REGULAR readers will know that, when I can, I try to respond to readers’ requests for columns on specific parts of Scotland’s history.

I recently had a communication from someone I will describe accurately as a Gentleman of the Left who asked me when I was going to mark the 50th anniversary of the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders’ famous work-in.

The problem is I always feel a bit uncertain about what qualifies as history and I tend to side with Sir Walter Scott whose rule for both his fiction and his factual writing was that he would not write about anything that had happened less than 60 years beforehand. The Wizard of the North occasionally broke that rule, and like Wattie, I make the rules for this column so I can break them.

I also carried out a very scientific piece of market research by asking a couple of 20-something colleagues what they knew about the UCS work-in or sit-in, as it’s often wrongly called, of 1971. Their blank look suggested I had just asked them about the Pleistocene geological epoch, and that convinced me that if only as a service to the younger generation, I should write about the quite extraordinary events on Clydeside in 1971-72.

This week and over the next two weeks, I will detail what happened with UCS and I will also advance what is sure to be a controversial theory that the work-in engendered a political feeling within this country that led to the rise of the SNP. First of all, however, I have to put the work-in into its historical and political context.

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Once the greatest producer of ships in the world, Clydeside had suffered from cheaper competition elsewhere, notably Japan and South Korea, and from the fact that air travel was reducing the need for liners and passenger ships.

The usual picture of the Clyde being allowed to decline after the Second World War is simply not true. Many of the yards were modernised in the 1950s but industrial relations worsened as heavier demands for productivity were made on workers who did not receive the rewards such improvements should have earned.

Clyde-built still meant quality, however, and in 1964, the Cunard line placed an order with John Brown and Co of Clydebank for a new liner to replace their aging Queens, Elizabeth and Mary. The new vessel was designated Q4, and on September 20, 1967, the Queen Elizabeth 2 was launched into the Clyde with the naming ceremony carried out by the Queen herself.

The extraordinary beauty of the design of QE2, as she immediately became known, made her an icon for the Clyde. In truth, however, industrial relations at the yard sank to a new low during its construction and the liner eventually completed her fitting out at Southampton, with a Government loan needed to finish the work and get her into service.

Even as she sailed down the Clyde, an event I personally witnessed, the future of Clydeside as a shipbuilding centre hung in the balance. Every one of the major yards on the Upper Clyde had been in financial trouble for years, but under Labour prime minister Harold Wilson, they could at least count on support in the form of loans. There were still redundancies, however, and though nearly always at loggerheads, managers and workers jointly strove for intervention from the Labour government, basically begging for cash to keep the yards afloat.

This scene was repeated at all the major shipbuilding concerns in the UK, and rather than just pay out money, the Labour government went further and set up the Geddes Committee which the Board of Trade set up under Reay Geddes, then the boss of Dunlop Rubber.

In 1966, the Geddes Report recommended the creation of five large concerns to take over all British shipbuilding. Wilson’s government accepted all the main recommendations and the minister for technology, Anthony Wedgwood Benn, was given the task of implementing them.

Meanwhile the government tried to resolve the serious problems between management and unions on the Clyde. George Brown, then first secretary in the Wilson Cabinet, intervened with what became known as the Fairfield Experiment.

The Fairfield Shipbuilding and Engineering Company Limited in Govan was a famous yard, renowned particularly for its warships. It also had the world’s largest crane, the Fairfield Titan.

Navies were contracting, however, and by 1965 the overall owners, Lithgows, reorganised the business, letting some parts close but keeping Fairfield (Glasgow) Ltd. The government stepped in and in December 1965, Lord Shepherd of Spalding was able to tell the House of Lords: “This is not a question of nationalisation. Here was an important and modern shipyard which was, for one reason or another, in difficulties and faced with extinction. The government thought it right, particularly in view of the fact that we have not yet received the Geddes Report, that this yard should not close.

“The government offered £1 million to the company when it was in the hands of a manager and receiver to keep the yard going.

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“The government had consultations to see whether there was a future for the yard at all. It was clear that, unless the government were prepared to take part, there was no future for the yard.

“The government therefore took the view that they should become a shareholder in what was a possible operation for new capital, and as noble Lords will see, we have

been able to succeed in forming a broad and wide partnership consisting of private enterprise and the trade unions.”

Thus it was that the brave new world of the Fairfield Experiment began. Basically Brown had persuaded the Cabinet to invest £1m in a trial of new forms of industrial relations. It was such an interesting idea that Sean Connery made a film about it called The Bowler and the Bunnet, the only film he ever directed.

Now long-forgotten, the Fairfield Experiment actually worked, and might well have been the blueprint for a reorganisation of British industry had not Fairfields been swallowed up by events on the Clyde.

In late 1967, negotiations began between the government and the major shipbuilding companies on the Upper Clyde between Clydebank and Govan. They were Fairfield’s and Alexander Stephens and Sons on the south bank at Govan and Linthouse respectively, Charles Connell at Scotstoun and John Brown’s at Clydebank. In addition Yarrow Shipbuilders became part of the consortium which was named Upper Clyde Shipbuilders (UCS).

Further down the Clyde, the Scott Lithgow group was formed that brought together the shipyards of Port Glasgow and Greenock. Though there were links to the UCS yards, the Scott Lithgow group was a separate entity from UCS and remained so.

It is important to note that when it began operations in February 1968, UCS was sitting on a combined order book of around £87m, and employed 8000 workers across the five yards.

Industrial relations did not improve when management cut jobs “slice by slice” as one trade unionist of the time put it.

The workers leaders in UCS at the time were nearly all members of the Communist Party of Great Britain. That’s because the party encouraged the recruitment of shop stewards in industries across the UK, and with its radical traditions dating back to even before the Chartist movement of the 1830s and 1840s, Clydeside and particularly Glasgow was fertile soil for communists.

The late great Jimmy Reid is often thought to have been the leading figure in the shop stewards at UCS, and he was certainly the most public personality in the run-up and the work-in, yet many people recall Jimmy Airlie as the most powerful leader of the UCS workers.

Like Reid, Airlie was a Communist Party member, but he was more of a strategist than a rabble-rouser, though when needed he had a hugely persuasive way of talking. Another communist was Sammy Barr, an inspirational speaker who led the boilermakers in UCS.

The fourth leading shop steward – many more played their roles but this quartet are the best remembered – was Sammy Gilmore, an electrician and a Labour Party member who supported Tony Benn in what he was doing with the shipbuilding industry. Gilmore would become convenor of shop stewards, Airlie would be chairman, but Reid as head of the shop stewards of the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers arguably wielded the most power.

Reid also had political ambitions which showed when he became Communist councillor in Clydebank and stood for the Communist Party in East Dunbartonshire in the General Election of 1970, coming in last of five candidates behind Labour’s Hugh McCartney.

That election would prove to be disastrous for UCS. They had secured funding of £20m from Wilson and Benn in early 1970, but the election in June that year saw the Conservatives sweep to power under Ted Heath (below) who became prime minister. Heath had stood on a campaign of reforming British industry and taking the UK into the Common Market. With a comfortable working majority, Heath felt brave enough to take on the unions and first up were the shipyard unions – not that the workers went looking for a fight. No, it came to them, because UCS had made losses in 1970, and only Yarrows remained profitable, promptly leaving the consortium. Even so, the remaining four UCS yards had order books through to 1972.

The National:

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In February 1971, the Tory government was forced into a humiliating U-turn when Rolls-Royce collapsed. Rather than see this famous British name go completely out of business, Heath’s government stepped in to part-nationalise the firm despite having repeatedly said that state subsidies for private companies would cease. John Davies, the secretary of state for business and later for trade and industry was given the task of telling British industrialists that enough was enough. He did so in the House of Commons on November 4, 1970, saying: “We believe that the essential need of the country is to gear its policies to the great majority of people, who are not ‘lame ducks’, who do not need a hand, who are quite capable of looking after their own interests and only demand to be allowed to do so.”

Three months later he helped out Rolls-Royce, but that really was the last straw for the Tories. Behind the scenes at UCS, the managers knew just how lame the company had become, and told the shop stewards committee they would be applying for a £6m loan from the government just to stay in business. It was really just a bridging loan, as money was due from the ships being built at the four yards. But when the Tory government said no, UCS had no option but to go for receivership. The first indications were that if UCS was to survive at all – there were serious doubts that it would - some 6000 or more jobs would be lost out of the yards’ total employee number of 8000 with an estimated 13,000 jobs that were dependent on the yards also going as collateral damage.

On Saturday, June 12, 200 shop stewards from every one of the UCS yards met and agreed to follow the plan put forward by their leaders. The idea of the work-in was first raised by Barr and was taken up by Reid, Airlie and Gilmore. A mass meeting of the workforce the following day endorsed the plan, and the great UCS work-in was ready to go.