Class, Economic Change and the SNP

The idea that governments can manage regional inequalities has been subjected to extensive critical analysis and cannot be fully discussed here (e.g. Massey 1984). Suffice to say that a good deal of British regional policy during the 1960s and 1970s was concerned with managing the decline of traditional industries through reorienting economic activity around manufacturing industries deemed to be more productive.

With traditional industries facing closure and employment within them declining, the Labour Party introduced regional economic policies aimed at attracting foreign (particularly US) multinational firms to locate in both Scotland and Wales. The aim was to redistribute employment away from coal and heavy industries to ‘assembly goods manufacturing’ (such as consumer goods, mechanical and electrical engineering). This policy applied to regions across the UK, where rates of growth had been consistently below the UK average (Phillips 2013), underlined by the belief that these latter sorts of industries would bring about more rapid economic growth and higher yields of return.

Crucially, the Labour Party was able to oversee the decline of heavy industries and continue to receive working-class support on the grounds that it continued to fulfil working-class people’s expectations concerning full employment and welfare support for those unemployed and retired (Phillips 2013). Within the general framework of structural economic change after 1951, some industries grew, with employment peaking in some consumer goods sectors in Scotland in the 1960s and even the 1970s. Such policies were resisted by Scottish Conservatives, not least on the grounds that state control represented a distinct threat to indigenous Scottish firms owned by Scottish industrialists such as Lithgow, Colville and Stephen. For workers, however, this opposition fell on deaf ears, and nationalisation would be seen as the only way of securing employment. The security nationalisation offered working-class people would be a crucial factor precipitating the decline of the Conservative Party in Scotland (Seawright and Curtice 1995). The managed approach of the state to regional decline also included the decentralising of many of its administrative functions to Scotland and Wales, within the context of a much expanded public-sector workforce.

For a short period at least, the growth of manufacturing firms and the expanding public sector partially offset the loss of employment in coal, shipbuilding and steel. However, as economic conditions after the 1970s became less favourable, firms which had arrived in the previous decade began to withdraw from Scotland and Wales. The decision of the UK government to devalue the pound against the dollar in 1967 had a detrimental impact on the attractiveness of peripheral regions to foreign manufacturing firms (Breuilly 1993: 330). After the 1970s the manage?ment, negotiated with trade unions, of withdrawal from employment in traditional industries through provision of alternative forms of manufacturing employment could not be sustained. Hence the relatively secure and affluent jobs of the 1960s created expectations which were not met in later types of employment.

These regional policies were initially successful and helped the Labour Party secure significant majorities in Scotland. But they also promoted the growth of a new and young section of the working class such as those working for manufacturing firms in New Town areas who were less attached to the British Labour Party and movement. An increasing proportion of this work was technical and managerial rather than manual. It was within such contexts that class dealignment in voting took place and this ‘new’ working class formed a crucial chunk of the vote for both the SNP and Plaid between the late 1960s and early 1970s. Breuilly (1993) describes this as the ‘third Scotland’: neither rural workers such as farmers or ‘peasants’ nor industrial workers such as miners or steelworkers, but those working- and middle-class people employed in technical and ‘mental’ occupations. This also meant that support for the SNP had a wide geographical coverage, including small towns as well as areas within cities such as Glasgow and Dundee. As Breuilly (1993) concludes, Scottish nationalism was free to develop a distinctively pragmatic and materialist programme with wide popular appeal: ‘the absence of any significant nationalism in either rural or traditional industrial Scotland left the arena free for a nationalism building on the problems of modernising regions in the country’ (1993: 331). As will become clear, this new basis of support acquired by the SNP in this period would continue to provide foundations for subsequent surges in support in the twenty-first century.

The ‘third’ economic grouping was indeed relatively affluent but was made increasingly insecure by the early 1970s at the prospect of manufacturing firms cutting back operations. The legacy of administrative autonomy and separate institutional identity described earlier meant that the SNP was now able to assert Scotland’s distinctiveness as a country and potential viability as an economic and political entity. The success of the SNP’s 1960s ‘Put Scotland First’ campaign appealed to a largely shared sense of Scotland as a country—that it ‘makes sense’ to put Scotland first. Thus, by emphasising the inadequacies of centralised state planning and the failure of the Labour government to meet raised expectations concerning living standards, the SNP’s arguments about putting Scotland first, to control its own economic affairs, held some appeal for newly anxious workers. The discovery of North Sea oil—successfully exploited by the SNP through its 1974 campaign ‘It’s Scotland’s Oil’—was highly significant in convincing some voters that an independent Scotland had economic viability. It reflected the SNP’s ability to appeal to working- class voters on the grounds of an untapped potential for material prosperity which without independence, or greater autonomy, would not accrue to Scotland.

By failing to hold on to its potential core vote during this period the Labour Party was also beginning to show signs of significant party failure in the Scottish context. The continued deployment of the label ‘Tartan Tories’ towards the SNP was proving to be much less effective by the mid- 1970s and more indicative of a party failing to acknowledge the sense of alienation from the political system amongst young and working-class Scots (Hassan 2009 : 148). At this time also the SNP began to talk of ‘London Labour’ and ‘British Labour’, whilst being careful to distinguish an overly centralised Labour Party from its own association with the values of the grassroots labour movement and, within its own ranks, a growing number of Scottish, former Labour, activists and trade unionists. Two decades later, with the inception of New Labour after 1997, the idea of a ‘London’ Labour Party would have more potency and would provide a powerful setting for persuading Scottish Labour voters to switch to the SNP (Hassan 2009: 152).

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