LEST anyone be in any doubt, the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders work-in in 1971-72 was made necessary because of the sheer incompetence, political hatred and mendacity on the part of Ted Heath’s Conservative Government.

I left off last week with the work-in having just started at the end of July, 1971. It was a peaceful takeover, the management accepting the situation. No police involvement took place – it was not necessary.

There was an immediate debate in the House of Commons on August 2, when Tony Benn quoted from the so-called Ridley letters published by the Guardian. These were proposals prepared in 1969 when the Tories were in opposition as to what they could do with UCS if coming to power, as they did the next year. They were prepared by Nicholas Ridley, the MP for Cirencester and Tewkesbury – far away from Clydeside - and a future arch-Thatcherite and Trade and Industry Secretary.

Benn quoted Ridley: “One: Give no more money to UCS. Two. Let Yarrow leave UCS if they still want to. Third. This would mean the bankruptcy of UCS. We could put in a Government ‘butcher’ to cut up UCS. and sell cheaply to Lower Clyde and others the assets of UCS, to minimise upheaval and dislocation. Finally: After liquidation or reconstruction we should sell the Government holdings in UCS, even for a pittance.”

Benn also quoted facts and figures that proved UCS was struck down by the Government’s failure to provide credit guarantees.

He hailed Ridley as an “evil genius” and went on to praise the work-in: “The Secretary of State for Scotland (Gordon Campbell) is quoted in the Daily Telegraph on Saturday as saying that what the men have done is of no significance. It is, for reasons which I shall give the House, an historic event. The men have rediscovered, by what they have done, the self-respect which they never had under private management in the past. They want a future in shipbuilding, and they mean to have a say in that future. They have shown the way to responsibility in industry by assuming responsibility in industry.”

On the same day, Jimmy Airlie of the shop stewards committee launched an international appeal for support for the work-in. What happened next was barely believable. Money poured in from across the UK and beyond. John Lennon and Yoko Ono sent £1000, the same sum given by the National Union of Mineworkers, and £2700 was donated by the shipyard workers of the USSR.

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But it was the money contributed by the public and by trade unionists in Britain and elsewhere which really made the difference, with £50,000 raised in August alone. Collections were held in towns and cities across Scotland, and these continued for months while several unions organised levies of their members.

On August 3, trade and industry secretary John Davies finally got around to visiting Clydeside. He was taken aback by the ferocious criticism he received and beat a hasty retreat to London, but not before Tory businessmen pointed out that liquidating UCS would cost 2000 businesses and individuals some £32 million.

John Thomson of Thomson Shipcranes, Greenock, was owed £80,000 so he raised a formal objection to the appointment of a liquidator, stating that he had the backing of 600 creditors. He said: “The figures of ‘debt’ are part of a plot to paint a black picture and teach the workers a lesson.” He was right as it emerged that £12m of UCS’s debt had been inherited from the four original shipyards.

A mass demonstration was organised for Glasgow on August 18, and it turned out to be the biggest demonstration in the city since the start of the Chartism movement on Glasgow Green on May 21, 1838. Again Glasgow Green was chosen as the rallying point, and some 80,000 people marched to there from George Square, with an estimated 200,000 people across Scotland downing tools.

HEATH’S Government were appalled at the sight of a Communist shop steward in the shape of Jimmy Reid firing up the audience with his passionate oratory. But just as important was the presence of Vic Feather, general secretary of the TUC, pledging the movement’s support for the work-in. Unemployment at the time had soared to 9m, and Feather saw the work-in as leading the way for the trade unions to fight Heath’s policies.

Billy Connolly and Matt McGinn, writer of the Clydeside anthem Q4, provided entertainment and the banners showed support from all across the UK. Glasgow briefly came to a standstill, but nobody minded.

The National:

Glasgow’s Chief Constable Sir David McNee told the Heath Government that he could not guarantee public safety if the closures went ahead, and though it was not revealed at the time, the British Army was put on standby with troops set to be recalled from Northern Ireland.

The atmosphere on Clydeside was almost feverish, and international solidarity was a huge boost to morale, especially when 399 workers were made redundant on September 1, the same day as the STUC launched an inquiry into the whole mess. Some 277 decided to throw in their lot with the work-in and they received their average weekly wage from the work-in campaign funds. In total more than £250,000 was raised for the work-in and latterly it was superintended by Clydebank Town Council.

With the Government still intent on closing two yards, at another mass meeting of the workers in early October, the message went out – there must be four yards in UCS. That was in defiance of Government action to set up boards to run Govan and Linthouse, with the shop stewards at the latter yard occupying the board room to counter this move.

Hugh Stenhouse, the chair of UCS, had been trying to bring all sides together and it was a terrible blow to those involved when he was killed in a road accident on November 24. Stenhouse had once told the BBC: “There’s been a good bit of progress today. You know we’re talking sensibly, we’re talking reasonably. We’re talking the same language. We all want to keep as many people in employment as possible. I must say I was encouraged. To everybody I would say please don’t run away and say we’ve solved the thing. We haven’t, but there is hope that there will be jobs for a considerable number of people, still at Govan, at Linthouse and still, as far as I’m concerned, at Scotstoun.” Clydebank, it seemed, was a dead and not just lame duck.

HIS successor Lord Strathalmond was a breath of fresh air for UCS, and entering the New Year saw the work-in continuing while jobs cuts were made in small numbers. However, government intransigence was hardening. Behind the scenes there was a dramatic development in early January 1972 when the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Union sent Dan McGarvey to Texas where he initiated the contacts that would bring Marathon, the world’s largest oil rig construction company, onto the scene at Clydebank.

READ MORE: How government inaction led to a Clyde shipyard work-in to save jobs

A new Government report at the beginning of February resulted in a plea from Lord Strathalmond for Heath and co to see the situation on Clydeside as a matter of national interest and a social problem and asked the Government to be generous. This was all playing out at a time of growing industrial unrest across Britain, with the mineworkers and steelworkers’ unions, among others, threatening action. In what was clearly an attempt to fend off all-out general strikes, Heath’s Government gave in and announced that more than £30m would be made available to yet again restructure UCS. It was more than was expected, and meant that the 4300 remaining workers at the Govan, Linthouse and Scotstoun yards would keep their jobs.

Meanwhile negotiations to save Clydebank continued with Marathon, and those continued right through to August when a deal was reached, after which agreement was also acheived with the workforce at Govan which saw Govan Shipbuilders come into being in September.

The work-in had worked, and all four yards were saved. On October 9, 1972, a final mass meeting of the workforce endorsed the agreements made by the shop stewards and the great UCS work-in was at an end.

The demands for four yards and an intact workforce were met, and the climbdown was humiliating for the Tory Government. Only the shop stewards and the workers and a few members of the management emerged with any credit for this struggle that was unique in British industrial relations.

Jimmy Reid said “it was a victory not just for the workers but for the whole Scottish community”. And it was that community that emerged changed from the work-in, while the energising of the working classes would leave a lasting political legacy and not just because the work-in had preserved the yards, even if Marathon eventually left Clydebank.

The whole Scottish community had indeed won a victory, but it was not Reid and Airlie’s Communist Party, nor the Labour Party, which benefitted. The Tory vote in Glasgow and Scotland as a whole was already crumbling and would soon collapse.

Meanwhile, with clever exploitation of the rising anti-government feeling the SNP was emerging as a real force for the first time, and it was a spectacular success in November, 1973 which proved that.

It was a by-election held in Govan, very much part of the work-in. John Rankin MP had died one month earlier, on 8 October 1973. Rankin had held the seat since 1955, and Labour had held it since 1918, apart from a Tory win in 1950.

Margo MacDonald famously won it for the SNP with a massive swing of more than 30%. She would lose the set in the general election in February, 1974, but the momentum behind the SNP was growing and the party went on to win 11 seats in the second 1974 election. Though it would stall, the cause of independence and freedom from Tory disdain was gowing.

There was another legacy of the work-in, and that was Jimmy Reid’s rise to prominence. He was elected Rector of Glasgow University even as the work-in was proceeding and in April, 1972, he delivered his rectorial address. The New York Times, no less, hailed it as ‘the greatest speech since President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address”. By comparison the Scottish press played it down. He was, after all, a Communist…

READ MORE: Remembering Glasgow's only prime minister, and the last to die in No 10

Not for long, however, as he joined the Labour Party in 1975, stood unsuccessfully for election and then became disillusioned and left the Labour Party after Tony Blair took power in 1997. Reid joined the SNP in 2004, having already started a career in broadcasting and journalism which lasted until his death in 2010 when all the obituaries featured the time when he and Jimmy Airlie and their colleagues led the victorious UCS work-in.

It seems entirely appropriate to close with an excerpt from that famous rectorial address: “Reject the values and false morality that underlie these attitudes. A rat race is for rats. We’re not rats. We’re human beings. Reject the insidious pressures in society that would blunt your critical faculties to all that is happening around you, that would caution silence in the face of injustice lest you jeopardise your chances of promotion and self-advancement. This is how it starts and before you know where you are, you’re a fully paid-up member of the rat-pack.”

That was Reid’s humanity speaking, but I feel it was the UCS work-in leader who added: “From the very depth of my being, I challenge the right of any man or any group of men, in business or in government, to tell a fellow human being that he or she is expendable.”

We could do with a few more Jimmy Reids these days, and something as committed and clever as the UCS work-in to gain us independence.