I read with great interest Eileen Reid's memories of her dad a decade after he died. I played a wee but perhaps important role in his career, in that I was part of the team of students who successfully campaigned to have him elected Rector of the university.
As an active member of the Communist Party, I knew of Reid and was aware in the early summer of 1971 that the UCS workforce, led by its shop stewards, was planning something major in their fight to retain shipbuilding on the upper Clyde. I and my comrades were also very aware that October 1971 would see the triennial election of the Rector of the institution, a strangely democratic hangover from its medieval origins. The Glasgow University branch of the Communist Party therefore consulted Alec Murray, then Scottish Secretary of the party, before convening a meeting, in conjunction with a wider grouping of left students in June, to discuss nominating a suitable left candidate.
The Communists amongst us were certain that Reid was the best candidate, in that by the time of the election in October he would be widely known and respected in the city. We didn't know just how widely known and respected he and his fellow stewards would become! He was already weel-enough kent in the city that (I think – ach, memory!) it was Labour Party activist and President of the Students Representative Council, Martin Caldwell, who suggested him as candidate. Martin carried such weight that the meeting was unanimous in proposing him.
It fell to myself and I think Martin to contact 'Big Reid' and visit him in his home in Swallow Road, Faifley, to discuss it with him. The outcome was that Jimmy won a hotly-contested student election, by a substantial margin over the next highest candidate, Tory Teddy Taylor. I have reason to believe that Michael Parkinson's candidacy failed deliberately to conform to the university's rules, as, realising that Parkie was a serious soft-left contender, it was my responsibility to ask him to speak for Jimmy in the rectorial debate in the University Union as soon as we heard whispers that the student right might approach him as a 'Stop Reid' candidate. Parkinson is quoted in a book on GU Rectors as saying he was a 'lovely fellow', and hoping he would 'give the University Court hell'.
I enjoyed reading about Ted Heath, 1970 and beyond (Tom Chidwick
, SR). Personally, I think the writer was much too kind in his assessment at every level. However, he did win in 1970, although this was his only win in four elections in less than a decade as Leader. He was inter alia an exceptionally divisive Prime Minister.
Back in June 1970, I was near the end of my second year at Aberdeen University planning to do a joint honours degree in history and politics. A friend (later to be professor of international relations) and I decided to canvass for Donald Dewar in Aberdeen South, a key Labour marginal. We were made very welcome and were treated to a daily bar lunch where we chatted about politics incessantly. Alas, I became somewhat starstruck as numerous central belt politicians came up for the day to support us. In particular, I recall Peggie Herbison, a former Minister of Pensions or equivalent, charming a lot of dour and indifferent Aberdonians. She very much had the common touch which Donald at that time certainly did not.
I recall Donald speaking to the workers at the big Hall Russell shipyard. Here he should have been on solid ground but he struggled to engage, speaking very quickly with no rapport, and his content engendering no enthusiasm. This was of particular interest to me, as someone brought up in the north-east, of Edinburgh or rather Leith parents, and who holidayed every summer from 1957-68 in the capital visiting relatives. As an aside, regional divides in Scotland I think are massively under-studied and rarely recognised for what they represent. As a further aside, I remember in the early 1990s being in the audience of an Archie McPherson late evening TV talk show. His warming up of the audience was to indulge in strong anti-Aberdeen 'banter'.
Back to 1970, and I recall we struggled locally and nationally for a theme or what we would now call a message. Where was Alastair Campbell when we needed him? One line was we spent more on education than defence. Not perceived as a hugely inspiring slogan given Aberdeen's strong defence employment links and its military traditions. On the downside, I remember a lot of ill feeling about social security 'scroungers'. Also, there was a marked reaction against Donald's social agenda, not least about him leading successfully a change to liberalise Scotland's divorce law. There was also a whispering campaign about the absence of his wife from the campaign trail.
In the end, he lost the seat. The only Labour loss to the Conservatives in Scotland. Why? All of the above. The divide between Aberdeen and Glasgow came to the fore again in the 1979 referendum campaign, and I noticed in my workplace in the 1980s. In a more senior role in 2004, I remember meeting some Aberdeen councillors from all parties. Their first comment was the bias of Holyrood to Glasgow and the central belt. One later became a MSP and for a time a minister.
However, my primary view why we lost was apathy. I remember Willie Whitelaw's campaign accusation that Harold Wilson was going round the country stirring up apathy. One anecdote I can, and will, offer as evidence. When canvassing, I met a lady who worked in the hall of residence where I stayed. We chatted and she assured me that she and her husband would be voting Labour. After the election I asked her if she didn't mind telling me had she indeed voted. The immediate answer offered somewhat apologetically, and perhaps even guiltily, was No.
We all know what happened to Donald Dewar. What about yours truly, I hear you ask? In October 1974, I found myself canvassing for an expatriate Scot in a south Birmingham constituency. Result: only seat Labour lost to the Conservatives in England. Second result: no more canvassing on my part!
I am very angry this week. You see, I received an unsolicited telephone call the other day. Unusually, it was a call on my home phone which, to be honest with you, I rarely answer, opting instead to allow the caller to leave a message which I can review at my leisure and respond accordingly.
Seems like a pretty innocuous point to make in the introduction to a wee anecdotal tale I hear you say. Well, this call was interesting, firstly because my son Mark actually picked up the call and after a quick introduction, from the caller, passed it on to me as it had apparently passed his scrutiny! Secondly, the person on the other end was relatively friendly, sounded confident and appeared to know something about me, or at least have knowledge of my past purchases. Well, he did give that impression. There was no tension – no sense of sparring in the initial introduction. I was not initially aware of the caller's purpose, but nonetheless relaxed enough to hear him out as he crafted his story in an attempt to impart some sense of urgency, bordering on panic and hysteria in me.
As the call progressed, my mind was working overtime. Was it an internet failure or security breach I was to be informed of, or more worrying still, suspicious activity around my bank account which could only be remedied by my switching all of my money to a temporary safe account, knowledge of which he would kindly share with me in order to protect what little I had in the bank? Then it occurred to me, I am getting on a bit and quickly approaching another round number, so was I to be introduced to a failsafe pension investment plan, with a cast iron guarantee of making a small fortune as long as I made a fixed commitment and transferred funds with immediate effect. I was almost salivating in anticipation of the con that was about to be tried on me. The anticipation was intoxicating. A slight sweat had gathered on my forehead and my heartbeat quickened as I quickly zipped through my battle plan and defence strategy against this unknown adversary. I love a wee challenge, you see.
Anyway, time to concentrate on the direction of the call – let battle commence. Disappointment rained down on me though as I absorbed the purpose of the call: ‘It's about your washing machine, you will need to sign up to a new agreement through this call, if you wish to ensure your continued warranty cover', followed by a perceptible pause as he let his words hang in the air. That was it – the heist. Simple, but how should I respond? I decided to go the direct route and feeling suitably inspired, I asked: 'What model of washing machine do I have?' This was, of course, met by the familiar burring sound of the phone call being abruptly ended.
So why did this prompt my anger so? Honestly and simply, I felt insulted. If they were going to try to scam me, at least they could have made it credible. After all, our machine was bought from friends who were moving away from Edinburgh and had been acquired a good five years ago minus any warranties!
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