The 1972 Clydeside work-in

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Kenneth Roy

When the Heath government, following the liquidation of that prime symbol of British engineering, Rolls Royce, declared that shipbuilding on the Upper Clyde was another of its lame duck industries, and that it would not save UCS from bankruptcy, the workers responded, not by evacuating the yards and going on strike, as they were expected to do, but by occupying the yards and continuing to work. It is worth recounting how this feat was achieved. At John Brown’s, the shop stewards requested….

Kenneth Roy

When the Heath government, following the liquidation of that prime symbol of British engineering, Rolls Royce, declared that shipbuilding on the Upper Clyde was another of its lame duck industries, and that it would not save UCS from bankruptcy, the workers responded, not by evacuating the yards and going on strike, as they were expected to do, but by occupying the yards and continuing to work. It is worth recounting how this feat was achieved. At John Brown’s, the shop stewards requested permission from the liquidator to enter the yard; when this was refused, the boilermakers’ convenor was sent to the gate and informed the gateman that the shop stewards were now in charge. The barrier was opened. A moment of high theatre met no resistance. A bloodless coup. All men and materials entering or leaving the yard were now under the control of the shop stewards; the other yards enacted the same policy; the work-in was now a reality; and, with the financial support of people and organisations across the world, it remained resolutely in place for 16 months until the government finally caved in and gave the yards meaningful guarantees.
     At the centre of it all, the public face of the work-in, its charismatic ambassador, was a man of whom it could be said that his whole life had been a preparation for this moment: the chancellor of the exchequer in George MacLeod’s youth parliament had finally come into his own. When it was all over, Jimmy Reid summed it up as a campaign to save more than jobs. ‘It was a victory not just for the workers,’ he said, ‘but for the whole Scottish community.’ He might have added that it was a victory hard fought; a victory achieved with integrity and tenacity; a victory worth savouring; a victory worth having.
     But, if there was a wholeness in 1972 about the Scottish community, as he had boldly asserted, it was not a wholeness that was to survive a great deal longer. When I met him a few years later in his council house in Clydebank, Jimmy Reid reminded me in an odd way of another great Scotsman, Hugh MacDiarmid: big men in small houses; a Scottish phenomenon perhaps. And in Scotland, most of the houses were still owned by the council, even as recently as the late seventies. We lived in a non-property-owning democracy; for successive generations of Scots, this was simply how it was, accepted without question in Clydebank as it was in my native Bonnybridge. It shaped how we thought, how we felt, and to a large extent how we voted.
     When the new doors started to appear, giving distinctiveness and individuality to those same houses, the people inside were making a statement. It took a long time for the full significance of that statement to be grasped: in place of a popular movement, magnificent as UCS had been, we now had a vast multitude of tiny individual ones. Such was the residual strength of tribal loyalty, it did not change how we voted – until recently; but it changed how we thought and felt.
     A Conservative prime minister determined to shatter the unions was also astute enough to give their members a prize. Capitalism had failed the Clyde, but we were not immune to the blandishments of materialism. For the first time, we had equity. Not the sort for which the unions had fought. A different sort of equity. The sort you could cash in.

This article is reproduced with the kind permisison of Kenneth Roy.

Read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review.