For the Good Times - Thomas Devine

Change Font Size

At the beginning of the 1960s I was a 15-year-old schoolboy in the middle of studies at a selective all boys Catholic ‘senior secondary’ in Motherwell. It drew pupils from all parts of Lanarkshire: Shotts and Harthill to the south and Bail-lieston, on the outskirts of Glasgow, to the north. In the playground could be heard a cacophony of local accents, all of them Scots but also recognisably different. We were regarded as the intellectual crème de la crème of Catholic Lanarkshire, a tiny elite who had secured the right to six years of secondary education by passing the Eleven Plus examination; and then for an even smaller group, perhaps the glittering prize of a university place. The exam was the dreaded mechanism designed to deliver what the educationist, H.M. Paterson, called ‘the sieving of the working class’ through the selection of an absurdly small number of pupils deemed capable of academic study. At my own primary it had done its work with brutal efficiency. From the two final year classes three boys but not one girl emerged with a pass which alone secured entry into the senior secondaries, the schools which provided courses leading to the Highers. The vast majority of my contemporaries were consigned to the ‘junior secondaries’ and so denied any possibility of gaining entry to university. The abolition of the examination in 1965 was lamented by few while for the many the coming of the comprehensive schools represented a new dawn of educational opportunity which in the longer run transformed access to higher education.

 

By the end of the decade I was a graduate, had married and secured my first permanent job as an Assistant Lecturer in History at Strathclyde University (but only after a series of fondly remembered vacation employments which included grave-digging, working as a Bluecoat at Butlin’s Holiday Camp, Filey, and uncertificated teaching of French in a number of Lanarkshire schools). In a sense, then, it was the 1960s which to a great extent made me what I am today.

As a professional historian I am only too well aware of the tricks that memory, recollection and nostalgia can play as we look back on our own pasts. Yet for me, and I suspect for most of that student generation in Scotland, the 1960s were a good time. The capacity of the universities doubled, fees were never on the agenda and there was even generous living support on offer, advantages unimaginable to the students of today. Most of my final Honours year received not one but several job offers on graduation. Today, doctoral students will normally have to aim for several years of postdoctoral experience and a number of publications before even being given consideration for interview for a university lectureship. I was hired by Strathclyde less than a year after my first degree and a mere few months into my doctoral research. I recall going home to give the good news to my parents after the appointment was offered me and adding that with a job I did not now have to finish the PhD – what innocence! 

The new youth culture was everywhere with rock music providing its melodic syncopation: the Beatles, Stones and an army of other bands, and my own favourites, the peerless Shadows, whose haunting Fender Stratocaster – based instrumentals still encapsulate that time for many who lived through it. As one pop idol of later years put it: ‘ It was the cleanest sound I had ever heard, like it had been dipped in Dettol’. A whole generation of tyro guitarists was inspired; in the pithy words of George Harri-son: ‘No Shadows, no Beatles.’ We grew up in a world which had recently and finally cast off the postwar austerities of rationing and shortage and were also the first new generation to gain from the reforms of the 1940s’ Welfare State in health, education and social security. At least in the early 1960s, there was virtually full employment, rising wage levels and a seemingly irresistible flow of new consumer goods, from televisions to record players, washing machines to spin dryers. Lifestyles changed. The sexual revolution, availability of the contraceptive pill and the new affluence of teenagers and young adults, with more money to spend than their parents or grandparents could ever have dreamed of, became the motors of social transformation.

Meanwhile some of the most venerable institutions of the country were starting to lose much of their ancient grip on society. During the ‘Swinging Sixties’ many young people lost contact with religion altogether. The numbers attending Sunday Schools plummeted and there was also a significant decline in religiously solemnised marriages. Looking back, the decade can be seen a key watershed in the coming of a more secular Scotland. The most powerful and influential institution of the nation since the sixteenth century, the established Church of Scotland, was now in inexorable retreat.

The nation’s age-old hostility to the largest immigrant group of modern times, Irish Catholics, their children and grandchildren, was also beginning to ebb, albeit slowly and sporadically. A transformation in tribal attitudes could not be expected to occur overnight. Only a decade or so earlier, in 1952, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, the country’s most prestigious forum and its so-called surrogate Parliament, had described Scottish Catholics of Irish origin as an ‘alien race’, a phrase which recalled the worst sectarian invective of the 1920s and 1930s. However, a key milestone on the long road to tribal reconciliation was Celtic’s famous victory in the 1967 European Cup Final in Lisbon. The club was the sporting champion of the Catholic minority but many other Scots rejoiced at its triumph which was widely seen as a national success story and not simply one to be celebrated only by a religious and ethnic minority. Much was made of the fact that the members of the winning team had all been born in Scotland and were brought up within a few miles radius of Celtic Park in the city of Glasgow and its hinterland. It helped too that Jock Stein, the legendary manager who led the club to the ultimate prize in European football, was a Protestant, as were seven members of his victorious team. Yet change in this fraught area, where old prejudices 

and collective fear of ‘the other’ still flourished, was glacially slow. Not for another twenty years or so did Glasgow Rangers, one of Scotland’s most powerful institutions and the best-supported team in the land, finally end its long opposition to signing a player of the Roman Catholic faith.

Politics also seemed for a time to become new and more exciting. Winnie Ewing’s unprecedented victory in 1967 for the SNP in the rock solid Labour constituency of Ham-ilton briefly frightened the dominant parties out of their complacency As the veteran nationalist, Oliver Brown, memorably put it in the aftermath of Hamilton ‘a shiver ran along the Labour backbenches looking for a spine to run up’. Yet nationalism could hardly be described as confident or aspirational at that time. Nineteen sixty-seven was also the year that the Corries composed ‘Flower of Scotland’, a musical dirge of ancient wrongs done to the Scots which became instantly popular and survives to this day as the national song of choice for most people. The victim-history books of John Prebble, recounting an unrelenting series of Scottish tragedies from Darien to Culloden and the Clearances, became the source of a new narrative. The nation’s role since the eighteenth century as a remarkably successful imperial and global power could no longer be accommodated within that transformed national story. Collective amnesia was triggered. It did not help that the writing of the modern academic history of the country was in early infancy in the universities and the teaching of the Scottish past in schools was notoriously marginalised, patchy, dull and often deadly. Myth easily triumphed over reality.

Such cerebral matters, however, were less important to most Scots than their experience of the material improvement triggered by the enormous increase in the building of new homes by local councils in the 1950s and 1960s. The experience of my own family was probably typical. From 1945, when I was born, until 1950, I lived in a tenement in Motherwell, sharing a kitchen, living room (with box beds) and a bedroom with my father and mother, an elderly grandfather, bachelor uncle and, latterly, my infant brother. There was no bath and the toilet on the stairs was shared with our neighbours. Even by the standards of the time this was gross overcrowding. Yet, I cannot remember it being other than a warm and happy experience, mainly devoid of hardship or anxiety of any kind. It helped, of course, that both my father and uncle were schoolteachers with secure employment and steady incomes. Nonetheless, it was indeed a fresh beginning when we moved to a council house on the rural fringes of the town with three bedrooms, inside toilet and bath, and a garden at front and back. Like countless other families in Scotland, a country with some of the poorest housing standards in Europe, the experience was almost akin to a religious revelation. I can still sense the smell of the place after my mother had thoroughly scrubbed the floors clean after the builders had moved out as she prepared for the move to the new home.

I am, of course, now much more aware from my studies of the period in later years that my personal experience cannot necessarily be regarded as historically authentic in any generalized sense. In reality the 1960s were much more complex that I could have imagined at the time. Across the skies, the economic clouds were already darkening in the later years of the decade, with the growing and corrosive impact of international competition on the nation’s famous industries of shipbuilding, engineering, coal and steelmaking, jute and textile manufacture. Increasingly, they seemed to become like industrial dinosaurs rather than the manufacturing powerhouses which had once reached out to markets across the globe. The nation’s economic influence on the world was contracting. With hindsight it is possible to argue that the seeds of the later trauma of the bitter years of deindustrialisation in the 1980s were then being sown.

Again, few of my generation ever reflected on the huge scale of emigration from all regions of the country during the 1960s and what that haemorrhage might signify about the weakening condition of Scotland then and for the future. After all, joining the Scottish diaspora across the globe seemed normal; it had been that way for centuries. Perhaps above all, we who enjoyed the new freedoms and stimulus of student life, rarely thought about the uncomfortable fact that we remained a small, privileged group, relishing an experience well beyond the reach of the vast majority of Scots of our generation. Despite the national myths of egalitarianism and community harmony, Scotland in the 1960s remained a country scarred by entrenched problems of deep social division and profound levels of inequality inherited from the past. That at least would endure.

* * *

It was in 1957 that Harold Macmillan famously remarked, ‘Let’s be frank about it, most of our people have never had it so good.’ His comment had particular relevance to Scotland which had endured a good deal of pain for much of the inter-war period. Unemployment, the curse of the 1930s, fell to historically low levels. Between 1947 and 1961, Scottish unemployment was remarkably stable and only varied between 2.4 per cent and 3 per cent of an insured labour force which had actually increased significantly by over 690,000 between 1945 and 1960. There were now jobs for virtually everyone who wanted to work. Full employment also brought rising incomes. The income of the average working-class household in 1953 was reckoned to be 2.5–3 times greater than in 1938. For a time, even the gap in average wage levels between England and Scotland narrowed. The nation’s health improved, not simply because of the new prosperity but also as a result of legislative changes and scientific advances. The National Health Service from 1948 extended free treatment to all, while by the Education (Scotland) Acts of 1945 and 1947 local authorities could insist on the medical inspection of pupils and provide free treatment. Antibiotics were introduced for the first time on a large scale in the mid-1940s and soon wiped out tuberculosis, the killer disease of young adults in the past. By the early 1960s, Scotland’s infant mortality rate was the same as that of the USA and close to the figures for England and Wales.

Rising living standards in the 1950s and 1960s were shown by the steady increase in the range of new appliances, such as washing machines, vacuum cleaners and electric cookers, which made homes easier to run. Leisure patterns were transformed by the television and, for a long time after its introduction, cinema audience figures tumbled. The number of TV sets grew from 41,000 in 1952 to well over one million 10 years later, an explosion that was fuelled partly by the huge demand for televisions at the time of the Coronation in 1953.  

Full employment also had important effects on the impact of women in society. The 1961 census showed a marked increase in the proportion of married women in the labour force in relation to 1931 and by that decade the majority of female workers were married, a revolutionary transformation of the patterns of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The trend towards smaller families, earlier marriage and the concentration of child-bearing in the first years of wedlock created new opportunities for many women to go out to work. As the new domestic technology became more widely available it was also easier for married women to combine domestic responsibilities with part-time work. There were more light engineering jobs, especially in the industrial estates and the expansion of the state bureaucracies, both at local and national level, after 1945 established many new openings for female and secretarial staff. Women were still paid less than men, though in teaching something of a breakthrough was achieved in the 1950s with the award of equal salaries for both sexes.

The better times helped to attract a new stream of immigrants. High levels of employment made it difficult to fill menial or unpleasant jobs and Irish immigration had dried up. Instead, Asian workers started to move into occupations such as driving and conducting in the transport departments of the cities and unskilled and semi-skilled work in bakeries, the building industry and the jute mills. Many of them were recruited from the industrial areas of the Midlands and Yorkshire and by the 1960s there were already 4,000 Asians in Scotland. In the same period, Indian and Pakistani bus drivers and conductors made up more than half the labour force in the Glasgow Corporation Transport Department. One intriguing consequence was that when India and Pakistan went to war in 1965 the city fell into chaos. The public transport system came to a virtual standstill when all the Asian workers took time off to follow the momentous events on television and radio. By 1970 the Asian community had grown to 16,000 and now included Chinese migrants from Hong Kong. The reaction of the Scots was not always friendly. When Asian grocery shops started to appear, they were sometimes subjected to undisguised prejudice. Their eventual route to survival and prosperity lay in staying open late, often until midnight, and cutting prices. In time, however, the Pakistani corner shop became as much an accepted part of the Scottish retail scene as the Italian ice-cream parlour established many decades before. Racial tensions north of the border never reached the acute levels of some English cities, though this may have been mainly due to the relatively small number of coloured immigrants to Scotland at the time.

Ironically, at the same time as the Asian community was experiencing suspicion and some hostility, the barriers were starting to come down for the descendants of Irish Catholic migrants. The crucial changes came in the labour market. Until the 1950s and 1960s, Catholics were markedly under-represented in skilled trades and professional occupations. In some of the shipyards and engineering shops, the power of foremen with Orange and Masonic loyalties to hire and fire made it difficult for many Catholics to start apprenticeships. From the 1960s, however, institutionalized discrimination started to disintegrate. Now there was an acute shortage of skilled labour and religious affiliation seemed less important than the ability to do the job. Furthermore, the new foreign-owned firms which moved in were dismissive of old Scottish prejudices, while nationalization and the mushrooming growth of the public sector created many new avenues for upward social mobility for university-educated Catholics outside the historic citadels of discrimination in the heavy industries. Public employment tended to strengthen the loyalty of both working- and middle-class Catholics to Labour, which was seen as the main progenitor after the war of the vast expansion in state employment and public services and the political engine of increased social justice. 

By far the most pressing postwar social problem was housing. The sheer enormity of overcrowding and squalor in parts of the nation’s cities and towns had been starkly revealed in several pre-war surveys. The restriction in house building during the war and bomb damage in Clydeside had simply made the problem more acute. By 1945 planning for the future was well under way. As early as 1940, the Barlow Report advocated the dispersal of people from the cities to relieve congestion through the planning and control of public agencies. The need for such a strategy was underscored by a report prepared by Glasgow’s Town Clerk revealing that 700,000 people were living in a space of 1,800 acres in the centre of the city. This meant that a remarkable one-third of the entire population of west central Scotland was squeezed into a space of three square miles in the heart of the region’s biggest city. The Clyde Valley Plan, prepared by Sir Pat-rick Abercrombie and a team of planners, sought to repair some of the social damage inflicted by nearly two centuries of rampant industrial capitalism by arguing that Glasgow’s population should be rehoused outside the city boundaries through overspill policies and the creation of new towns.

What transpired over the next two decades was nothing less than a housing revolution. Homes were built at a staggering pace, over 564,000 in the 20 years after 1945, an increase of around two-thirds on those constructed between the wars. The most striking feature was the overwhelming predominance of council houses. Some 86 per cent of those built between 1945 and 1965 were in the public sector. In cities such as Glasgow and in towns like Airdrie, Coat-bridge and Motherwell, the proportion was even higher. This was much greater than anywhere else in the UK, so much so that Scotland by the 1970s had probably the largest share of public housing of any advanced economy outside the communist bloc. The state underpinned this through a system of subsidies and rental controls, while private building was limited in the immediate postwar years because of materials shortage and elaborate licensing procedure. In the final analysis, therefore, the numerous Scottish tenants who benefited from the vast building programmes of the 1940s and 1950s were shielded from the economic realities and costs of housing. This, in turn, had considerable implications for the patterns of political behaviour of large sections of the Scottish population.

House building on this massive scale changed the face of many Scottish towns. The provision of decent homes was seen by councillors and planners alike almost as a religious crusade against the slums and all they represented in terms of poverty, squalor, disease and social injustice. In removing bad housing, local authorities believed they were also ushering in a new and better life for the people in general. Demolition became an unquestioned orthodoxy. Pat Rogan, the Edinburgh chairman of housing from 1962, recalled: ‘It was a magnificent thing to watch, as I did many times, whole streets of slum tenements being demolished, just vanishing into dust and rubble.’ 

It has become fashionable to criticize the massive post-war expansion in Scottish public housing for its monotonous buildings, poor construction, absence of amenity, pubs and entertainment in the large schemes around the cities, inadequate transport and the break-up of old communities. Evidence can certainly be found in abundance to support these claims. Billy Connolly’s description of the big estates as ‘deserts wae windaes’ rings true for many observers. But two points should also be borne in mind. First, the truly appalling scale of the housing crisis which had to be confronted, especially in Glasgow and some of the western industrial towns, made local authorities go for rapid construction of dwellings almost to the exclusion of all else. One housing official in Glasgow recalled, ‘I can remember an endless stream of older women coming to me in 1957-9, all with the same question: “When’s ma hoose comin’ down?” They just couldn’t get out of the old condemned houses fast enough.’ As late as 1960, Glasgow still had a housing waiting list of 100,000 families. Figures like these concentrated the minds of the politicians. Second, and not to be forgotten, for the first time large numbers of Scots had a decent home equipped to modern standards with an interior toilet, more living space and, for many, a garden. 

* * *

But all was not as well as it seemed and by the mid-1960s the good times were threatened. A number of worrying signs started to emerge. Between 1950 and 1965, over half a million people left Scotland, roughly divided between those who moved overseas and those who settled in England. The persistence of the exodus to the south was confirmation that wages were still higher and unemployment lower there than in Scotland. In other ways Scotland was also lagging behind. Between the 1950s and mid-1960s Scottish Gross Domestic Product (GDP) rose by 59 per cent, but British GDP outstripped that to increase by 70 per cent. It was now recognized by the early 1960s that the UK was growing at a significantly slower rate than some other European countries, but plainly Scotland was doing even less well.

Gradually it became apparent to the politicians and the planners that the nation was living, in the historian William Ferguson’s words, in ‘a fool’s paradise’. The economic boom was now seen to depend on the temporary conditions of post-war replacement demand and the virtual absence of international competition while the ravaged economies of Europe and the Far East took time to recover from the devastation of global conflict. There had still been precious little industrial diversification in Scotland. 

However, the most serious concerns were voiced about the condition of the industrial staples. Coal in particular faced a bleak future. The once rich Lanarkshire field was virtually worked out, while many consumers were moving to electricity, oil and gas. The conversion of locomotives from coal-burning to diesel engines and steel furnaces to oil-burning cut deeply into much of the traditional market for coal. Steel was better placed. In 1957 Scotland’s first integrated iron and steel works, built at a cost of £22.5 million, was brought into production at Ravenscraig near Motherwell. Yet, by the 1960s Europe had recovered from the war, much more steel was being produced and, with a world surplus building up, price-cutting became a common strategy. Despite the Ravenscraig investment, the Scottish steel industry remained vulnerable because of its inland location and consequent high costs for ore and delivery of finished products. Again, even before the late 1950s, shipbuilding was losing much of its world ascendancy. In 1947, Clyde yards launched 18 per cent of world tonnage but this had already slumped to 4.5 per cent in 1958. Scottish shipbuilding, once a world-class industry, was in a sorry state and its many grievous problems had simply been concealed by the post-war replacement boom. Certainly German, Dutch and Swedish and Japanese yards had the benefit of more lavish state support, but it was still the case that many of the wounds of Scottish shipbuilders were self-inflicted. While their rivals adopted streamlined assembly-line techniques, invested extensively in mechanization and designed well-planned yards, the Scots stood still, apart from the replacement of riveting by welding and improvements in prefabrication. They were losing their competitive edge. By the early 1960s, German yards could frequently deliver ships in half the time quoted by Clyde builders. Indecisive management and workers caught up in numerous demarcation disputes bore a collective responsibility for this state of affairs. It was by no means inevitable but before too long it brought a once mighty industry to the brink of total collapse. 

The emerging difficulties of the Scottish economy had immediate political repercussions. In the 1959 general election, Scotland voted against the UK trend and Labour emerged as the biggest single party in the country, with 38 seats to the Unionists’ 32. There was also more activity in the smaller parties. Liberalism had been little more relevant than Nationalism throughout the 1950s. But after 1957, under Jo Grimond’s energetic leadership, the party started to have much more public impact. On the face of it the SNP remained moribund, contesting only five seats in the 1959 general election, but the organizational foundations were now being laid for the party’s achievements in the later 1960s. Arthur Donaldson, leader of the SNP from 1960 to 1969, admitted at the time that all the party’s activists could have been carried in a small passenger plane which, if it crashed without survivors, would have destroyed the cause of Scottish independence for a generation. By the early 1960s, however, under the organizational direction of Ian Macdonald, local SNP branches were spread across the land. Before 1962 there were fewer than 20; by 1965 the number had risen to 140. The party first showed its electoral teeth at the West Lothian by-election in 1962. It was won by Tam Dalyell, the Labour candidate, but William Wolfe, later leader of the SNP, pushed the Unionists into third place, in the process attracting nearly 10,000 votes in a rock-solid Labour constituency. What was interesting was the changing composition of the activist group which supported Wolfe’s campaign. They were now mainly drawn from the skilled working class and lower-middle class and differed radically from the SNP old guard of professionals, writers, academic and upper-class lawyers: ‘these were more sober types, less interested in poetry than in digging out figures on the Scottish economy’.

That economy was once again at the centre of the political battleground and as fears mounted that Scotland might slip back to the dark days of the 1930s the Conservative government, under two successive Scottish Secretaries, John S. Maclay and Michael Noble, embarked on an ambitious programme of planning and intervention. The inspiration came partly from the 1961 Toothill Report, called after its chairman, Sir John Toothill of Ferranti Ltd. He identified the major structural weakness of the Scottish economy as the over-reliance on traditional industry, the inability to adapt to new world markets, and the failure of the new science-based manufactures to become established on any significant scale. In some ways the emphasis was unfortunate, since the Report tended to equate good with new and bad with old. Some diversification was clearly imperative but the ‘old’ industries, apart from coal, still had considerable potential if they had attracted government investment to the same extent as their overseas competitors and had attracted more imaginative and dynamic management strategies. In the event, the Tories did try to preserve traditional industry while at the same time generating new growth areas through the Scottish Development Department (established in 1962) and a Central Scotland Plan. Their strategy was designed as much to shore up their weakening political position as to halt Scottish economic decline.

Prodigious sums were poured into prestige projects. A loan of £50 million was virtually forced upon Colvilles Ltd in 1958 to encourage the firm to construct a state-of-the-art strip mill at Ravenscraig, and this despite the commercial judgement of the directors that the market in Scotland was not great enough to warrant such a vast investment. From the start the whole viability of Colvilles as a global steel-making enterprise was threatened by the burdens imposed by this major development. Then, in May 1963, the Duke of Edinburgh opened the Rootes car plant in Linwood, the first built in Scotland for over 30 years, amid a blaze of publicity. It cost another £23.5 million and was designed to reach a staggering output of 150,000 cars a year when in full production. Finally, in December 1964 the British Motor Corporation set up a massive truck plant at Bathgate. Yet whatever the economic future of these projects, they manifestly failed to repair Tory fortunes. In the same year as Bathgate started production, Labour won a narrow victory in the general election on Harold Wilson’s campaign slogan of ‘13 wasted years’ of Conservative rule. Scotland made a decisive contribution to this triumph by returning no fewer than 43 Labour MPs. Labour scraped home nationally with a majority of six. Wilson’s narrow victory depended in large part on the Scottish electorate who had turned against the Tories despite their extraordinary spending spree on great projects and industrial investment.

* * *

In 1967, Winnie Ewing won the Hamilton by-election with 46 per cent of the vote. Her success put the SNP on the British political map and attracted huge press and television interest. It also sent shock waves through the other political parties. Hamilton was no freak result. At the local elections in May 1968, the SNP had won a remarkable 34 per cent of the votes cast, had performed strongly in the Labour fiefdom of Glasgow, which was afterwards ruled by an SNP-Conservative coalition, and made 101 net gains against overall Labour losses of 84. The Labour Party was now dependent on support from Wales and Scotland to counter the effect of the strong Conservative vote in England.  

The Conservatives, already anxious about their declining popularity in Scotland, were the first to respond positively to the perceived nationalist menace. The Labour politician, Richard Crossman, noted in his diaries the comment of the Tory leader, Ted Heath, that nationalism was the ‘biggest single factor in our politics today’. As the party in opposition, the Conservatives may also have exploited the constitutional issue to put further pressure on the Labour government. This was the background to Heath’s remarkable Declaration of Perth in 1968 when, to the horror of many in his audience at the Scottish party conference, he committed the Conservatives to a devolved Scottish Assembly, thus reversing at a stroke a century of consistent Tory opposition to Home Rule.

After 1967 and 1968 Scottish politics would never be the same again. However, at first the SNP achievements did seem a mere flash in the pan. In the General Election of 1970, while the Nationalists doubled their vote, they also lost Hamilton and won only one seat, the Western Isles. The gains at local authority elections were quickly reversed as it soon became clear that many of the new SNP councillors were both inexperienced and ineffective. A vote for the SNP came to be regarded as an act of protest, a manifestation of Scottish discontent about government policy rather than any commitment to Scottish independence. All the opinion polls confirmed that only a small minority of those who actually supported the party in elections wished to see Scotland separated from the United Kingdom. Har-old Wilson’s policy of prevarication towards nationalism seemed to be amply justified by the course of events. He had appointed Lord Crowther to head a Royal Commission on the Constitution in 1969 but was in little doubt that this body would take a lot of time before producing a report and recommendations. The Prime Minister had once famously declared that Royal Commissions spent years taking minutes. The SNP performance in the 1970 general election, though its best to date, gaining 11 per cent of the vote but only one seat, confirmed the Labour government›s view that delaying tactics on the Scottish constitutional issue were by far the most effective approach to an irritating problem. 

However, the nationalist challenge had not run out of steam. Early indications that the SNP were once again on the move came in March 1973, when it polled 30 per cent of the vote in Dundee East, and again in November of that year, when the charismatic ‘blonde bombshell and darling of the media’, Margo MacDonald, won the rock-solid Labour seat of Glasgow Govan. In the first General Election of 1974, the SNP broke through as a real parliamentary force in Scotland, gaining seven seats and 22 per cent of the vote. Within a week, the incoming Labour government had embraced devolution as a real commitment despite having fought the election on a platform opposed to it. Even diehard opponents of Home Rule such as the formidable Secretary of State for Scotland, Willie Ross, the ‘Hammer of the Nats’, were forced to eat their words. In the second election of 1974 in October the SNP did even better by pushing the Tories into third place in Scotland and achieving 30 per cent of the vote. The party still had only 11 seats, but more alarming from Labour’s point of view was the fact that the SNP had come second in no fewer than 42 constituencies. As Michael Foot confided to Winnie Ewing: ‘It is not the eleven of you that terrify me so much, Winnie, it is the 42 seconds.’ Within three months Labour published a White Paper, Devolution in the UK – Some Alternatives for Discussion, which set out five options for change. Even though many in the Labour Party in Scotland were opposed to this appeasement of the hated nationalists the Cabinet was determined to press for some form of change, not in order to improve the UK constitution, but to end the threat of separatism. 

* * *

In the final analysis, the rise of the SNP and the new significance of the Scottish question in national politics by the end of the 1960s was based not so much on the party’s intrinsic attractions as the broader historical context of the times. Few Scots, even at the height of the party’s electoral popularity in 1974, wished to break the Union. Rather they sought to improve it to Scottish advantage. Opinion polls revealed that, while a third of Scots had voted for the SNP in that year, only 12 per cent supported independence. The SNP’s success alarmed governments and was seen by many as an effective way of drawing attention to Scotland’s problems.

At the same time, however, deeper changes were under way which were to the party’s advantage. ‘Britishness’ may have had less appeal than before. A key linchpin of the Union, the British Empire, was disintegrating at remarkable speed. India had gained independence in 1947 and a decade later the African possessions, starting with Ghana, were fast winning freedom from British rule. Other former colonies followed in quick succession. Britain was coming to be seen as a nation of declining influence on the world stage, winning the war but losing the peace. 

Successive governments maintained great power pretensions but the façade could not disguise the real erosion of Britain’s standing. The Suez Crisis in 1956 conclusively demonstrated the international dominance of the USA, with Britain tagging along as a mere junior partner in the ‘special relationship’. In 1963 the British government of Harold Macmillan was humiliated when its application for membership of the Common Market was summarily rejected at the insistence of the French President, Charles de Gaulle, who dismissed the idea by claiming that the United Kingdom was unfit for full membership. Not until a decade later did the UK finally join the European project. A year later, John Mackintosh argued that whatever the other political parties offered to stem the SNP advance would not be enough ‘so long as there is no proper pride in being British’.

Ironically, it was the attempt to maintain Britain’s status as a world military power that helped to alienate some of the new generation of Scots. In November 1960 Prime Minister Macmillan announced that the country’s main nuclear deterrent, the Polaris submarine, would be based in the Holy Loch in Scotland, a decision confirmed in 1964 by the Labour government of Harold Wilson. These decisions boosted the membership of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) in Scotland. Opposition north of the border had a particular force because of the realization that the Scots would be in the front line in the event of nuclear war. This galvanized hostility across the political spectrum of the left. But the SNP was the only party to voice outright opposition to nuclear weapons in the 1960s, especially after Hugh Gaitskell succeeded in reversing the policy of unilateralism espoused by Labour in 1960. Some leading figures in the SNP of future years, such as William Wolfe, Isabel Lindsay and Margo MacDonald, had been members of CND. It was partly because of the success of the familiar CND symbol of the time that the SNP adopted what soon became its own equally recognizable image, the thistle-loop.

More fundamental – at least in the short term – than the issue of Britishness was the impact of economic change. Harold Wilson’s government had taken office in 1964 with the promise of bringing the ‘white heat of the technological revolution’ to bear on Britain’s growing problems. Planning was now to be the panacea for both economic decline and regional disadvantage. Willie Ross was the man responsible for ensuring that Scotland gained at least its fair share of the resources to be dispensed through this strategy. Ross was in office from 1964 to 1970 and again from 1974 to 1976. He was the dominant Scottish politician of the day, an Elder of the Kirk, and a former army major and schoolmaster, who was a formidable champion of Scotland’s cause in Cabinet. A ferocious opponent of the SNP, who was fond of referring to it as the Scottish Narks Party, he was yet utterly determined to fight Scotland’s corner against all comers.  

Under Ross, Labour in Scotland did deliver at first. Public expenditure rose spectacularly by 900 per cent to £192.3 million between 1964 and 1973 as the Secretary of State successfully extracted as large a share as possible from the public purse for Scot-land. Identifiable public spending per head north of the border moved to one-fifth above the British average. All of Scotland except Edinburgh was designated as one large development area with over £600 million of aid dispensed through a new Scottish Office Department. 

The achievements were by no means confined to infrastructure and industry. Following the publication of the Robbins Report in 1963, the number of universities doubled to eight. Technical colleges also boomed. In the 1960s, comprehensive schooling was introduced into Scotland and, despite some growing pains, came to be much more positively accepted than south of the Border.  

The social and economic impact of all this activity can hardly be doubted. Scotland was gaining from the Union as public revenues were relentlessly channelled north in the form of massive regional assistance and other benefits. Labour was duly rewarded with a general election victory for Wilson’s government in 1966 in which the Conservatives lost three of their 24 seats in Scotland. This, however, was the lull before the storm. Planning and lavish state expenditure had created expectations which could not always be fulfilled. The vast Labour spending on the National Plan made it difficult to balance the budget. This in turn led to wage restrictions and increases in duties on foreign imports. A dockers’ strike in 1966 compounded the problems and pushed sterling down further. The government was soon forced to devalue but Harold Wilson’s boast that ‘the pound in your pocket’ was still secure did not convince a sceptical electorate.

This was the political background to the SNP’s advances at the by-election in Pol-lok and the victory at Hamilton in 1967. Planning had now degenerated into crisis management and the state no longer could guarantee the employment levels and the material standards to which the Scots had become accustomed since 1950. This triggered support for the SNP in the short term, though much of it soon melted away. Articulate opponents, such as the eloquent and energetic Jim Sillars, then a prominent Unionist member of the Labour Party, were able to launch a devastating attack on the SNP’s absence of any coherent ideological position on social and economic issues. At the same time, the inept performance of many SNP councillors, some of whom resigned soon after their election, conveyed to the public the image of a party which had come much too far too fast. In the 1970 South Ayrshire by-election, Labour, with Sillars as its candidate, overwhelmed the SNP and effectively derailed their bandwagon. At the General Election later that same year, the Tories triumphed under Ted Heath. But it was unlikely that the constitutional relationship between Scotland and the rest of the UK would disappear as an issue. Heath’s new Secretary of State, Gordon Campbell, was the first since 1945 to belong to a government that did not possess a majority of votes or seats in Scotland. Before long, this and other factors were to cause trouble for the new incumbents.

A basic cause of the growing prominence of the new instability in Scottish politics in the 1960s and early 1970s was the decline of the Tory Party as the most effective challenge to the hegemony of Labour in Scotland. The Conservatives had stood above all for Unionism. Indeed, it was only in 1964 that the Scottish party dropped the ‘Unionist’ label in favour of the more anglicized ‘Conservative’ one. For decades it had been a powerful vehicle north of the border for the expression of British patriotism. Now the decay of the party gave Nationalism its chance. The vote against Labour, which earlier might have gone overwhelmingly to the Unionists, now sometimes went to the SNP. The Liberals, despite their successes in rural Scotland, proved to be less significant than in England where in the two 1974 elections, when the SNP was at its peak, they took over 20 per cent of the vote compared to around 8 per cent north of the border. The decline in Unionist popularity was as swift as it was sudden. As recently as 1955, the Unionists had attracted just over 50 per cent of all Scottish votes, the only party ever to have managed that electoral achievement. But in retrospect, this was to prove a watershed in their fortunes. In 1959 the number of Unionist MPs fell from 36 to 31, then to 24 in 1964, and it dropped again to 20 in the 1966 general election. It was not a disaster on the scale of the later elections of 1987 and the 1990s, but it was nevertheless still an enormous humiliation for a party that had been the most successful in Scottish politics since the end of Liberal hegemony after 1918. 

Increasingly the Unionists presented a remote élite and an anglicized image that seemed out of touch with current Scottish problems. In part, this was due to the combination of the difficulties of the older industries and the inexorable decline of indigenous control of manufacturing and enterprise with nationalization, numerous mergers and the penetration of American capital. The great Scottish captains of industry and leaders of the Clydeside dynasties who had formerly ruled the party were fast disappearing and their place was once again being taken by lairds and aristocrats who had received an entirely anglicized education. The huge changes in urban housing after the Second World War also affected the party’s fortunes. The massive working-class peripheral housing estates around Glasgow and Edinburgh established new Labour fiefdoms in former rural areas, while the flight of the middle classes to the suburbs eroded the Conservative vote in the heart of the cities. It may seem remarkable from today’s perspective, but as late as 1951 the Conservatives held as many as seven seats in Glasgow, only one fewer than Labour. By 1964, however, they were left with two, one of which was already very vulnerable.

The secret of Conservative success for much of the twentieth century had been the ability to reach out well beyond the middle classes to the respectable, skilled and semiskilled working classes in Scotland. To them the party represented Protestantism, Unionism and imperial identity. Even in 1968, 45 per cent of the members of the Church of Scotland claimed to vote Tory. In Dundee in 1968, nearly 40 per cent of Protestant manual workers voted Conservative, compared to 6 per cent of Roman Catholics of the same class. These figures come from the period when the pattern of voting along religious lines – at least for Protestants – was already in decline. It is very likely that in the early 1960s political and religious cleavages in Scotland went even deeper. Nevertheless, the bedrock Protestant working-class support for Conservatism was starting to crumble. Britishness had less appeal and the empire was fading fast. The influence of the Kirk was also ebbing. Church membership reached a peak in the mid-1950s and then went into serious decline. In 1956, 46 per cent of Scots had a formal Church connection. By 1994, the proportion had fallen to 27 per cent. The rate of decline for the Church of Scotland was even greater because, until recent years, the overall haemorrhage from the Catholic Church was much less. A ‘membership catastrophe’ occurred during the Swinging Sixties. That Scotland was becoming a more secular society was also illustrated, as already indicated, by the decline of sectarian employment practices, encouraged by the impact of new foreign-owned industry, the nationalization and/or decay of the older staple manufactures, where discrimination against Catholics in skilled occupations had flourished, and the effect of full employment in the 1950s and early 1960s on the labour market. As a result, the Protestant monopoly of many skilled jobs was broken. Mixed marriages and the growing integration of the Catholic community into Scottish society as a result of better educational opportunities in colleges and universities after 1945 also diluted, although they did not yet end, the bitterness of historic religious divisions.

It was a sign of the times when (the then) Archbishop Winning in 1975 became the first Catholic priest to address the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. Seven years later, Pope John Paul II met with the Moderator under the statue of the great reformer, John Knox, during his historic visit to Scotland. There were occasional ‘No Popery’ demonstrations during the visit, but it was significant that most people regarded them as unrepresentative of Scottish public opinion as a whole. The Conservatives suffered most as a result of this growing tolerance and the associated secularization of Scottish politics. As early as 1964, when they suffered the shattering loss of the Pollok constituency in Glasgow, party managers first became aware that they were losing the old working-class religious vote. On the other hand, Catholic loyalties to Labour remained solid for another generation, while in the 1970s support for the SNP was reported to be overwhelmingly Protestant. The Tories were therefore squeezed by two forces: the desertion of many of their working-class supporters to new allegiances and the still unquestioning loyalty to Labour of the Catholic population in numerous west of Scotland constituencies.

None of these momentous changes was fully worked out in the day-to-day realities of Scotland by the end of the 1960s. Indeed, many were subtle and silent, emerging below the surface of life and only now picked up by later commentators with the signal advantages of hindsight. For the Scots of the time the decade was not one of drastic revolution but rather a transitional bridge between an old society, much of which was reminiscent even of the nineteenth century, and later modernity. 

Share this Article

Submit to DeliciousSubmit to DiggSubmit to FacebookSubmit to Google BookmarksSubmit to StumbleuponSubmit to TechnoratiSubmit to TwitterSubmit to LinkedIn