by Kenneth Roy
Everything that is proposed from the establishment seems almost calculated to minimise the role of the people, to miniaturise man. I can understand how attractive this prospect must be to those at the top. Those of us who refuse to be pawns in their power game can be picked up by their bureaucratic tweezers and dropped in a filing cabinet under ‘M’ for malcontent or maladjusted. When you think of some of the high flats around us, it can hardly be an accident that they are as near as one could get to an architectural representation of a filing cabinet. – From the rectorial address, 28 April, 1972
Jimmy Reid died a year ago today. That night at the BBC, Torquil Reoch told me that the staff there fell into two categories: those under the age of 40 who had barely heard of him and those over the age of 40 who considered him one of the most significant figures in the history of modern Scotland. Someone else told me that the Glasgow police – who must fall mainly into the first category – had to be talked into providing a presence at his funeral. At first they would not accept that Jimmy Reid was important enough to draw a crowd.
A thousand people packed into George MacLeod’s old church – Jimmy having been chancellor of the exchequer in MacLeod’s youth parliament – for a great public commemoration of his life, broadcast live on radio and television. Many more stood outside in the gentle sunshine of a late summer afternoon. Alex Salmond was among the speakers, possibly the best of them, along with Billy Connolly and Alex Ferguson; Gordon Brown was there too, almost overlooked in the throng.
Later, at the crematorium, I conducted the secular service for Jimmy at which his daughter Eileen became the first woman speaker of the day – for a man who was always surrounded by women – and from there we moved to Haggs Castle golf club where Jimmy’s old friend Ernie Walker, himself now dead, hosted a reception. Out of the mists of the day before yesterday stepped such romantic figures as Jimmy Macgregor and John Cairney. By the evening, as the images of the occasion continued to flicker on television screens, the age barrier identified by Torquil Reoch had disappeared: everybody in Scotland knew about Jimmy Reid, what he did in his life, what he stood for, how much he contributed to an understanding of ourselves.
‘He had all the right enemies,’ Alex Salmond said, ‘and all the right friends’. Could any man hope for a nobler epitaph?
I have been thinking of him keenly in the last few unhappy days. I thought of him when a woman being interviewed on the radio, a shopkeeper whose stock had been looted overnight, angrily denounced the ‘feral rats’ responsible for the attack on her business. Feral rats…is what we’ve come to? I say ‘we’ because there seems little point in pretending that the young men and women – mostly men, it seems, and some only children – are not part of us. They are even talkable-to or, better still, communicable-with.
What of the others? Are they doomed merely to be rats without a race, feral ones at that, scrabbling around in department stores in the middle of the night?
The imagery of the feral rats takes us back to Jimmy Reid’s rectorial address. He too spoke of rats – of people engaged in a race fit only for rats. He asked the students of Glasgow University to reject the values of the rat race. He quoted Christ, whom he admired as a historical figure, in the service of this idea. How far we have travelled. The rat race, for those still bright enough to approach the starting block and still disposed to do so, has been reduced to a stumbling crawl of limited expectation and vanishing hope. What of the others? Are they doomed merely to be rats without a race, feral ones at that, scrabbling around in department stores in the middle of the night?
I wouldn’t normally recommend you to read the annual report of a government official, but the 2009 report of Sir Harry Burns, Scotland’s chief medical officer, is in a class of its own. It is deeply insightful about our present condition.
Sir Harry takes Jimmy Reid’s rectorial address as the starting point for a profound essay on the roots of alienation, making links between the empowerment of individuals and their mental and physical well-being. He quotes convincing examples to support his finding that, whenever democracy has emerged in eastern Europe, it has been accompanied by a significant improvement in the health of the people. If this is true – that there is indeed a direct association between the socio-political condition of society and the mental and physical wellbeing of its citizens – it may be worth looking at the map of civil disobedience in Britain and the continuing, increasingly curious absence of Scotland from it.
Harry Burns’s view of the Reid rectorial address for our time, 40 years on, is equally thoughtful. ‘Inadvertently,’ he said, ‘in seeking to improve the lot of the most disadvantaged members of our society, we may have made them more, rather than less alienated, by doing things to them rather than with them’. Sir Harry wanted us to stop lecturing and to start listening.
Who is listening this week? Not many. Not many at all. Look at the newspapers and despair. Listen to our politicians and weep. We need a Jimmy Reid to inspire the young. I am very much afraid that we’re not going to get one.
Courtesy of Kenneth Roy – read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review.