Jimmy Reid: A leader of men who took on the system ... and won

HE famously instructed the workers of the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders and the watching world that "there will be no hooliganism, there will be no vandalism, there will be no bevvying".

• Jimmy Reid delivers his famous 'no bevvying' speech during the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders dispute in 1971. Picture: Allan Milligan

Jimmy Reid, the trade union icon who helped to save an industry and, in a speech described by The New York Times as comparable with The Gettysburg Address, declared that the rat race "was for rats", has died. He was 78.

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Mr Reid, whose politics evolved from Communism through Labour until settling with the SNP, rose to international prominence when he led a "work-in" of thousands of ship-builders on the Clyde during 1971 and 1972. He was, said the First Minister Alex Salmond in tribute, "Clyde-built" and "Scotland's great rallying figure", while Tony Benn declared him "a great figure of the Labour movement".

In defiance of the Conservative government who had refused to continue to subsidise the shipyards with the projected loss of 6,000 of the 8,500 workers, Mr Reid and his fellow shop stewards seized control of the yards. Instead of downing tools, they picked up them up and ran the yards, fulfilling orders for ships until Ted Heath, the Prime Minister, relented and announced an injection of 35 million.

Mr Reid died on Tuesday night at Inverclyde Royal hospital in Greenock after suffering a brain haemorrhage earlier in the week. He leaves behind his wife, Joan, and three daughters, Eileen, Shona and Julie. Yesterday his long-time friend and former Scottish Labour Party chairman Bob Thomson said: "Jimmy Reid was a courageous and steadfast fighter for working people and their families. He told the truth, often at great cost to himself."

His politics were shaped by the poverty of his upbringing in the Gorbals and Govan. His parents had seven children, only four of whom survived, with three sisters lost all under 18 months. As he said in an interview: "We weren't getting enough to eat, we were living in slums that were disease ridden, TB and diptheria were rife. I hated the system that, in the midst of plenty, allowed millions to die in the slums of the 30s." Seventy years later he still seethed with anger at the fact that Shettleston was one of the poorest places in Europe.

A bright boy, he was taught French, Latin and Greek but claimed his real education was listening to the speakers at Govan Cross. His first job, ironically, was with a firm of Stockbrokers, but he left for what he viewed as the industrial credibility of the engineering sector. As an apprentice he organised a strike after discovering he was paid 50 per cent less than the weekly cost of kennelling a dog.

The next campaign was more selfless, a campaign for higher pensions that took him to Downing Street to deliver a petition of 300,000 names. He spent some years in London as leader of the Young Communist League, returning in 1964 as the party's Scottish secretary. Although being groomed as future leader of the party in Britain, he went back in 1969, to the shipyards that would make his name.

In a televised speech which was broadcast around the world, Mr Reid warned workers as they staged the "work-in". He said: "We are not going to strike. We are not even having a sit-in strike. Nobody and nothing will come in and nothing will go out without our permission. And there will be no hooliganism, there will be no vandalism, there will be no bevvying because the world is watching us."

The campaign, which became a model for trade unionists, won support from John Lennon and Billy Connolly before Heath's government backed down in February 1972. Later that year he was elected as rector of Glasgow University famously commenting in his inaugural speech, which was covered on the front page of The New York Times such was his international prominence, that "the rat race is for rats".

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The high-profile he earned through the "work-in" also led to an appearance on the chat show Parkinson where he verbally fenced with Carry-On star Kenneth Williams then skewered him.

By the mid-1970s he had become disillusioned with the Communist Party, so joined Labour and stood as a candidate for Dundee East in 1979, but lost against the SNP whom he eventually joined 25 years later in 2005. He was frequently referred to as "the best MP Scotland never had". Yet by moulding together his oratory, erudition and politics, he embarked on a new career as a journalist, writing columns for The Scotsman and, among others, The Sun, to the dismay of many followers suspicious of the "Murdoch press".

In 1984 he won a Bafta for a series of documentaries, Reid About the USSR, which benefited from the access his Communist credentials allowed him. In 2000 he helped to set up the Scottish Left Review.

Yesterday Alex Salmond said: "Jimmy Reid was Clyde-built. He has been Scotland's great rallying figure over the last four decades and was one of the few Scottish political figures who can genuinely say that they provoked real change for the better in society - always addressing both a Scottish and international audience. He was a warm, humorous and generous human being."

"The veteran left-wing politician Tony Benn described Mr Reid as a "great figure of the labour movement". The former Labour energy secretary said: "He built a really powerful and proud and self-confident group of people who decided to take over the yard and make it work. In the end, it came to a conclusion and the yard did continue."

To the Scottish Labour Party leader Iain Gray, Reid was an "iconic figure". He said: "Scotland will miss his voice, his testament to the worst and the best of our recent past and his hope for our future."

Former Scottish Labour Party chairman and long-term friend Bob Thomson said: "Jimmy Reid was a courageous and steadfast fighter for working people and their families."

"At the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders work-in he proved that organised workers could defeat an unthinking government and uncaring big business."

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A few years ago, Reid and his wife left Glasgow for a detached house on a little slope, outside of Rothesay on the Isle of Bute. As he told his wife when he inspected his new home, it was what he had always wanted, to wake up each morning to a view of his beloved Clyde.