Jimmy Reid

Tributes from Bob Thomson, Eileen Reid, Murray Ritchie, Elaine Smith, Derek Simpson, John Quigley

“The golden age will then revive; each man shall be a brother,
In harmony we all shall live and till the earth together,
In virtue trained, enlightened youth shall move each fellow creature
And time shall surely prove the truth that man is good by nature”.

That was the very apt Burns poem with which Jimmy Reid concluded his 1972 Rectorial Address at Glasgow University, his “A rat race is for rats” speech.

I knew Jimmy for over 40 years. We first worked together in the late 60s. At that time in shipyards and factories, there would be five or six big trade unions and at least half a dozen smaller unions. An almost “caste” system operated separating workers by the job they did – white collar, blue collar, tradesmen, semi-skilled and labourers. Workers and their trade unions were divided, rarely combining, often in competition and could be easily picked off by employers. Jimmy and others saw the need for industrial unions that covered whole industries or services. After much effort and persuasion we were successful in getting engineers, foundry, construction and technical workers to form the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers. While the AUEW was not as successful as hoped, because of the self-interest of some at the top, it was the genesis of UNITE, now our largest trade union covering most of manufacturing industry. There have been similar mergers in other industries and services, creating single, stronger, more effective organisations to protect and advance the interests of workers and their families. This campaign exemplified Jimmy’s skills as a strategic thinker, able to analyse and articulate situations and then eloquently and passionately to argue for that position. He eschewed differences and narrow self-interests, always stressing the need for unity and solidarity.

He had profound vision and imagination and was a charismatic orator. He said what he believed to be the truth, often at great personal cost when others would have kept silent. During the 1984 Miners’ Strike, while supporting the cause against pit closures, he openly questioned its timing, tactics and validity. Many agreed with him, others didn’t, but it was a debate that was needed. On trade unions’ relationships with political parties; he advocated caution when it was unfashionable to do so. In 1995 he said: “In the 1970s trade union leaders did get too involved in quasi-governmental institutions. At the time I argued that if trade union leaders wanted to play a part in governing the country they should resign their union posts and stand for Parliament. The danger of such involvement is not that unions dominate government, but that government dominates the unions. Free trade unions, like the judiciary, have to be independent of government, all governments, any government”.

Jimmy’s last main project where he combined his political, trade union and journalist skills was in the establishment of the Scottish Left Review magazine in 1999. Since the mid-1990s he had warned about the direction of the Labour Party which had been hijacked by the New Labour faction. Jimmy called them non-Labour. Jimmy was equally critical of all the other main parties’ support for neo-liberal economic policies. As he warned, these policies have led to a major recession where ordinary families will pay a heavy price for the greed of bankers and speculators and the failure of politicians to regulate them. Through disillusionment with this political direction Jimmy conceived the idea of a not-for-profit publication which would provide an inclusive, non-party forum for all the left in Scotland. He saw the potential of the internet for mass communication and interaction at a low cost to put forward the radical alternative policies and views. Jimmy, using his address book, convened a number of meetings and the Scottish Left Review was set up, primarily as a free, online magazine with printed copies available. His involvement and contacts were instrumental in keeping the magazine going in our early years. Ten years on, thanks to our readers, trade unions and individuals, the Review is going from strength to strength and providing that radical Scottish thinking which Jimmy envisaged and always practiced himself.

Jimmy got a lot of criticism from many in the Labour movement for becoming a nationalist. The truth is he was always a nationalist; home rule had been the policy of the Communist Party and off course Labour. In his last article for Scottish Left Review in November 2007, he wrote: “An old Welsh miner told me that a man who cannot love all that’s good in the culture of his own nation is incapable of respect for all that’s good in the cultures of other nations. In other words a healthy nationalism spawns a healthy internationalism. This truth seems to evade many on the British Left who tend to equate nationalism with chauvinism and to pose nationalists against internationalists. This is nonsense. “Inter” means between and “nationalist” a sense of your own national identity. Internationalism can therefore only exist as a kind of solidarity or a coming togetherness of peoples from different nations. If there were no nationalist there could be no internationalist”.

Our last conversation was about the political situation and the coalition government, or as he called them, the CON-DEMs. I was particularly despondent, Jimmy was more upbeat and reminded me that adversary could act as a stimulus to motivate workers to organise and fight back. It is a good memory of a fine man.

Bob Thomson is a member of the Editorial Committee of the Review and a past chairman and treasurer of the Scottish Labour Party.

‘Men are like rivers: the water is one and the same in all of them but every river is narrow in some places, flows swifter in others; here it is broad, there still, or clear, or cold, or muddy, or warm. It is the same with men. Every man bears within him the germs of every quality, and now manifests one, now another … while still remaining the same man’. Tolstoy (The Awakening)

For our family Dad remained the same man. He never changed or altered. His essence was a good nature. He was good natured to the core. And he was eternally optimistic, generous, tolerant and convivial (not always about politics), but about the capacity for human beings to be good essentially. And he saw it in all of us. There’s an old phrase coined by a cynic about socialists: ‘I love humanity, it’s people I hate’. Not for Dad. He loved humanity, but he loved people even more. Dad was unusual in that the political was never personal for him. Dad and I argued a lot about issues. But although we argued we never ever fell out. That’s why the 1980s were so difficult for him and our family. The personal attacks levelled against him during that decade bewildered him – even more so because many of those who did so told him in private he was right. But he persevered – ‘Standing strong against opposing winds’ – the key to a great leader. That was Dad.

Publicly he could be coruscating about one particular group – leaders who misled. But I didn’t hear him say a bad word about anyone in private. Dad never gossiped; it didn’t interest him, but more than that, he didn’t like it – whether about family, friends or political friends or foes. So he wasn’t clubbable. He resisted membership of any club or society that took itself seriously or met on a regular basis. He was non-sectarian and tolerant or in the modern jargon, multi-cultural, diverse.

Dad sang and danced a lot at home. Every morning, you could hear him. The kids used to follow him around the house, marching behind whilst he trumpeted his favourite tunes. Superficially and domestically, dad typified the West of Scotland working class male. He was that, but much, much more. He didn’t like all – male Burns suppers and other male bonding events. His support of his daughters and granddaughters has had a huge influence on who we are as women.

As Dad, I cannot imagine life without him. It is going to be very hard. His love for us all was demonstrable. Kisses and cuddles were constant. And we talked – oh how we talked! Despite ours and his foibles, mistakes and failures, he did that un-Scottish thing: he saw the good in all of us. The water of that river may be muddy at times, but for us, he remained the same man. His values, along with his kindness, love of family, humour and decency will be passed down the generations of Reids to come.

Eileen Reid, Jimmy’s daughter

I don’t know how good an engineer Jimmy was but as a user of journalism’s modern technology he was hopeless. Words were his means of income for 25 years after he reinvented himself as a commentator but processing them from a computer screen to The Herald often led to calamity. Very often the job of seeing the Reid column safely delivered to the editorial department was best left to colleagues or his family. Jimmy flirted with the tabloids for a while. At different times he wrote columns for the Scottish edition of the Sun – Neil Kinnock had argued for a Labour voice in a generally hostile media environment – and the Daily Record. But Jimmy was never comfortable with the Murdochs and Maxwells. He regarded Murdoch’s power as an anti-democratic injustice and he was scandalised by Labour’s fear of the Sun. His Record column, cleverly titled JR (the villain in the Dallas soap was popular at the time) had a big following but there were tales of heavy editorial direction, which dismayed him. And he was always one to resist the tabloids’ fondness for columnists’ comment on trivia. He was too big a thinker for that and, besides, he did not like being told what to think and he did not like Robert Maxwell nor Maxwell’s notorious contempt for his own employees.

So his best journalistic efforts were poured into television where broadcasters, eternally searching for new talent, found themselves a natural performer, and into his Herald columns throughout the 1990s. Such was his lack of self-regard that he once phoned me in a panic asking where he could buy a copy of his own book, Power without Principles, which was an anthology of his Herald columns. He did not possess one himself and had forgotten the name of the publisher! In television he embraced the camera as if it was a close friend. A viewer could almost feel Jimmy’s arm around him in the living room proffering a drink as he enthused over his latest subject. The Baftas and other awards were the inevitable result but however able Jimmy was on the telly his métier was the written word.

“I consider myself dead jammy, hoachie, and any other word you can think of that means inordinately lucky. I make a living out of what I most want to do,” he wrote.

Whether as television critic or as columnist he poured out opinion with characteristic warmth and passion and when he talked politics – which was most of the time – with profound knowledge. How New Labour quaked when he thundered his denunciations and, later, began gravitating towards the SNP and independence. He had the greatest of journalistic talents, the ability to explain complicated issues in clear and unambiguous terms – and make his copy entertaining. In a Reid column you could always expect a good joke and heartfelt argument as he took up arms for protecting society’s most vulnerable. “I’m a warrior,” he said, “a warrior who trades in words.” And Jimmy’s words – his beautiful way with language – proved that the pen can indeed be mightier than the sword.

Murray Ritchie is former Scottish Political Editor of The Herald

I loved Jimmy Reid. He was a big fabulous convivial man who thoroughly enjoyed life and thrived on social interaction. He once said “We are social animals. We need one another” and he really lived that conviction. Beyond that he was a man of principle, always guided by his fundamental belief in socialism. His book, “Power without Principles” provided a welcome antidote to “New Labour’s sickness”; a philosophy that sadly so many Labour politicians have been keen to associate with over the past decade and, interestingly, the current leadership candidates are now vying to disassociate from. Jimmy’s essays unpicked the myth and reduced complex matters to the scrutiny of plain common sense, providing a beacon for anyone who sought to represent labour and promote socialism. This was a refreshing remedy for the spin and weasel words of the snake oil salesmen, dominating the political stage.

Jimmy epitomised for me the essence of real labour. He was working class, self educated and had a passion for fairness and equality. No doubt he would now be questioning why the 6th richest country in the world, whose economy continues to grow, is cutting services and provisions for the poorest in society instead of taxing the rich. I had the pleasure to visit Jimmy and Joan on Rothesay on a few occasions over the years. I particularly recall one occasion when Joan took me, my son and my niece to the beach whilst my husband Vann spent several hours drinking malt whisky, smoking Cuban cigars and soaking up the pleasure of Jimmy’s company in the fabulous garden with a view of the bay. I’m told that the conversation mainly consisted of jazz, cricket and socialism – fantastic! Jimmy stayed with us a few times at our home in Coatbridge, with one of the most memorable involving a political meeting in my dining room to discuss the future direction of the Scottish Left. Clearly, we didn’t sort that one out.

With Jimmy’s passing, I have lost a personal friend, mentor and political inspiration. I believe that his various political party affiliations over the years were incidental to his fundamental belief in socialism. In “Power without Principles” he said “Let the parties rise above party, politicians above party politics. Let Scots unite across the divides, and governments, and even this lot, will surely pay heed”. Sadly we still seem unable to do that, whichever party is in power. Jimmy Reid will be sorely missed and he leaves a massive gap in Scottish political and cultural life. Scotland has lost a much-loved, respected and renowned son whose common sense approach to arguing the case for socialism in a land of plenty was inimitable. He was also a well-read, self educated man who loved words and literature almost as much as jazz, malt whisky and Cuban cigars. I hope he would approve if I finish with a quote from Hamlet: “He was a man, take him for all in all, I shall not look upon his like again.”

Elaine Smith is MSP for Coatbridge and Chryston and Convener of the Labour Campaign for Socialism

Jimmy Reid and Jimmy Airlie were two of those I looked up to and respected when I frst attended the AEU National Committee in 1978, a notable year in which the left and right were tied 26-26. Of course I knew of both Jimmys by repute but I have to say they exceeded even their massive reputations they were an inspiration to me and many others … I know this piece is about Jimmy Reid but I find it difficult to see one without the other such as they were in my eyes. However I can relate one true story of when I last met Jimmy Reid, perhaps four or five years ago… I had come up to Scotland for a presentation evening for big Davie Cooper and in the room was Jimmy holding court as usual. On spying me Jimmy turned and in his characteristic way, arms outstretched. He said.”Derek …. You haven’t spoken to me in years!!”. I shot back a reply “Sorry Jimmy I didn’t like to interrupt”! For a few seconds Jimmy was for once lost for words until he convulsed into laughter. Like so many I will miss him his words and the confidence with which he spoke them.

Derek Simpson is Joint General Secretary of Unite the Union

Jimmy Reid; what do I write? All the adjectives have been used up by the wonderful tributes and contributions that have come from far and wide. Inspirational,Informative, and an exceptional talent for explaining issues – no matter how complex – in a simple way . The only person who could have found more adjectives, and articulated his contribution, would have been Jimmy himself. However not about himself but about all the injustices he observed and wanted to eliminate. I first came into contact with Jimmy Reid and of course the other Jimmy (Airlie) as a young shop steward during the UCS work-in. I was a steward working with the Marine Engineering Company Kincaids, installing main engine and marine equipment in the ships in one of the threatened Yards, Connells at Scotstoun. I found the whole experience of listening to Jimmy extremely enlightening, something which held me in good stead for a 17 week strike which I was involved in later in 1972. I am sure that both Jimmys would have agreed UCS was a collective effort given all the work that was carried out by the other stewards none of whom are household names. Their efforts ensured the success of the campaign. However without the Leadership provided by the two Jimmys, but in particular Reid’s outstanding eloquence with the wider public, UCS would not have been so successful so much so that at a time when the Trade Union movement found it difficult to convince employers to take union contributions off members wages. In factories up and down the country Employers agreed to deduct the UCS fighting fund off the payroll, 25p per week. Everyone paid. So not only did Jimmy’s oratory inspire the workers in the yards under threat it captured the hearts, and the minds of fellow workers, communities, and employers.

The unfortunate and tragic thing is that both times that Jimmy stood for election, once for a senior Full Time position in his Union the AEU and his attempt to be elected to Parliament as the Labour Candidate in Dundee, the electorate rejected him. This was in spite of the great contribution he made to both his union and the Labour movement. Maybe some of the people who conspired in those defeats whether in the Union, media, or in other political parties (playing the anti Red card) should reflect on a quote from one of the other great trade union, socialist and national Leaders of the last century, James Connolly: “Apostles of freedom are ever idolised when dead, but crucified when alive”. Jimmy’s loss to the labour movement and Scottish society are immense but in comparison to the loss that Joan and Jimmy’s Family are suffering is minuscule.

John Quigley is Former Unite Scottish Secretary and shop steward Kincaids marine engineering company Port Glasgow