Ewan Gibbs-University of the West of Scotland

“A historical reading of Scotland which implicates the centrality of major socio-economic changes and social conflicts is required for a politics which can also grapple with the contemporary realities of class and economic power all too often missing from our dominant discourse.”

For the latest in my series about urban historians at work today, I was lucky enough to be able to catch up with Ewan Gibbs; who lectures in the social science faculty at the University of the West of Scotland. He explains how political conviction and political experience, shapes his approach to questions of Scotland’s economic and political development in the mid-20th Century.

What is your background?

I am originally from Edinburgh and went to the University of Glasgow where I graduated in Economic and Social History in 2012. I recently completed a PhD examining the protracted process and long-term consequences of de-industrialisation in the Lanarkshire coalfields to the East of Glasgow. Since then I have been appointed as an Early Career Lecturer in Sociology and Social Policy at the University of the West of Scotland.

Throughout that time I have been an active socialist. I am a member of the Labour Party and a trade unionist.

What led you to choose your subject matter?

“It became apparent during my dissertation research that de-industrialisation, the proportionate decline of industrial activities to employment and economic activity, was a key dynamic in the rise of Scottish nationalism during the late twentieth century.”

I chose to study de-industrialisation in Scotland with a focus on the Lanarkshire coalfield following developing an interests in labour and working class history during my undergraduate degree. I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on the anti-poll tax movement in Glasgow, tracing the connection between this episode of community mobilisation with historical narratives of Red Clydeside era housing protests mobilised by activists. However, a key aspect to this was also discontinuities associated with the absence of workplace activism during the late 1980s and that the poll tax non-payment campaign was opposed by traditional labour movement organisations, especially the Scottish Trade Union Congress and the Labour Party. Whilst partly related to the nature of the measure and the impact of non-payment on local government, this was also the result of the adoption of a civic Scottish nationalist political outlook as opposed to traditional social democratic or class struggle based outlooks.

As a socialist activist as well as a historian I was keen to get to grips with these dynamics of political change. It became apparent during my dissertation research that de-industrialisation, the proportionate decline of industrial activities to employment and economic activity, was a key dynamic in the rise of Scottish nationalism during the late twentieth century. It was also an obvious reference point for the decline of trade union strength and activism. I turned towards studying de-industrialisation in the Lanarkshire coalfields for my thesis because they were Scotland’s largest coalfields between the early nineteenth and mid-twentieth century but entered sustained contraction after coal’s nationalisation in 1947. Lanarkshire was at the centre of Scotland’s post-1945 state-led process of modernisation which incorporated the establishment of New Towns, East Kilbride and Cumbernauld. It also included the establishment of major industrial estates which hosted inward investment from manufacturing firms, which incorporated the prominent involvement of American multinationals. This research allowed me to focus on the long-term process of major changes behind shifts in the dynamics of class and nation I had originally viewed through the more specific period of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Is there anyone (historian or otherwise) that particularly inspires your approach to your topic?

“Thompson’s deployment of thick description and highlighting self-image and understanding, that the working class was “present at its own making”, has been formative in my conception of history.”

I need to preface any remarks here with a statement of modesty, these are inspirations rather than figures I would hope to imitate. E.P. Thompson’s approach to labour history most apparent in The Making of the English Working Class emphasised how class consciousness evolved through changes in economic relations mediated by historical experience and cultural understanding. Thompson’s deployment of thick description and highlighting self-image and understanding, that the working class was “present at its own making”, has been formative in my conception of history. Recently I have also been increasingly influenced by the French Annales School approach which underlines the long-term development of social structures, in Fernand Braudel’s term “the slow and powerful march of history.” My interest in these perspectives were partly stemmed by an earlier appreciation for Eric Hobsbawm’s analysis in his trilogy of the ‘long nineteenth century’ history which similarly highlight long-term changes in social relations behind the evolution of mass politics as capitalism and the nation state developed, consolidated and experienced crisis.

“I… have been highly influenced by Alessandro Portelli, an Italian pioneer of oral history theory. Portelli’s work on the Appalachian coalfield, They Say in Harlan County, underlines the non-linear nature of relationships between temporarily and memory, and how understandings of the past frame the constructions of contemporary controversies.”

At a more specific level related to my own research and period I have been influenced by scholars of North American de-industrialisation including Barry Bluestone and Bennet Harrison’s seminal work from 1982, The Deindustrialization of America. This analysis emphasises the development of contradiction between capital and community interests behind divestment, which was a result of long-term corporate strategy and resource allocation. This has since been developed by historians such as Jefferson Cowie, Joseph Heathcott and Sherry Linkon who have argued for looking “beyond the ruins” of post-industrial society in order to historicise the major changes in social and cultural structures that de-industrialisation entails. In conducting my research I relied heavily on oral history research and have been highly influenced by Alessandro Portelli, an Italian pioneer of oral history theory. Portelli’s work on the Appalachian coalfield, They Say in Harlan County, underlines the non-linear nature of relationships between temporarily and memory, and how understandings of the past frame the constructions of contemporary controversies. In terms of Scottish history, John Foster’s approach to the twentieth century experience foregrounds the changing nature of industrial structures and increasingly central role of externally owned capital in stimulating labour movement-influenced assertions of nationhood has shaped my outlook. My PhD supervisor, Jim Phillips’s, development of these perspectives in underlining the role of industrial workers in shaping arguments for devolution during the 1960s and 1970s have also been formative. His conception of the community assertions of rights to the employment provided by colliery employment through a moral economy of the coalfields also influenced my work.

What do you hope that readers take away from your work?

“Fundamentally I hope that readers also appreciate that these changes are not the inevitable result of historical processes, or aloof market forces, but are instead the result of heavily contested episodes of investment and divestment and decisions taken by policy-makers and firms.”

I hope that readers appreciate the major role that changes in industrial employment have had in shaping societies and their political consciousness. Fundamentally I hope that readers also appreciate that these changes are not the inevitable result of historical processes, or aloof market forces, but are instead the result of heavily contested episodes of investment and divestment and decisions taken by policy-makers and firms. Within a Scottish context I hope that my work will influence audiences to reconsider the forces and time period they ascribe to both deindustrialisation and strengthened assertions of Scottish nationhood and calls for greater political autonomy. In most Scottish historiography this has been ascribed to either the divergences between Scottish and UK electoral results during the 1980s or a more confident Scottish culture, led by the arts and literature, also visible since the 1980s.

My research suggests that the fundamental changes behind de-industrialisation have roots in the falling employment within staple industries and investment decisions made during the 1940s and 1950s. These contributed towards the increasing externalisation of control of the Scottish economy which stimulated increasing calls for devolution during the 1960s and 1970s. A formative role in this was played by the National Union of Mineworkers Scottish Area (NUMSA). My work also recasts and challenges positive readings of the economically prosperous and politically mature ‘New Scotland’ that has emerged in recent decades. Through oral testimonies it relies on perspectives from localities which have not benefited from this transition and cast doubts on a social structure which has heightened economic inequality and removed elements of policy-making and structures that allowed workers and communities to exercise collective ‘voice’.

How has your work evolved over the course of your project?

Over the last 3 or 4 years I have become more sensitive to some of the major drivers of the process of de-industrialisation and the direction of policy-makers. It became apparent when researching my masters dissertation on American manufacturing foreign direct investment in Lanarkshire, and then more so during my thesis research, that a relatively tight knit policy-making community drove major changes in mid and late twentieth century Scotland. This technocratic grouping had roots in the 1930s and the establishment of the Scottish Office, drawing key lessons on the need for industrial diversification from the heavy industry crisis of the interwar period. As traditional industrial dynasties in coal, steel and then shipbuilding declined the strength of this elite increased. The importance of energy policy and its dynamic changes over this time period also became evidently central. In particular the choice to opt for cheap oil and nuclear during the 1960s, and its relationship to investment in power stations. This reversed during the 1970s as the oil crisis revealed the danger of relying on imported fuel sources, which has renewed salience today. These dynamics revealed the importance of tracing relationships between devolved elements of Scottish policy-making and application, and centralised UK decision making. I hope to take analysis of energy policy and its national dynamics forward in further research.

I have also increased my understanding of the complex relationship between the NUMSA and both the nationalised coal industry and Scottish nationhood. Coalfield de-industrialisation was incremental, and the process of falling employment coincided with centralisation as the Coal Board was reorganised. This stimulated the NUMSA’s support for Scottish autonomy and contribution to the Scottish labour movement’s adoption of devolution over the late 1960s and early 1970s. The role of institution building and invented traditions were apparent in this process too, in particular the NUMSA’s development of the Scottish Miners’ Gala which became a major annual labour movement event. Responses to coalfield de-industrialisation therefore involved assertions of cultural agency. These incorporated elements of the NUMSA’s Communist-influenced politics apparent in international links, and support for Scottish devolution but also in the ambiguous relationship between this and continued backing for a UK nationalised industry and class conscious appeals for labour movement unity. The roots the Gala had in community traditions and the importance of informal community linkages founded in a distinct coalfield identity and culture became central to my thesis. This was apparent from oral testimonies, many of which emphasised the construction of a sense of belonging from family and community, its disruption by economic restructuring and the suburbanisation of former industrial communities.

Do you get any sense of how the regional focus of much government policy during this period affected how urbanised areas of Scotland were perceived?

“…we see something of a geographical reading associated with conceptions of modernisation and backwardness through the allocation of modernity to particular areas that would absorb labour from others.”

It becomes apparent reading both the major economic plans, in particular the Abercrombie/Clyde Valley plan of 1947 and Toothill plan of 1961, but perhaps more so Scottish Office correspondence, that conceptions of modernisation and backwardness were vital. The policy-making community had definite conceptions of major changes to Scotland’s industrial base and an associated redistribution of population and urban settlement. In particular, it was felt that single-industry locations were particularly susceptible to economic dislocation. This mirrored the more general reading of the need to diversify Scotland’s economy as a whole. I haven’t done much research on housing policy but it is clear there was a drive towards resettlement and in providing communities which were different from their industrial revolution era predecessors. The centre of this concern was on not evolving through reliance on labour markets which were viewed as highly vulnerable to market fluctuations, technological changes, foreign competition etc.

It is evident that the New Towns were seen as the areas which were to provide a beacon for Scotland’s future. Although this is fairly well established, it is important to note these were adjoined by several other ‘growth points’ that were earmarked to act as key nodal points for developments and to receive commuting workers from areas which were expected to experience labour market decline. Thus, we see something of a geographical reading associated with conceptions of modernisation and backwardness through the allocation of modernity to particular areas that would absorb labour from others. It was felt this was a rationalised, planned, method of development in contrast to the experience of the chaotic developments of the nineteenth and early twentieth century that overly concentrated industrial activities and population, especially in Glasgow. These also contributed to an over-dependency on a small number of heavy industrial activities.

When approaching policies like the dispersal of industry, if asked to choose, do you feel that economic imperatives or political concerns were the key drivers of decision making?

This might seem like a classic historian’s copout but it is difficult to differentiate the two. Conceptions of what entailed economic objectives were politically constructed, and during a period when the state, especially the Scottish Office’s departments but also nationalised industries, were so central to economic decision making, it is difficult to demark political and economic imperatives. In the initial post-1945 period, as outlined in the Clyde Valley Regional Plan, diversification was the prime objective. This included the development of New Towns and focusing investment outwith Glasgow in particular. Under the regime that followed the Toothill plan of 1961 this gave way to an increasing dash for growth which welcomed the decline of employment in staple industries, in particular the release of skilled engineers from traditional manufacturing, mining and steel, to develop new mass production activities. These were to be focused on ‘growth points’, and definitively therefore not upon alleviating unemployment. Jobs were to be provided but it was hoped that labour would migrate from declining regions to allow for the development of self-sustaining growth.

“There were also elements of tension between different aspects of the modernisation agenda and the nationalised coal industry. Lanarkshire was designated to decline by the Coal Board with the hope that miners would migrate to more productive coalfields, in particular Fife and the Lothians.”

My research suggests that these broad paradigms were applied, but also that they were continually contested, with community opposition able to incrementally challenge the Scottish Office. There were also elements of tension between different aspects of the modernisation agenda and the nationalised coal industry. Lanarkshire was designated to decline by the Coal Board with the hope that miners would migrate to more productive coalfields, in particular Fife and the Lothians. Divestment was focused upon the Shotts area of eastern Lanarkshire which experienced a series of major colliery closures between the 1940s and 1950s. However, community protest, and reluctance to migration were adjoined by the Board of Trade advocating a “take work to the workers” policy that led to sustained industrial employment in the area through the attraction of engineering investment.

“…there are other examples where political pressure and a feeling of social obligation on the part of policy-makers asserted themselves. References are made to ‘unemployment areas’ requiring assistance as well as ‘growth areas’.”

This was made further apparent during the 1960s when Alf Robens, Chair of the Coal Board, objected to the precision of the management of closures with inward investment which he felt hampered the Board’s migration schemes that attempted to attract skilled manpower from Scotland to the English Midlands. Furthermore, there are other examples where political pressure and a feeling of social obligation on the part of policy-makers asserted themselves. References are made to “unemployment areas” requiring assistance as well as “growth areas”. Cumbernauld New Town lost out on investment of a significant clothing factory during the late 1960s to the nearby declining coalfield area of Kilsyth, North Lanarkshire. More pressingly the town also lost on a major electronics investment from National Semiconductor to the shipbuilding town of Greenock, Inverclyde.

What impact did the implementation of these policies have upon Scotland’s existing cities?

“Glasgow was at the heart of regional policy but largely as a city that was going to give up population and its status at the centre of industrial development. The young and skilled workforce was to be moved towards New Towns and into the factories brought by inward investment.”

My research does not focus directly on the experience of cities, but it is clear that these policies had a varied impact upon differing locations. My paper with Jim Tomlinson in Contemporary British History highlights the limits of predominant conceptions of the ‘industrial nation’, which excluded Edinburgh despite the city’s large industrial workforce. When conducting research for that paper on differing Scottish regions on Aberdeen it became clear the area had relatively minimal impact from regional policy before oil. It was largely still a shipbuilding and fishing location which changed markedly for reasons outwith the remit of the managed transition viewed over the central belt.

Glasgow was at the heart of regional policy but largely as a city that was going to give up population and its status at the centre of industrial development. The young and skilled workforce was to be moved towards New Towns and into the factories brought by inward investment. My interviewees included John Salven, the son of parents who had moved to work at the Caterpillar factory which opened in Uddingston, South Lanarkshire, in 1958. John recalled the optimism of this movement and the new factory employment which was understood as a qualitative improvement in social terms, especially as an upgrade on both previous employment and living standards. Chik Collins and Ian Levitt’s recent article in Scottish Affairs, which is available for free, provides a thorough overview of the approach towards Glasgow between the 1940s and 1970s. My own research does indicate an important geographical link between the diversification and then growth agenda and policy-makers geographical priorities. A particular apparent example of this was a Scottish Office official in 1965 bemoaning the “somewhat artificially high level of activity in Clyde[ship] yards, which was leading them to try and claw back skilled labour.”

“Unlike Glasgow, Dundee, rather than its hinterland, received extensive foreign direct investment…”

It hasn’t been within the remit of my research but Dundee also deserves mention as the Scottish city at the forefront of inward investment. Unlike Glasgow, Dundee, rather than its hinterland, received extensive foreign direct investment, particularly from American multinationals. This provided a generation with improved employment, in particular assembly work provided a better paid job in a cleaner environment for women workers than the jute industry.

Have the current ongoing debates about the future of the Union played into your work on Scotland’s 20th Century history?

My choice of subject matter was clearly influenced by the present dynamics of Scottish politics. Initial research into the poll tax was in part an attempt to question the received wisdom about the origins of Scottish nationalism and ‘Civic Scotland’. I located its origins in the defeat of class struggle based labour movement outlooks following the 1984-5 miners’ strike. The research I have undertaken since then on de-industrialisation has aimed to point to the longer history of the development of Scottish national consciousness. In particular I have been keen to point to its origins within economic changes and matters of industrial substance. This was influenced by what I viewed during the independence referendum as the impoverished and limited nature of the discussion on the economy, and deployments of history on both sides. The development of Scottish politics before and especially since then to a form of civic nationalism (incorporating both Unionist and pro-independence standpoints) has furthered this concern. A historical reading of Scotland which implicates the centrality of major socio-economic changes and social conflicts is required for a politics which can also grapple with the contemporary realities of class and economic power all too often missing from our dominant discourse.

Ewan’s article (co-authored with Jim Tomlinson) “Planning the new industrial nation: Scotland 1931 to 1979” can be read in the Journal of Contemporary British History (not open access. You can follow Ewan on Twitter and you can find out more about his research from his Academia.edu profile. For more urban historian profiles see here. 

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