Richard Smith: Jimmy Reid on alienation in 1972—a great speech

richard_smith_2014When I read the paragraph that follows I thought how it accurately sums up how many people feel in 2017 and explains the political upheavals of 2016. But it was said in 1972 when Jimmy Reid, a leader of Clydeside shipworkers, was elected rector of Glasgow University. Some, with understandable excess, have called it the greatest political speech since Gettysburg.

“Alienation is the precise and correctly applied word for describing the major social problem in Britain today. People feel alienated by society. In some intellectual circles it is treated almost as if it is a new phenomenon. It has, however, been with us for years. What I believe to be true is that today it is more widespread, more pervasive than ever before. Let me right at the outset define what I mean by alienation. It is the cry of the men who feel themselves the victims of blind economic forces beyond their control. It is the frustration of ordinary people excluded from the processes of decision making. The feeling of despair and hopelessness that pervades people who feel with justification that they have no say in shaping or determining their own destinies.”

The whole document is remarkable and well worth reading. I was a student in Edinburgh in 1972, aware of Reid, and like him an ex-communist. But I didn’t know his speech until it was sent to me a few weeks ago by a friend in New Zealand. He’d been given it, I assume, by Harry Burns, who was chief medical officer in Scotland and who saw and tried to respond to the terrible consequences for health of the closure of the Clydeside shipyards that Reid had fought so hard. Burns thinks that the destruction of a rich culture is the root of Glasgow’s health problems. My New Zealand friend thinks that there are great similarities between what happened to Glaswegians and Maori.

A protest against the reorganisation of Clyde shipbuilders


In his second paragraph Reid describes the consequences of alienation that Burns has seen in its full form:

“Alienation expresses itself in different ways by different people. It is to be found in what our courts often describe as antisocial behaviour of a section of the community. It is expressed by those young people who want to opt out of society, by drop outs, the so called maladjusted, those who seek to escape permanently from the reality of society through intoxicants and narcotics.”

This is how I tried to summarise what Burns said in 2013:

“What changed 40 years ago? Burns projected a picture from perhaps 60 years ago of workers streaming out of the shipyards. In the 19th century, and for much of the 20th, Glasgow built many of the world’s ships. Helensburgh in the Firth of Clyde, where my wife comes from, boasts that in the heyday of shipbuilding on the Clyde it had more millionaires per square mile than Manhattan. More importantly, the shipyards provided tens of thousands of skilled, well paid jobs with purpose. Glaswegians were proud that they built the world’s ships.

“But then the shipyards closed. The most skilled moved to other cities that built ships. (My father in law spent five years in Japan.) Others developed new skills. But many were left unemployed in housing estates in the east end of Glasgow. Meaning had been taken from their lives. Their culture had been destroyed. People turned to drugs, drink, and violence.”

I’m interested that in his talk Reid criticised intellectuals (the elite, as we now call them) for thinking that alienation was a new phenomenon. We are perhaps making the same mistake now. Reid thought, however, that it was more widespread in 1972 than in previous years. We think the same now, but perhaps what is happening in Britain and other countries now is that alienation is not as deep as it was for some in 1972 but is much more widespread, meaning that traditional political systems and parties are proving inadequate.

Reid goes on in his speech to warn against hating anybody, even the hungriest capitalists he might have been expected to hate, and makes the simple, accurate, and too frequently forgotten observation that: “Real fulfilment for any person lies in service to his fellow men and women.” He continued: “The challenge we face is that of rooting out anything and everything that distorts and devalues human relations.” This is a hard job for anybody and perhaps impossible for our current politicians with their limited powers and strict control from spin doctors. It certainly doesn’t seem to be the mission of Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, and Marine Le Pen.

Power must be decentralised, argues Reid, and if necessary new political structures must be created to allow people to be more involved in decision making. He would perhaps have approved of referendums, although not of the lies and shallow debate that accompany them. But he was about still more:

“Our aim must be the enrichment of the whole quality of life. It requires a social and cultural or, if you wish, a spiritualist transformation of our country . . . To unleash the latent potential of our people requires that we give them responsibility. The untapped resources of the North Sea are as nothing compared to the untapped resources of our people. I am convinced that the great mass of our people go through life without even a glimmer of what they could have contributed to their fellow human beings. This is a personal tragedy. It is a social crime. The flowering of each individual’s personality and talents is the precondition for everyone’s development.”

These admirable words with their emphasis on spiritual development and personal fulfilment reflect the Hippyish feel of the early 1970s (most of what we associate with the 60s happened in the 70s), and I suspect that Reid would have deplored the dominant individualisation of our age that neglects the solidarity he valued (and which has its vestiges in the NHS). Indeed, like a true Glaswegian he criticises Londoners for their emphasis on “number one . . . as they say in London, ‘Bang the bell, Jack, I’m on the bus.’” [I must confess that as a Londoner I’ve never heard that phrase and it does not ring true.]

In his speech Reid makes an appeal to the students in front of him that I wholeheartedly support:

“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 or 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. The price is too high. It entails the loss of your dignity and human spirit. Or as Christ put it, ‘What doth it profit a man if he gain the whole world and suffer the loss of his soul?’”

Reid started as a communist, joined the Labour Party, then the Scottish Socialist Party [which came horribly unstuck], and finally the Scottish Nationalist Party in 2005. He died in 2010, but in his life he made a great speech that is simultaneously prophetic, of its time, and filled with deep values.

Richard Smith was the editor of The BMJ until 2004.

Competing interests: None declared.