Kenny MacAskill, Jimmy Reid – a Scottish political journey, Biteback Publishing, 2017, 9781785902796, £20.00
Reviewed by Bob Thomson
At the outset I should declare an interest. The author interviewed me as a long-time associate and friend of Jimmy Reid whilst researching this book. I am mentioned a few times and importantly towards the end of the book it mentions the founding of this magazine by Jimmy and myself in what was Jimmy’s last political project.
The moans first. The book could have done with better editing and proof reading. There are a number of obvious errors. It describes the Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth as ‘H.M.S.’. As any schoolboy knows, these were liners and not warships. The caption for the famous photo of Jimmy being carried shoulder height by students after his election as Rector of Glasgow University says ‘Jimmy at demonstration’. Sir Danny McGarvey was not an AEU official but President of the Boilermakers, a union often at odds with the engineers. The phrase that ‘Jimmy was the best MP Scotland never had’ is true, but did not need repeating so many times.
The carping over! This is a good and readable chronology of Jimmy’s political and personal journey. It portrays his intellect, breadth of knowledge and interests and most importantly his passion and constant advocacy for social justice amplified by judicious quotations from his speeches and writings.
His letter of resignation from the Communist Party and the then General Secretary’s reply give context to those times in the 1970s. His 1998 Herald article giving his reasons for leaving the Labour Party is the most devastating critique of Blair, New Labour and neo-liberalism I have read. Who can forget ‘People say that Tony Blair has no principles; they are wrong. He has principles; they are Tory principles. He is in the wrong party’. Jimmy was an early and consistent critic of ‘new’ Labour. The book asks the question could more have been done early on to stop them. The answer is yes. The Labour movement paid a heavy price for the lack of courage by union leaders.
His rectorial address, ‘The Rat Race is for rats’ speech is reproduced in full. It ranks as one of the greatest speeches of the twentieth century and is even more relevant today. Witness the increase in child poverty. The book deals with some aspects of Jimmy’s political career not so well known. He was one of three Communist councillors in Clydebank uniting with left Labour councillors in opposition to Heath’s Tory government’s political decision to substantially increase council house rents, the start of the continuing Tory attack on social housing.
Taking into account the author’s prominent position in the SNP, the book is not too triumphalist about Jimmy’s eventual membership. It rightly mentions his early criticism of the Nationalists’ lack of a class perspective. Had he lived and been in better health he would have been as critical of the SNP as he was of the Communist Party and the Labour Party. I think he would have taken the view that the SNP is social democratic in its social policy but neo-liberal in its economic policy. The reality is that Jimmy saw political parties as vehicles towards the creation of a better society at home and abroad. When they ceased to be relevant to this goal, he moved on. In 2005 at the height of ‘new’ Labour, joining the SNP was a progressive thing to do. His attitude to nationalism and internationalism is summed up in his wonderful last article for Scottish Left Review in November 2007.
Is the book too uncritical? Probably. Some criticisms came from personal jealousies and political doctrinarism. Was he right to stand for Labour in the 1979 general election so soon after leaving the Communist Party? Yes. Was he right to stand in Dundee East? No. Was he ‘the best MP Scotland never had’? I doubt it, Jimmy was too much of a free thinker to have been a political apparatchik as his actions and writings show. He was a consistent and eloquent voice for social justice and a moral dimension to human existence.
Reading this book has reminded me of the enormous public, family and personal pressures Jimmy was under all of his adult life, which took their toll. A Clyde-built man, whom I was privileged to know as a friend and mentor.
Bob Thomson is chair of the Scottish Left Review editorial Board. All Jimmy’s past articles for Scottish Left Review can be viewed online at our website www.scottishleftrevie.scot