We Were On Our Own Two Feet

The Upper Clyde Shipbuilders came into existence in 1968 following a review of the shipbuilding industry by the Labour Government, The Geddes Report, published 1966 which recommended rationalisation and horizontal integration of shipbuilding in the United Kingdom into large regional groups. The Minister who implemented this restructuring was Tony Benn.

One year after it was formed a letter was drafted by leading Tory MP Nicholas Ridley on 3 December 1969 in which he described the UCS as a cancer. He was one of the Selsdon Group, right-wing free marketeers who opposed state aid in companies like shipbuilding and believed they should be left to the vagaries of market forces.

Later in December 1969 they prepared the infamous Riddley Report, a vicious document outlining proposals when they came into office to drastically curtail shipbuilding on the Upper Reaches. This proposed to hive off Yarrows, butcher, run down, sell for a pittance, refuse working capital which would lead to insolvency and the end of UCS. This would be done regardless of the viability of the company.

All objective analysis of UCS showed that the company was moving into profitability, they had a full order book to last them till 1974, with orders in the pipeline.

The Tories were elected to Government in 1971. A loan for £6 million to UCS was refused and the liquidator was called in.The leading shop stewards and the work force had been anticipating this. Jimmy Reid gave his now-famous speech announcing the work-in and the coordinating committee moved into action on all fronts, publicity, information, calls to the labour movement the British public.

We have the erosion of democracy in the Trade Unions. Appointing officials instead of electing, leading to the undermining of any fresh, new, dynamic blood coming through with people being in politics and the trade unions as a career and not as a civic responsibility.

The shipyards, with all the labour force, stayed united behind the leadership despite the many attempts to throw them off course by those with vested interests who only saw the yards and their workers as units to be used as they wished, with no concern to the social or economic effects. The attempts of the government to divide the workforce when they proposed a compromise deal with the aid Danny McGarvie, right-wing General Secretary of the Boilermakers Union and the press who warned that the solution of saving three yards and closing the famous John Browns shipyard was a reasonable compromise. The half a loaf is better than none philosophy.

A mass meeting of the workers rejected this. Jimmy Airlie opened the meeting and told the workers that the deal being offered by the government was not a new one but was contained in the Ridley Report as one of their scenarios. This was followed by Jimmy Reid who again rebutted the deal and asked why the press who had supported us were now saying we were being unreasonable.

He went on to say to the meeting, (taken from a taped transcript) “we`ll discuss any proposals that deals with the four yards and the labour force. But all the time they come back to the butchery of our industry. I`d rather be on the dole than be amongst the 2500 that would be left to grovel, accept wage reductions and all sorts of other things, I`m telling you it would be a short term solution because their objectives would take place in a year or so and it would be the end of our industry on the Clyde and it`s like a murderer who wants to murder us we`ve found out we`ve defended ourselves against the murderer and people say please negotiate with the murderer, you might stop him from piercing your heart, but he can cut off your legs and arms and there`s a sensible compromise and when you`re lying bleeding they will tell you in a year or two, wi you minus the legs. Why aren`t you standing on your own two feet?”

Jimmy goes on to speak of closing ranks, and tell them they are not on, they were butchers eight weeks ago, they are butchery today and we are having no truck with butchers. This meeting effectively gave back control to the Leadership. As Dr Chik Collins, academic writer, commented this was critical as the workforce showed that they were not going to cooperate on anything less than the four yards and all the labour force.

The work-in continued with discussions and negotiations of all interested parties and ended with the John Brown workers unanimously accepting the deal from Marathon, an American oil rig company. The Government had U-turned on its policy of no state intervention. £90million was injected in UCS and the Heath government lost the next election. The shipyards were later nationalised by the 1974 Labour Government.

Events since that period show that ‘Selsdon Man’ did not disappear and indeed have revisited us today with a vengeance. We must look the journey the mass party of the people has pursued since then and before, starting with the defeat of the Labour Party in the 1959 election and the internecine fights within the party on Clause IV and its abandonment, other policies which finally ended up with the defeat of New Labour at the last election.

Events during the years of Tory rule and the ineffectiveness of the trade unions hampered by increasing state control, sequestration orders, secondary picketing restraints and many other laws introduced by the Tories and the impact they had on civil liberties resulted in the de- industrialisation of industry and manufacturing.

The abandonment of a left strategy by the Labour Party should be analysed.

Many loyal Labour party members left the Party during the Blair years. They saw the refusal of the government to rescind the anti-trade union laws, proper reform of the House of Lords, tuition fees, making the Labour Party into a party of war following the slavish spectacle of support to George Bush by Tony Blair and his acolytes. (Yes Labour made improvements, but they left themselves open to criticism.)

We have the erosion of democracy in the Trade Unions. Appointing officials instead of electing, leading to the undermining of any fresh, new, dynamic blood coming through with people being in politics and the trade unions as a career and not as a civic responsibility. How have we arrived at the current situation? There are undemocratic forces working to deny the British people a fair and decent society.

During the UCS campaign those involved thought only of saving their industry and communities. All other thoughts were secondary to this. It was your duty, moral responsibility to fight, regardless of the personal consequences, or career prospects.

The UCS Work-in caused reverberations not only in Britain but worldwide. It was and remains an example and inspiration to workers that organised, united and with public support they can defeat big business, aided by corrupt politicians, ruthless pursuit of profit without any consideration of the human consequences.