Tory David Cameron’s debt to Red Jimmy Reid

How the 1971 UCS ‘work-in’, led by the recently deceased firebrand, helped to pave the way for today’s all-in-it-together response to the crisis.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics UK

Unanswered questions of the economic crisis, number 2010: why has there been so little resistance to date to all of the redundancies, pay cuts and harsher working conditions that many employers have imposed? The only strike to make the news has been the relatively small dispute involving a few thousand BA cabin crew. The threatened strikes by British airport staff are the latest to be called off.

Last year the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) – the bosses’ union – reported that there had been a ‘revolution in industrial relations’: ‘There has been a remarkable solidarity of employers and their employees during this recession in taking difficult decisions. We have seen workers working with their employers to make the best of a bad job in these circumstances.’ Such is the lack of opposition that the CBI felt free to boast about the capitulation of employees to their employers’ demands as a ‘revolution’ and ‘solidarity’ – the language once used by critics of capitalism – without fear of being ridiculed.

What explains the extraordinary passivity and malleability of the British workforce in the face of the measures imposed on them during the current crisis? Part of the explanation for the lack of resistance must lie in the defeat and surrender of the old left in British politics and the trade unions. There has been a clue over the past week in all of the adulatory obituaries for Jimmy Reid, the former militant leader of the Clyde shipbuilders who has died aged 78.

It might seem odd that Reid, a former prominent member of the Communist Party and firebrand shop steward, has been praised not only in the liberal and Labour press but in Tory papers such as the Telegraph and the Mail. The explanation lies in his role in the famous ‘work-in’ at the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders (UCS) yards in Glasgow back in 1971. That episode was a key moment in convincing even the militant sections of the well-organised British working class that they shared an interest with their employers in making the enterprises they worked for ‘economically viable’. Four decades and many setbacks later, with the trade unions now mere ghosts of their former powerful incarnations, that outlook has become a licence for many employers to demand, and get, ‘solidarity’ from their workers in making cuts and sacrifices in the face of recession, while a Tory prime minister can sound convincing to many when declaring that we are ‘all in this together’. And Reid is now being eulogised from all sides as a visionary.

For those who, like me, have trouble remembering everything that happened in the winter of 1971-1972, or those who had never heard of Jimmy Reid until his obituaries burst across the press this past week, a brief recap of the UCS story. By the 1960s, along with much of Britain’s industrial heritage, shipbuilding on the River Clyde was well past its prime. In 1968, Labour minister Tony Benn oversaw the amalgamation of five failing shipyards into the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders. This failed to halt the decline, however, and by 1971 UCS was on the point of bankruptcy and closure, with the loss of thousands of jobs, after Edward Heath’s Tory government refused to extend further financial support.

It was then that Reid stepped in along with his comrade Jimmy Airlie, both Communist Party members and leading shop stewards in the engineering union. They used their formidable powers of persuasion to move the 8,000-strong workforce to occupy and take control of the shipyards – an established tactic of militant trade union action. But this was to be an occupation with a difference. Reid and Airlie organised not a strike against closure, but a ‘work-in’. Their aim was to keep the shipyard running efficiently, under their control, and prove that it was ‘economically viable’ – that is, it could be made to pay.

Reid announced that ‘We are not strikers – we are responsible people and we will conduct ourselves with dignity and discipline’. In a famous speech to the workforce, he demanded that there be no hooliganism, no vandalism and ‘nae bevvying’, because the eyes of the world were upon them. Even now, to an old Marxist like me, it seems slightly shocking to hear a self-professed Communist imply that strikers were irresponsible hooligans, but at the time Reid and the UCS ‘work-in’ won widespread sympathy. One huge demonstration of support was entertained by the up-and-coming Billy Connolly (himself a former shipyard worker) while John Lennon reportedly donated £5,000 to the solidarity fund – to which one leftie old hand is supposed to have responded ‘But Lenin’s deid!’.

In February 1972, Heath’s Tory government flip-flopped and agreed to advance £35million to support three shipyards. The Reid obituaries published this past week sought to describe this turn of events in isolation, as a triumph for the UCS work-in. In fact, it can only be properly understood in the context of the time, as part of the Heath government’s general retreat in the face of the far more militant and significant national miners’ strike of January 1972.

The decision to save the UCS yards certainly marked a short-term financial climbdown by the Tories. But the political concession made by Reid and the work-in leaders was to be of far more lasting significance. They had made clear that they wished not to strike in defence of their members and in opposition to their employers, whether public or private, but rather to work together to prove that with state support the corporation could be made economically viable in the marketplace. That crucial concession meant the unions would always be at a disadvantage when the bosses came back with their accountants to demand more cuts to keep the enterprise afloat. Thus the UCS work-in might have kept the yards open, but mass redundancies followed nonetheless, all in the name of efficiency and viability.

The years that followed the UCS work-in, through the 1970s and into the 1980s, are remembered as a time of militant mass trade union organisation and big industrial disputes, from the mines to the steel mills, engineering factories, print works and beyond. Yet throughout those years the official labour movement was hobbled time and again in its efforts to defend its members by its commitment to British industry (that is, British capitalism) and the viability of its employers’ products in the marketplace.

This political weakness even extended into the most militant section of the working class, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). During the historic miners’ strike of 1984-1985, Jimmy Reid launched a famous (and not unjustified) attack on NUM president Arthur Scargill for his ‘kamikaze’ leadership of the dispute. Yet they shared much in common politically: Scargill had based the miners’ case on defending the ‘Plan for Coal’, under which the NUM and the Coal Board bosses were supposed to work together to protect the industry by keeping coal competitive. By hitching the miners’ destiny to the economic viability of the pits, the NUM leadership handed the Thatcher government and the Coal Board a major political advantage. Scargill’s complex arguments about the economic viability of failing pits were no match for the Thatcher regime’s ruthless application of capitalist logic and state power. Despite the bravery and determination of thousands of striking miners, they could not win.

Spin forward a quarter of a century and we are left without strong or effective trade unions, but still with the legacy of the left’s political concessions and surrenders from the past. That is why during the current crisis, there has been an almost uncontested acceptance of the bosses’ arguments about cutting jobs, pay and spending to keep UK plc viable in the international market. Just as Jimmy Reid travelled to the mainstream after UCS, via first the Labour Party and then the Scottish Nationalists, so the all-in-this-together outlook that could be seen in embryo through the ‘work-in’ has become the predominant response to the recession, only now more in a spirit of passive resignation than militancy.

Indeed, alongside the posthumous praise for Reid from conservative papers grateful for his contribution, there have been calls from left and liberal commentators to build on his legacy. One even calls on us all to ‘restart Jimmy Reid’s revolution’, because conditions now are supposedly ‘ripe for work-ins up and down the country’, presumably to prove to David Cameron and the bosses that we can run their services and businesses more economically than they can. Any notion that the politics of the old labour movement embodied by the UCS work-in proved a disaster for the working class has been erased from our society’s memory.

Against this historical background, one would risk being thought a dinosaur or a lunatic today to talk about conflicting class interests and to suggest that workers should not have to make sacrifices to protect the viability of capitalism. Yet long before the UCS work-in mentality came along, there were militant trade unionists in Britain who saw things very differently.

In 1912, for example, in the midst of an historic wave of mass working-class militancy, a group of left-wing miners called the South Wales Unofficial Reform Committee campaigned against all forms of ‘collaboration’ between the miners and the employers. Their famous pamphlet, The Miners’ Next Step, began by demanding that ‘the old policy of identity of interest between employers and ourselves be abolished, and a policy of open viability installed’. These miners did not give tuppence for the ‘economic viability’ of the mines where they were exploited: ‘Our only concern is to see to it that those who create the value [that is, the workers] receive it. And if by the force of a more perfect organisation and more militant policy, we reduce profits, we shall at the same time tend to eliminate the shareholders who own the coalfields.’ Neither, unlike subsequent generations, did they have any illusions in the socialist qualities of state control, seeing nationalisation as another capitalist solution, the aim of which would be ‘to extract as much profit as possible, in order to relieve the taxation of other landlords and capitalists’.

How we got from The Miners’ Next Step to today over the course of the past century is of course a long and complicated story. But it is worth recalling the significant part played in that journey by the British left, especially the old Communist Party of Great Britain to which Reid belonged. Cobbled together in the years after the 1917 Russian Revolution, the CPGB was always dogged by political weaknesses, buffeted from the 1920s (when Lenin really was deid) between its subservience to Stalin’s Soviet Union and its inability to stand up to British imperialism. These two tendencies converged around the Second World War when, after Hitler’s Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, Communist Party activists in the industrial trade unions played a central part in running the British government’s war effort. That absence of any independent political outlook was to hamper left-wing trade unionists after the war, rendering them able to win concessions on wages and conditions but incapable of taking a principled stand on wider issues. Generations of the best working-class operators such as Jimmy Reid were trapped in this narrow worldview by their affiliation to Stalinism. The UCS work-in gave that odd marriage of what used to be called class collaboration and union militancy a new life, in the sight of the CPGB.

All of which, of course, might seem like scarcely relevant ancient history today, when despite stark divisions of interest there is no class struggle to speak of and the working classes have no political voice or independent existence at all. Since it seems unlikely that even the ‘radical reformers’ of the Lib-Con coalition would be capable of the miracle of turning the clocks back, there is little point in anybody pretending that the past – whether 1912 or 1971 – is going to be re-run. But there surely is a point in getting our history straight, and understanding how we got here as part of a discussion about where we want to go next.

That means understanding that there is nothing natural or simply commonsensical about today’s ‘all-in-it-together’ mentality. It is a political phenomenon, the outcome of a long-running history of struggles and defeats. And it is a monument to the baleful influence of the CPGB and the British left, and what they did to the best of the working class such as the young Jimmy Reid.

Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.

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Topics Politics UK


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