Some people take pride in having no heroes, but I’ve always had a tendency to collect them – in sport, the Arts, politics and even everyday life. I enjoy acknowledging those who inspire me; maybe it’s psychologically connected to my father’s death when I was young, or maybe it fills some other unsuspected need. Either way, with the death of Jimmy Reid today, I have lost one of my major heroes.
Why was he a hero? A perusal of some of the many tributes already published today from those who knew him or worked beside him would make that eminently clear. Why was he my great hero?
There are many answers to that.
Having spent part of my childhood and my teenage years in England, I returned to Scotland, to university, in 1970. Inevitably, after keeping the connection going with annual visits and constant reading of The Broons and Oor Wullie, I had a fair bit of catching up to do on Scottish cultural, political and daily life. In 1971, coming to the fore with his leadership of the UCS work in, Jimmy Reid brought to reality some of the ideas I had begun to form about labour and socialism in Scotland, but which I had feared were part myth, part wishful thinking.
Here, decades on from Maxton and McLean, was a workers’ leader with integrity, intellectual self belief and a rational approach to politics in everyday life. He was self educated in the way I fondly imagined those earlier heroes had been, yet held the respect of the workforce, encouraged them without patronising, and led them without demagoguery.
If you listen to his much quoted speech where he set the rules for the work in, there is respectful silence as he talks about the workers’ responsibility given that ‘the eyes of the world were on them’, and then, when he makes the famous statement: “and there will be no bevvying”, there is the beginnings of laughter among the listening shipyard workers, but it quickly dies. These men were recognising that he was serious, but also that he knew how they thought and how they should be led.
He terrified the establishment – an articulate, educated, rational Communist, media friendly and respected by all. In many ways, this was their worse nightmare. But his inspiration went far beyond the shipyards on the Clyde, and his speeches echo now what once was and what might have been.
I’m sure there are those with whom he fell out, and those who will claim that he was seduced by fame and position. Certainly he was no friend to the Scottish Labour establishment, and why would he be when his statements repeatedly pointed to the shortfall between what Scottish Labour claimed to be to the working classes and what they actually achieved for them. That same establishment, and those on the Left, will maybe tell you that, in the end, joining the SNP, he had betrayed his roots in the labour movement. But they would be wrong.
Reid had integrity and his vision never faltered: socialism was the way forward for the Scots and, ultimately, like many, he came to the realisation that neither a Communist Party riven by division and infighting, nor a Labour Party in thrall to Westminster could best serve the ordinary people of Scotland by bettering their conditions and sticking up for their needs. Independence, the guts to control our own affairs, and remove the crutch of ‘someone else to blame’, was the clear way forward for him; the obvious route to a fairer society where politics served the people.
Listening to Jimmy Reid you instinctively recognised the dignity of working men, the pride generated by craftsmanship, and the need for equality and fairness in the workplace, in particular, and in society, as a whole. Sadly, in the forty years since UCS, none of these values have been prioritised in our country’s political or social life.
We are the worse off for that, just as we are for the loss of a great leader, a superb speaker and an innovative thinker.
Jimmy Reid, a great Scots hero!