lacking in conviction, and which certainly did not lack a working parliamentary majority, felt obliged to enact it. This has been acknowledged widely on the left (from John Foster and Charles Woolfson to Jim Phillips), but also on the right (from George Younger to Nicholas Ridley).

Foster and Woolfson’s The Politics of the UCS Work-In analyzes in great detail the part played by the UCS in precipitating Heath’s u-turn. In short, the grasp which those leading it had of the government’s political vulnerability allowed a light to be shone on the profound illegitimacy of Heath’s central priority. The City wanted further industrial consolidation and access to European markets through EEC membership, and the government was seeking to deliver that, not just at the expense of workers, but also at the expense of small and medium businesses and other middle strata. The work-in was used to highlight this day-in and day-out, so that it became the focal point for a coalition of social forces opposing the government. The recruitment of these non-working class strata in turn undermined and immobilised the political mechanisms (both in the labour movement and in the Conservative Party) that would ordinarily have been working to exert control.

And as Foster and Woolfson also indicate, vital to the construction and maintenance of this anti-government coalition, and so to the u-turn itself, was the adeptness shown by the likes of Jimmy Airlie and, particularly, Jimmy Reid with language. Had they not spoken as they did in defining what the work-in was about – human dignity, the right to work, responsibilities to communities – and, crucially, had they not framed as they did the responses to the various waves of attack launched against the work-in over its 14 month duration, then the outcome would almost certainly have been very different.

While stressing the contribution of these individuals, it is also vital to stress the collective dimension of the language they mobilised. The key terms were a matter of collective agreement. They had been tried and tested in collective discussions – sometimes quite fraught discussions – about strategy and tactics. Deploying the key terms in complex and changing circumstances remained a matter of collective agreement, but clearly required initiative and individual skill. Without the basis provided by the former, the latter would have been much less significant and effective.

In the wake of Reid’s death, two of his speeches tended to be highlighted: his 1972 Glasgow University Rectorial Address on Alienation, together with the speech he made in announcing the work-in – the “no bevvying” speech. Since these have received so much attention, here I would like to highlight another of his speeches – one which might even be seen to be more important.

The speech was made a couple of months into the work-in – on Friday the 24th of September 1971. At that point jobs were, in effect, being promised to 2,500 of the 8,500 UCS workers, but only if they would “co-operate” and “negotiate” with government.

The use of these terms was itself indicative of the success of the work-in. The government had given up on its harsher, neo-liberal-inspired rhetoric, and was using the terms of social democracy. The aim was to undermine the principled (or in the government’s terms, “dogmatic”) stand of the shop stewards leading the work-in, and to raise the standard of the orthodox, right-wing union leadership – in the person of Dan McGarvey of the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions. This would mean the abandonment of the work-in and “negotiations” over the detail of what the government had been seeking to secure all along – the immediate closure of two of the four UCS yards, with some 6,000 redundancies. Failing this, government ministers threatened, everything would be closed.

All the government needed was for the workers who would be amongst the ‘lucky ones’ to abandon their fellows. The work-in would be stone dead, and just about everyone – the government, the official union leaders, the media – believed that was about to happen.

A mass meeting was called where Reid responded by contrasting the government’s newly adopted caring public language of “co-operation to save what can be saved” and “making the best of a bad situation” with the brutal private language of its policy strategists. The latter had, since 1969, been planning specifically to “butcher” the UCS and to sell its assets “even for a pittance”. Reid peeled away the veneer of civilised politics to reveal the sneering disregard of a ruling elite for the ‘expendable’ lives of ordinary people.

“It’s like a murderer who wants to murder us”, declared Reid, “we’ve found out, we’ve defended ourselves against the murder and people say ‘please negotiate with the murderer, you might stop him from piercing your heart, but he can cut off your legs and arms and there’s a sensible compromise’. And when you’re lying bleeding they will tell you in a year or two, wi’ you minus the legs, why aren’t you standing on your own two feet?”

Thus was revealed the wild eyed hatchet-man lurking behind the government’s ostensibly caring public face, and the desire of the official union leadership to co-operate with him. You can do that if you like, Reid said to the relevant workers, and they promptly declined.

Without this speech, the work-in would most probably have collapsed that weekend. Heath would not have made his u-turn. Looking further forward, Margaret Thatcher would not have been “the lady” who was “not for turning”. Reid’s facility with language changed the course of events – history – and he became a celebrated figure.

Remembering Jimmy Reid

Reid’s speeches were not spontaneous, off-the-cuff flights of rhetoric. One of the stewards, Bob Dickie, was later to reflect that Reid was “the type of person that could bring a phrase out of fresh air” and leave his listener feeling “why did I not think of that?” This is undoubtedly true. But another of the stewards, Jimmy Cloughley, has highlighted another aspect which, in this context, is even more significant:

“What [Reid’s] mother said to me was, ‘I used to think there were people in the bedroom with Jimmy’, but that wasn’t it, it was Jimmy, doing his writing and practising his speeches. So he honed his stuff, he worked at his stuff, he learned his trade”.

That trade involved seeking to find, elaborate and deploy to maximum effect the linguistic resources which could help in both highlighting and exploiting the clear points of political vulnerability in a not-very-well nailed down right wing government strategy. The skills of that trade are very badly needed in a context today which has clear parallels with that in which Reid rose to prominence – and this is perhaps the best reason, and the most useful way, for today’s left to remember Jimmy Reid.

Dr Chik Collins, senior lecturer in politics and sociology, University of the West of Scotland.


  1. John Gray, “Thatcher’s austerity programme was far less of a gamble than Osborne’s cuts”, The Guardian, 23rd October 2010
  2. This correspondence is discussed by Naomi Klein in The Shock Doctrine, London, Penguin, 2007, pp.131-132.
  3. Andrew Roth, Heath and The Heathmen, London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1972, p.16.
  4. John Foster and Charles Woolfson, The Politics of the UCS Work-In, London, Lawrence and Wishart, 1986; “How workers on the Clyde gained the capacity for class struggle: the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders work-in, 1971-72”, in J. McIlroy (Ed.), British Trade Unions and Industrial Politics, Volume 2: The High Tide Unionism, 1964-1979, Aldershot: Ashgate. Jim Phillips, The Industrial Politics of Devolution: Scotland in the 1960s and 1970s, Manchester University Press, 2008. Nicholas Ridley, “Final Report of the Policy Group on the Nationalised Industries”, London, The Conservative Research Department, 1977. For views of Younger, see interview material in Arnold Kemp, The Hollow Drum, Edinburgh, Mainstream, 1993