Campaigners point to #GE17 relevance on 45th anniversary of Reid “we’re not rats” speech

Rectorial address remains powerful moral statement of the problems of capitalism in 21st century, activists say

FORTY FIVE YEARS after legendary trade unionist Jimmy Reid delivered his famous rectorial address to the students of Glasgow University, its intellectual and moral messages remain relevant, campaigners argue.

Professor Gregor Gall, director of the Jimmy Reid Foundation, said that his speech on alienation in a market driven and class organised society spoke directly to contemporary problems faced by workers and to the General Election on 8 June – which will be one of the most ideologically polarised in the UK for decades.

Speaking to CommonSpace, Gall said: “Today marks the 45th anniversary of Jimmy Reid's rectorial address at Glasgow University. It has become known as the 'rat race is for rats' speech and was powerfully delivered by one of the most important leaders of the workers' movement in Scotland at the time.

“The continuing relevance of Jimmy's speech can be seen today in two obvious ways - the ever increasing rise in insecure work, in work poverty and meaningless work, on the one hand, and the fork in the road represented by the 8 June general election.

“A victory of the Tories will further embed the trajectory of us becoming further alienated while a victory for Labour under Corbyn at least provides an opportunity to stop that slide going any further. But ultimately, it will take a massive revival in the strength and combativity of the workers' movement to turn the tide on alienation under a neo-liberal version of capitalism.”

Reid was the most visible leader of the 1971-72 Upper-Clyde ship builder work-in, and a Communist councillor.

The surviving video from Jimmy Reid’s rectorial speech on alienation

The speech, delivered in acceptance of his rectorship, voted for by students of Glasgow University in 1971, covers Reid’s views on the alienation of the masses of the population, at the mercy of economic and political decisions over which they have little control.

He famously decried the “false morality” of capitalism, saying “a rat race is for rats – we’re not rats”.

Some of Reid’s comments are also prescient, dealing with issues like automation and the possible emancipatory implications for wage labourers – topics which were only to become common fare four decades later.

Gall said that Reid’s views on these matters were influenced by being steeped in the communist and workers’ movement, and the general radicalisation of the time.

“The reason why it struck such a chord was that it eloquently and forcefully spoke about an issue which is of left untouched, namely, the alienation of the majority of citizens - workers - in capitalist societies. Jimmy Reid had just emerged as the leader of one of the most successful post-war campaigns to save workers' livelihoods and key to this was that workers had asserted their right to dignity and meaningful work rather than just work per se.

Read more - Workers across Scotland gather to commemorate international Workers' Memorial Day

“For Jimmy, with a training in the politics of the Communist Party and the experience of struggle within the engineering union, he had developed the personal wherewithal to be able to deliver what might have seemed to some like a radical, highly inflammatory speech in one of the principal centres of training for the would-be leaders of the Scottish elite. Of course, to others it just seemed like common sense and that was indicative of speaking skills of Jimmy and the heightened class consciousness of workers at the time.”

The 2017 General Election will be held on 8 June, and will see Conservative leader Theresa May face off against leftwing Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn for leadership of the country. In Scotland, the SNP, in the middle of a campaign for the right to hold a second independence referendum, is far ahead in the polls.

Picture and video: Youtube

Check out what people are saying about how important CommonSpace is. Pledge your support today.

CommonSpace journalism is completely free from the influence of advertisers and is only possible with your continued support. Please contribute a monthly amount towards our costs. Build the Scotland you want to live in - support our new media.