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The Last Man of Iron: can we find leadership without certainty?

The death of Jimmy Reid marks the loss of one of the last Men of Iron. But as the tributes pour in, it feels as if people are using their laments to navigate and self-justify the changes of their real leaders, Thatcher and Blair.
Gerry Hassan
14 August 2010

The tributes to Jimmy Reid have been many and fulsome. They have come from across the political spectrum and from near and far – from his hometown of Glasgow to the Govan of Upper Clyde Shipbuilders, to across the UK and internationally.

If Reid hadn’t lived and led the public life he did, you almost feel that he would have been invented. His life and persona told the story of a certain part of Scotland: of Red Clydeside, the wider radical tradition, industry, and what it means to be a man in the West of Scotland.

Reid was an important figure and a fascinating and complex one. Yet I find myself feeling unease about the content and scale of the tributes. Something is going on here which does not feel right. It goes much further than not speaking ill of the dead. There is a celebration that moves beyond nostalgia as if hoping that by saying the equivalent of ‘we won’t see his like again’ maybe, magically we can. Thus, Alex Ferguson talks fondly of Reid and the importance of ‘shipbuilding’ and ‘socialism’, and yet Ferguson operates in a world of hi-finance where his football team is the plaything of the US Glazer brothers. Reid was so clearly from a different age, politics and culture, it feels as if people are using their laments to navigate and self-justify the changes of their real leaders, Thatcher and Blair.

It is certainly the case that the occupation of the Upper Clyde Shipworkers in 1971, which he led as a Communist, was a totemic, important struggle. But even though it saved the yards, it marked the ending of the grip of the industry and of a proud working class culture – and in terms of the new left movement for worker’s control it was a false dawn.

I have to say that for all Reid’s talents and skills something about him made me feel deeply uncomfortable. Both what he said and how he said it was unattractive. It expressed the intertwining of the Scottish radical tradition with a certain kind of granite masculinity. Reid came from a line of Scottish left-wing thinkers, politicians and activists who celebrate a world of black and white thinking, binary terms, right and wrong, ‘them’ and ‘us’.

Even when Reid was at his most eloquent – talking about the UCS work-in and the need for discipline, or waxing lyrically on ‘Parkinson’ or in his Glasgow University Rectoral Address, there was something unappealing at its heart: a sense of moral absolutism, an appeal to moral certainty – which I always found frightening and off-putting.

Reid is not alone here.  The line would include William McIlvanney and Tommy Sheridan to name but two, but they are the last of their line, the last of the men of iron. And unlike Martin Kettle I am sure that we do not want to have orators like him leading Labour or, indeed, any party.  In his moral certainty he was part of a left that believed in a purity of purpose a form of socialist vision which, apart from being inhuman usually ends in failure or in Sheridan’s case, tragedy and humiliation.

It is a socialist vision filled with religious and romantic imagery, even in politicians who were atheists such as Reid – who was often inclined, as many have before him, to cite Jesus as a comrade in the class struggle. This was of course a profoundly Presbyterian vision – which has shaped much of the Scottish left through its history.

Reid came from and gave voice to that Scotland of protest, voice and oral eloquence, debating and arguing. A Scotland shaped by a nation of preachers, assemblies and constantly disputatious culture which, for all its egalitarian ethos, was profoundly hierarchical and socially segmented.

One of my disagreements with Reid was the way he took his journey from the Communist Party in the 1970s to the Labour Party in 1978 (only being selected as the Labour candidate in Dundee East for 1979  because the NEC waived the rules saying you had to be a party member for a certain minimum time) to his embracing of the SNP. Many Scottish left-wingers travelled the same way. How can I put it? As the world changed in front of them the only avenue they had to continue their impossible dream, and lend credence to a whole pile of Scots myths about this land as a more fair, equal, kindly nation was by changing the vehicle.

They never questioned the road. I know this because my own father – like many of his and Reid’s generation – undertook a similar journey. My father went from the Communists in Dundee in the 1970s – to briefly backing Labour in its Bennite phase – before becoming a SNP supporter. My dad was a more pronounced version, as he unlike Reid was a Stalinist and a ‘tankie’ until the end of the Soviet bloc; for him Scottish independence became a kind of substitute for ‘Stalinism in one country’.

While saying all of this – and hopefully not sounding too black and white myself – we need to ask where do our leaders come from now, after the likes of Reid? He was born and represented a Scotland and working class culture that was proud, articulate and confident. It had a compelling certainty and belief that the future was there to be claimed and made. It contained an implicit faith in a different kind of world, one in which working class progress was about a wider, richer form of aspiration to the narrow, nasty, philistine version of ‘materialism’ which has devoured all before it.

What kind of heroes and leaders follow this? If we embrace less black and white thinking, and less moral certainty and superiority, and think maybe we have had enough from men of iron, who is left to give voice and create dreams of the future?

It is not just a question for Scotland. There is a vacuum in public life, which attracts the longing for those like Reid when we can safely look back now they are gone. I think we have certainly lost something but also that we have gained something by the passing of the men of Reid’s generation. It would be good if we could acknowledge this complexity, rather than eulogise him, as even right-wing commentators such as John McTernan and Alex Massie have done.

The most fitting tribute to Jimmy Reid, and one he would I hope half-admire, would be to put him in history and context, and reflect on the qualities and shortcomings of the politics, Scotland and masculinity that he personified. And then, to consider how we reshape a politics of hope that does not hanker for his utopian dreams of socialism and is not corrupted by neo-liberalism.

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