But the enduring image of the socialist hard man in Scotland has more to do with perceptions of morality than political ideals, the authors of a new study have found.
Accusers of capitalism: masculinity and populism on the Scottish radical left compares the careers of three well-known activists – Jimmy Reid, Jim Sillars, and Tommy Sheridan – who stood for different parties and enjoyed varying careers but all tapped into the spirit of Red Clydeside.
The paper, published by the academic journal Social History, found they “advocated resistance to market forces and the state” by “embodying a traditional masculine authority rooted in the cultural imagery of industrial working-class communities”.
But such a style of political leadership became quickly outdated due to the closure of the country’s heavy industries and a changing society which saw women challenge the male dominance of politics.
Its authors, Ewan Gibbs and Rory Scothorne, cite the anti-war socialist John Maclean as a key influence on the trio.
Maclean, jailed for sedition in 1918 , became revered by the left after delivering a 75-minute speech from the dock decrying capitalism as “rotten to its foundations”.
“History is always political and we were interested in the kinds of political struggles and experiences that had sustained the Maclean myth,” Gibbs told Scotland on Sunday. “It became apparent that Maclean has a special role within a kind of pantheon of radical leadership figures in Scotland, all of whom are men, and all of whom espoused variants of left-wing, nationalist populism – so it made sense to focus on the politics of masculinity and the people, which remain relevant today.”
Jimmy Reid, the late trade union activist, made headlines around the world for his role in a 1971 industrial dispute over the future of Upper Clyde shipbuilders.
He became famous for insistence on self-discipline, telling workers “there will be no hooliganism, there will be no vandalism, there will be no bevvying because the world is watching us”.
Scothorne said the background of each man was pivotal. “Reid, Sillars and Sheridan each led campaigns against the effects of mass unemployment and punitive social policies, but in quite different circumstances,” he said. “Reid as a shipyard trade union leader; Sillars as a parliamentarian and party political leader in Ayrshire; Sheridan at the head of a campaign of community activists opposing the poll tax in Glasgow’s housing schemes.
“In each case, their leadership rested on their authenticity as embodiments of male working-class community authority.
“Their back stories were their greatest assets, demonstrated by the fact each wrote politicised autobiographies at a comparatively young age.”
While the enduring image of the no-nonsense campaigner lives on, Scotland is now a very different country from the era of shipyard work-ins.
“Each man charted a different course but they were all politically isolated by the late 2000s,” continued Scothorne.
“Their shared approach to politics floundered in the context of not just intensified deindustrialisation but also the much altered culture of Scotland under devolution.
“Scotland now has a political culture strongly influenced by feminist activists who sought to challenge men’s dominance.”