Daily Archives: August 21, 2010

Edwin Morgan, Jimmy Reid, And The Need For A 21st Century Politics That Reflects Their Values – Column 21.8.10


JOYCE McMILLAN for The Scotsman 21.8.10

LET’S BEGIN WITH THE WORDS of Sir Alex Ferguson, spoken on Thursday in Govan Old Parish Church, at the funeral of Jimmy Reid.   “The thing that impressed me most,” he said, “was that Jimmy gave the shipyard workers hope.  It was the mothers and wives I remember.  They depended on jobs in the shipyards.  They had to keep the house, make ends meet.  And they will never forget Jimmy for that – for giving them hope.”

In the last ten days, two great titans of Scottish life have passed away; not only Jimmy Reid, hero of the 1971 sit-in at Upper Clyde Shipbuilders, but Edwin Morgan, Scotland’s Makar-in-chief or poet laureate, a great poet, essayist and playwright, a magnificent translator of the work of poets from Pablo Neruda to Vladimir Mayakovsky, and a much-loved man, famed for his deep and humorous humanity.

And if there is one thing these two men had in common – apart from a Glasgow upbringing, a love of learning, and a deep sense of belonging to the ordinary people of Scotland – it is their humour, their kindness, and their deep and optimistic belief that humankind, at heart, tends towards good rather than evil.   Like many of the finest men and women of their generation – Morgan was born in 1920, and Reid in 1932 – they tended to express that belief and hope through a kind of socialism that is out of fashion today; you will travel a long way, now, before you will find an MP, an MSP, or a trade union leader who talks in public about a universal “right to work”, as Jimmy Reid did in his legendary rectorial address, given at Glasgow University in 1972.

Yet still, it is a joyful and uplifting experience to read Jimmy Reid’s words, delivered on that day; and to be in the presence, even retrospectively, of a big, articulate, generous-minded public figure who does not give in to the miserable mantras of the all-powerful market that now largely shape our society.  “From the depth of my being,” said Reid, “I challenge the right of any man  or group of men to tell a fellow human being that he or she is expendable;” and as we stand on the brink of an ill-advised orgy of deep cuts in our public services, and mass redundancies among the workers who deliver them, we will have many hundreds of thousands of occasions to remember those passionate words, over the coming years.

If Reid and Morgan are now being canonised as secular saints, though, it is worth considering just what kind of shift it would take, in our political culture, to generate a 21st century movement that might actually advance their commitment to human dignity, and their optimism about our capacity to create a better future.  All across the current Edinburgh Festival – on the Fringe and elsewhere – there is a passionate dialogue between optimistic and pessiminstic views of human nature; but it’s noticeable that the optimists are often apolitical writers, interested in the gentle minutiae of everyday life, while those with a strong political perspective often seem driven by levels of anger and disgust that threaten a new world even more frightening than the one we inhabit now.

There are a few outstanding shows, though – like the magnificent sex-trafficking drama Roadkill, or David Benson’s powerful evocation of Jim Swire’s fight for justice in Lockerbie: Unfinished Business – that strike a balance between displaying the horror of a world gone wrong, and expressing the positive human passions – love, compassion, the desire to be free, the need for justice – that can help change that world for the better; and it’s those profound positive passions that we need to focus on now, if we are to stand a chance of taking forward the values embodied by these two men.

For the magic of Reid and Morgan lay in the fact that although they could express a powerful rage against injustice, cruelty, and exploitation, their lives were finally always driven more by love than by hate.  Today, we live in a world where political optimism – “things can only get better” – has become a kind of public-relations veneer thrown over a set of policies that in fact assume the worst about human nature; that people only appreciate what they pay for, that competition is the only effective spur to good performance, and that people – when the chips are down – always respond better to material incentives than to any other motivating force.

Yet in the end, none of these propositions is true; and most of the policies based upon them have failed, and will fail again, because they take account of only one half of human nature, and that the least creative and interesting half.

So if we want to honour the legacy of Jimmy Reid and Edwin Morgan, this should be our starting-point; that we no longer accept, vote for, or nod our passive assent to, policy that is based on a negative and reductive view of human beings, and of their vision, capacity and power.  As we enter the second decade of the new millennium, and move towards a resource crisis beyond anything humankind has known before, we should understand that nothing will get us round this tightest of corners except our optimism and courage, our richness of imagination, and our love for other people, that will not let them go.

And that means that we should consign to the dustbin of politics all those petty, mean-minded mantras that invite us to hate, to blame, to fear, and to punish those worse off than ourselves. We should re-dedicate ourselves instead to the ideals of equality, fraternity, and love embraced by Jimmy Reid and Edwin Morgan in their heyday.  And we should do it not because we are starry-eyed fools; but because we have before us the powerful example of two great men who lived by those values, and who, in giving so much of themselves to others, also gave themselves lives that were rich beyond measure, in everything that matters.