Alienation – 6 July 2023


It’s over 50 years since Jimmy Reid’s rectoral address at Glasgow University,  described by the New York Times, which reprinted it in full, as the most important speech since Lincoln’s at Gettysburg. Its theme was alienation and, though not lengthy, it was wide-ranging. It’s best recalled for the immortal lines: “A rat race is for rats. We’re not rats. We’re human beings.”

It came to mind when the Electoral Commission announced plans for the current East Lothian Westminster constituency, where it’s the name change more than the boundary causing consternation. Now politicians shouldn’t make these decisions, gerrymandering has to be avoided. I’m also conscious that when you’re instructed to limit the electorate in seats and an area’s population has been growing, there’s a problem. Not every part of the historic county can be in the East Lothian constituency, nor can the name include every community.

But changing the name from East Lothian to Lothian East’s plain daft. Lothian region’s long gone and little lamented. Folk in the constituency identify with their community, their town or village, but also with the county of East Lothian. It’s where they live, it’s the council that covers them, it’s got history and deep personal attachment for many. They don’t say they come from or live in some eastern flank of an anonymous region, they come from the county.

In his speech, Reid, then a councillor on the former Clydebank Town Council, mentioned proposed changes to local government which would bring in large regional authorities. In a humorous aside, he said: “If these proposals are implemented, in a few years when asked, ‘where do you come from?’, I can reply, ‘the Western Region’. It even sounds like a hospital board. It stretches from Oban to Girvan and eastwards to include most of the Glasgow conurbation.“

Of course, it was part of a cris de coeur for greater decentralisation within a speech exposing the dangers of increased centralisation, the marginalisation of the rights of people and their role in society. Sadly, his message still falls on deaf ears today and not simply in the absurdity of “Lothian East”. I’m not suggesting turnout will be higher if the name’s retained. But it’s indicative of the alienation he was referring to. Society and democracy need nurtured, and this simply distances people. It’s a minor aspect but it matters all the same. Democracy has to be built from the bottom up.

This worsens it and, 50 years on, the situation nationally is equally so. Political parties were once far greater in membership, activity in trade unions or co-ops similarly so, and politicians were closer to the public. I can still recall many of the town councillors where I grew up but struggle to name councillors now.

More importantly, our economy and society have changed enormously, and people feel more powerless and marginalised than ever. We’re atomised and alienated. Powers and decisions which were once governmental are now ceded to business with government control limited. Just look at Thames Water. No wonder some say what’s the point in voting, nothing will change.

Turnouts have been decreasing and this simply exacerbates it. The historic East Lothian name needs retained. All these decades on we still need to address alienation more than ever.