Jimmy Reid’s rightwards trajectory from charismatic communist to member of the SNP is the story of a ‘working-class hero’ thwarted by social and political circumstance, says JOHN GREEN
Jimmy Reid: A Scottish Political Journey, by Kenny MacAskill (Biteback Publishing, £20)
AS THE author notes in his foreword to this biography of Jimmy Reid, “there has never been a biography of the man, which is quite surprising given his high profile and longstanding prominence.”
It has taken leading SNP politician Kenny MacAskill to redress that. While his perspective on Reid is that of a convinced member of the nationalist party, he doesn’t let that cloud his judgement or compromise his deep sympathy with his subject and his politics, from his early years in the Communist Party to his later allegiance to the SNP.
Apart from Harry Pollitt and Willie Gallacher, Reid is arguably the most prominent, respected and well-loved communist Britain has produced.
From a boyhood in Glasgow’s slums, he left school at 14 and became an engineering apprentice, cutting his trade-union teeth during the 1952 Glasgow apprentices’ strike.
Soon after completing his apprenticeship, already a communist, he went on to become full-time national secretary of the Young Communist League in 1958. But it was only after returning to work in the shipyards on Clydebank in 1969 and his leading role in the 1971-72 Upper Clyde Shipbuilders (UCS) work-in that he came to national prominence.
His speeches and appearances up and down the country in support of the occupation brought out big, admiring crowds.
He gave expression to the anger, yearnings and frustrations of so many disillusioned with the political establishment. His demands for a constitutional right to work and his dictum that “the rat race is for rats” struck a deep chord.
He remained true to his socialist principles to the end of his life, even if he changed political allegiance.
In the wake of his huge popularity as leader of the UCS occupation, he stood as Communist Party parliamentary candidate for Central Dumbartonshire in the 1974 general election. But, in the face of virulent opposition from the right wing of the Labour Party and opposition from the Catholic church and Church of Scotland, he won only 14.6 per cent of the vote. It was a great disappointment to all his comrades but for him above all.
Undoubtedly, the media circus that grew around the UCS occupation and its charismatic leader did have its impact on him. He felt he could perhaps achieve more outside the Communist Party and it was time to move on, but his short period in the Labour Party and as a media commentator were not wholly the success that he had hoped for.
There were too many Labour Party careerists and pundits who were not keen to have this charismatic individual eclipse them. And even his union, the AEU, were not keen to employ this “firebrand.”
Reid, a largely self-educated working-class intellectual, read voraciously, played a musical instrument and could debate on almost any subject.
Though universally liked and respected, his life was a tragic one in many ways. He was a man with enormous potential which he could never fully realise because of the prevalent social and political circumstances.
MacAskill is to be congratulated for writing this very sympathetic, honest and informative portrayal of a true working-class hero and he also provides useful thumbnail sketches of a whole number of communist and left-wing figures and of the political and historical events during Reid’s life.
If there is a little too much of “Jimmy this” and Jimmy that” in the book and a rather dry style, it nevertheless deserves its place in the canon of good working-class biographies.