My interest in language and social change began with Jimmy Reid. For many commentators, he changed the course of British political history, in no small part due to his special facility with language.

As one of the key leaders of the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders Work-In of 1971-72, Reid contributed, not simply to a government abandoning its attempt to close some famous shipyards, but to its abandoning a whole (neo-liberal) policy agenda. Edward Heath’s ‘U-turn’ was a definitive event in post-war British politics.

But could one man’s language have been so crucial to this event?

I perused the evidence and concluded that the commentators were not mistaken. Had Reid not spoken as he did in defining what the work-in was about – human dignity, the right to work, responsibilities to communities – and, crucially, had he not framed as he did the responses to the various attacks launched against the work-in over its 14 month duration, then the outcome would almost certainly have been very different.

Following Reid’s death, much has been written about his oratory. His Glasgow University Rectorial Address was reprinted by The Herald. And of course the “no bevvying” speech has been widely mentioned. But, for myself, the ‘speech of Jimmy Reid’s life’ was made a couple of months into the work-in proper.

At that point, jobs had, in effect, been promised to 2,500 of the 8,500 UCS workers, but only if they would “co-operate” with the government. This meant abandoning the work-in and accepting the closure of two of the four UCS yards, with 6,000 redundancies – and all the knock-on effects. Otherwise, ministers said, everything would be lost.

All the government needed was for the workers who would be amongst the ‘lucky ones’ to abandon their fellows. The work-in would be stone dead – and many seemed to believe that was about to happen.

Public and private language

Reid responded by contrasting the government’s apparently caring public language of ‘co-operation to save what can be saved’ with the brutal private language of its strategists – who had since 1969 been planning to “butcher” the UCS and sell its assets “even for a pittance”. Reid peeled away the veneer of civilised politics to reveal the sneering disregard of a ruling elite for the ‘expendable’ lives of ordinary working people.

Co-operate with that if you like, he said to the relevant workers, and they promptly declined.

Without this speech, the work-in would most probably have collapsed. Heath would not have made his U-turn. Reid’s oration changed the course of events – history – and he became a celebrated figure. The speech remains relevant today. It poses the question of our response to a contemporary neo-liberal agenda which, many might think, betrays a similar contrast between the appearance of civilised political discourse – ‘we’re all in this together’, ‘the big society’, ‘progressive cuts’ – and an underlying disregard for the ‘expendable’ lives, not just of the hitherto ‘socially excluded’, but of the many soonto- be unemployed and otherwise impoverished.

Reid’s recommendation to the UCS workers was for a response of solidarity and non-co-operation. Complicity was beneath their human dignity.

In a sense, this idea was – in essence – ‘the speech of Jimmy Reid’s life’. Do not accept the unacceptable – that decisions can be made that devastate lives unjustly and with impunity – because it’s not just the dignity of those worst affected which is at stake.