The “Tremendous Social Force” of Language: The Upper Clyde Shipbuilders Work-In and Heath’s U-Turn

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There are various aspects of the experience and legacy of the 1971-72 Upper Clyde Shipbuilders (UCS) Work-In which could be foregrounded in marking its 50th anniversary. Here, I have been asked to reflect on the importance of the language deployed by those leading the struggle in creating and sustaining support for the work-in, and ultimately in forcing the Conservative government of Edward Heath to abandon, not just its policy of forcing the closure of the UCS consortium, but also its wider policy for remaking the British economy and society along proto-neo-liberal lines.
Ultimately, I will argue that language was an intensely active element throughout the UCS struggle, and that it was to be of decisive importance to the overall success of the work-in at critical points (one of which this article will later focus upon). Indeed, without the carefully developed language which so successfully legitimized the workers’ struggle in the minds of broad swathes of British society, and the highly skilled – arguably inspired – further elaboration of that language by key individuals in responding to the most potent attacks on the work-in, the struggle would most likely have collapsed in its early months.
In that case, it can be argued that subsequent political history would have been likely to be different, and perhaps very different. The leading role of the UCS struggle in precipitating the policy change, which was ultimately to become the stark policy ‘U-turn’ of Heath’s government, has been widely acknowledged. Were the struggle not to have been sustained, that U-turn – one of the defining moments of late 20th Century political history – may well not have taken place and the ensuing internal processes in the Conservative Party which were to lead to Margaret Thatcher becoming leader would have had a quite different basis. Were Thatcher to have become leader, she could not have become the ‘lady’ who was ‘not for turning’.
In making this argument, the suggestion is not that language was somehow of more fundamental importance in this particular episode of labour history than in others. Rather, the suggestion is that both the historical events, and also the available sources – including the unusually rich language sources – provide a particularly good opportunity to grasp and to reflect upon the salience of language as an active element in processes of sociopolitical conflict more generally, and also provide a basis on which to invite others to seek to grasp and reflect upon its salience in other contexts.
Given these claims about the salience of language in historical processes, readers may be anticipating that the analysis to follow will be based on some philosophically idealist framework – one which elevates language itself to some kind of determining position in social life. However, the analysis is based on the thoroughly materialist perspectives first elaborated by writers in the Soviet Union in the 1920s and early 1930s. This is a largely Marxist perspective in which linguistic processes are understood as vital, and always integral, aspects of the wider material process in which human agents, through both collaboration and conflict, actively create their own history. Indeed, this is something which was itself at the very least implicitly understood by those leading the UCS struggle – and in particular by its most prominent leader, Jimmy Reid. We will return to this observation later.
In what follows, an overview of the context of the work-in will be provided, followed by an outline of the perspective on language elaborated by the Soviet theorists mentioned above. Then, a more specific analysis of the language deployed by both the government and by the leadership of the work-in will be presented, with a particular focus on a highly critical moment in the struggle from the later part of September 1971 – when the government sought to mobilise the official trade union movement, and with that a social democratic language of co-operation, to bring the work-in to an abrupt end. The analysis will show, using the conceptual framework of the theorists mentioned above, how the leading stewards first rebuffed and then expropriated the linguistic ‘weapons’ deployed by the government – and turned those weapons back on the government itself, with dramatic effect. In doing all of this, I will be drawing freely on the definitive account of the work-in provided by John Foster and Charles Woolfson, and on previous work focused on the language of the struggle by both myself and Foster and Woolfson .
Original languageEnglish
Article number1
Pages (from-to)59-76
Number of pages18
JournalScottish Labour History
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2021


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