50 years ago today – in the summer of 1971 – John Lennon was putting the final studio touches to his global anthem, Imagine. At the same time the Government announced the imminent collapse of Upper Clyde Shipbuilders. Within weeks defiant workers had seized control of the yards.
Clydebank-born Chris (Barra) McGachy – author of Globe Trotsky – investigates this personal, childhood story uncovering the full facts behind Lennon’s donation to the work-in and exploring John’s journey from affable mop-top to militant activist following the breakup of The Beatles.
Fighting for the Right to work
The Upper Clyde Shipbuilders’ (UCS) stunning victory against Ted Heath’s Tory government in early 1972 has become the stuff of political legend. It was a time when ordinary workers and communities united in solidarity to demand the right and dignity to work.
With mass redundancies already on the cards, Bankie resident and UCS shop steward, Jimmy Reid cautioned the co-ordinating committee that conventional strike action would not win this battle. His ingenious idea was for the workforce to take control of the yards and continue to produce the ships for which the River Clyde yards had become world-famous: On 31 July 1971 – 50 years ago today – the famous work-in began.
Though one of a number of shop-stewards, Reid along with Jimmy Airlie became the local and global face and voice of the UCS campaign in which 8,000 men took control of four giant shipyards on the Clyde. The yards were famed for building both the largest liner and aircraft carrier in the world and their ships held a clutch of Blue Riband prizes for the fastest Atlantic crossings.
Heath’s Tory government had come to power in 1970 and signalled its policy; refusing to prop up industrial ‘lame ducks’. Cash flow issues at the Clyde yards early in 1971 meant a crisis developed with owners looking for a bail-out, causing panic among creditors.
The joint shop stewards committee was well prepared before Industry Secretary, John Davies, told Parliament on 29 July 1971 that liquidation was the only option. Clydebank – my hometown – was described as a town in mourning.
A devastated Jimmy Reid would be reminded of the haunted times in the 1930s when, as youngest of seven children, three of his sisters died in infancy. It led to his scathing accusation that their graves should have been inscribed: ‘killed by capitalism’. It was a formative family heartbreak which had propelled Reid to life as a political activist. “Socialism was in your mother’s milk,” he contended.
Perhaps the UCS’ most famous supporters were Yoko Ono and John Lennon, who sent red roses and a huge financial donation to support the workers control to keep Clyde shipbuilding – and their communities – alive.
From Mop-Top to Militant
On 25 November 1969, John Lennon visited his Aunt Mimi’s bungalow in Bournemouth from where he removed his MBE medal from her mantelpiece. Back at Apple’s London HQ he dispatched his chauffeur with the medal to return it Buckingham Palace in protest in Britain’s involvement in Nigerian civil war and support for the US in Vietnam.
It was one of many stunts Lennon and new wife Yoko devised as he stepped away from the lovable mop-top Beatle transforming himself into a celebrity activist with global appeal.
While musical history records Let it Be as the last of The Beatles 12 world-changing albums, the band’s split had been coming for a number of years. The death of manager Brian Epstein and the romance with Yoko Ono served to liberate Lennon from the claustrophobic rollercoaster of touring and Beatlemania.
It allowed him to freedom to imagine life beyond the band. And when the break came in 1969, he took the chance to experiment – as a musician, an artist and activist.
Escaping from Esptein’s stuffy managerial conformity and fired by Yoko’s radicalism, John began a journey of self-discovery leading to political activism as an iconic, anti-establishment figure.
Lennon had the unique ability to compose global anthems, beginning with All You Need Is Love in 1967. Two years later he followed that with the solo hit Give Peace a Chance. The Lennon songbook was gleefully adopted by peace campaigners and football fans alike.
John had written and performed different versions of Revolution to appease his bandmates, the public and his growing political persona – counting himself both ‘in’ and ‘out’ of radical change. Lennon’s ambivalent lyric captured much attention.
PR stunts, such as turning their honeymoon suite into a open-door ‘bed-in for peace’ reported by the world’s press to a global following, spurred John and Yoko on to develop their radical agenda; their antics assured of worldwide media coverage.
The signs of a more political phase were reinforced when John became the first Beatle to release a solo album. Fresh from primal psychotherapy with Dr Janov in 1970, the LP Plastic Ono Band included the track Working Class Hero, complete with taboo swearing. It was brutal and bleak, personal and political.
Celebrity Sell Out?
Since the Beatles release of Revolution from the ‘White Album’ along with establishing Apple Corp in 1968, Lennon had been forced to defend himself against criticism from left-wing radicals who viewed him a phoney and capitalist sell out.
Lennon was a keen letter writer and engaged with fans and critics alike in the pages of both music and counter-culture publications.
After moving to Ascot in Berkshire where Imagine was written and recorded, he was a regular reader and contributor to radical, left-wing publications such as Black Dwarf and Red Mole.
In January 1971 he invited the Red Mole editors Tariq Ali and Robin Blackburn down to his mansion at Tittenhurst for an interview.
Lennon was avid reader of the left-wing newspaper, Red Mole, and had publicly brandished the paper on demonstration marches against British troops in Northern Ireland and against the USA war in Vietnam.
It was Red Mole’s coverage of the UCS dispute which sparked his interest in the Clydeside workers.
The next morning following his day-long discussion with Red Mole – galvanised politically from the interview – Lennon went into the studio and recorded a new political anthem: Power to the People, which reached the top 10 in both the UK and US.
Donation fuels worldwide solidarity
Lennon’s donation to the UCS fighting fund helped propel the local struggle to a sympathetic international audience. Money and solidarity poured in to the UCS to sustain the work-in. £2,700 from the shipyard workers of the Soviet Union, £1,000 from the National Union of Mineworkers, £600 from Dutch shipyard workers, and many more large donations.
However, the bulk of mail was from smaller groups, individuals and public collections. By the end of August, the total had reached £46,353, and it was necessary to seek the services of an accountant.
The leading shop stewards – mainly communists with a strong understanding of strategy and discipline – managed to keep decision making inside the yards, fearing a sell out by union barons. It proved a wise and winning tactic.
Yard stewards tapped into widespread national support with unemployment reaching the one million mark in the UK. Their broad coalition included workers, unions, suppliers, local traders, councillors, politicians, community and religious leaders; not to forget mentioning creditors and even the liquidator.
A day after Lennon started work on his latest album on 23 June, around 100,000 Scottish workers downed their tools and walked out in solidarity; with 50,000 joining a march in Glasgow against yard closures.
It was followed up the same week as the donation on 9 August by another half-day walk out with almost a quarter of all Scottish workers (200,000) participating and one of the largest demonstrations Glasgow has ever seen since the 1926 General Strike.
This time around 80,000 people marching to hear Jimmy Reid – flanked by senior Labour Party figures say that: “No title, no rank, no establishment honour can compare with the privilege of belonging to the Scottish working class.”
Despite a cynical government offer to save two yards and divide the workers, the stewards committee addressed mass rallies with Reid and Jimmy Airlie convincing the shipbuilders to remain united and reject any plan that didn’t save all the shipyards and jobs.
The occupation held firm and those involved went on to complete a dozen ships before the government had capitulated in February 1972. Having originally refused a £6 million loan, Heath’s government agreed to invest £35 million to keep all four shipyards afloat, with only voluntary redundancies. Two continue to this day.
It has generally been assumed that John and Yoko became aware of the dispute through television news reports.
But in his updated autobiography (Street Fighting Years), Lennon interviewer, Tariq Ali, revealed that it was his publication Red Mole which brought the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders to the couples’ attention.
In his day-long interview for the newspaper John explained that his latest musical material was trying to shake off the teeny-bopper image. The ex-Beatle confirmed he wanted to transform himself into a serious spokesman for the revolutionary movement.
“I want to get through to the right people, and I want to make what I have to say very simple and direct,” he insisted to Red Mole.
“I’ve always been politically minded…and against the status quo. It’s pretty basic when you’re brought up, like I was, to hate and fear the police as a natural enemy and to despise the army….
“It’s just a basic working-class thing, though it begins to wear off when you get older, get a family and get swallowed up in the system. In my case I’ve never not been political.
“I’ve been satirising the system since my childhood. In the two books I wrote… there’s many knocks at religion and there is a play about a worker and a capitalist. I used to write magazines in school and hand them around. I was very conscious of class, they would say with a chip on my shoulder, because I knew what happened to me and I knew about the class repression coming down on us – it was a f*ck*ng fact; but in the hurricane Beatle world it got left out, I got farther away from reality for a time.”
Asked about his song Revolution, John explained: “On the version released as a single I said; ‘when you talk about destruction you can count me out’. I didn’t want to get killed. I didn’t really know that much about the Maoists, but I just knew that they seemed to be so few and yet they painted themselves green and stood in front of the police waiting to get picked off.
“I just thought it was unsubtle, you know. I thought the original Communist revolutionaries co-ordinated themselves a bit better and didn’t go around shouting about it. That was how I felt – I was really asking a question. As someone from the working class I was always interested in Russia and China and everything that related to the working class, even though I was playing the capitalist game.
“At one time I was so much involved in the religious bullshit that I used to go around calling myself a Christian Communist, but as Janov says, religion is legalised madness. It was therapy that stripped away all that and made me feel my own pain.” (1)
Student radical Ali reveals that the day following the interview, John phoned him up the play Power to the People down the phone to him, looking for his approval. “It’s a good marching song,” the student leader told him.
Ali, who later became an acclaimed author and broadcaster, concluded that Lennon’s politics had changed dramatically and that his wife Yoko was the major influence on the solo Beatle.
With Power to the People reaching the top 10 in both the UK and US, in the coming months before his donation to the Clydeside workers, Lennon was beginning to map out his musical masterpiece for humanity, Imagine.(2)
Imagine in Progress
The day after a mass walk out by 80,000 union members in solidarity with the UCS for ‘the right to work’, on 24 June, Lennon began recording tracks for his latest solo album, Imagine, which John described as a sugar-coated Working Class Hero: It was, in fact, the original title for the film documentary to accompany his second solo album.
One week later on 1 July Red Mole published a special issue dedicated to the Clyde dispute. On the same day that the cover is published, John Lennon joined producer Phil Spector at New York’s Record Plant recording studio where he concluded work on the Imagine album before its release on 11 September in UK (9 September in the USA).
Recalling the events of the summer of 1971, Tariq revealed that Lennon has ask him to visit his home. “He would phone me once or twice a month and talk about the state of the world.
“After he had finished Imagine, he rang and asked Robin Blackburn and myself to come down for tea. They were making a movie of Imagine and he wanted us to be filmed chatting to him,” he said.
In his memoir Tariq Ali explains how UCS story in Red Mole had caught Lennon’s attention: “Our cover was a reprint of a 19th century caricature of a fat, ugly, bloated capitalist confronting a strong, handsome and noble-looking worker.
“He loved that cover more than the convoluted articles on the inside and later showed it to Phil Spector and others at Tittenhurst.” (3)
Undoubtedly inspired by the Red Mole cover and workers seizing control, on the 9 August John and Yoko sent a bunch of red roses which were delivered to the gate of John Brown’s shipyard in Clydebank. At the same time a cheque for £1,000 (worth around 15,000 today) was sent to the unions’ solidarity fund.
Underlining his wholehearted support for the workers and their tactics, the dedication card repeated the message from his recent hit single in capitals: “POWER TO THE PEOPLE with love from JOHN AND YOKO, AUGUST 9th 1971.
Dan Richter, who acted as a personal fixer and drug courier for the couple, told me that the cheque and bouquet were dispatched by secretary, Diana Robertson, who had started coming to Tittenhurst from the Apple Offices in London’s Saville Row. It was Diana who was also tasked with returning John’s MBE to the Palace.
By the end of the August, John and Yoko had flown to New York to take up permanent residence in order to secure custody of her daughter. He would never again set foot in England again.
Though he continued to campaign, releasing the hit Happy Xmas (War is Over) and taking out billboard advertising in 12 cities worldwide, his activism was set to stall.
His outspoken anti-Vietnam war stance had made a number of powerful enemies in the Nixon administration. Immigration chiefs used a 1968 drug conviction to begin deportation proceedings against him.
Despite more political anthems and hit records with Sometime In New York City in 1972 which included the hit single Women is the Nigger of the World and The Luck of the Irish, John – now under FBI surveillance – was forced to keep a lower profile with his residency status in the balance.
It was not until 1976 that John received his coveted “green card” and US citizenship. Lennon became a house-husband bringing up their son Sean. He had only returned to studio in 1980 when he was fatally shot outside his apartment.
Flowers from the Lennons
When the flowers arrived at John Brown’s shipyard in Clydebank they were taken in by union members manning the gate and delivered to the shop steward’s committee with a message and the now-famous anecdote they were from Lenin. “But he’s deid” (meaning dead) an old Communist is said to have replied; thinking they were from the Russian revolutionary leader, Vladimir Lenin.
Recalling the story some years later Jimmy Reid revealed that, until the wheel of roses arrived from John and Yoko, he had never previously received a bunch of flowers in his life.
But we do now know where the flowers ended up. The union convenors had held daily meetings with the national press to ensure their side of the story received regular coverage and their side of the story.
Speaking in 2002 on the 30th UCS anniversary, Pat Milligan explained that she had been pregnant during the work in. Her husband Arthur happened to be a journalist covering the famous dispute and attended the press briefings and mass meetings.
Looking back Pat revealed: “I was part of that because I was married to Arthur Milligan who was the Daily Worker reporter [who was gifted the roses for his wife in labour].
“I gave birth to my daughter and that’s where John and Yoko’s flowers ended up – in the maternity ward at the [Glasgow’s] Southern General Hospital. (4)
The dedication card became a rare and valued souvenir from this world-famous event sent by a superstar couple. Jimmy Cloughley was an engineer and a member of the work-in co-ordinating committee. For many years this trivial collectors’ item lay boxed among Jimmy’s papers along with his audio recordings of meetings, photographs and press reports from the heroic occupation.
In the decades since this legendary resistance there have been regular anniversaries to commemorate the UCS work-in. Its enduring legacy is that it remains one of the few conclusive industrial victories over a government by the trade union movement since WW2.
With many of those involved either elderly or passed away, a 30th anniversary exhibition was hosted in 2002. Jimmy Cloughley donated his personal papers including John and Yoko’s dedication card, to a special UCS archive curated by Glasgow Caledonian University where it remains to this day.
Icons of Music and Politics
The 40th anniversary in 2012 came too late for voice and face of the UCS work-in – Jimmy Reid died on 10 August 2010, aged 78. He has since been described as the ‘best MP Scotland never had’. His torch is carried on by the Jimmy Reid Foundation.
In 2007, before Reid died, Yoko Ono recalled the donation she and her husband had made to the shipyard workers back in 1971. She offered Reid congratulation on reaching his 75th birthday in an email via the author of a play about the work-in entitled Jimmy Reid: From Glasgow To Gettysburg.
Despite changing eras, I suspect Jimmy Reid would have remained steadfast in his political views that solidarity and constructing wide alliances are the way to build real resistance when communities come under threat from faceless boardroom bureaucrats and political butchers.
Working Class Heroes
Perhaps we should leave the last word to Tariq Ali – then an upstart student radical and now a renowned author, broadcasters and left-wing commentator – who can best triangulate this unique story.
Recalling his deep connection with Lennon, Tariq said: “He wanted to leave Britain because he and Yoko were repulsed by its provincialism and by the tenor of tabloid racism that was directed against her. I last spoke with him in 1979 when we discussed the likely impact of Thatcher’s victory.
“He didn’t sound too unradical in that conversation,” Tariq tellingly recalls. “If there is a record of it in some British intelligence archive, I would be grateful to see a transcript.”
And he put paid to a later interview where Lennon confessed his militancy had been out of guilt. Tariq revealed: “Clearly, his views changed somewhat but I can’t see him as a neo-con supporting the wars and occupations in Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan.
“The loss of his voice was a tragedy for millions.” (5)
I personally suspect – had John Lennon lived – he would have been a stalwart against the USA’s never-ending wars and a global spokesman for world peace, and, like Jimmy Reid, the struggle for economic and social justice in a globalised world.
Reid and his comrades believed politics and union activities had to take place in the community as well as the workplace. The UCS work-in demonstrated that unity and solidarity create real strength which can lead to victory, even against all the odds.
And in this world of war and global injustice, (feeling not unlike the 1970s) both men remain icons and rallying figures in the respective worlds of politics and music; to me they are working class heroes whose lives touched me personally and continue to shape my thinking.
Rarely does a story criss-cross the overlapping playgrounds of music, politics, family and childhood. As a proud Bankie and a lifelong Beatles fan, that all of this happened in my hometown aged 9 and I got the chance to write about this remarkable vignette, is of immense pride and enjoyment.
Even more so today as my heroes are dead and my opponents are in power.
31 July 2021
(Scroll to bottom of page for References and Bibliography)
UCS Lennon Timeline
Still looking for more on John’s journey and Reid’s route? Explore this detailed year-by-year, month-by-month, multimedia timeline.
In it you will find much more detail and commentary on the specific events and individuals who shaped this unforgettable story.
Follow the ‘Read More’ button on each entry and link to watch additional film, Beatles’ music, rare photographs and archive interviews from key moments in John and Yoko’s story to support the workers of the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders 50 years ago in August 1971.
Jimmy Reid born in Govan
Yoko Ono born
Tariq Ali born in Lahore
John Lennon born in Liverpool
Reid joins Communist Party
Reid moves to London as young communist leader
John rattles royal conventions with jewellery joke
Jimmy Reid settles in Faifley
Beatles reject racial segregation
Tariq Ali elected President of the Oxford Union
Establishment recognition with MBE
Vietnam Solidarity Campaign established
John’s ‘Jesus’ grenade explodes
Lennon first ponders life beyond the Beatles
John meets Yoko
Lennon calling Planet Earth live! Are you receiving?
Black Dwarf first published
Queen visits Clydebank for ship launch
Beatles manager Brian Epstein dies
1968 sees mass movements and protests
Tet offensive turns public opinion
UCS established in shipbuilding shake up
Tariq Ali leads Vietnam War protests
Beatles record Revolution
John's costly drug bust
John and Yoko tie the knot
John buys Georgian mansion at Tittenhurst
Anti-War Movement adopts Lennon hit
Tittenhurst hosts last Beatles photoshoot
Lennon returns his MBE
Red Mole publication established
McCartney publicly breaks up the Beatles
Beatles' final album, Let it be, released
Reid stands in election as Tories return to power
Lennon's first solo album starkly personal and political
John reveals new solo direction in Rolling Stone interview
Lennon interviewed by Red Mole
John pens a 'marching song for the movement'
UCS is forced to enter liquidation
200 shop steward agree to propose work-in
Hundreds lobby for the 'right to work'
John begins recording Imagine
Red Mole cover catches John's attention as he completes Imagine
Lennon donation fuels international support
Prime Minister Heath in choppy waters
UCS captivates Lennon despite hectic schedule
Two-yard proposal and Occupation at stalemate as Davies steps in
Morale dips but Reid's rhetoric holds nerve
Lennon settles in New York and composes new peace anthem
John advertises Peace as a Product
Beatles duo outraged by Bloody Sunday
BBC bans McCartney’s Bloody Sunday single
Nixon urged to deport Lennon
Breakthrough as government caves in with £35 million extra funding offer
Old drug bust starts deportation as Lennon plans radical US tour
Reid’s rousing Rat Race speech as new Rector of Glasgow University
UCS work-in ends in victory
Ringo buys Tittenhurst
Bent cop chief Pilcher is jailed for corruption
Reid resigns from the Communist Party
Lennon finally gets his green card
Jimmy joins Labour Party
Lennon murdered in New York
Death of UCS leader Jimmy Airlie
Death of Jimmy Reid aged 78
1 Pg 361-364, Tariq Ali, Streetfighting Years: An Autobiography of the Sixties, Verso, 2018
- Location 1361, 23 June 1971, Keith Badman, The Beatles Diary Volume 2 After the Breakup, 1970-2001, Omnibus Press, 2009
- Pg 331-333, Tariq Ali, Streetfighting Years: An Autobiography of the Sixties, Verso, 2018
- Govan Hidden Histories, Power to the People! Roses from Yoko Ono & John Lennon, in support of the 1971 UCS Work-In, Blog Post by Chani Bond, 2015
W.W.J. Knox and A. McKinlay, Jimmy Reid: A Clyde-Built Man, Liverpool University Press, 2019
K MacAskill, Jimmy Reid: A Scottish Political Journey, Backbite, 2017
Keith Badman, The Beatles Diary Volume 2 After the Breakup, 1970-2001, Omnibus Press, 2009
Dan Richter, The Dream is Over, Quartet, 2012
Tariq Ali, Streetfighting Years: An Autobiography of the Sixties, Verso, 2018
The 1971-72 UCS work-in revisited – Our History Pamphlet No 9, Communist Party, 2017
Claire Fowler, Daniel Kodjo French, Jennifer Hunter, Fiona Young, The Upper Clyde Shipbuilders Work In 1971–72, Glasgow Caledonian University Research Collection, 2007
Piers Dudgeon, Our Glasgow: Memories of Life in Disappearing Britain, Headline Publishing, 2009
Morning Star, People Press, Various online articles
Jimmy Reid Foundation, YouTube Presentation, The UCS work-in: a celebration and commemoration 50 years on,
Upper Clyde Shipbuilders Work-in, 1971–72, stugglepedia.co.uk website.
Dedication: In My Life; there are places I remember!
If I’m totally honest about this story, I just missed the Beatles; I was born in 1962 when they were just starting out and I was around 12 when I first ‘got into music’ in a big way. So the 1970s were my real musical education and playground.
But they were always around and I was aware of them. My dad liked Neapolitan music but to his credit and catholic taste, The Beatles Red and Blue albums were in the collection and did get airtime.
Brothers and friends were my seminal musical influences. My instinct for songs and bands came later.
The UCS work-in happened when I was nine years old. My father was a trade union man and would have fully supported the UCS on both moral and political grounds.
He had recently fought to save Babcox and Wilcox in Dalmuir where he worked. So the UCS work-in would have appealed tactically to him.
We were later featured in an STV programme about unemployment which made me a early poverty porn pioneer well before Love Island became the lifestyle choice of working-class scum.
I have a vague memory of heated, dinner-table discussions about the priests’ sermons telling parishioners that they should not vote for communist candidates around the 1974 election when Jimmy Reid stood for Parliament.
I vividly recall my devout and socialist father was conflicted but compliant, such was his Catholic conformity. So in the first instance, I recall this tale for him as a trade unionist and a socialist.
I left Clydebank in 1980 aged 18 for a job in London. My hometown was such a blackspot of unemployment there was little to entice me to stay trying to get a job – never mind establish a career, whatever that was.
In fact until I started researching this nebulous, childhood memory, I honestly didn’t realise the UCS work-in had ended in victory; such was the devastation wreaked on Clydebank in the 1970s.
In fact, I was shocked to see a recent BBC News story use Clydebank as the location for a package about social deprivation. Despite the UCS victory, Thatcherite politics were to ultimately win a eventual, satanic victory.
So, these days I take my pleasures and battles in small ways. Music, football, politics.
Leaving Clydebank as a teenager, I had a great circle of friends. So much so they remain close to this day. And The Beatles were and remain a common factor in this personal narrative.
Vincent Reid introduced me to St Andrews’ school mates Chris Willet (Waddle) and Michael McCann. Chris lived in an old Victorian detached house in Old Kilpatick. Such a big house was a place of refuge; of space for people and mind. We illicitly smoked and drunk; and we played [loud] music. We introduced each other to our influences. But most of all we played The Beatles. We were the next generation catching up. A journey new generations continue.
The fact we can know the lyrics to every song is a heartfelt memory; a joint Clydebank commission.
I recently devised a McCartney-inspired name for our new WhatsApp group – Band from near the Drum.
We also frequented St Stephen parish hall. The Saturday morning disco, ran by my brother Peter at one point (the original Barra) was a regular haunt. On my final Saturday before leaving for London in February 1980 this song was chosen as their parting memory. It combines Clydebank and The Beatles.
So, to Chris Willett, Vincent Reid and Mick McCann, 40 years later, this Beatles song will always remind me of you and our lives and times together. It’s an appropriate way to sign off this story of the Bankies and The Beatles. We are personally entwined in the story. Clydebank and The Beatles are places and people I will remember all my life!
1970s atheism beatles celtic chelsea citybreak clydebank communism communist destinations egypt football hampden heath history Leeds lenin lennon london manchester united maps marx memes moscow photography politics prague race racism red mole reid religion scotland shipbuilding socialism tech tittenhurst trade unions transport travel trips ucs USA vietnam working class