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A Low, Dishonest Decade – Scottish Review of Books
by David Torrance

A Low, Dishonest Decade

June 9, 2012 | by David Torrance

I was born in 1977, between the renewal of the Lib-Lab Pact and the death of Elvis Presley. My mother certainly remembers the latter event, for she was still in hospital – Edinburgh’s now demolished Elsie Inglis – recovering from having delivered my twin brother and I. It is, on reflection, curious to have arrived in this world in the last quarter of a decade: born of the 1970s but with no direct memory of it.

Rather my earliest memories come from the beginning of the next, equally eventful, decade, when the look, sound and turbulence of the 1970s had not fully faded from view. I remember Tom Baker as Doctor Who, my parents’ brown-tiled kitchen and even wearing flared corduroy trousers. All of this came tumbling back as I read the fourth instalment of historian Dominic Sand-brook’s post-war odyssey, Seasons in the Sun.

The year of my birth was also the Queen’s Silver Jubilee; indeed my parents still have a pile of commemorative coins issued to everyone born that year. Now, as I approach my 35th birthday, the same Queen is celebrating another Jubilee. Prime Minister James Callaghan feared the celebrations would be a damp squib, yet the reverse was true: even in Scotland the crowds were far bigger than expected. We’ve yet to see if the same will be true of 2012.

Her Majesty famously marked the 1977 celebrations by reminding Parliament that she had been crowned ‘Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’. ‘Perhaps this Jubilee is a time to remind ourselves of the benefits which union has conferred at home’, she posited, ‘and in our international dealings on the inhabitants of all parts of this United Kingdom.’ The SNP was incensed, while even the Times thought she had broken ‘the convention that the Sovereign does not descend to the arena of party political controversy’.

The Sovereign, of course, was alluding to a remarkable period of constitutional flux, not only in Scotland and Wales, but also in the hitherto neglected Northern Ireland. At one point Whitehall made preparations for a ‘doomsday scenario’ under which the UK would withdraw from the province. Remarkably, Ireland’s Foreign Minister Garret FitzGerald lobbied against withdrawal, which was, as Sandbrook says, ‘an extraordinary step from the foreign minister of a country that still publicly laid claim to Northern Ireland’.
Meanwhile attempts to solve the political crisis via a power-sharing Assembly failed. The patrician Northern Ireland premier Brian Faulkner resigned (useful to recall that the old Stormont Parliament enjoyed what would today be termed ‘full fiscal autonomy’). ‘I cannot carry it,’ he told the Northern Ireland Secretary Merlyn Rees, ‘I have lost my reason to be. I’m beaten, overwhelmed by the vote against my sort of unionism.’

Another sort of Unionism, that which had bound Scotland and England together for 270 years, also appeared under threat. It was in the two general elections of 1974 that the SNP burst onto the scene as a credible and popular political force, lubricated by cries of ‘It’s Scotland’s Oil’ and disillusionment with the Conservatives and Labour. Today’s Scottish political scene, its discourse (such as it is), mythology and language, were all forged in that low, dishonest decade.

Ironically, Harold Wilson was an inspiration to the young Alex Salmond, then studying economics (though not the sort advocated by his Tory contemporaries) at St Andrews. The discovery of North Sea oil confirmed Salmond’s instinct that Scotland could well afford to go it alone, but the UK had other ideas. When the Energy Secretary Tony Benn greeted the first batch of oil at a British refinery, he raised aloft a flask and welcomed a ‘day of national celebration’.

A memo written by the Scottish Office economist Gavin McCrone informed ministers that, if anything, the SNP had underestimated likely revenue from the black, black, oil, giving rise to one particularly baffling myth, that Whitehall conspired to deprive Scotland of its rightful geological inheritance. Yes, McCrone’s advice wasn’t made public, but then it was confidential Civil Service advice. A mooted Scottish Assembly was never likely, in any case, to control North Sea oil revenue, although the Liberals lobbied for precisely that.
Having been rather Anglo-centric in previous volumes, Sandbrook tackles the Scottish politics of 1974-79 with insight and relish (although apparently unaware of the contemporary parallels). As the SNP grew more popular post-1974, it came under increasing pressure to clarify its views on economics and social policy, giving rise to intellectual contortions that remain to this day. The Unionist response was then, as now, muddled and grudging. In Cabinet, Harold Wilson reluctantly decided that devolution was ‘the only way to avoid separatism’.

Douglas Hurd’s entertaining thriller, Scotch on the Rocks (1971, adapted by the BBC two years later) meanwhile, played upon more paranoid Establishment fears about Nationalism, depicting a Britain in which London had conceded Home Rule and the SNP leader had become Scotland’s first Prime Minister. Another book, Robert Moss’s The Collapse of Democracy (1975) also portrayed an independent Scotland, complete with ‘plans for an electrified fence along Hadrian’s Wall to prevent emigration from the rump republic’.
In the New Left Review, Tom Nairn predicted that the UK was ‘at the point of disintegration’, which indeed was a widely held view. As the Guardian’s Peter Jen-kins wrote in 1978, ‘the notion of Britain in decline has become a commonplace’. Thus the subtitle of Sandbrook’s tome, ‘The Battle for Britain, 1974-1979’, although it was battle fought on a number of different fronts.

Sandbrook’s commentary on the rise and fall of Scottish Nationalism is a useful reminder that such movements can be fickle. What seemed inevitable in 1977 was, by the following year, in retreat. Margo MacDonald was apparently poised to capture Hamilton in a by-election (held on a Wednesday to avoid clashing with the opening ceremony of the World Cup), but instead Labour’s George Robertson took the seat and the SNP’s vote fell by five per cent. The result, judged the Times, did not mean that Scottish Nationalism was ‘dead’, but its momentum had clearly been checked.

Adding insult to injury, Hamilton was swiftly followed by Scotland’s hubris in Argentina, recounted with typical Sand-brookian detail. Meanwhile an amendment to the Scotland Bill tabled by George Cunningham placed a near-impossible bar on the aspirations of devolution campaigners (Robin Cook had suggested 30 per cent; Cunningham increased it to 40). Cue even more mythology, that the Labour government deliberately ‘fixed’ the referendum (it didn’t), and that the SNP ushered in the age of Thatcher by voting against the government in a no-confidence vote (it didn’t).

A Cummings cartoon depicted an embattled Sunny Jim as a set of bagpipes. ‘I’m just amazed,’ Callaghan is saying, ‘that there’s ANYONE who wants to stay attached to any place I’M in charge of!’ But the uncomfortably reality is that in 1979 enthusiasm for devolution was limited beyond the political classes, who were themselves deeply divided. In the general election that followed the SNP – turkeys voting for Christmas as Callaghan had quipped – fell from 11 to just 2 MPs.

Economic turbulence had, of course, played its part in the SNP’s fluctuating fortunes. Although not an original point, Sandbrook captures well the emergence of the new orthodoxy, which began with Denis Healey flight against inflation in 1975, and was cemented by the IMF crisis of 1976 and Callaghan (‘arguably Britain’s first monetarist Prime Minister’) telling the Labour conference ‘in all candour’ that the option of spending their way out of a recession no longer existed. As one financial journalist put it, Callaghan had ‘effectively sounded the death-knell for post-war Keynesian policies’.

Other certainties also died. When the Scottish Daily Express quit Glasgow in 1975, 500 of the 1,900 employees put out of work launched the Scottish Daily News as a workers’ co-operative, backed up with a £1.2 million loan from Tony Benn’s department and a lot of good will. But when the novelty wore off the newspaper soon became unviable. On 11 November the first line of Benn’s diary read simply: ‘The Scottish Daily News died yesterday.’

With each such failure, even Labour politicians began to lose faith in the ability of state intervention to kick-start a struggling economy. The last gasp came a week before the Christmas of 1976 when Harold Wil-son agreed to bail out Chrysler to the tune of £163 million in loans and subsidies. The choice, as his Scottish Secretary Willie Ross put it to him, was between that and handing a gift (30,000 job losses in Scotland) to the SNP.

By November 1976 the Labour government had lost its majority, and – in order to fight inflation – forged a controversial Lib-Lab Pact (shades of today’s Coalition) in March 1977 which, as Denis Healey put it in Cabinet, was preferable to relying on ‘Nats and nutters’. But by the time I was born in the summer of 1977 the much-vaunted Social Contract was on its last legs and by the end of 1978 it had broken down completely.

During the Winter of Discontent Scottish lorry drivers walked out, frozen food disappeared from supermarket shelves and the beer froze in pub cellars. Sandbrook makes a convincing argument that the materialism and selfishness usually associated with the 1980s actually manifested itself much earlier, years of relative affluence having ‘eroded the old values of social solidarity and individual self-discipline; fattened by prosperity, modern voters wanted jam today, tomorrow and always.’ As Bernard Donoughue said of the 1978-79 crisis, it had ‘nothing to do with trade unionism’, rather it was ‘hard-faced, grab-what-you-can capitalism with a union card’.

Yet paradoxically the maintenance of this unsatisfactory status quo remains the collective aim of the political establishment (of which the SNP is as much a part as Labour and the Conservatives), apparently content that it offers the best of all possible worlds. In that respect the most sobering factoid to emerge from Sandbrook’s melancholy work is this: in the year 1976, when I was about to be conceived, Britons were at their happiest. Despite rampant inflation and disruptive strikes, quality of life in the UK – as measured by crime rate, pollution levels and public sector investment – was at a post-war peak.


Dominic Sandbrook
ALLEN LANE, £30, 992PP, ISBN: 9781846140327

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