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Scotland: A Turbulent Century

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By Kirsty OUP-UK

It has recently been a time of great political change in my native Scotland. For the first time since power was devolved from the central UK government in Westminster to the new Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh in 1999, the Scottish National Party (SNP) has taken over power from the Labour Party. In the news this week is the White Paper introduced by the SNP in a bid to call for a referendum on whether Scotland should break away from the United Kingdom and become an independent nation. With so many eyes on Scotland this week, I thought it would be a fitting time to bring you this excerpt from our book Scotland: A History, edited by Jenny Wormald. From an essay by Richard Finlay called ‘The Turbulent Century: Scotland Since 1900′, here is the passage discussing Scotland from 1979 until 1999, when the Scottish Parliament came into being again for the first time since the Act of Union in 1707.


Casting an omni-present shadow over this dramatic period of change in Scottish history is the figure of Margaret Thatcher. The victory of the Conservative Party in Britain in 1979 coincided with a downturn in the international economy which was coupled 0198206151.jpgwith an ideological commitment to free market economics. Thatcherite rhetoric denounced the pervasive influence of the ‘nanny state’ which had led to Britain’s economic decline. State socialism, it was argued, meant that competition was stifled under bureaucracy and that the only way Britain could compete in the international market was to cut the chains of state support to failing industries. The policy of ‘modernize or die’, coming as it did with a downturn in the global market, unleashed a massive wave of de-industrialization in Scotland in the early 1980s as shipbuilding, steel, engineering, and manufacturing reeled under ‘year zero’ rules of competition. Privatization of public corporations added to the calamity as British Steel, British Gas, and British Telecom shed labour in order to make themselves fit for sale. High interest rates were used to curb inflation and strengthen the international value of sterling, which further undermined the capacity of manufacturing to compete. Caterpillar at Uddingston, Linwood at Bathgate, the aluminium smelter at Invergordon, and the Gartcosh steel works, together with many smaller factories throughout Scotland, all withered away under the chill winds of free market competition. The defeat of the miners in the strike of 1984 paved the way for restructuring and closure, with mining towns in Fife, Lanarkshire, and Stirlingshire losing their biggest source of employment. In 1985, unemployment peaked at 15.6 per cent. Paradoxically, the high cost of social security was paid for by North Sea oil receipts. The expected salvation of the ‘black gold’ never came, as Scottish business proved incapable of responding to these new opportunities. The discovery of oil off Scottish shores did more for the economy of Texas in the 1980s than for Scotland.

It is difficult to assess the precise impact of de-industrialization on the course of Scottish politics. In the national psyche, manufacturing was part and parcel of Scottish identity, and although the economy underwent a successful process of diversification in the period after 1985 in which electronics, petrochemicals,financial services, light engineering, and tourism led the way, the electorate was not prepared to forgive Thatcher for the massive upheaval and uncertainty of the early 1980s when it seemed that no one was safe from unemployment. In the elections of 1983 and 1987, the Tory vote declined and collapsed. Tactical voting was used to punish the Conservatives and the most marked feature of Scottish political behaviour in the period after 1987 was its almost pathological anti-Toryism, which left the party with less than a quarter of the vote and only ten MPs. This was in marked contradistinction to England, where Thatcher seemed invincible. Rejection at the ballot box did little to cool Conservative reforming ardour. The introduction of the Poll Tax a year ahead of the rest of the United Kingdom in 1988 helped to provide a graphic illustration of the two new phrases on the lips of political commentators; the democratic deficit and the Doomsday Scenario. The seeming inability of Labour to win a British election gave rise to a widespread fear that Scotland would continue to suffer the imposition of unpopular Conservative policies. The fact that Conservative support had withered away in Scotland counted for little and inevitably such grievances took on a Nationalist air. The creation of a devolved Scottish parliament was mooted as a defensive mechanism which would balance the democratic deficit and counter the effects of the Doomsday Scenario. The SNP had another solution which was independence. It was in an effort to tackle the twin problems of unpopular Tory rule and the drift towards nationalism that Labour and the Democrats signed up to the cross-party Scottish Constitutional Convention (SCC) in 1988 which would provide an umbrella organization that would bring together the churches, local government, and the trade unions as a representative forum of the people in order to press for a Scottish parliament. The Nationalist victory at the Govan by-election in November 1988 added urgency to their endeavours.

The recovery of Labour in the late 1980s, a near miss in the general election in 1992, the departure of Margaret Thatcher, and a consensus voiced by the new Labour leader, John Smith, that devolution was the ‘settled will of the Scottish people’, helped to stave off further Nationalist gains. Although the politics of Scotland and Britain took divergent paths, the same could not be said about social and economic trends. From the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, Scotland became more similar in its social composition to England. For all the Scots may have despised Tory policy, they took advantage of it to buy council houses. For all the problems of the decline of manufacturing, they took to employment in white collar occupations. By the mid-1990s, Scotland had attained the European Union average on a whole range of socio-economic indicators. All of this suggests that the rejection of Thatcherism was not motivated by poverty or economic disadvantage. Put plainly, if voting was determined by socio-economic factors, the Conservatives should have done well in Scotland. The fact that they did not can be explained by reference to Scottish political culture. The Scots kept faith with the social democratic vision which dominated British politics in the era before the advent of Thatcherism. After all, it had served the nation well by providing full employment, made for greater distribution of wealth, and had rewarded a great many Scots. It was the reluctance to abandon these values which led to the collapse of the Tory Party and the demand for home rule. The return of a Labour government in 1997 and the successful outcome of a referendum on devolution in the same year secured the establishment of a Scottish parliament. Opened in 1999, it completed the transformation of the nation at the end of a turbulent century.

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2 Responses to “Scotland: A Turbulent Century”
  1. John Doole says:

    ‘Put plainly, if voting was determined by socio-economic factors, the Conservatives should have done well in Scotland. The fact that they did not can be explained by reference to Scottish political culture. The Scots kept faith with the social democratic vision which dominated British politics in the era before the advent of Thatcherism. After all, it had served the nation well by providing full employment, made for greater distribution of wealth, and had rewarded a great many Scots. It was the reluctance to abandon these values which led to the collapse of the Tory Party and the demand for home rule.’

    For me, this passage sums up what’s best about Scottish politics (when it’s at its best, that is!). The enthusiasm for devolution and the slowly growing support for independence is a result of the Poll Tax experiment and the asset stripping that Scotland (and to be fair, the north of England) underwent at the hands of Thatcherite Tories in the 80s, the resentment of which still lingers.

    The current reluctance of the unionist parties in Scotland to join in the ‘National Conversation’ on Scotland’s constitutional future, despite the fact that the minority Scottish National Party executive has made it an inclusive, multi-option document, is irritating and juvenile. If Labour, the Tories and the LibDems really are serious about supporting the Union and stressing its benefits, why are they refusing to take part? Why not engage, and emphasise the positive rather that sit and carp from the sidelines?

    Is it too cynical to suggeest that maybe the British Labour Party fears an independent Scotland because it would lose 50 safe seats and the Tories fear it because they would have nowhere to put their nuclear weapons or dump their nuclear waste? Perhaps it is! ;-)

  2. Andrew Perchard says:

    There is work published, in press, and forthcoming on the history of deindustrialisation (from cultural, political and social perspectives), which explores it as a contributory factor in the changing politics of Scotland. See work of Jim Phillips. For e.g. The Industrial Politics of Devolution. My own work too on the coal industry. What we both suggest is that the effects of the effect of deindustrialisation on shifting support for Home Rule, to some degree, preceded Thatcher, although her influence cannot be understated. The coalfields are a pointed illustration of this, and the NUM Scottish Area became (as both Phillips and I show) instrumental in garnering support for Home Rule within the STUC and the Labour Movement more broadly.

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