Obituary: Jimmy Reid
Jimmy Reid, who passed away at the Inverclyde Hospital in Greenock on the night of Tuesday, 10 August, aged 78, was a remarkable working-class leader with a variety of interests and talents. He was a Clydesider, a shipbuilder, a trade unionist, a fiery speaker, a self-taught intellectual, a loving family man, a knowledgeable lover of jazz and a fan of Scotland’s football team. Above all, he was someone who understood that there was more to life than making profits for shareholders. Indeed, he was one of a special breed of working-class fighters.
Born in Govan, son of a shipyard worker father, he left school at 14. After a brief stint at a stockbroker’s office, he served an apprenticeship as a fitter at Polar Engines.
He joined the League of Labour Youth, but soon gravitated towards the Communist Party, at the time a powerful force in industrial Scotland, joining the Young Communist League in 1950. In 1952 he helped lead the strike by Clydeside engineering apprentices for a living wage, becoming chairman of the strike committee. In 1956, he moved to London as one of the YCL’s full-time organisers and, in 1959, became its General Secretary. In 1966, he returned to his native Scotland to become the Scottish secretary of the Communist Party.
In 1969, he returned to his trade in the Govan Division of UCS (Upper Clyde Shipbuilders), moving soon after to John Brown in Clydebank.
He rose to national and international fame during the 1971-72 15-month long sit-in at UCS. To Edward Heath’s Conservative government, which came into office in June 1970, the only thing that mattered about UCS, a collection of five semi-nationalised shipyards – John Brown, Charles Connell, Fairfield, Alexander Stephen and Yarrow – was that they were loss making. These “lame ducks” had to be closed down as they had debts of £28 million. With this in mind, the government withdrew trade credits, pushing them into administration, with 6,000 jobs scheduled to be lost within three months.
Jimmy Reid and his comrades, Jimmy Airlie and Sammy Barr – all Communist Party stalwarts – refused to accept the outcome. Under their leadership, the co-ordinating committee of joint shop stewards galvanised the workers to resist the closures, which they went on to accomplish with spectacular success. They had a plan – to organise a sit-in rather than a strike, emphasising the workers’ right to work rather than the right not to be made redundant under this scheme. The workers would prove that they could build fine ships and demonstrate that their yards had a future.
Reid’s speech announcing the work-in, broadcast around the world, was a memorable event by all accounts. He addressed his fellow workers thus:
“We are taking over the yards because we refuse to accept that faceless men can make these decisions.
“We are not going on strike. We are not even having a sit-in strike.
“Nobody and nothing will come in and nothing will go out without our permission.
“And there will be no hooliganism, there will be no vandalism, there will be no bevvying, because the world is watching us”.
The men rallied around this call, working for nearly 15 long months as Glasgow swung into their support. Children held fundraising street corner sales, poor pensioners donated from their meagre funds and thousands marched to Glasgow Green to show their support.
The leadership of the shop stewards managed not simply to keep the workforce at the yards united, but also successfully built a wider alliance, in which the Scottish Trade Union Congress and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities were closely involved. In this way, the question of the jobs of shipyard workers was transformed into a wider struggle which helped mobilise the entire British trade union movement. Two one-day strikes paralysed industry across Scotland and in the succeeding 12 months about 200 other occupations to stop redundancies occurred throughout Britain.
Jimmy Reid played an inspiring role throughout the long work-in. He electrified his audiences, as well as the wider world, when he told the UCS workers in 1971 as they began the long fight to save their jobs: “We don’t only build ships on the Clyde. We build men”.
As the work-in progressed, while the support for the UCS workers swelled, the popularity of the Heath government hit rock bottom. The resolve of the UCS workers, and the popular support that their struggle garnered, obliged even the TUC and the Labour Party to associate themselves with the “unofficial” action of the UCS workforce – an action which they had previously condemned as “illegal”.
In the end, in October 1972, the Conservative government caved in, being forced to announce £35 million in support of the very yards it had condemned as lame ducks. Within three years, ship building on the Upper Clyde had received £101 million in public grants and credits. This was Jimmy’s finest hour. The boy from Govan had spearheaded a struggle which bloodied the nose of the establishment.
The workers’ victory at UCS was no accident. It happened because the leadership of this struggle was in the hands of people who were communists, who as such had a clear understanding of the basic interests of the two hostile camps – the working class and the bourgeoisie – and were able, while uniting the workers, to take advantage of the contradictions in the camp of the ruling class and its agents within the working class.
The fact that Jimmy Reid was a prominent communist, instead of detracting from his leadership, only served to reinforce his charisma and intellectual integrity as a man of principle.
In the wake of the UCS struggle, Jimmy Reid was elected to the rectorship of Glasgow University in a contest in which he defeated the Tory MP Teddy Taylor and Margaret Herbison of Labour. Following his elevation to rectorship, he made his greatest speech, which even the New York Times thought fit to publish in full. Asking the students to reject individualism and greed and always keep in mind their common humanity, he addressed them with the following stirring words:
“A rat race is for rats. We’re not rats. We’re human beings.
“Reject the insidious pressures in society that would blunt your critical faculties to all that is happening around you, that would caution silence in the face of injustice, lest you jeopardise your chances of self-promotion and self-advancement.
“This is how it starts. And before you know where you are, you are a fully paid-up member of the rat pack.
“The price is too high. It entails the loss of your dignity and human spirit.
“Or as Christ puts it, ‘What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?’”
He went on in the same speech to declare: “From the very depth of my being, I challenge the right of any man or group of men, in business or in government, to tell a fellow human being that he or she is expendable”.
Being already a Communist councillor in Clydebank, Reid fought the Dunbartonshire Central seat in the 1974 General Election for the Communist Party, polling an impressive 5,928 votes but losing all the same. Conceding defeat, he made a spirited speech denouncing his Labour opponents as Falangists [Franco’s fascists during the Spanish Civil War].
Then began the downhill march that sadly this fiery working-class fighter was destined to traverse.
In 1976 he caused a sensation by quitting the Communist Party. In 1979 he joined the Labour Party – the same pack of Flangists that he had denounced in February 1974 – and contested Dundee East for Labour, but losing to the SNP (Scottish National Party) leader Gordon Wilson.
From 1983, he became close to the windbag and scab Neil Kinnock, the then-leader of the Labour Party. He went on to write columns for various bourgeois newspapers, including that crook Robert Maxwell’s Mirror and the union-bashing Rupert Murdock’s scandal sheet, The Sun. In 1984, he produced documentaries about the Soviet Union, which, as they were critical of the USSR, naturally won the BAFTA award. He bitterly criticised the heroic NUM coal strike of 1984-85, making a special target of the NUM leader, Arthur Scargill. Not without reason did Mick McGahey, the vice-president of the Scottish coalminers, and a prominent leader of the Communist Party, characterise him as “Broken Reid”.
In the 1990s, he became critical of Blair and the Iraq war. In 2005, he joined the SNP.
It is a measure of the demoralisation and degeneration that the working-class movement went through under the combined onslaught of Khruschevite revisionism, the hold of counter-revolutionary social democracy and the suffocating and reactionary conditions wrought by finance capital in the centres of imperialism, that a fine working-class fighter such as Jimmy Reid could end up effectively collaborating with the very class that he had fought so hard against earlier on, that he ended up succumbing to the very “insidious pressures in society” against which he had so eloquently warned the students in his rectorial lecture.
Proletarian revolutionaries can, and must, learn from Jimmy Reid’s positive and negative example. While emulating and honouring this remarkable man for his earlier contribution to the upliftment of the working class, they must reject his subsequent renegacy and stand firm on the ground of Marxism-Leninism.