T.M.Devine (1999, with afterword 2006) The Scottish Nation 1700-2007

the scottish nation

It’s difficult to summarise a book that spans over 300 years, rich with knowledge and learning, which runs to over 600 pages. But it’s really quite simple. He who own the land owns the people. The Highland Clearances are an example of this. But Devine notes the Scots were always a nation on the move. Only Ireland and Norway have exported more of its people. But neither of these nations have done as well as the expatriate Scot abroad. Start haphazardly with Andrew Carnegie, once thought to be the richest man in the world, and work your way round the globe. Leaders of nations. Leaders of men have been Scots. But when sheep are more profitable than humans and there’s profit in one but not the other then as the theatre company 7:84 once lamented in aphorism of song and dance in their production:  ‘The cheviot, The stag and The black, black oil’. First came the sheep. Then the large hunting estates for the well off. Oil for the future. Black gold (or is it now fool’s gold?)  History made simple. In that agitation-propaganda era, when we were going to change the world, seven percent owned eighty-four percent of the land. Land means people. The new number’s game is ninety-nine percent own practically nothing and one percent own almost everything.

Devine precisely charts this movement from land to city and the evident pride in the British Empire that ruled the world. Scotland, viewed itself as equal partner, was the workshop of the world, and Clyde-built shipping and locomotives were a guarantee of quality. Glasgow at the hub of the industrial revolution grew at a faster rate than London. Our strength was our weakness. Local coal deposits which powered the revolution were no longer easily accessible and were cheaper abroad. Steel replaced iron, the price of which was dependent on coal deposits, but the massive investment needed for refurbishment was also dependent on other industries, most notably ship-building and its continuing ability to produce ships which could be sold abroad. Other nations, notably, America, Japan and Germany produced their own ship. Cheaper ships. Better ships. So that by the 1970s shipyards on the Clyde could no longer compete in terms of cost or the related time-frame in which ships would be started or finished.  Industry also needed an infrastructure that could move with the times.

There were and are bubbles of innovation and adaptation mainly centring on universities and involving technology and biotechnology.  Beardmore, a five-minute walk from my house, is now a NHS Hospital and hotel. But Beardmore once built ships. It branched out into building airplanes and cars. Difficult to believe that now. But we’re going back 100 years and Two World Wars. The resurgence in ship building which these conflicts brought life back to Glasgow, back to the Clyde, but it also left it dependent on industries that could no longer deliver profit and therefore jobs.

Worlds apart, even Barack Obama in his State of the Union Speech asks how much longer will we ‘accept an economy where only a few of us do spectacularly well’?  I can assure you I’m not doing spectacularly well. And it’s a mockery of sorts, in these times of austerity, when rents go up and up and private landlords do pretty much what they like that money is being collected for a statue of Mary Barbour a First World War social activist. I’m sure what she would call for was a more just society. And it seems pointless to honour one woman and not the thousands of others that took part in demonstration that briefly changed our world for the better. It also ignore the thousands of men that downed tools and left there place of work to support these women’s actions. Tokenism is a statue. Government intervention and rent controls were a most lasting tribute. Devine covers this and the benefits of government intervention in the Scottish economy very well. The opening of the Highland to electricity, even though it was clearly uneconomic at the time, proved a crucial investment as tourism brought more money to the nation than shipbuilding, which like coal and steel becomes increasingly likely to be a memento of the past.

Devine does not shy away from the more brutal aspects of sectarianism, hatred of Catholics and calls from them to be deported back to Ireland from inside the Kirk and from leaders of the Church of Scotland. It was no coincidence, he says, that an Orange hall was built to face the gates of John Brown’s shipyards, which was about a mile from my home. Catholics were viewed as an inferior race which should not be allowed to work heavy machinery. Devine notes that the growth in educational opportunities and growth of an educated Catholic cohort has largely eroded this ingrained and built-in prejudice. But it was only yesterday, my mate Sharpy told me when he was interviewed for agency work and he was asked which school he went to. The wrong answer meant no job.

Devine, writing in 2006, ends on a hopeful note. He notes that the gains made by the working man during the fifties and sixties, were never equally shared and have largely gone but the reliance on manufacturing industries no longer holds true. Relative to other nations ‘productivity levels may be weak’ but gives examples of good and sound Scottish businesses such as the Royal Bank of Scotland (nationalised at a cost of billions of pound, one of the most toxic banks on earth) and HBoS in banking (ditto); the Wood Group (with oil under $50 a barrel the chairman estimates the North sea has only about ten years oil and this may not be economically worth taking of the sea) Cairn Energy (ditto); Scottish Power in energy (a subsidiary of Ibrerdrola with profits flowing out of the country to Spain); Stagecoach (it still exists and expanded into trains and the company owns franchises in North America and is still Scottish, whatever that means).  The future’s bleak. The future’s Poundland.

He who owns the land owns the people. It doesn’t matter if it’s Iberdrola in Spain or the Ineos plant in Grangemouth with profits going to North America. Jim Ratcliffe, Ineos chairman, faced off union involvement in his business plans and was rewarded with the promise of block grants from the Scottish government. Money flows at in increasing rate from the poor to the rich and the working man and woman clings on and hopes for better days. The Scottish Nation 1700-2007 shows he’ll have a long wait. The blip that was the 1950s to the mid-1970s is a folk memory of when British governments, for all their faults, offered welfare to the poorest members of society. Now government offers welfare and bespoke tax packages to the richest members of society. We’d need to go back about 100 years or more to see a more socially unjust society. Devine did not predict that or the face-off between SNP and the London paymasters in a 55-45 split nation. But it’s always easier in retrospect.

http://unbound.co.uk/books/lily-poole

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