Jimmy Reid Lecture: First Minister's speech - 26 October 2023

First Minister's speech at the annual Jimmy Reid Lecture at Glasgow City Chambers on 26 October 2023. 

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It is a real honour to be invited to give the Jimmy Reid Foundation Annual Lecture.

I have had the great privilege of knowing some of Jimmy’s family over the years. His daughters Eileen and Shona have given great encouragement and advice over the years.

I also had the great pleasure of going to school with Jimmy’s granddaughter, Joani Reid. She is a candidate for Scottish Labour in the General Election. And while I can’t wish her the best of luck, I do wish her well, her grandad would undoubtedly be proud of all of her successes.

Jimmy is a campaigner, an orator and thinker who we are right to celebrate. His life and his achievements are part of our nation’s story.

The work the foundation does in keeping his spirit alive and promoting his radical thinking, across the full range of progressive politics in Scotland, is absolutely essential. It’s more important than ever before.

It is the sort of thing we should have more of.

It is the sort of thing we need to have more of, if we are ever to truly know ourselves as a nation.

But our history is full of unexamined and under-examined people with the power to inspire us.

Think of the great Mary Barbour, another Govan figure, who in 1915 led the Glasgow rent strikes.

These culminated in over 10,000 Glaswegians — including a delegation from the shipbuilders’ union — lining the streets outside the sheriff court, protesting and demanding that tenants who were in fear of being ejected from their homes.

That too is a part of our story.

A story that includes, more than a hundred years later, the Scottish Government legislating for a cap on rent increases and protections from eviction, in response to the cost-of-living crisis.

That is why knowing and really understanding our history and the people of Scotland is essential, it informs us about who we are. You can see how much better we understand our problems now if we know the story of ourselves back then.

So, it would be great if more of civic Scotland looked at organisations like the Jimmy Reid Foundation, and sought to build on and emulate the kind of work you do.

More inspiration from the figures and events of our past to give us the ideas which are the key to solve the problems of today, and the problems of tomorrow.

More voices showing people how things can be done better, at a time when people can see beyond that status quo.

So I to thank everyone involved in the Jimmy Reid Foundation for everything you, and the Foundation does.

I’m not sure if Jimmy would have welcomed such a thank you from the head of a government.

After all, he was a man who knew how to treat authority.

There are so many stories about Jimmy. But one I hear often and think of is that time during his national service, as an RAF musician, AC1 Reid once received a severe dressing down from his senior NCO, during a bedside inspection, because the stripes on his pyjama top did not align with the stripes on his pyjama bottoms.

Jimmy replied that he doubted whether the effectiveness of the Royal Air Force would be undermined by the state of his pyjamas!

And, the story goes, Jimmy got away with it.

Jimmy was a passionate advocate of social justice. He was never afraid of raising his voice for the rights of others, even, especially, if he was the lone voice.

That voice of humanity is needed now more than ever before, both at home but also abroad.

I could only hope to be half the man that Jimmy was, but in his spirit, I will always stand up for what I believe to be true, even if I am the lone voice.

Collectively, our hearts are broken at the scenes of death and destruction in Gaza. Noone should be in any doubt about the Scottish Government’s condemnation of the atrocities of Hamas. You should also be in no doubt about our condemnation of collective punishment.

To stop supplies of food, water, fuel and medicines to the 2.2 million, the overwhelming majority who have nothing to do with Hamas, is a moral outrage.

While diplomats talk, children are dying. Premature babies are in their incubators while their parents worry if they will switch off given the lack of fuel.

It is no longer time to simply talk, but to demand an immediate ceasefire.

Those who do not have the moral courage to stand up and call for a ceasefire now will be on the wrong side of history; the world must not condemn any more children to their deaths. 

Jimmy believed in the rights of all men and women.

At some point or another, if we don’t address the consequences we will continue to see that perpetual cycle of violence. Therefore we have to. We have to address the root causes of the violence. I think and hope we begin to see progress on the promise the world made many, many years ago to of course have an Israeli state but also a Palestinian state.

Whether at home or abroad, it is our common humanity that unites us. Whether you are from Palestine or Pollok, you want the same things in life; health, happiness and for those we love, particularly our children, to grow up in peace.

At the heart of that universal desire for wellbeing—for health and for happiness – for me is the economy.

Now, Jimmy Reid asked us many challenging questions, but the one I would like to focus on tonight is - in my view - the most important he posed:

Who should an economy serve?

But he wasn’t the type of man to ask a question unless he had a very good answer.

He said:

“Government by the people for the people becomes meaningless unless it includes major economic decision-making by the people for the people. This is not simply an economic matter. In essence it is an ethical and moral question, for whoever takes the important economic decisions in society ipso facto determines the social priorities of that society.”

Our economy, Jimmy told us, is the product of the people. It should therefore serve the people.

In my view, he was 100% right.

Jimmy Reid was, of course, a shipbuilding man, so I am reminded of the nautical metaphor of the steady hand on the tiller.

We often hear politicians argue for a steady hand on the tiller of our economy.

And this is why I believe the debate over Scotland’s constitutional future is inextricably linked to the economy, more importantly the wellbeing economy.

The Scottish Government has published detailed analysis comparing the performance of the UK to a range of independent countries that are like Scotland.

Not just the Scandinavian countries we hear about all the time but Ireland, Austria and other European nations.

And we found something that is remarkable.

Those countries all have higher national incomes per head than the UK.

They all have higher productivity, higher levels of innovation and higher business investment.

But they also all have lower inequality, lower rates of poverty and higher social mobility. Many of these countries have healthier and happier citizens.

So I am bound to ask the question: if all those independent European countries can be fairer, wealthier and happier than the UK, why not Scotland?

And this is where I believe passionately that the focus of our national debate should be.

Now after considering all the arguments in that debate people might decide to stick with the Westminster system.

That of course is their right.

But given what I would argue are the poor prospects for far, far too many people in Scotland under that system, compared with what we see as possible when we look at our European neighbours then surely those arguments deserve to be heard.

Indeed I couldn’t in all consciousness as First Minister believe, as I do,  that the current constitutional arrangements will continue to deliver poor economic and social outcomes and do simply nothing about that.

I have a duty, an obligation, to set out an alternative – one in which the people of Scotland through their elected government have their hands on the tiller.  

So that is what the Scottish Government is undertaking  - an updated prospectus on how things could be better.

That doesn’t just mean a transfer of power from London to Edinburgh.

It is about an ambition to build that new wellbeing economy.

One based on the broad social democratic values we hold deeply.

An internationalist and welcoming ethos.

Where we can learn from, and implement here in Scotland, the kind of enduring social partnerships that characterise so many of the countries I mentioned earlier.

Where our rights aren’t dependent on the whims of right wing politicians itching to leave the ECHR, but instead we live in a country with a written constitution that cemented and embedded our rights.

Imagine a constitution that embeds the rights of workers, including the right to go on strike.

A constitution that embeds a right of access to a healthcare, free at the point of need.

A constitution that enshrines that sovereignty belongs not to politicians or political institutions, but to the people.

Over the coming months the Scottish Government will set out that prospectus to build the case for that better wellbeing economy.

Shortly we will set out our plans for a humane, welcoming approach to migration in an independent Scotland.

I talked of the hand on the tiller, as many politicians have before me, and doubtless will in the future.

But I think at this point Jimmy would stop me — and would demand an answer — to a prior question:

Whose hand?

And who decides whose hand?

Tonight, I will try to give you my answer to those questions.

Because I believe that it is only through spreading economic and political power—through increasing the number of hands on the tiller—that we can truly create that wellbeing economy.

One that places at least as much importance on the health and happiness of our citizens as it does on economic growth.

So, tonight, I intend to take the three missions my government has set itself—to provide opportunity, to enhance equality and to strengthen community—and to set out for you my vision of a new and better economy.

Let me talk first about opportunity.

In advance of this lecture, I read Jimmy’s 1972 rectorial address again. As well as being inspired by it, I also felt dismay. I was dismayed at how much of it could simply be repeated, word for word, today.

He opened with a description of what he called the “major social problem in Britain today. People feel alienated by society.”

He defined alienation in words that I am sure are familiar to us all.

“It is the cry of men who feel themselves the victims of blind economic forces beyond their control. It is the frustration of ordinary people excluded from the processes of decision making. The feeling of despair and hopelessness that pervades people who feel with justification that they have no real say in shaping or determining their own destinies.”

You don’t have to be an economist, or Marxist philosopher like Jimmy, to know that these ideas are absolutely true on a human level. Such was the genius of Jimmy’s oratory, he could make complex philosophies and economic ideals seem so simple. Because frankly at a human level, they are.

This is why I believe that any theory of economics that does not start with the human — that does not put people at its very centre — is doomed to failure.

This is why I believe that an economy is not a series of natural laws that can never be refuted, but a man-made system that can be modernised, developed and enhanced like any other.

And why I believe that the antidote to Jimmy Reid’s definition of alienation is building a wellbeing economy, with people at its heart, here in Scotland.

The truth is that when a person feels alienated as Jimmy Reid describes, they will struggle to take advantage of any opportunity afforded them.

And the opportunity of taking advantage of economic growth is denied to far too many.

I don’t want economic growth without a purpose, and that purpose is quite straightforward:  to eradicate inequality and to improve living standards and quality of life for all. Low opportunity for growth and high inequality are particularly pronounced here in the UK.

The UK seems to lag behind, for example, the European Union’s interest in extending collective bargaining coverage and in industrial policy.

And compare that to proposals by the Scottish Government on how we envisage industrial relations in an independent Scotland. Think of where our European partners are in relation to collective bargaining.

But even within devolved powers the Scottish Government, under the constraints of devolution, is doing what we can to realise our ambitions to become a wellbeing economy.

For example, we now have around 3300 accredited real Living Wage employers in Scotland with 91% of employees aged 18 and over earning the real Living Wage or more in 2022. That is the highest proportion of employees being paid the real Living Wage or more across the countries and regions of the UK.

So we are seeking to give people are greater sense of control over their lives.

To be able to steer — not be steered by — the “blind economic forces” Jimmy talked about.

To not just have opportunity, but to have the agency to make the most of it.

That leads me onto the second of my government’s defining missions: equality.

In that respect it is interesting to note the growing contributions of women like Mariana Mazzucato and Claudia Goldin to economic thought.

Jimmy knew that widening the voices we hear from would vastly improve the quality of our ideas and the power of the things we do.

He told us: “what we need most in today’s world is the spiritually enriching power of human reason and discourse.”

Now, I can’t pretend that economic statistics are “spiritually enriching”. But they’re essential if we’re to understand the problem of inequality today, and apply our human reason to solving it.

In 2018, the most recent year that we have data for all countries, most comparator countries the Scottish Government looked at had a smaller gender pay gap than the UK.

Belgium had the lowest gender pay gap, at 5.8%. Ireland’s was 11.3 %.

Indeed, only Austria had one higher than the UK’s 19.8%.

Better isn’t just possible, better is needed now. If ever there is a reason to be radical, then surely given the dire, failed common model that is engulfing us, surely that time is now.

Inequality like this is a human tragedy and a profound injustice, first and foremost. And Jimmy Reid always wanted us to focus on the human.

But it is also an injustice that harms our economy and our productivity.

How could it not, when you tell women that their labour appears to be worth less than a man’s?

How could it not, when you make it more difficult for some parts of society, particularly women, to enter or stay in the workplace, than others?

We have evidence of what a measure of self-government can achieve, and how it can be used to start to address some of these issues.

Just this week, The Joseph Rowntree Foundation published its fourth report on Destitution in the UK this week. It makes for grim reading.

Destitution has increased in all regions and nations in the UK.

Approximately 3.8 million people in the UK experienced destitution in 2022, including around one million children. That is nearly triple the number of children, compared with 2017.

Ladies and gentlemen, the world ‘destitution’ shouldn’t be in the political vocabulary of one of the wealthiest nations in the world.

Destitution means doing without essentials.

Foregoing food or medicine; so that your children can.

Destitution means a life dominated by the trauma of want; by the fear of debt; or by the trauma of insecurity.

Destitution means never having the little luxuries—or never being able to provide them for your family—that make life a joy, not a slog.

And people are feeling all these forms of destitution today, here in our communities.

That report shows that of the top 30 local authorities in terms of destitution rates, Glasgow had dropped 16 places.

Something can be done.

Indeed, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation concluded that “Scotland has improved its position to [now] lie below the GB average, having experienced by far the lowest increase [in destitution] since 2019. This may be indicative” the report suggests “of the growing divergence in welfare benefits policies in Scotland, notably the introduction of the Scottish Child Payment.”

We still have plenty of work to do, however, in terms of destitution.

Professor Danny Dorling has called the Scottish Child Payment the intervention that has had the biggest impact on inequality in 40 years.

I am extremely proud of what we have achieved with the Scottish Child Payment.

It is evidence—proof positive—of the way we want to do things in Scotland.

But it is also evidence, I am afraid, of the limits of our powers.

Look at the UK-wide trends in destitution that the JRF Report identifies.

Look at the UK Government-driven approaches to our social security system: the retention of social security measures.

Look at the tide we are fighting against with things like the Scottish Child Payment.

So to move beyond mitigation I believe and argue passionately we need full decision-making powers here in Scotland.

That brings me to the third of my government’s missions: community, and the strengthening and enhancing of the public realm and of indeed public services.

The 21st-century economy will require structural shifts of a scale that only government can shape, often working in partnership with other countries.

National co-ordination, and when appropriate cross-national collaboration, and substantial investments in infrastructure, for instance in energy networks and public transport, are necessary to support the fastest-possible just transition to net zero.

We know to our cost in Scotland the profoundly damaging impact on our communities when there is no economic plan apart from rapid de-industrialisation. We are still bearing the scars of that to this day.

That’s why the Scottish Government is developing our plans for an industrial strategy and just transition.

I’m not suggesting for a second that we have all the answers or that we are getting everything right but we are seeking to work hand in glove with business, with the third sector, with social enterprise to improve the lives of people and their communities.

Because people are strong when their communities are strong.

I started this speech talking about the 10,000 Glaswegians that filled the streets in 1915 to prevent members of their community from being turfed from their homes because of their inability to pay unfair rent increases.

We all remember the scenes in Kenmure Street two years ago, when in an echo of Mary Barbour’s protests of more than a century earlier, hundreds came out and prevented draconian immigration enforcement taking place within their community – against members of their community.

Jimmy Reid loved a good sit in, I suspect he would have been very proud of all those gathered in Kenmure Street.

We are all members of multiple communities. Interlocking; overlapping, mutually supporting – geographic, social, economic, cultural, and religious.

And when new Scots join us, whether they’re coming here to study, to join family, to work – or because they need refuge, and need our welcome, shelter and our support – they don’t just establish new and rich communities of their own … they also boost and expand existing communities all across Scotland.

Every study shows that migrants contribute more than they take. This city is a fantastic example of that. Glasgow has been enriched by the contribution of migrants over the decades. The contribution of their business, their small businesses. Their culture. Their music. Their history. Of course their food, in Glasgow the home of Chicken Tikka Masala.

Jimmy warned us of the alienation of people who feel they “have no real say in shaping or determining their own destinies”.

Well, it’s hard for any single person to shape their destiny.

But as Mary Barbour showed – and as the people of Kenmure Street showed – a community, coming together, can sometimes shape the destiny of a whole country.

Ladies and gentlemen, all of this tells us that there is something in the air, that better is possible.

The only question is whether Scotland is in a position to take advantage of that.

There can be no doubt Scotland has the essential economic ingredients to build a better economy.

We have a globally-recognised track record of invention, innovation and learning. Edinburgh and Glasgow were recently identified as the two most innovative UK cities outside London.

We have strong business sectors: longstanding comparative advantages in food and drink, financial services, energy and advanced engineering, sub-sea technologies and data analytics.

We have incredible natural heritage.

We have world-class universities, and a highly-skilled workforce.

We have a unique and recognised brand in Scotland: provenance is a key selling point for many of our goods, particularly in food and drink. And now a bloody good football team to go alongside all of that!

We have benn ranked first among the UK’s nations for green growth and opportunity.

We have the world’s leading wave and tidal test centre and the world’s most powerful tidal stream turbine.

Furthermore, there can be no doubt that we have a gallous, hardworking, talented people.

We have the outward-looking mindset that embraces, rather than fears, the interconnectedness of the modern world. Every single local authority area of Scotland voted to remain in the EU, let us never forget.

We have a commitment to the fundamentals of the direction we need to take our economy in.

Scotland has an incredible history when it comes to economic ideas. Such as those of Jimmy Reid.

Often this is simplistically boiled down to some bromide about Adam Smith and the power of free markets.

But Smith, like Jimmy Reid, contained multitudes. And his work was as much social philosophy as economic theory.

Remember that Hilary Putnam demanded we “stop compartmentalizing ‘ethics’ and ‘economics’ […] and come back to the kind of reasoned and human evaluation of social wellbeing that Adam Smith saw as essential to the task of the economist.”

When Professor Danny Dorling visited Edinburgh in August, he caused quite a stir.

Dorling concludes in his new book, ‘Britain is Broken: And it’s so much worse than you think’:

“The people who will lose out the most – if we try to stagger on with a few minor remedial actions – are not the poorest. They are already suffering the most. Instead it will be you […] and more people like you.”

Now, Jimmy Reid knew suffering, and he knew troubled times.

Born during a global depression; raised during the Second World War; and coming to national—and international—prominence during the economic and social strife of the 1970s.

But he also knew, and told us what it takes, to take back control in troubled times, too.

It is in the choppiest waters that it matters most whose hand is on the tiller.

And how very choppy the waters are right now.

The economic and social and cultural consequences of a Brexit Scotland did not vote for.

The impact of years of austerity that Scotland also did not vote for.

The aftermath of a devastating pandemic.

War, and international instability on a level we haven’t experienced for decades.

And a crisis in our climate, that some people despite all of the evidence choose to deny is happening.

How could we hope to thrive in such a world other than with coordinated, cooperative action?

That is my promise to you as First Minister, that I always seek to ensure that I and the government I lead will ensure that the wealth and opportunity of this country is distributed and shared far more evenly than it currently is.

That we will bold, that we will be radical and expected to be pushed to be more bold and radical.

We will not accept that the status quo is as good as it gets.

That we will promise as a government to be a voice of justice at home and abroad.

How else do we get to this other than through empowering everyone, especially those who are in parts of society that have been historically denied the opportunity.

It’s time to help everybody in society to grab hold of the tiller, to ensure that me and you are all equal in controlling our destiny.

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