Who was the Jimmy Reid who died in August of this year? What, if any, was his political legacy? And why was he the object of such outpourings of posthumous praise from even right-wing political commentators?
Reid was born in Govan in Glasgow in 1932. After a brief spell in the youth section of the Labour Party (the Labour League of Youth, LLY) he joined the Young Communist League (YCL) at the age of 16.
In his autobiography Reid attributed his switch from Labour to the YCL to his revulsion at the careerist aspirations of local LLY members, his disillusionment with the record of the then Labour government, and the positive impression which Communist Party (CP) trade union activists in his workplace had made on him.
There was nothing out-of-the-ordinary about a young and politically self-educated trade union activist joining the YCL or the CP in Glasgow in the late 1940s. With a quarter of the party’s entire membership living in and around Glasgow at this time, the CP was a natural and powerful pole of attraction for local young trade union militants.
Unlike the thousands of his contemporaries who simply ‘passed through’ the ranks of the CP, however, Reid’s membership of the party was a long-term commitment. He remained a member for 28 years, working full-time for the party for eleven of them.
By 1952, only four years after he had joined, Reid was already national chair of the YCL. In 1958 he moved to London to work full-time for the YCL. Within a few months he had taken up the position of YCL National Secretary. The following year he was elected to the CP’s National Executive Committee.
Reid rose through the ranks of the CP at a time when thousands of its members were exiting those ranks in protest at the Soviet crushing of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 – an event that did not even merit a mention in Reid’s autobiography.
Reid’s undoubted talents – he was a gifted speaker and writer, and had always been a voracious reader – assisted his rise through the CP’s ranks. More importantly, Reid displayed the necessary commitment to the party’s politics.
In his autobiography Reid boasted of the political education he had given himself in Govan Library. He omitted to mention the later political training which, as a CP functionary, he received in Moscow and the uses to which he put that training.
Whenever any speaker at a YCL national congress mentioned the Soviet Union or one of its satellite states, for example, Reid would take to his feet and lead the entire congress in applause. Reid also had no qualms about arguing in defence of the USSR’s possession of the atomic bomb: it was, he claimed, the “workers’ bomb”.
In his autobiography Reid unintentionally provides another example of what he learnt from his education in the CP, even before he had commenced his training in Moscow:
While doing his national service Reid had attended a current affairs lecture on communism. Reid describes how he rubbished the officer who provided the lecture: he quoted “chapter and verse” in order to show “where Lenin differed from Trotsky on the question of building socialism and his ultimate rejection of the possibility of exporting revolution.”
Such were the benefits of a 1950s CP education: you learnt how to recite “chapter and verse” the Stalinist lies about Trotsky and Lenin.
Throughout his membership of the CP Reid could be relied upon to provide a defence of Soviet Stalinism. In an interview conducted just a year before he quit the party, Reid excused what he called the “deficiencies of the socialist countries as we see them here from Britain” as an unfortunate historical leftover from an earlier epoch:
“I think that socialism inevitably develops in each country in accordance with the history and the traditions, and many other factors which apply to that country at the given moment of time when they carry through their socialist transition. … That will leave its imprint on the form of socialism as applied in every country. We have to watch we don’t get arrogant.”
“If you are talking about bureaucracy and pockets of elitist groupings appearing, it’s my contention that in the socialist countries they have tackled the fundamental question of economic power, all the wealth-producing resources are socially owned. If in such a society you have got bureaucracy, if that exists, it is a distortion of socialism.”
Even after Reid had left in CP he remained, at least at first, an apologist for its cover-up of Stalin’s crimes. Thus, only a few months after his resignation from the CP Reid wrote: “I am convinced that he (Pollitt, a one-time CP leader) and the other old British Communists did not know (about Stalin’s crimes). Whatever cynics may say, I am certain of this.”
On the contrary, Pollitt, Palme Dutt, Willie Gallacher and other CP leaders who had slandered Trotsky and his supporters as agents of Nazi Germany and the Japanese Mikado merited the utmost respect, according to Reid, given their status as “mass leaders in their own right.”
In 1964 Reid vacated the position of YCL National Secretary and returned to Scotland. He took over as Secretary of the CP’s Scottish Committee, and was also elected as a CP local authority councillor in Clydebank.
Having ceased to work for the CP he found work as a fitter in Upper Clyde Shipbuilders (UCS), at first in its Govan yard, and then in its Clydebank yard. In 1971 Reid was elected shop stewards convenor for the Clydebank yard.
Despite having a full order book, UCS (which consisted of three shipyards in Glasgow plus the one in Clydebank) went into receivership in June of the same year. Along with Jimmy Airlie and Sammy Barr (two other trade union leaders in the shipyards, both of whom were also CP members) Reid led the struggle to save the yards from closure.
The strategy adopted to save the jobs was not based on strike action or a sit-in but on a ‘work-in’. This would demonstrate that the workers were not work-shy, and that the yards were financially viable.
But the tactic of the work-in brought with it a whole series of problems of its own.
Those who ‘worked-in’ were employees who had been declared redundant by the receiver. To take part in the work-in, therefore, meant foregoing a redundancy payment, and many employees were not prepared to do so.
In August of 1971, when the first wave of redundancies had taken place, 69% of those declared redundant took part in the work-in. By December of the same year, after further waves of redundancies, 27% of redundant workers were involved in the work-in. By June of the following year only 14% of redundant workers were ‘working-in’, amounting to 2.6% of the retained (i.e. non-redundant) workforce.
Anyone taking part in the work-in would not be liable for compensation in the event of injury. In order to minimize the risk of injury, they were therefore barred from working aboard the vessels under construction. But the vast majority of the workforce had always worked on the vessels themselves.
In any case, if those declared redundant actually had worked on the vessels being constructed in the yards, then this would merely have speeded up completion of the orders – leading to even more men being declared redundant. But as Wolfson and Foster (the two CP academics who wrote “The Politics of the UCS Work-In”) put it:
“The objective of the work-in was to focus on the willingness of the workers to work in the yards and forestall lay-offs rather than assist in creating the conditions for even more of their number to be sacked.”
The solution adopted by the shop stewards was to implement a system of ‘work-sharing’ in which the redundant workers involved in the work-in shared the workload of employees who had not been dismissed, but, at the same time, maintaining normal levels of output.
As more and more workers were made redundant, this was to become increasingly difficult to sustain.
The work-in also carried a heavy financial burden: the ‘wages’ of the redundant workers had to be paid for from a levy of the non-redundant workers and the fund-raising efforts of the work-in’s supporters. By October of 1971 the then vast amount of £6,000 needed to be raised each week for the payment of ‘wages’.
Despite the limitations inherent in the idea of a ‘work-in’, the earliest days of the work-in were inspirational. It sent out the message that job losses and redundancies were not inevitable. It demonstrated that the Tories’ policies of withdrawing support from what they termed ‘lame ducks’ could be defied. It showed that working-class solidarity was not just a slogan but a real social and political force.
For hundreds of thousands of trade unionists the work-in was proof that job cuts and the Tories could, and should, be resisted. And, for that reason, they mobilised in support of the UCS work-in.
Even before the work-in had begun, over 150,000 workers had staged a protest strike in June against the Tories’ plans and 50,000 had demonstrated in the streets of Glasgow.
In August a mass meeting of 1,200 shop stewards from the West of Scotland called a one-day strike and demonstration in support of the work-in. Around 200,000 workers backed the strike, with 80,000 marching on the demonstration. It was the biggest demonstration in Glasgow since the days of Red Clydeside.
And it was Reid who – given his proven oratorical skills – inevitably, and justifiably, became the ‘public face’ of this internationally renowned fight to save jobs.
For Reid and other CPers the work-in was more than just a campaign to save jobs. It was also was an opportunity to put into practice the CP concept of an ‘anti-monopoly alliance’, by using the work-in as the fulcrum of such an alliance..
In the 1950s, when Reid had received his political education in the CP, the supposed rationale for such an anti-monopoly alliance was summed up by a CP training course entitled “Our Aim is Socialism” in the following terms:
“Monopoly capital … has tied Britain to the United States, with the resulting loss of independence. The continuation of this policy threatens the British people with economic, political, military and national destruction.”
“The way to prevent this is to build a broad popular alliance of workers and their allies – the small shopkeepers, farmers, professional people, who between them constitute the overwhelming majority of the nation.”
This anti-monopoly alliance was a latter-day version of the ‘popular front’ politics initiated by Communist Parties throughout the West in the 1930s. ‘Popular frontism’ involved the dissolution of specifically working-class demands and specifically working-class politics into a broader and vaguer alliance with non-working class, or even anti-working-class, forces.
As Wolfson and Foster wrote in their major study of the work-in:
“Reid’s stress on the importance of alliances was not, of course, merely his own personal perspective, but had long been a central theme of Communist policies. Drawing its inspiration from the success [!] of the pre-war Popular Front, the concept had been developed in ways which related to the specific character of monopoly rule within the very diverse societies of post-war Europe.”
It was above all in Scotland, according to the CP, that the establishment of such an anti-monopoly alliance was crucial. Wolfson and Foster wrote:
“Scotland was seen to have a pivotal role. As an area particularly exposed to the contradictions of monopoly, it had the potential to act as a fulcrum for the development of a new dimension of anti-monopoly policies in Britain as a whole. By summer 1971 these perspectives were, by and large, the common property of most leading stewards in UCS.”
Wolfson and Foster were certainly correct to talk of “Reid’s stress on the importance of alliances.”
In March of 1971, just four months before the start of the work-in, Reid had submitted a report from the CP’s Scottish Committee to the party’s Executive Committee in which he had argued that the time was ripe for the launch of such an anti-monopoly alliance.
His report had attacked Tory policies as “a preparation for entry into the Common Market (an early forerunner of the European Union)” and proposed, in response, an alliance of “the vast majority of British people – industrial workers, farmers, professional people, small businessmen and traders alike.”
The logic of the CP’s popular-frontist anti-monopoly-alliance politics was that an ‘excess’ of militancy would scare away potential allies and ‘isolate’ the working class. Staging a sit-in – a ‘responsible’ and ‘respectable’ way to oppose job losses, in which there would be no vandalism, no hooliganism and no drinking – fitted in perfectly with such politics.
Even before the work-in had commenced the ‘popular frontism’ which underpinned it was reflected in the very first leaflet produced by the campaign in defence of the shipyards (block capitals in the original):
“We ask for, and confidently expect, the support of ALL Scots, men and women. We appeal to all our brothers and sisters in the trade union movement for HELP. We appeal to all business people and shopkeepers for HELP. We appeal to the clergy of all denominations for HELP. Let the voice of the Scottish people be heard.”
Similarly, in the run-up to the first mass demonstration (in June of 1971) Glasgow Trades Union Council Secretary (and CP member) John Reidford warned delegates that inappropriate slogans – such as ones attacking the Tory government – should not be raised on the demonstration:
“We don’t want to see slogans for the overthrow of the Tory government. What we want to see is all banners and slogans emphasising the UCS crisis.”
The UCS work-in also provided an opportunity for Reid and the CP to push the Scottish TUC into applying the idea of an anti-monopoly alliance to a much broader range of economic and social issues.
Meeting shortly after the start of the work-in, the STUC General Council agreed to convene what it called a “Scottish Assembly” to discuss unemployment and its impact on the Scottish economy.
In the words of one of the official histories of the STUC, the 1,500 people who attended the “Scottish Assembly” held in Edinburgh in February of the following year “represented as broad a spectrum of Scottish civic life as had ever been assembled.”
Representatives of all political parties attended, along with representatives from the Scottish Council for Development and Industry, the churches, the universities, the local authorities, the CBI (Scotland) and Chambers of Commerce. Trade unions were also represented at the gathering.
Those in attendance included Sir William McEwan Younger, the Tory party chair in Scotland, and Teddy Taylor, Tory MP for Glasgow Cathcart. In their speeches the two Tory speakers blamed the rise in Scottish unemployment on the fact that responsibility for Scottish economic policies and regional development lay in faraway Westminster.
(Taylor was on the right of the Tory Party. He supported corporal punishment, capital punishment and arming the police. Calling him “Teddy”, said one Labour MP, was like calling the Hound of the Baskervilles “Rover”.
But Taylor’s attraction for the CP was obvious: the previous year he had resigned from the government after it had taken Britain into the Common Market. In later years Taylor was a founding signatory to Unite Against Fascism.)
Given Reid’s politics, he would have seen the “Scottish Assembly” as a major step forward. The Tories had wanted to unleash the scourge of mass unemployment on the Scottish working class? What better way to stop such attacks than to create an ‘anti-monopoly alliance’ with … right-wing Tories!
If the UCS work-in in which Reid (and other CPers) played such a prominent role left a lasting legacy, it was this: the start of a tradition of the Scottish TUC convening “all-embracing” gatherings to oppose job losses and plant closures on the basis that they were “bad for the Scottish economy”, in lieu of pursuing an industrial and political strategy based on working-class mobilisation and self-activity.
Fifteen months passed before a settlement was finally reached. The initial aim of keeping the four yards intact had been abandoned. The Clydebank yard was taken over by the US company Marathon, and the three Glasgow yards were re-organised as Govan Shipbuilders. The total workforce in the yards fell from 8,500 at the start of the work-in to just over 6,000.
The takeovers by Marathon and Govan Shipbuilders also came at a price in terms of working conditions. The Govan Shipbuilders deal involved a commitment by the unions to increase productivity by 120%. The Marathon deal involved what amounted to a ban on unofficial strikes. Should any strikes nonetheless occur, then workers could be penalized by the loss of their bonus payments.
But that should not conceal the fact that the Tory government had been forced into making concessions, especially under the impact of other disputes which occurred in early 1972. It was the Tories’ refusal to provide further subsidies which had triggered the yards going into receivership. But in February of 1972 the government promised £35 millions for the three Glasgow yards.
In the course of the work-in Reid was elected Rector of Glasgow University. Some of his critics on the left denounced him for this, contrasting it with Trotsky’s refusal to accept nomination for the position of Edinburgh University Rector in 1935:
“The elections to the rectorate are conducted on a non-political basis and your letter itself is signed by representatives of every political tendency. But I myself occupy too definite a political position. … (I could not) appear on any public tribune not under the Bolshevik banner.”
Reid’s acceptance speech, which focused on the theme of alienation, was hailed as a bold and passionate statement of the case for socialism.
In fact, it was a mixture of veiled calls for an anti-monopoly alliance (“… giant monopoly companies and consortia dominate almost every branch of our economy”) and Scottish devolution (“… de-centralise as much power as possible back to the local communities), coupled with references to a ‘humanism’ of CP ‘socialist humanism’ provenance, and discourses on alienation and empowerment which owed more to Saul Alinsky than to Marx and Lenin.
The speech was also peppered with Reid’s own brand of spiritualism (“… a spiritual transformation of our country”) and invocations of Jesus Christ (“… As Christ put it, what doth it profit a man …”). As one writer has put it, Reid’s rhetoric was always “heavily inflected with the cadences of preachers, and in particular the King James Bible.” Reid was not the first tribune of the left who owed more to Methodism than to Marxism.
Unfortunately for Reid, the rectorial election was the only one he won in the years following the UCS sit-in.
In the February 1974 general election he stood as a CP candidate in Central Dunbartonshire, picking up a respectable 15% of the vote and coming third. Reid blamed his defeat on the ‘Red scare’ campaign which the local Catholic church had run against him, backed by certain local Labour Party members who, he said, would be Franco-supporting Falangists if they were in Spain.
In the October 1974 general election Reid did less well, picking up just under 9% of the vote. Ironically, given the soft Scottish nationalism espoused by Reid, he was beaten into fourth place by the SNP candidate.
(In fact, for all the CP’s theories about anti-monopoly alliances, it was the SNP who enjoyed the main political benefits of the work-in and the accompanying Scottish-populist rhetoric. Even Wolfson and Foster concede:
“The powerful combination of forces that had been brought together in 1971 disintegrated in the face of petty bourgeois rhetoric. … The SNP left with the immediate electoral advantage (and) in 1973 won the parliamentary by-election in Govan, which contained two of the UCS yards.”)
Reid fared no better in elections in the then engineering union, the AUEW. In 1975 he stood for the Scottish seat on the union’s National Executive but was easily beaten by right-winger Gavin Laird. Then he lost the election, albeit by a mere 81 votes, for the position of the union’s Scottish Regional Officer.
The following year Reid resigned from the CP. Why he did so is less than clear. In his ‘autobiography’ – which was also published in 1976, and which largely consisted of old articles and speeches by Reid, in which he had espoused the politics of the party from which he had just resigned – Reid gave four reasons for his resignation.
Astonishingly, the first reason he gave was the CP’s failure to support the British war effort in 1939. (The CP had initially opposed the war as an inter-imperialist war. It changed line after Hitler’s invasion of Russia in 1941.) Pollitt had been right, Reid wrote, to have called in 1939 for a government of national unity.
But Reid did not explain why this had become such a crucial issue for him only after 28 years of CP membership.
Secondly, while the CP had been correct, according to Reid, to call for a ‘No’ vote in the 1975 referendum on British membership of the Common Market, it had been wrong to subsequently call for a boycott of Common Market institutions. In the name of democracy, he wrote, the party should accept the logic of the referendum result.
Thirdly, the CP had neglected the politics and strategy contained in its programme, “The British Road to Socialism”, first adopted in the 1950s. Reid’s resignation was one of those in which the person who has resigned claims: It’s not me who has left the party, but the party which has left me.
Fourthly, Reid criticised the CP’s concept of democratic centralism as too much centralism and not enough democracy. Again, though, the question is why it had taken him 28 years membership to reach this conclusion.
The immediate “trigger” for his resignation, Reid vaguely wrote while leaving the details unsaid, had been an “industrial matter” in which some CP members had taken a decision as a result of which “workers were betrayed and some suffered.”
And this was the first time such a thing had happened in Reid’s 28 years of membership of the party???
Reid also wrote that his relationship with the CP had become an increasingly distant one over the preceding five years – during which time he had served as a CP councillor, stood as a CP candidate in three parliamentary elections, and implemented CP strategy during and after the UCS work-in.
He had not, he wrote, attended a Scottish CP congress since 1970, he had resigned from the CP’s Scottish Committee in 1972, and he had attempted to refuse, albeit unsuccessfully, nomination for the CP’s National Executive in 1973.
A review of Reid’s autobiography published in “International Socialism” (theoretical journal of what is now the SWP) commented on his resignation:
“Reid has found through bitter experience that despite his elevation to the position of mass leader, of folk-hero, when it came down to it, his high opinion of himself and desire for personal recognition (advancement would be too strong a description) ran up against the brick wall of his membership of the CP.”
Fellow members of the CP also attributed Reid’s resignation to his desire to ‘move on’ in the world. As John Kay, the CP’s Scottish organiser at the time of Reid’s resignation, tartly put it after his death:
“Although Jimmy's resignation from the Communist Party came as a surprise, I think he felt party membership was an encumbrance to the use of his undoubted talents in a higher sphere of responsibility.”
In 1978 Reid joined the Labour Party. Later the same year he was selected to stand as a candidate for Dundee East (although the then Labour Party rules required members to have been members for at least two years before being eligible to stand for Parliament).
In the following year’s general election Reid made inroads into the SNP majority, but not enough to win the seat.
After the Tory victory in the general election Reid initially allied himself with the Bennite Left in the Labour Party. At the time of Benn’s unsuccessful attempt to win the position of deputy leader in 1981 he co-wrote – or at least signed up to – the so-called “Radical Manifesto”, together with long-standing Bennites such as Francis Cripps and Frances Morrell
The nationalism of the “Radical Manifesto” was in tune with the kind of economic policies long espoused by the CP and by Reid himself. The manifesto claimed that “Britain has become a subject nation, unaware of its own subjection.”
It advocated withdrawal from the EEC (another forerunner of the European Union), a tax on imports and various other controls on multi-national capitalism, along with government regulation of working hours and minimum and maximum rates of pay.
Benn’s defeat in 1981 initiated a gradual resurgence of the right within the Labour Party, resulting in Kinnock’s election as party leader in 1983. Reid backed Kinnock’s ‘modernisation’ of the Labour Party, which launched the party on a trajectory that eventually culminated in ‘New Labour’ (although Reid was to split from Labour before the process reached its logical conclusion).
Outside of the Labour Party the ‘Eurocommunist’ wing of the CP, grouped around Martin Jacques and the grossly mistitled “Marxism Today” magazine, provided high-sounding theoretical justifications for the Kinnockite ‘reforms’.
Inside the Labour Party the ex-CPer Reid provided them with the stamp of approval of a seasoned trade union militant.
By this time, though, Reid’s days of trade union activity were becoming an increasingly distant memory.
He had left the shipyards and begun a career in journalism which was to see him writing for the “Glasgow Herald”, the “Scotsman”, the “Daily Mirror”, the “Sun”, “Tribune” and the short-lived “Seven Days” newspaper.
In addition to being a regular fixture on television and radio chat shows, Reid presented his own chat show on Grampian TV and a Channel 4 series on life in the Soviet Union (“Reid About the USSR”).
In the early 1980s the then Labour MP Tam Dalyell tried to persuade Reid to stand again as a Labour candidate. But Reid was not interested – partly because he wanted to stay with his family in Scotland, and partly because he did not want to give up what had become a financially lucrative and personally satisfying career in the media.
In 1984 Reid used his television appearances and newspaper columns, plus other articles in the “Observer”, “Guardian” and “Daily Record”, to launch a furious denunciation of the miners’ strike, led by Arthur Scargill (Reid’s one-time comrade in the YCL).
Scargill’s leadership of the strike had been “a disgrace” and the price to be paid for his “folly” would be “immense”. If kamikaze pilots had their own union, then “Arthur would be an ideal choice for leader.”
Scargill had become “the Ayatollah, the focal point, for all the hard sectarian groupings within the labour movement.” With the exception of Kinnock, Labour leaders “had failed to say one word of criticism about the refusal to hold a ballot and the conduct of the strike.”
Reid spoke as if his concerns and criteria were those of the labour movement left: the “main casualty of the strike” would be the democratic left; the strike would “mean a further decline in the Party’s mass base among the working class”; the strike had created a climate among British workers favourable to the Tories’ anti-union laws; the NUM itself would be “finished as an effective fighting force for the rest of the century.”
Reid returned to the attack only a few weeks before the end of the strike:
“I reject the notion that Scargill is leading some crusade against Thatcherite Toryism. Beneath the rhetoric Scargillism and Thatcherism are political allies. I would put it this way: the political spectrum is not linear but circular. In my experience the extreme left always ends up rubbing shoulders with the extreme right. They are philosophically blood brothers.”
As an alternative to Scargill, Reid harked back to the days of the old CP:
“If only the manipulative Joe Gormley, President of the NUM, had allowed himself to be succeeded by Mick McGahey and not the hot-headed Arthur Scargill, the miners would have had more success and the British coal industry would have been saved. Whatever you think of the old communists, they understood discipline, and what was possible and what would end in failure.”
That the person who wrote and spoke such words was a former leader of the UCS work-in, albeit 13 years earlier, gave them added weight. It was as if Reid was saying: I’ve led workers’ struggles myself, you know. So I know a thing or two about this kind of thing. And let me tell you now ... ... …
Reid’s backstabbing attack on one the biggest post-war industrial disputes – and it was the dispute itself that Reid was attacking, not just its Scargillite leadership – was a disgrace, made all the worse by Reid’s exploitation of the status which he still enjoyed as a result of his role in the UCS work-in.
The Scottish NUM leader Mick McGahey (who, in private, shared a lot of Reid’s criticisms) labelled him “Broken Reid”, while the then Labour left MP Dennis Skinner called him “Jimmy Weed”. “Socialist Organiser”, the predecessor of “Solidarity”, denounced Reid’s behaviour under the headline, “From a Red to a Rat”.
Despite his support for Kinnock’s opposition to the miners’ strike, Reid began to become increasingly critical of the ongoing ‘modernisation’ of the Labour Party. After the 1992 general election, for example, he complained: “During the recent election it was easier to spot the ball than spot a trade union boss on a Labour Party platform.”
Reid became even more distant from the Labour Party after Blair’s election as party leader, eventually resigning in 1998 and announcing his intention of voting for the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) in the following year’s Holyrood elections (after lobbying over lunch by Tommy Sheridan and the former Labour MEP Hugh Kerr).
Despite his public statements of support for the SSP, Reid never joined it. Instead, he took the initiative to launch “Scottish Left Review”. This would provide “a focal point of thought and discussion for the Scottish Left, it will be non-party but aim to provide a forum for those on the left of all parties and none.”
Following an initial meeting in Reid’s flat in 1999, the first issue of the magazine appeared in 2000.
A participant in the planning meeting for the launch issue described it as attended by “a disparate group of ‘lefties’: one Labour and one SNP MSP, two former Labour MEPs, members of the Communist, Labour, Liberal and Scottish Socialist parties, Democratic Left Scotland and others of no party.”
“Disparate” is also the most charitable word to use to describe the magazine’s wading-through-treacle and vaguely left-nationalist contents.
In April 2005 Reid joined the SNP at the STUC congress in Dundee. He was elected president-for-life of the SNP Trade Union Group the following year. But if Reid supported full-blown independence, he was certainly never vocal in espousing it. Nor was support for independence cited by Reid as a reason for his joining the SNP.
He joined the SNP, he said, because it “adhered to the values that the labour movement was based on”, and also because he had given up on the Labour Party: "I have waited a long time to see forces emerging within the New Labour Party that would bring the party back to its roots. But I have been waiting in vain.”
Even before he joined the SNP Reid had begun suffering from poor health. After a particularly serious illness in 2003 Reid was interviewed by the “Scottish Review” magazine (not to be confused with “Scottish Left Review”, although it is easily done). It was conducted as a “looking back on my life” interview.
In answer to the final question (“Do you still believe in that ideal?”), Reid replied:
“I believe in socialism. I believe it will become abundantly clear that globalisation driven by multi-national corporations will be a disaster. I think there will be a resurrection of the idea of socialism, but the Soviet model was a distortion of socialism. It ruled half the world's population – absolute rule – and no excuses can be made for it. The whole thing stank. Do I regret it? I don't regret anything.”
In the days following Reid’s death cyberspace was scarcely big enough to contain all the anecdotes about Jimmy the bon viveur, the witty raconteur, the spellbinding speaker, the man of passion, the larger-than-life son of the Clyde.
He was delightful company, admired by friend and foe alike, a lover of the good life, an aficionado of good cigars, good food and good wine, and catholic in his friendships across political divides.
(As Dalyell wrote of Reid’s 70th birthday party in Haggs Castle: “We found a number of guests who we never expected to see at the festivities of a great left-wing tribune.”)
All such anecdotes, and many more besides, were undoubtedly true. Reid did not regard it as a crime to enjoy life. Hugh Kerr recalled after Reid’s death: “At a good lunch afterwards, with his customary brandy and cigar, Jimmy said: ‘Hugh, you know, there is nothing too good for the working class.’”
The posthumous commentaries on Reid’s politics are more problematic.
It is true that Reid achieved national fame because of his leading role in the UCS work-in. But uncritical adulation of his role in the work-in – which, in any case, is itself contested terrain – has nothing in common with an understanding of Reid’s politics.
Reid was a political activist to one degree or another for 62 years of his life – not just the fifteen months of the work-in – and a member of three different political parties. Inevitably, there was a degree of evolution in Reid’s politics over such a length of time.
His eventual adoption of a more critical attitude towards the Stalinist states, in place of his earlier blind loyalty, was probably the most obvious example of a shift in his political outlook. But there was also a more fundamental continuity in his politics, one which should not be obscured by his changing party affiliations.
As the Scottish political writer Gerry Hassan put it in his obituary on Reid, albeit from his own political standpoint:
“One of my disagreements with Reid was the way he took his journey from the CP in the 1970s to the Labour Party in 1978 to his embracing of the SNP. Many Scottish left-wingers travelled the same way. How can I put it? As the world changed in front of them the only avenue they had to continue their impossible dream … was by changing the vehicle.”
The CP which Reid joined in 1948 had ceased to be a revolutionary party some two decades earlier. From the mid-1930s onwards it had pursued a strategy of allying with ‘progressive’ bourgeois political forces (‘popular frontism’). During the Second World War it had even backed Churchill’s ‘national unity’ government (albeit only after Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union).
The CP was also viciously hostile to the revolutionary tradition represented by Trotsky. Only eight years before Reid joined the YCL Trotsky had been murdered in exile in Mexico by a Stalinist agent.
In a wartime by-election the CP had raised the slogan, “A Vote for Haston (the Trotskyist candidate) is a Vote for Hitler.” A CP speaker explained at an election campaign meeting: “In Russia they defeated fascism because they shot all the Trotskyists and the fifth column scum, and if we had our way, these people on this platform would be shot.”
The CP’s reformism was enshrined in its programme “The British Road to Socialism”, issued in 1951 after it had been personally approved by Stalin. It was formally adopted by the CP in 1952, by which time Reid had been installed as the national chair of the YCL.
Reid, it will be recalled, was so attached to the “British Road to Socialism” that he cited the CP’s alleged failure to pursue it as a reason for his resignation from the party. He even included the text of a cheerleading speech in support of the “British Road”, delivered at the CP’s 1967 congress, in his autobiography of 1976.
When Reid left the CP to join the Labour Party he was not abandoning revolutionary politics in favour of reformism. Like the party to which he had belonged for 28 years, and for which he had worked for 11 years, Reid had never been a revolutionary. In Hassan’s words, when Reid moved from the CP to the Labour Party he was changing the vehicle, but not his politics.
The same applies to Reid’s decision to join the SNP. This too was consistent with politics long held by Reid. As he wrote in article published in “Scottish Left Review” in 2007:
“In 1966 or thereabouts I returned to Scotland after about ten years domiciled in England, convinced that the main task for the Scottish left was to win the Scottish Labour Movement for a policy of Home Rule in the form of a devolved or independent Parliament for Scotland. I simply could not understand how it was possible to be for the right of self-determination for all small countries in the world – except your own.”
It cannot have been a coincidence that Reid’s return to Scotland in 1964 (not 1966) and his appointment as Secretary of the CP’s Scottish Committee was soon followed by a new push by the CP in support of Home Rule.
In the late 1960s the CP sought to win the STUC over to Home Rule and in its submission to the Kilbrandon Commission in the early 1970s (co-authored by Reid) the CP argued for a devolved Scottish parliament and Scotland’s right to independence if its people so desired.
At the CP’s 1969 Congress it had been Reid who had moved the resolution covering “the national future of Scotland and Wales.” The resolution advocated the establishment of Scottish and Welsh parliaments in order to overcome the “distortion of the economy and the undermining of social and cultural life by monopoly capitalism.”
During the October 1974 general election campaign Reid delivered a speech entitled “The Case for (Scottish) Nationalism”, subsequently reprinted in his autobiography of 1976. Nothing in its politics was inconsistent with Reid’s above-quoted article of 2007.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, it is true, Reid was profoundly hostile to the SNP. But his argument on joining the SNP, as noted above, was that it was the SNP which had changed, not him. As he claimed in his 2007 article: “They (the SNP) now govern Scotland with policies that objectively can only be described as Social Democratic.”
And did Reid perhaps find in the all-things-to-all-people and all-good-Scots-together SNP that missing ‘popular front’ for which he had been searching for over half a century? That long-sought-after all-Scottish alliance of “workers, farmers, professional people, small businessmen and traders”? The SNP was certainly not socialist. But at least it was pan-Scottish.
There was also a consistency to the kind of economic policies advocated by Reid during his six decades of political activity. Despite the sometimes radical language in which they were expressed, coupled with references to the need for democracy in the economic as well as the political sphere, the bedrock of those policies was nationalism.
This was already a hallmark of the economic policies of the CP which Reid joined in 1948. At the previous year’s CP congress General Secretary Harry Pollitt had asked the rhetorical question: “Why do we need to increase production?” His answer was: “To pay for what we are compelled to import. To retain our independence as a nation.”
The economic nationalism of the soon-to-be-adopted “British Road to Socialism” was even cruder:
“In the economic sphere, Britain has been turned into a satellite of America, and an American monopolist placed in supreme command of Britain’s industry, and American economic controllers and supervisors established in London and reporting to Washington. American big business controls our financial policy, imposes trade restrictions and bans, and openly dictates policy.”
Reid effortlessly took such nationalistic economic policies with him when he joined the Labour Party. The 1981 “Radical Manifesto” which carried Reid’s name as one of its co-authors, for example, expressed the same belief in the loss of British sovereignty: “Britain has become a subject nation, unaware of its own subjection.”
For the authors of the “Radical Manifesto”, however, economic sovereignty had been lost to Brussels rather than to Washington. Hence its call for withdrawal from the EEC – another policy which Reid had advocated both as a CP member and as a Labour Party member.
Even where it seemed that there had been a real shift in Reid’s politics – between Reid the leader of the UCS work-in and Reid the denouncer of the miners’ strike – there is an element of continuity.
The emphasis of Reid’s much publicized speech at the launch of the sit-in was on discipline. There would be no vandalism, no hooliganism, no drinking. The shipyard workers were not strikers, they were not wild cats. They would conduct themselves with dignity, maturity, responsibility and discipline.
It was not a coincidence that in attacking the miners’ strike of 1984/85 Reid employed the same criteria. The UCS sit-in had exhibited the CP virtue of discipline. The miners, and particularly their leader, lacked such a virtue.
Scargill did not know self-discipline – he was too “hot-headed”. Scargill was an inferior species compared to McGahey – who knew a thing or two about discipline, having joined the CP a few years earlier than Reid but never having left it.
The “old Communists” whom Reid had met in his youth nearly four decades earlier remained the model for him: “Whatever you think of the old communists, they understood discipline, and what was possible and what would end in failure.”
Even Reid’s accusation that “the extreme left always ends up rubbing shoulders with the extreme right” had a well-established historical pedigree. It had been used by Stalinists against Trotskyists in the 1930s and 1940s (“A Vote for Haston is a Vote for Hitler”) and by Reid himself during the UCS work-in – he attacked his critics on the left of being “so far to the left that by Einstein’s theory of relativity they must be going over to the right.”
(Where the Reid of the UCS sit-in did differ from Reid of the miners’ strike is in the fact that the former would have not gone public with his criticisms. He would have displayed that “discipline” which he accused Scargill of lacking.)
Over time Reid changed his party affiliations. But, despite his elevation to folk-hero and tribune of the left, he never freed himself from the politics in which he had been trained in the CP of the 1950s. As Hassan wrote in his obituary of Reid:
“We have certainly lost something but also gained something by the passing of the men of Reid’s generation. … It would be good if we could acknowledge this complexity, rather than eulogise Reid, as even right-wing commentators such as John McTernan and Alex Massie have done.”
(McTernan was Blair’s Political Secretary. Massie is a right-wing journalist. Hassan could also have added the names of Alan Cochrane, Scottish editor of the “Daily Telegraph”, and Martin Kettle, formerly a “Marxism Today” journalist and now assistant editor of the “Guardian”, to the list of right-wing eulogizers of Reid.)
Writing in the “Daily Telegraph” McTernan lamented the death of Reid as “like the launch of the last great Clyde-built liner – the end of a great industrial heritage, a moment in British history.”
In the columns of the same paper Cochrane wote: “It is one of the tragedies of public life in this country that Jimmy Reid never represented Scotland in the House of Commons.”
But not all readers of the “Telegraph” were receptive to this eulogizing of Reid.
“WTF. This is supposed to be the Telegraph, not the Guardian. A walk down the Clyde will tell you how successful he was. Then go to Yorkshire and see how successful Scargov (sic) was. These people were part of the scum that effectively de-industrialised Britain and left us with nothing to look forward to but years of nothing,” read one comment about Cochrane’s article.
“A pair of hagiographies for a treasonous Trot? This is supposed to be the Daily Telegraph, not the Daily Worker. Leave the adulation for Marxist renegades and terrorists to the hopefully soon to be incarcerated traitors at the Guardian,” commented another reader.
(It is not the articles in the “Telegraph” which demonstrate that there cannot be a parliamentary road to socialism – it’s the readers’ comments.)
But such paeans of praise for Reid from right-wing journalists were nothing new. Even at the time of the UCS work-in the “Scottish Daily Express” hailed him as a ”big, swarthy communist who exudes the warmth of a teddy bear, a formidable leader of men” and as “a compelling orator … a man of great intelligence and drive and massive ability and determination.”
The “Financial Times” wrote of him as “a tough customer with an extreme left-wing vocabulary” but, at the same time, someone “it is evidently possibly to deal with, as it has been in the past with other British trade union leaders of a more or less ‘Red’ variety.”
The insights into Reid provided by the “Financial Times” point in the direction of the explanation of why right-wing commentators were so effusive in their posthumous praise for Reid.
There was never anything radical about Reid’s politics. As McTernan wrote: “Not for Jimmy Reid the revolutionary impossibilism of the hard left … Reid stood for an austere working-class morality.” McTernan was right. In an interview conducted in 1975, for example, Reid described “any other road” to socialism apart from “the democratic and electoral road” as “lunacy”.
Asked in the same interview for his opinion of the International Marxist Group (today: “Socialist Resistance”), the Workers Revolutionary Party (today defunct) and the International Socialists (today: the SWP), Reid bluntly replied: “I reject them. My main criticism is that they are really elitist in a sense.”
The UCS work-in attracted praise from right-wing commentators for the same reason. “In the finest moment of his finest hour, Reid insisted that the UCS workforce should respond to the prospective closure of their plant not by striking but by working,” wrote Kettle.
For Massie the UCS sit-in was not part of the upsurge of industrial militancy which eventually brought down the Tory government of 1970-74 but an exercise in Presbyterian identity politics: “There was something noble about the UCS work-in back in 1971. … In some respects the UCS dispute was the zenith of this Scotland’s image of itself: hard-working, dignified and proud.”
Boosting Reid as The Great Trade Union Leader also provided right-wing commentators with a platform from which to attack more recent leaders of trade union militancy. According to Massie:
“The contrast between Reid and a charlatan like Arthur Scargill or a pygmy like Bob Crow is total and entirely in Reid’s favour. One wonders how the NUM might have fared had they been led by men such as Reid and Airlie rather than a demagogue like Scargill.”
Boosting Reid also allowed his right-admirers to moralise about the working class of today, drawing spurious contrasts between the working class of Reid’s time and today’s working class.
“… All gone now. A world swept away, and in its place, what? Council estates that are ghettos of worklessness. Feral youths. Gun crime. Parents unable to bring up their own children, and helpless when those very kids have their own babies,” wrote McTernan.
For some commentators the death of Reid became an opportunity to declare, yet again, the death of class struggle.
According to McTernan, with Reid there also passed away the days when “a union could organize marches, occupy a plant, meet with ministers, and get a bail-out from a Tory government.”
In the “Guardian” Kettle wrote that “the shop stewards’ movement and the trade union movement itself are, except in the public services, shadows of their past. … Socialism and even social democracy are minority political movements with, at best, uncertain futures.” The way forward, claimed Kettle, lies in “industrial partnership”.
And in the “Sunday Herald” Iain MacWhirter wrote: “The era that has ended (with the death of Reid) is one in which a socialist transformation of Scottish society seemed possible, inevitable even. … (But) instead of a new socialist Jerusalem, history went backwards. … The politics of identity has triumphed over the politics of class. And all in the space of one short lifetime.”
Reid was certainly emblematic of a cluster of overlapping political traditions: old-style Stalinism; “Red Clydeside” (part fact, part fiction); a Scottish left which owed not a little to Presbyterianism; and what Hassan calls “a certain kind of granite masculinity” (epitomized in the words of one of his UCS speeches: “We don’t only build ships, we build men.”).
Those overlapping political traditions had largely passed away well before Reid’s own demise. They were not our political traditions, and, some elements of “Red Clydeside” excepted, we have no reason to mourn their passing. But whatever the most appropriate epitaph for Reid might be, it certainly cannot be: “With This Man There Died the Class Struggle.”