Growing jaggier shoots from the briar’s roots: The UCS work-in at 50 and beyond

David Betteridge recalls how men and women were made on the Clyde into fighting fortresses.

Where did the statesmen and women of the yards come from? Where did they acquire the necessary skills, values and knowledge? These are questions worth finding answers to, and adapting to our own times, because these were the statesmen and women that so powerfully made the case for the work-in that saved them, so persuasively inspired a world-wide network of working class and union support, and so courageously pursued their struggle through to victory.

Partly, they acquired their skills, values and knowledge from their total immersion in the yards, and in the unions, and in their working-class hinterland and history. Yet immersion is not sufficient. Lessons learned informally must be firmed up, and tempered into weapons of thought and structures of feeling that can withstand prolonged battering. It was often through their membership of the Communist Party and involvement in its educational and cultural activities over many years that a critical mass of workers achieved this firming and this tempering. It was a long labour.

There is a portrait of Jimmy Reid, commissioned by his daughter for his 75th birthday, that gives us a hint of the great weight and variety of past influences operating on one brain, and one heart. The artist, Barry Atherton, places his subject at the centre of a storm of people and books, all influential in shaping him, some by example, others by just being there as subjects for reflection. We see Keir Hardie, John Maclean, Willie Gallacher, Mary Barbour, Helen Crawfurd, Stalin, Ramsay MacDonald, and Aneurin Bevan; we see comrades from the work-in, and family members; we see Adam Smith, Marx and David Hume; we see Robert Burns, his favourite poet; and we see piles of books and cascades of leaflets, a small selection from the library-loads that Reid mastered. He believed and practised what Lenin was vehement in urging, that we make the breadth and depth of existing knowledge our own, ‘from the bottom up’, and then advance from there.

A portrait similar to that of Atherton’s Reid could be painted for many others who made up the 8,000+ workforce of the work-in, and the many more who made up their legions of allies, and also those activists who came after them. For this piece, I consulted some of them, starting with Bob Starrett, Jimmy Cloughley, Andy Sanders, Danny McCafferty and Jimmy McGeachy. They gave me a treasury of insights and memories, sufficient for a book. Here is a small sample of what they told me in answer to my inquiry about the sources of their own skills and values and knowledge:

My political education came from likes of Finlay Hart, Jock Smith, Alec Annan, Johnny Gill, John Tonner, Mary McGuire, Betty McGeachy, May Halfpenny and many other Bankies … too many to mention … [We learned] sometimes through practice … other elements through theory…

The shipyards were in that period places where there were men knowledgeable in most things …

My dad was Literature Secretary for the Babcock branch of the party. My mother still has a trunk of books in the attic of old Left Book Club stuff dating back to then …

I heard Jimmy mention How the Steel was Tempered by Nicolai Ostrovsky. A quote from the novel was printed on the front of our YCL cards: ‘Man’s dearest possession is life’…

I think we all read widely, especially American literature – Steinbeck (Grapes of Wrath, In Dubious Battle etc) and Jack London, Mick McGahey’s favourite. Also, Sinclair Lewis (Main Street, Babbitt). James Barke’s Major Operation was also known, possibly the most political Scottish novel apart from A Scot’s Quair …

Mary McGuire encouraged the youth. She held YCL fund-raising socials in her own house, complete with home-made bar…

It all seems so long ago, probably because it is! Funny to think what a wonderful educational forum the YCL and CP were: we had classes in economics, politics, literature (Honor Arundel took those), education (Brian Simon), public speaking, and all the time out on the streets, round the doors, and at union meetings, also Trades Council, CND, gay rights … and just about everything else you could think of …

Naming these names is important – and there are screeds of other names deserving of recognition, Sammy Barr, for instance, and George Kerr, and Davie Cooper, and Sammy Gilmore, stewards eloquent in furthering the work-in through its ups and downs – because doing so reminds us of the hydra-headed nature of any cultural formation, and its reliance on complex networks of learning and influence.

But now? Here we are, in 2021, with a right-wing coup under way and us giving too little resistance to it. How can we recover the fighting spirit of the work-in of half a century ago? Maybe, if a composite Ghost of Actions Past might speak, it might say:

Do not under-estimate the enemy, who has out-classed us down the ages, maintaining its property rights and its rule over us; but do not over-estimate it, either.

Build and rebuild and extend – like a spider working on its web – both union and party, and community and nation, throwing multiple cross-links to others.

Get the boxes of books down from the attic; re-read them, and then write your own; similarly with films, songs, and art-works of all kinds, packing into them all you know plus all you imagine, thus creating a culture that makes sense of your lives, and educates desire.

Emulate the briar, digging down deep with your sustenance-seeking roots, and climb high towards future’s light, spiralling up and up, following a trajectory similar to Tatlin’s Tower, and similar to the briar’s, making sure that your older, stronger, jaggier shoots support the younger ones.

Even in the present valley of the shadow, prepare for government, and with it, good governance, too.

David Betteridge is the editor of a compilation of poems, songs, prose memoirs, photographs and cartoons celebrating the 1971-2 UCS work-in called ‘A Rose Loupt Oot’ (Smokestack Books, 2011)


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