Michael Kelly: Reid's words don't have the same ring when read

Alex Salmond never misses an occasion to turn the spotlight on himself. So, at Jimmy Reid's funeral last week he made another of the empty political gestures for which his premiership has become famous. He announced that Jimmy Reid's rectorial address would be made available to all Scottish schools - together, of course, with all the necessary (expensive) back-up material.

Yesterday on these pages, John McTernan ruthlessly exposed the damage being done to our educational system by the new Curriculum for Excellence. That Salmond's commitment to include the wit and wisdom of Jimmy Reid into the teaching of history and modern studies has been allowed to pass without critical comment indicates how widely accepted this dumbing down of our schools has become.

Studying the CD s and DVDs of Billy Connolly's performances would give as much insight into understanding present-day Scotland. Connolly brought an original and observant eye to the working-class life of Glasgow and her people. Reid's rectorial address, on the other hand, was a regurgitation of ill-digested clichd ideas.

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The main theme in that address was alienation. Yet this had been a subject of study almost as soon as assembly lines had become a preferred method of production. As far back as 1936 Charlie Chaplin made Modern Times, a film set in the Great Depression which "proclaimed the frustrating struggle by proletarian man against the dehumanising effects of the machine in the Industrial Age". By the time Reid made his speech in 1972 this alienation had not only been recognised in the theory and practice of industrial relations, it had percolated into statutory provision for workers' rights. As one example, the 1967 Redundancy Payments Act recognised, for the first time in the UK, that employers did not have the sole rights to the "property" in a job but that the worker had too, and if he should lose that job he was entitled to compensation.

So the world had moved on. The speech contained nothing novel. Indeed it was platitudinous. It offered no specific solutions - better education and a reform of the institutions of government - and had no-one sitting back in their seats thinking "well, I never thought of that before".

It had all the hallmarks of the self-taught. Not that anyone can condemn Reid for learning for himself what the educational system failed to deliver for him. But such unguided learning often leads to confused thinking. Enoch Powell was a clever man, a professor of Greek. Yet he confused himself with his self-taught economics. Thus he advocated free markets and monetarism, and saw nothing contradictory in preaching restricting free movement of labour through control of immigration.Such confusion shows in Reid's words. The lesson he took from Catch 22 was of a comic character. Yet that novel's main theme was bureaucratic insanity which was best illustrated by the incompetent Soviet economic model and corrupt politics which Jimmy - a committed communist even after the crushing of the Hungarian Uprising and the suppression of the Prague Spring - sought to impose on the UK.

No doubt the speech, delivered with the force and elegance of a natural orator, sounded much better than it now reads. And there is no doubt that it made a powerful impact on the young people to whom it was addressed. But young people are like that - easily influenced. Why the New York Times chose to print his speech on its front page is a mystery. Why it labelled it the greatest speech since the Gettysburg address is inexplicable. Read Lincoln's speech. It is a model of brevity - 268 words - and memorable phrases - "that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth" - to justify the president's decision to pursue the civil war.

To put Reid's haphazardly eclectic thoughts alongside that model of literary craft ignores the ringing phrases of FDR ("we have nothing to fear but fear itself''), omits all the inspiring oratory of Churchill wartime speeches and his perceptive observation of an Iron Curtain descending across Europe and forgets the appeal to selflessness in Jack Kennedy's inaugural address - "ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country". By comparison, "the rat race is for rats" is trite. No-one ever advocated the rat race as good.

It seems to me that all the praise being heaped on Reid as an intellectual and philosopher is a touch patronising. Underneath it is an attitude of pseudo-admiration that an uneducated working-class man from Govan could begin to tackle such deep economic questions. This is to do Reid a great disservice. He had great charisma. His idea of a work-in was pure public relations genius. He played a part in keeping some ship-building on the Clyde, although most who were insiders at the time will tell you that the real difficult negotiations were conducted by his fellow trade unionist, Jimmy Airlie.

But, of course, what the work-in illustrated is that you cannot run a business with workers alone. How much work was actually done? What happened when welders ran out of rods and platers of steel? To carry on you need capitalists and managers. Or a government prepared to subsidise inefficiency. In his shipyard speech why did Reid condemn hooliganism, vandalism and bevvying? Because these were all too common occurrences in the loss-making yards of the 1906s and 1970s. Especially the bevvying, as Connolly, who worked beside Reid, confirmed last week.

Jimmy Reid's advocacy did not produce any changes in Scottish society. Today's problems are the same. So anaemic are the ideas that it could easily have ended in a plea for the Big Society.Let's hope, as much for the sake of Reid's reputation as a trade union activist, as for the good of Scottish education, that the First Minister's idea, like most of his other big initiatives, is quickly forgotten. To study Reid's speech will only further expose its weakness.