The past is a foreign country but union leader Jimmy Reid's famous speech about inequality rings truer now than ever – Stewart McDonald

The UK is a very different country to 1953 when Queen Elizabeth was crowned but some things don’t seem to change

As she took her seat in King Edward’s Chair, preparing to be anointed with holy oil, the eyes of a foreign country were fixed on Queen Elizabeth in 1953. It was a country where homosexuality was criminalised, fewer than a third of women had paid jobs, and non-white citizens were banned from working in clerical jobs at the monarch’s official residence.

The United Kingdom is a very different place today. And, in a country where the national story is more often told using the scale of Prime Ministers and parliamentary terms than years or even decades, the passing of a monarch like Queen Elizabeth offered a telescope through which to peer into the distant past and see just how far the winds of progress have taken us.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

But even as the Coronation of King Charles III this week provides us a chance to look back at our past with rose-tinted glasses, we remain surrounded in the present by reminders of how much we have got wrong. Last week marked 51 years since Jimmy Reid, the shop steward who led the Upper Clyde shipbuilders work-in, addressed students at Glasgow University after being elected their Rector. In a short speech described by the New York Times as "the greatest since President Lincoln's Gettysburg Address", Reid spoke about the social and economic ills he saw in the society around him.

He described the view from “the Olympian heights of an executive suite”, where “the overwhelming tendency must be to see people as units of production”. After 50 years of neoliberal policies, it is that perspective, unlike the fruits of economic growth, which has trickled down throughout the population: just think of the recent story of the Deliveroo rider who lay collapsed on a cold street in London after the concierge of the building he was delivering food to initially refused to let him inside. It was, as one Deliveroo driver said, a window into the cruel Britain we inhabit today: the ability to summon fine dining with a few clicks of our smartphone as others wait in the cold for an ambulance while seriously ill.

Jimmy Reid said he heard all around him “the cry of men who feel themselves victims of blind economic forces beyond their control”, and “the frustration of ordinary people excluded from the process of decision-making”. The conditions of industrial society, he said, had filled working people with a “despair and hopelessness” and a feeling that they “have no real say in shaping or determining their own destinies”.

This was in 1972. Now fast-forward 50 years and think of Tony Blair’s 2005 statement that people who want to “stop and debate globalisation… might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer”, or of the chairman of the US Federal Reserve who said in 2007 that “it hardly makes any difference who will be the next president. The world is governed by market forces”.

For decades, people up and down this country have been told that the misery and alienation they’re experiencing are as natural as the weather. These statements were always political arguments dressed up as objective scientific facts – revealed as such last week when Jake Sullivan, national security adviser to the US president stood in front of the world and, in a few short paragraphs, tore apart the foundations of the economic orthodoxy that produced them.

Queen Elizabeth II sits on a throne during her coronation in Westminster Abbey in 1953 (Picture: Central Press Photo Ltd/AFP via Getty Images)Queen Elizabeth II sits on a throne during her coronation in Westminster Abbey in 1953 (Picture: Central Press Photo Ltd/AFP via Getty Images)
Queen Elizabeth II sits on a throne during her coronation in Westminster Abbey in 1953 (Picture: Central Press Photo Ltd/AFP via Getty Images)

As part of this “New Washington Consensus”, the United States committed itself to active state intervention in the economy to serve the interests of the state and its citizens. It promised, as a matter of national security, to strengthen workers’ rights rather than erode them, pledged urgent market intervention to combat the climate crisis and ensure that our planet can continue to support human life for generations to come. Considering a speech like this, the statements made by Tony Blair and Alan Greenspan – that misery and alienation are facts of life – now seem nothing short of perverse.

Yet even as the economic orthodoxy that defined the past half-century in the US is being rewritten from the ground up, what alternative is being posed in the United Kingdom? Who in Westminster has made any moves to build a society that looks fundamentally different to the one Jimmy Reid described more than 50 years ago?

We have an intellectually moribund Conservative party whose ideologues have imposed over a decade of grinding austerity on this country. But even as the day when the Conservative party will be yanked off stage comes ever closer, the Labour Party is still playing by the increasingly outdated fiscal rules of the game.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Keir Starmer’s U-turn on student tuition fees is not only a betrayal of the young people whom the Labour party has clearly lost interest in, but of a society which is crying out for more investment in education, in healthcare and in all forms of public infrastructure.

As I have argued in previous columns, the rules that will shape the political and economic debates of the coming decades are being rewritten as we speak. Washington – where the issue of workers’ rights is now considered a matter of national security – knows it. Brussels knows it. Beijing knows it. Moscow knows it. Every citizen in this country can see it happening around them whenever they open a newspaper, and the unwillingness of either of the Westminster parties to address it is becoming increasingly surreal. This marks an opportunity for Humza Yousaf.

The UK has changed for the better since the 1950s, in more ways than I could ever count. But Jimmy Reid’s words should not have been a prophecy: his observations about life in this country should have been consigned to the history books decades ago. Instead, as Charles III ascends the throne and a new royal age begins, Jimmy Reid’s words ring truer now than ever before.

Stewart McDonald is SNP MP for Glasgow South



Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.