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Alienation and a betrayal of the next generation

This is written just as the UK government has reached a ‘deal’ with the European Union to leave at the end of this month. The government has achieved this ‘feat’ by crossing a red line that was steadfastly avoided by the May administration. Those in Great Britain are about to abandon Northern Ireland and separate it from GB with a customs border. This will be viewed as a  betrayal after longstanding support for the union in terrible times. The alienation of many in Northern Ireland is tangible compared to the abstract and detached indifference of most people in GB to their plight. But worse to come will be the alienation and betrayal of all young people across the UK. Looking back to just before the UK joined the EU in 1973, the idea of alienation was just as important to young people then as it is now. In an electrifying speech to students in 1972 entitled ‘Alienation’ Jimmy Reid saw it as “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”. Have we moved on as we prepare to leave the EU forty six years later?

The main problem is that the Brexit experiment flies in the face of the views of most young people across the UK. There must now be a terrible feeling of further alienation amongst those that will lead us in the future. After many struggles, it seems that the signs are ominous. There was rising economic turmoil around 1973 when we joined the European Union (as European Economic Community or EEC). But many students were like me and saw the EEC as offering hope and a new challenge to an old order. The empire was gone and a united Europe called out. In 1972, one event that stood out was a speech made by trade union leader Jimmy Reid when he became rector of Glasgow University. It offered hope and a way forward for young people. Published as ‘Alienation’ in April 1972, it set out an aspiration for the students present and galvanised people around the world. The New York Times published it in full, calling it "the greatest speech since President Lincoln's Gettysburg Address". It is still relevant today and we might take time to reflect upon its message over forty seven years later as young people feel a greater alienation from decisions being made by a generation before them.
Three minutes of ‘Alienation’ can be seen at Youtube courtesy of Jacobin Magazine

How times have changed.

I was a sixteen year old grammar school student at the start of 1972 preparing to sit A-levels a year early. I had been propelled through O-levels two years earlier. This was not done on a whim by my school. They were determined to try to get some of us a few O-levels before leaving school at the age of 15. Yes, strange as it seems, many left school at 15 in those times with no qualifications. The school leaving age did not rise to 16 until September 1972. I was thrown a lifeline and managed to grasp it. 

I had planned my career and fate from around the age of twelve. I was going to be a scientist of some kind. The environment was of more interest after I read ‘Silent Spring’ by Rachel Carson when I was fifteen. It was a book that defined environmental concerns for a generation. My obsession with engines and machines was slowly overtaken by studying the workings of the cellular 'machinery' and its biochemistry. That was where I was headed. Regardless of poor advice, I ended up there by following my own route in the end.

Despite  some grammar school success in the top class, I had already been given the careers advice that “university is not for the likes of you” and that I should get an apprenticeship. My working class train had crashed into the middle class buffers. Thankfully, I was able to struggle on at school whilst holding down a part-time job at a wholesale fruit and veg company. It meant getting up at 4am on the days I worked. There seemed to be little time off.

Despite my schedule, the turmoil of 1972 had not bypassed me. I was immersed in the life of a working class family that felt the cold chill of insecurity on a daily basis. Strikes in the car industry, where my father worked, were driven by political ideology and a rampant inflation that formed dark clouds above. Yet there was a feeling amongst many of us that we might be able to make changes if only we could escape.

The  real Alienation of those before me.

Bearing in mind my own experience, it was with intense interest that I watched a TV interview with the 39 year old trade union leader Jimmy Reid on 18th May 1972. I had seen newscasts of his electrifying speeches as he led the momentous Govan Shipyard ‘work in’ over the months preceding. Twenty minutes of the interview is on Youtube at: Thames Television Jimmy Reid Interview by Jonathan Dimbleby | This Week | 1972).

It shows a very young Jonathan Dimbleby, over 10 years younger than Reid and Charterhouse and University College London educated, looking incredulous as he listened to the views of someone that might just as well have come from another planet. The programme starts in Reid’s small council flat surrounded by multiple shelves of books. I was immediately drawn toward the idea that someone born in 1932 could appear to be so educated and erudite without a formal education being apparent. He left school at fourteen. It seems that along the way he had read many books and formed sophisticated opinions that he translated into practice.

The Thames Television interview was no accident; it was essential. His electrifying oratory during the shipyard take-over was already etched into news bulletins and had made people sit up. By 1971 he was elected to the position of Rector of Glasgow University. His address at the ceremony in 1972 was destined to be read by many young people around the world. His advice to the students is timeless.

“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.”

The context of 1972 and its relevance today.

The speech in April of 1972 was at a time when the UK was about to join the EEC the following January and before the momentous referendum brokered by the Labour Government in 1975. The divisions surrounding Europe were apparent even then, yet people affected by the war were in the vanguard of joining with Europe; including the Prime minister Edward Heath.  Those same  divisions persist today but without many of the veterans of the war left to warn us. 

Things were changing fast. Inflation in 1972 was heading for 10% but had yet to reach the heady heights of 24.2% in 1975. Interest rates had risen sharply to 13% but were yet to get to the levels of 17% under Thatcher in 1980. The outlook and economic challenges for young people and their families were immense. Today we live in fear of leaving the EU  and starting a hike in inflation that might begin the same process.

Worse still, in Northern Ireland the start of 1972 saw the indiscriminate shooting of 28 unarmed civilians by the British Army in Londonderry/Derry. Fourteen died. By March, the Northern Ireland Parliament was suspended after Prime Minister Brian Faulkner resigned and direct rule was introduced. The same year brought the tragedy of rapidly escalating violence and by the end of 1972 we had seen 497 deaths. The hope now is that young people in Northern Ireland will reflect upon this and not look to a violent future. Leaving the EU comes with many dangers and young people must manage it peacefully and not be tempted to inflict violence as a solution.

What does the future hold?

I taught science to students in Northern Ireland from September 1980 to my retirement in 2017. The period saw the extremely violent conflict gradually mature into peace through a determination by many of us to build a better future. The hope for me was that young people would turn their sights onto things they had in common and not their differences. Although the university brought together people from many traditions and backgrounds, it was never easy to break down these differences. Nevertheless, the idea that equality should trump all other ideas was never far away and this offered a way forward. After all, science, and the workings of nature that I tried to explain, do not discriminate between rich, poor, race or any human made social construct. So why should we ration access to the knowledge of how nature works on the basis of means to pay and the cost?

Jimmy Reid was not to know how things would develop in the short term. But he predicted a future marked out by the prospect of more leisure time through “automation and technology”. He foresaw the rise in more time and the need for the wider role of universities to take advantage of this. His words were a plea to universities to “be in the forefront of development” and “must meet social needs and not lag behind them” .

Even in the context of the time, this seemed far-fetched. In his life-time, Jimmy Reid had seen participation in higher education increase to just over 8% by 1972. Now the figure is closer to 50%. But we are also staring down the barrel of AI developments taking away many jobs and the possibility of mass unemployment worse than before. Reid was offering something new. In 1972, unemployment was just over one million. By 1983 it was over 3 million and there was a crisis. In 2019 it is around 1.3 million but propped up by precarious and unstable jobs. Young people are forgiven for thinking another crisis is just around the corner.

Just as in 1972, universities, and the people they influence and teach, must rise to this challenge and must do so with equality of opportunity at the forefront. Jimmy Reid did not refer to equality of opportunity. Perhaps he hesitated as he stood alone in a hall full of privilege and middle-class notions. But he knew that there were no fees or associated debt burden for working class students after all. He did not foresee what we have now, but he did conclude that:

“The whole object must be to equip and educate people for life, not solely for work or a profession”.

Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years  teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics.


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