LOOKING back at the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders work-in from a distance of 50 years, everything seemed to happen so quickly.

At the start of June, the four remaining shipyards in UCS were simply looking for a bridging loan from the Westminster government to tide them over until income was received for the ships then on the stocks – UCS had orders taking them well into 1972, but their cash flow dried up.

On June 10, UCS chairman Anthony Hepper, who less than a month earlier had given a positive assessment of UCS’s future, told the shop stewards’ committee that he was asking the Government for a £6 million bailout as the company had not enough money to pay wages. In any case, the group was heading for a deficit of at least £4m by August, and if no money was forthcoming they were legally bound to appoint a provisional liquidator.

On June 11, the Government was informed and the responsible minister John Davies, the secretary of state for trade and industry and president of the Board of Trade, asked UCS to hold their hand for a few days to see if some assistance could be found – but from government funds.

As we saw last week, the shop stewards met on the Saturday and agreed the work-in strategy. Even as they were doing so, things took a turn for the worse for UCS.

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On June 13, Davies met Hepper and was told that unless UCS got £6m the following day, the liquidator would be called in. On June 14, 1971, just after the mass meetings had taken place to approve the shop stewards’ plan of a work in, Davies went to the House of Commons and delivered the coup de grace for UCS.

He said: “The board have told me that they still have hopes of attaining viability in the future, but that they are quite unable to forecast when the present excess of liabilities over assets might be reversed. The Government’s judgment is that this company in its present grouping, saddled as it is with debt and dogged by deficit since its inception, having absorbed and lost some £20m lent and granted to it under arrangements made by the former government, is unlikely to achieve a state of stability and prosperity without having repeated recourse to government aid. Only such a state will ensure the confidence in the future that is needed by workpeople, customers and suppliers alike. The Government have decided, therefore, that nobody’s interest will be served by making the injection of funds into the company as it now stands.”

Labour MP Andrew Faulds was heard to shout: “Bloody resign.”

Davies then said the Government would work with the liquidator to try and restructure the group and a panel of experts would be nominated to help. By now, the Government and the Opposition were aware that UCS had become an international news story, and MPs on all sides were determined to have their say.

Hugh McCartney MP, who had beaten Jimmy Reid in the 1970 General Election contest for Dunbartonshire East, made a very telling contribution.

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He said: “I realise that the secretary of state faces serious hazards on this question in view of his ‘lame duck’ speech some time ago. Would he clearly indicate to the House that the Government will work conscientiously to ensure the well-being of the people involved? It is not just a question of 7500 or 30,000 people; there are something like 120,000 human beings affected by this disaster on Clydeside, including the families of the people affected. Could he indicate, apart from all the devious things he has indicated he will do with regard to reconstruction, what protection he will give to these families?”

Davies gave a quite incredible answer: “There is a grave risk of escalating beyond reason at the moment the problem in regard to unemployment and the impact on suppliers and families. I believe that this was the case in the press over the weekend. I do not anticipate that the kind of figures which have been mentioned are the figures with which we shall be faced, but it is the Government’s firm intention to achieve that that shall not be so.”

THE great old Labour warhorse Willie Ross, then the former secretary of state for Scotland who would resume that role in 1974, rose to his feet and verbally eviscerated Davies.

“Does the secretary of state,” said Ross, “and particularly the prime minister, realise that this is one of the blackest days in the history of Scottish industry? Does he realise that in the area concerned there are already nearly 30,000 men unemployed and that the male unemployment rate is 9.6 per cent? Is it not strange that the Right Honourable Gentleman should talk about people seeking to scare the country about escalating figures? Is he aware that many people in Scotland feel that this was a question either of saving the Right Honourable Gentleman’s face or of saving Upper Clyde Shipbuilders? Scotland will not forgive him for what he has done today.”

Davies bumbled on, and then conceded to Labour leader Harold Wilson that there could be a debate on UCS the following day.

Watching on grim-faced were some of the UCS shop stewards. They caught the first train home, accompanied by Scottish Labour MPs and Tony Benn, the former technology minister.

That evening in Clydebank Town Hall, hundreds gathered to hear the shop stewards plead for assistance for the work-in. Led by Jimmy Reid and Jimmy Airlie, they began to make the case for the work-in rather than a simple strike which would have precipitated the complete liquidation of the yards. When he heard the reasoning for the work-in, Benn said: “Your decision not to evacuate the yards is absolutely justified.”

Bob Fleming, provost of Clydebank, caused a furore when he said “The Government were trying to do to Clydebank what the Germans had failed to do during the Second World War.” The town council then agreed to underwrite the fares of dozens of workers who took June 15 off to attend the debate in the Commons, while a further demonstration in London was arranged for June 16, with hundreds travelling overnight from Glasgow Central. The debate on June 15 showed up all that was wrong about the Tory government, as ministers and MPs sought to divert blame onto the previous Labour government. Benn was having none of it and quoted facts and figures to show how Davies and the Government sold out the Upper Clyde. The UCS order book was worth £90m and there was a potential for further orders worth £100m, he said, and charged the Tories with making a political decision, not an economic one.

ON June 16, the Clydeside contingent arrived in London at 6am. They took with them a message from the leaders of Scotland’s main churches. It warned the Government that its failure to save UCS “without the existence of alternative industry, the action would be so damaging to the economy of Scotland in an area of already severe unemployment, and would have such social and human consequences, as to be totally unacceptable in a responsible society.”

They met with Labour MPs before marching to Downing Street where a deputation led by Reid and Airlie were given an hour with Ted Heath. The decision of no funding remained unchanged.

By now anger was growing across the country. Here were people ready to work being denied the right to work for the sake of a few million Treasury quids which would have been repaid in the long run. To put things in context, Heath’s Industrial Relations Bill had angered the trade union movement to the extent that more than a million people had joined in a one-day strike in March, and now three months later the Government’s intransigence had given them a cause to fight.

The working class across the UK began to agitate, but it was in Glasgow that passions ran highest.

Lord provost Donald Liddle chaired a crisis meeting involving MPs, trades unionists and councillors from the affected local authorities. The press coverage at the time was almost totally supportive of the shipyard workers, though there was some sniffy comments about the Communist shop stewards.

On June 23, a half-day general strike took place on Clydeside, with 40,000 marching in the city centre – the biggest demonstration in the city for decades. In the yards there was an uneasy peace and after the half-day strike, work continued as normal, though all the time the shop stewards were making their plans for the work-in. Not a Yard Will Close was just one of their slogans.

In the background the Government’s “Four Wise Men” were investigating the UCS situation. Alexander McDonald, chairman of Distillers; Sir Alexander Glen, shipping magnate; David MacDonald of Hill Samuel; and Lord Rubens were never going to do anything revolutionary, and on July 28 they delivered their report to the Government. It fell to Davies to deliver the verdict in the Commons on July 29: “Any continuation of Upper Clyde Shipbuilders in its present form would be wholly unjustified.”

The report recommended the closure of the Clydebank division, John Brown’s famous “Queens” building yard at Clydebank and the Scotstoun yard, formerly Charles Connell and Co. The Govan and Linthouse yards would be retained but UCS as a whole would be liquidated and a new company formed with just 2500 workers, down from in excess of 8500.

Clydeside exploded with anger at the loss of 6000 jobs and many more in the supply chains. Clydebank had already seen the workforce at the giant Singer factory slashed by thousands.

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The fight was on. The workers occupied John Brown’s first and politely but firmly told the management that they were now in charge and work would continue. Reid took to a makeshift stage and gave this famous address: “We are not going to strike. We are not even having a sit-in strike. Nobody and nothing will come in, and nothing will go out, without our permission. And there will be no hooliganism, there will be no vandalism, there will be no bevvying because the world is watching us, and it is our responsibility to conduct ourselves with responsibility, and with dignity, and with maturity.”

It was wonderful stuff and the television cameras broadcast the work-in and Reid’s speech around the world. He really had caught the mood of the nation.

Bob Dickie, a former colleague and friend of Reid, spoke to our sister paper the Glasgow Times just before the 40th anniversary of the speech,

He recalled: “It was inspiration. Who would have thought you’d have a shop steward up there saying there’ll be nae bevvying. Come on, it’s a shipyard, but it just carried the day. It was accepted. The workers were in a form of shock as well – this had come completely out of the blue.

“We didn’t know beforehand what he was going to say. It caught the imagination of the workforce and latterly the community as a whole. What you have to remember is in that era, if there had been any disputes led by members of the Communist Party, there was always a negative reaction.

“That never ever happened. There was never anything other than praise for the way the UCS and the workforce handled things.”

We’ll see next week just how well they did.