The Labour Party & Scottish Devolution, 1967-79: a case study in British political expediency … Part IV

by Stephen Tall on January 26, 2010

As trailed here, over the next few weeks I’m publishing ‘The Labour Party & Scottish Devolution, 1967-79: a case study in British political expediency’, the thesis I wrote as an undergraduate some 12 years ago. You can catch up with what’s been published to date here.

‘Beginning to be converted to the least possible’: devolution launched


The economic transformation of Scotland

The increase in the SNP’s popularity was, in part, the result of the transformed economic circumstances in Scotland in the 1950-60s; more particularly, the shift from reliance on heavy industries to consumer goods.

For instance, Scotland’s mining employment was more than halved in just 15 years, down from 92,000 in 1960, to 35,000 in 1975. Over the same period, employment in shipbuilding declined by one-third. (HM Drucker & G. Brown, The Politics of Nationalism & Devolution (1980), p.35). Similar reductions were evident in other productive industries, such as metals and heavy engineering, and textiles.

The Wilson Governments (1964-70) responded to this deterioration of Scotland’s traditional industries, deploying their regional policy to lure new scientific and technological industries. It was these new industries (for example, electronics and chemicals) which were of increasing importance. Of equal significance, was the growth in the service sector, which also became a major employer of new labour. Between 1960-75, the insurance sector grew by 80 per cent, public administration and defence by over 50 per cent. (Drucker & Brown, Politics of Nationalism, pp.35-37).

Therefore, despite the great exodus of manual workers during the 1960s, 100,000 white-collar jobs were created. The net effect was that, in 1971, 200,000 more people were living in white-collar families in Scotland than in 1961. It becomes questionable, then, to attribute the SNP’s rise simply to economic despair. Rather, the perception of general economic decline swelled both SNP rhetoric and support, despite the predominantly middle-class status of its voters.

It was the emasculation of the skilled worker – the traditional backbone of Labour’s support – and his replacement by a new and ambitious middle-class lacking traditional class ties which facilitated the SNP’s surge. This generated a growth in rising aspirations, which, in turn, produced a more acute sense of Scotland’s relative deprivation.

This was in line with the general dealignment in British politics that occurred in the 1960s, first noted by Butler and Stokes in their Political Change in Britain (1974). This showed that the significance of the class-party axis had been in retreat since the early 1960s, but that its decline was especially sharp between 1966-70.

Commenting on these findings, Crewe, Särlvik and Alt assert that this trend was accompanied by

a withering of class politics generally; … the new generation of electors were less likely than their immediate predecessors to see much difference between the parties or to perceive politics in terms of class interests. (I. Crewe, B. Särlvik & J. Alt, in British Journal of Political Science, vii (April 1977), p.134.)

And yet Scotland enjoyed a consistently higher public expenditure per head compared with England as a whole, or any of its regions – a per capita index of public expenditure, calculated for 1969/70–1973/74 with the UK equal to 100, showed Scotland’s index to be 117 – precisely because it was viewed as a hotbed of nationalist-inspired class discontent. This was Labour’s way of pre-empting the potential unpopularity resulting from the heightened apprehension of rising deprivation.

But the very structure of society had changed, and a new middle-class had developed which no longer thought itself subjugated by the lairds, lawyers and Lords. By 1976, Scotland’s six new towns housed five per cent of the population. It was this which Labour found very hard to address, for, as Byron Criddle has expressed it:

Glaswegians could be rehoused in clean new homes, but how could the social and economic aspirations apparently unleashed by such a move be met by a party so rooted in the mythology and folk lore of red Clydeside, run by relatively old men wedded to a belief in municipalized housing and hostile to owner-occupation as a symbol of class betrayal? (B. Criddle, ‘Scotland, the EEC and Devolution’, in M. Kolinsky (ed.), Divided Loyalties: British Regional and European Integration (1978), p.49).

The self-publicity of the Labour Governments’ interventions raised expectations they proved unable to fulfil, and provided the SNP with free ammunition. The Labour Party set targets specific to Scotland: the nation was not ignored. But these targets were not met.

For instance, the five-year plan for the Scottish economy published in January 1966 was soon ‘dampened by the stringent “squeeze” measures taken by the government in July 1966.’ (J. Kellas, in D. Butler & D. Kavanagh, The British General Election of October 1974 (1975), Appendix 5, p.449). Scottish unemployment was proportionately higher than UK employment, and still rising. A study by the Scottish Council (Development and Industry) concluded with the damning indictment that only one-third of the jobs promised had been created.

The SNP was the natural home of the aspirant, non-anglicised middle-class, disillusioned by the party system they had always trusted, which promised much but delivered little. This is certainly suggested by British Election Study Data compiled in 1974, which showed that the SNP had the support of 37 per cent of ‘higher managerials’ and 29 per cent of ‘lower managerials’; its support was lowest among the non-skilled manual class (20 per cent).

However, it was in the rural peripheries that the SNP was able to forge its electoral breakthrough, its initial direct challenge targeted against the Conservatives – which gave rise to the Nationalists’ soubriquet, ‘Tartan Tories’. These areas’ votes were not negligible, for they formed 19 of Scotland’s 71 constituencies, and accounted for 25 per cent of the total electorate. In the 1974-79 Parliament (the period of greatest SNP success), eight of its 11 MPs represented the rural periphery.

The two-party system had never attracted the loyalties of those living in the rural small-towns, where manufacturing industry was limited, and the primary industries (farming and fishing) still retained their crucial importance. It was these areas, with their high incidence of self-employment and low rate of trade unionism, which never adhered to the urban class schism. Here the Liberal Party achieved greater success than in the UK up until the Second World War, and to a lesser extent beyond.

So why was it that the SNP, and not the Liberal Party, capitalised on disenchantment with the two-party system in the late 1960s and through the 1970s?

This is a vital question in understanding why devolution developed, for it was the outstanding success of the SNP that prompted the search for a ‘Scottish solution’. Devolution was an attempt to appease the dispirited Scottish voters with the ‘least possible’.

Next week … Third-Party Success: protest vote or something deeper?