Eileen Reid recalls when class politics brought the eyes of the world to Scotland. The UCS work-in fight for employment, control and dignity speaks to modern Scotland where elites ignore social class. This article was first published by Scottish Review.
Friday 30 July was a significant date for two seemingly unconnected reasons. First, it was reported that Scotland retains its European title as the country with the highest per capita death rate due to drug overdose. These deaths occur almost exclusively in working-class communities characterised by both acute and chronic deprivation. Second, it was 50 years ago last week that a powerful, cohesive working-class community, characterised by mutual support and solidarity, declared its intention to take over shipyards on the upper Clyde which were condemned to closure despite several orders on the books.
In 1971, Jimmy Reid gave his speech to the UCS shipyard workers at Fairfield yard, Govan, to inform them that the shop stewards had reached the decision that they would take over the yards in a ‘work-in’. It was a unique moment in organised working-class history, usually accompanied in its telling with the famous words: ‘And there will be no hooliganism, there will be no vandalism, there will be no bevying…’. Immediately following this imperative, issued with a flash in his eyes of humour and understanding, he continued: ‘Because the world is watching and it is our responsibility to conduct ourselves responsibly and with dignity and maturity. The shop stewards representing the workers are in control of these yards. Nobody and nothing will come in and nothing will go out, without our permission’. It was an audacious, courageous, and strategic statement of intent by these trade-unionists to save thousands of jobs and a major industry.
‘But that was a long time ago’, we’re told; ‘we need to live in the present and think to the future’, we’re told. ‘Times have changed’, or so we’re told. Yet the world is now watching our wretched decline into one of the worst countries in the world for poverty-related drug addiction while at the same time claiming to be world leaders in progressive policies. Times have indeed changed.
Something of crucial significance has disappeared from our politics and culture. This was brought home to me at Jimmy’s (my dad’s) funeral 11 years ago: a funeral that didn’t just mourn the man, the friend, the comrade, but was a lament for a lost era. Emotions ran high not in self-pitying nostalgia, but for a time, a place, a community. An era of solidarity that is gone. So what was it about this unique struggle – nothing before or since can match it – that captured the imagination and spirit of an era?
Looking at the photos of the time, one magnificent shot stands out (see below, photographer unknown). A sea of upturned faces with bunnets, the shop stewards pacing what looks like a boxing ring, Jimmy talking. All men. Today, that would be a complaint. But in truth, women were heavily involved in that struggle. They may not be present in a world of appearances, which these days matter, but they were there alright. My mum, Isobel Dickie, Ann Airlie, my grandma and countless others were working-class feminists yet would never call themselves such. They were strong women with agency, whose priority – same as the men – was economic and political equality. Their struggle was for the working class, of the working class, and by the working class. Fighting for social justice was a luxury, but a luxury that would eventually flow, they thought, from the eradication of socio-economic equality.
A strategic struggle, the UCS work-in was led by intelligent, thoughtful men and women. They realised early on that to win they had to build support from all walks of life, and they did. Across political parties, religions, families from all classes rich and poor, the solidarity was truly ecumenical. Even the local police were engaged and supportive. At that point in history, identity politics was but a glint in a French intellectual’s eye. Nowadays, that kind of solidarity displayed 50 years ago would likely be condemned. Standing ‘shoulder to shoulder’ with a member of another tribe is largely frowned upon in the present era where the binary nature of current politics is stifling and ugly.
The community as we understood it back then is no longer. Living in the present is to live in a society that has fragmented into neo-liberal silos of identity politics. This is characterised as progress. And it is progress of a kind. Equality legislation passed by the Blair/Brown Government gave certain characteristics legal protection. Class was to be included in the next parliament, but the Tories won the election, so it was not to be. A working class whose solid, cohesive communities were already brutally decimated in the Thatcher years, were uprooted and now unrecognised by the political classes as an identity worthy of protection.
Not a mile from our close, a family suffering from the devastating impact of poverty will go unnoticed unless their circumstances become so severe that some government-funded charity is helicoptered in to stage an intervention. These families have no extended, recognised over-arching community with which to identify. This kind of fragmentation of so-called ‘lived experience’ with its temporary solutions thought up by well-intentioned third sector folk, would not be described as ‘progress’ 50 years ago. No government in power in the UK represents or prioritises working-class interests. There are enlightened individuals, sure, but progress – particularly in Scotland – is measured mainly in terms of identity politics that excludes class.
Our current political ethos is dominated by appearances. And the working class do not ‘appear’ unless, for example, during the COVID-19 crisis, the value of our Amazon workers, supermarket workers, public transport workers, cleaners and many more is made manifest. Funny how the free market is rubbish at valuing jobs and their worth to society. Usually consigned to society’s dark undergrowth, the working-classes engine room emerged to remind us of their worth.
But they appear again in the perennial attainment gap; they appear in our shameful drug deaths; our problems with addiction; poverty-fuelled trauma filling our prisons; homelessness; the decline of our biggest city where precious services for the most deprived are cut and yet ‘People Make Glasgow’. Not all of them, to be sure.
It should be noted that Jimmy and some of his fellow shop stewards were committed to what was then called ‘home rule’. In later life, they joined the SNP and Jimmy himself would have argued passionately for a ‘Yes’ vote in the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence. He would be dismayed by the stalled progress of the working class over the last few decades, but, as an optimist, would hope that determining our own destiny would provide a remedy.
In the meantime, the poor will disappear again as we march progressively towards a promised Scottish panacea.
As the new progressives issue their imperative to live in the present and look to the future, it would be instructive to remind them that there is no expiry date on fundamental, universal principles of equality and fairness. Back and as recently as 2010, the Labour Party stated that the persistent inequality of socio-economic status overarches the discrimination or disadvantage that can come from your gender, race or disability. We have made excellent progress on these three categories and rightly so, but it remains the case that class inequality which is ‘cumulative over an individual’s lifetime’ is still carried from one generation to the next.
Slogans issued such as ‘we must end poverty now’ underestimate the scale of the challenge. The men and women of 1971 understood that. They are worth listening to.