JIMMY REID'S 1972 INAUGURAL ADDRESS AS RECTOR OF GLASGOW UNIVERSITY
I find Jimmy Reid’s 1972 Inaugural Address as Rector of Glasgow University one of the most powerful and inspirational pieces of oratory I have ever come across. In it, Reid, a largely self-educated former shipyard worker and trade union leader, makes a heartfelt plea to the students of Glasgow University: to hold true to their own values, their independence of mind, their zeal to change society for the better, and to reject the values and behaviour implied by terms like the ‘rat race’. The speech is about various kinds of alienation in society, and, to me, is as relevant today as it was 40 years ago. With great humanity, Reid chronicles the devastating moral and other effects on society and individuals from overly individualistic, materialistic, and self-aggrandizing societal undercurrents. The thesis is not some tub-thumping leftist cliche. It is a moral plea from the heart to turn away from false social, economic and moral values, and to realise that, as Reid puts it, ‘Man is a social being. Real fulfilment for any person lies in service to his fellow men and women.’
I admire so much the content of this speech, and its context. Too often in public life, during ceremonial and official moments and occasions, people talk in meaningless cliches, and the whole thing is merely a pro forma performance to be got through, for both speaker and listeners. This speech is so much more than that.
It is a genuine attempt to grab the attention of young people on the cusp of adult life, as they go forth and make their way in their professions, and their relationships, and to make those young people think about human potential and possibility, and about the possibility of individual and societal change for the better.
If there is a link to the law, it would be that I hope that some of our own law students might think about things in the way that Reid does, and might use their enormous talents, and the considerable resources of the law, not to further maintain the pain of alienation by bolstering existing powercentres, many of which, at some point, and to some extent, trade in human misery; but rather to use their talents and the law to push-back against illegitimate and value-destroying power, and to think creatively about ways in which legal work might allow them to serve their fellow human beings, and bring about societal and moral progress. My favourite passage from the speech, and its most famous, is:
‘The other illustration is the widespread, implicit acceptance of the concept and term “the rat race”. The picture it conjures up is one where we are scurrying around scrambling for position, trampling on others, backstabbing, all in pursuit of personal success.....
To the students I address this appeal. Reject these attitudes. Reject the values and false morality that underlie these attitudes. A rat race is for rats. We’re not rats. We’re human beings. Reject the insidious pressures in society that would blunt your critical faculties to all that is happening around you, that would caution silence in the face of injustice lest you jeopardise your chances of promotion and self-advancement. This is how it starts, and before you know where you are, you’re a fully paid-up member of the rat-pack. The price is too high. It entails the loss of your dignity and human spirit.’
POLMONT ON MY MIND (SONG)
My home town in Scotland is called Grangemouth, and Polmont is a village about three miles from Grangemouth. The ‘Polmont’ to which the Glasvegas song refers is Polmont Young Offenders Institution, Scotland’s national holding facility for Young Offenders aged between 16 - 21 years of age (it was known as “The Borstal” where and when I grew up). The lyrics appear to be a soliloquy by a young man incarcerated in the institution and reflecting, now in a sober and sombre mood, and by the light of the moon and the light of his own regret shining into his cell, upon the ‘act of hate’ that led him to his current situation. Glasvegas sing in their own strong Glaswegian Scottish accents, and the results are heartfelt and very powerful. The song is also open-ended, as it isn’t clear whether his reflection will help the young man reform or whether this incarceration is the first step to a lifetime’s such. I love this song because it reminds me of the area I am from, and it reminds me of the ‘sharp end’ and harsh reality of law from the point of view of those on its receiving end, and makes me hope that law in this context can be rehabilitative and reforming even though I know the reality is often grimmer. The song also has the feel of a young life spoiled by context, and by a second’s poor judgement, and I always want to hope that in such situations the lesson can be learned and the life made worthwhile again, overall; indeed perhaps a more valuable and precious life, for having overcome certain experiences and tendencies. I think we all could have ended up on very very different paths in life to the ones we have been fortunate enough to take. And I think we should never forget that, and should always try for empathy, however hard it may be.