For these new ideas we need people who work with their hands. Who else wants to learn about the origin of things? Those who see only the bread on the table don’t want to know how it is baked… those who make the bread will understand that nothing moves which isn’t moved.”
Bertolt Brecht The Life of Galileo
The announcement from BAE Systems of the loss of around 800 jobs on the Clyde provides a timely reminder of the forces that have brought Scotland to its current constitutional impasse.
Coverage of such events is always about what is happening in the present or about to happen in the near future. Yet it’s in the past that we have to search for answers.
The historical resonance of recent industrial crises on both the west and east coasts brings into focus a profound part of Scotland’s culture, history, identity and sense of self. Though intellectuals are fond of citing our country’s cultural cringe as the origin of a national malaise, the real culprit is de-industrialisation.
The constitutional debate provides us with a chance to step out from the standard response to corporate shock tactics, whether from Ineos or BAE. If we don’t the alternative is, as David Harvey puts it ‘…to withdraw into a kind of shell-shocked, blasé, or exhausted silence and to bow down before the overwhelming sense of how vast, intractable, and outside of any individual or even collective control everything is.’
In Scotland we used to make things. With the exception of 9% of our workforce, we don’t any more. The vast inter-generational shift, accompanied by few remedies and plenty of sedatives, is the obvious, though seldom talked about, root of so many of the problems we confront today.
Our appalling health outcomes, levels of child poverty, and life expectancy are all rife in communities where manufacturing, often run by the British state, once took place. Suicide rates for men in Scotland are 73% (yes 73%) higher in Scotland than in England and Wales. As Lesley Riddoch’s excellent book Blossom points out: after 300 years of sticking plasters, it may just be time to try out some truly radical solutions.
For context it is worth remembering the remarkable scale of Scottish industry at its height. In the 1900s 7 out of 10 of the million men and women living in Glasgow worked for some form of industrial manufacturer. In 1913 750,000 tons of shipping were launched on the Clyde: more than the total output of Germany or the USA for that year. Though there is a willingness to celebrate past glories of cities like Glasgow, Dundee or Paisley that once dominated entire global markets with their products, this must be done from a safe distance. It is seldom discussed as something fundamental to what it means to be Scottish, as part of our national DNA.
All too often ‘heritage’ is doublethink, a by-word for lottery funding to encase the world of manual work as folk memory. Above all else: links must not be made with our present economic condition.
The fact that we collectively shiver at the prospect of mass lay-offs is about something more fundamental than contemporary Westminster austerity; or even the emergence of vernacular, cosmopolitan Scottish identity. It’s about the very fabric of Scottish society. Specifically, the Scotland that our generation inhabits is the product of an industrial decline that has seared itself into our collective consciousness.
That legacy is alive and well: the consequences of lowering inflation at all costs in the eighties and decades of asset stripping are still being played out today.
Though our service economy may claim to exist on different terms the ‘nightmare of history’ cannot be avoided. We see past toil echoed in the plight of today’s working poor, who make up an ever larger slice of our country’s workforce. We need the opportunity to build on our collective wealth, history and culture. This is palpably not achievable within the UK. Three decades of economic clearances should be the only reminder we need.
The importance that we place on those who work with their hands is about far more than romanticism or “urban kailyard” pastiche. It should be a vital part of how we shape the next phase in our history. The UK is moving in a direction that seems ever more intent on returning to the economic incentives of the workhouse. Increasingly, work is not about the pursuit of a craft or collective achievement: it’s about survival. The result is that thousands live out their lives in a cruel economic trap. As that slide becomes ever more tangible: the only question that Scots should ask themselves when they vote next year, is whether today’s society is a fitting tribute to a line of forbears who shaped it in often sub-human conditions.
That inheritance is all too easily forgotten. How many know that the Duke of Buccleuch, still the UK’s largest landowner, is descended from a line that routinely profiteered from the indentured labour of men, women and children, worked to death in that family’s mines? Unlike many of the poorest in our society, the origins of the laird’s wealth is the subject of remarkably little scrutiny.
Culture and Society
The challenge that the current historical juncture places upon us is to look at the contemporary results of our history and to weigh up the pride of achievement and the shame of chronic exploitation. The industrial revolution remains the most fundamental change in Scotland’s history: both its political and economic legacy dwarfs that of 1707. Its significance is matched only by the story of recent industrial decline.
There is a vacant space where Scottish manufacturing used to be. No one would claim that there is no cultural resonance about the sudden liquidation of a set of industries on the scale that Scotland experienced. It has been the subject of pop songs, plays, novels, films, every type of art form has confronted it. Because that is was art has to do.
Raymond Williams famously remarked in Culture and Society: “culture is not only a body of intellectual and imaginative work; it is also a whole way of life”.
In Britain we’ve tended to place intellect, imagination, art, and literature into specialist categories. Rather than something over which a whole society can claim ownership, it becomes just another sector. In contemporary Scotland we see this happening very clearly: a century of artistic renaissance and cultural momentum is branded SNP propaganda. The process of a whole society re-imagining itself is cast as a narrow appropriation of an area of public life that should be focused on creating diversions for genteel tastes, not on sloganeering.
No one would deny a distinctly Scottish culture has always existed: though many would argue that it has often been marginalised. It would be naïve to assume that such practices are a thing of the past. Preventing pro-independence cultural momentum from developing would have meant preventing vernacular responses to the de-industrialisation of Scotland in the 1980s. Indeed, most of the artists who crafted those responses are now prominent Yes supporters. It would also have to erase a far older legacy, as seen very clearly in Scottish literature of radical thought in the face of economic change.
For a poet like Burns, surrounded by the economic turmoil that marked the birth of the brave new world of industrial Scotland, radicalism was an obvious response. As in the posthumously published The Tree of Liberty this rings loud and clear:
We labour soon,we labour late
To feed the titled knave, man
And a’ the comfort we’re to get
Is that ayont the grave, man.
Independence is about confronting the darkest episodes of our collective past and stating that they no longer bind us. That today we can do better.
Working class roots
Different countries privilege and protect different sectors of their economy. Scotland, in its current and historic position cannot. Grangemouth is a timely example. To see an entirely impotent approach we only have to go back a decade, to Motorola’s taxpayer funded escapade in Bathgate.
Our ability to make things in Scotland has too often been sacrificed on some one else’s altar. From this point of view what is remarkable about the Scottish experience is not that the constitution became a central issue, but that change wasn’t more rapid. Imagine if France lost the bulk of its agriculture, Iceland its fishing, or that the mighty German manufacturing industry was no more. Scotland was expected to weather the death of its key economic sector without a murmur.
In the absence of the tools to directly combat these iniquities, voices for change, across the breadth of “civic Scotland” began to make demands. Under the blanket of state owned British industry it was possible for civic identity to be marginal, but when the jobs were gone, a new Scotland became vital.
Therein lies one of the strange ironies about the shifting, consumerist world that we inhabit. Despite all of the incentives to the contrary, everyone wants to be from somewhere with a bit of grit and character. Somewhere real. That’s the ultimate contradiction about Thatcher’s children –to be truly aspirational, every citizen has to create a myth of self-improvement, and therefore working class roots.
This is why the Scottish experience shows that art is not something that can be kept in a box, safe from incendiary contact with the wider polity. It must confront, it must question the origin of things. It also needs roots, hence the revival of authentic Scottish culture in recent years.
That said, national pride makes me uncomfortable. It has always seemed like a bit of get out clause, an emotion invoked to paper over the cracks in a society. I can’t be proud of a Scotland in which one in five children are born into poverty: in which a predestined postcode lottery brings Scots into this world with not even a starting chance at fulfilling their potential. In that context it is baffling why so many seem to want to limit the scope of political and economic change.
Then again, there’s more than a glimmer of hope in the current debate. Working class Scots are more likely to vote Yes. Getting that vote out by showing the prospect of an economy that works for all is the creative challenge that we all have to grasp over the next year.
Our nation’s artists have long been in step with the need for change: as are an ever-broadening coalition of activists and enthusiasts. This leads me to believe that, in this campaign, we will not win over those who are simply defined by what they consume or own. Our appeal must be to the majority that has an interest in crafting something new.
Today the pace of change means that we risk forgetting history even though the referendum proves that we’re still living it. The next step is to allow Scottish society to confront the demons unique to its past, rather than remaining beholden to them. Who knows, we might even make things again. As Brecht said, for these new ideas, we need people who work with their hands.
Photograph by Robert Orr