Jimmy Reid could only ever have been a Scottish working class hero. Cast from the same mould as the Red Clydesiders, his was a political idealism couched in pragmatism. Not for him the sterility of opposition for opposition’s sake, of futile protest that win few friends and gain only enemies. It’s an approach the left and the unions might do well to emulate today, as Gregor Gall details in his excellent tribute to Reid’s leadership skills.
And his leadership of the work-in at Upper Clyde Shipbuilders was inspired: while most would have gone for the obvious stroke of a strike and a downing of tools, he led his men in a work-in. The now famous speech incorporating the “nae bevvying” line advocated restraint, respect and responsibility. His cause was of course helped by the technicolour revolution taking place in British sitting rooms that showed off his charisma, eloquence, flair and movie star looks to great effect.
His political journey where he travelled across parties to his final resting place in the SNP was fascinating and echoes the tramlines traversed by many Scots in recent times who feel their natural political hinterland has deserted them. But it was also reminiscent of an intelligent, thoughtful approach to life and values. His principles never left him, but he was practical enough to understand that the vehicle to realise them might change – and to act on that comprehension. Many politicians might view his journey as a sign of weakness: I view it only as a strength. Staying put in a familiar world is easy, moving on is the hard thing to do.
While he only formally joined the SNP in 2005, he actually “came out” for the cause of independence a good few years earlier. I was privileged to hear the speech which marked his first public endorsement of independence. It was spell binding and thought provoking in the truest sense of the word. The rationale behind his shift has stayed with me. He articulated how he had always been a good internationalist, concerned with the lot of working class people, wherever they might live. But as he got older, he realised that being a true internationalist was not at odds with a love of country, with being a patriot.
To be a good internationalist required one to be a good nationalist was the gist of Jimmy Reid’s thinking in later life. There’s a simplicity and complexity at the heart of that notion that would benefit from further exploration and debate. It’s a shame Jimmy Reid won’t be around to lead it.