Gregor Gall: Scottish will to resist has withered
For a nation which once stood up to any and every threat, Scotland has not lived up to its reputation recently when it comes to fighting for jobs, writes Gregor Gall
This year has started as 2012 ended – with a spate of closures and redundancies on the high street and in manufacturing. However, the pace seems to have picked up quite considerably in the new year.
Since 2008, when the recession began, the roll call of retreat in retail has comprised Woolworths, Barratts, Blacks, La Senza, Game, Clinton Cards, JJB, Comet, Jessops and HMV to name but just a few of the most well-known ones. Closures in manufacturing have seen many less familiar names go down the tubes and in a less publicised fashion. But even their number has included the well-known Halls of Broxburn and Johnnie Walker in Kilmarnock. Taskforces to find new buyers and to offer redundant workers career advice are now the name of the game.
Unlike the preceding decades, not only have the voices of dissent been largely missing when these operations shut but the few dissenting voices that were raised made no discernible impact – because acts of collective resistance were acutely noticeable by their absence.
It seems as if Margaret Thatcher’s well used TINA – “There is no alternative [to the market]” – dictum holds even more sway today than it did when she left public office over 20 years ago. So why is it that in both Scotland and the rest of Britain, we seem to have almost completely succumbed to the will of the market?
It’s not as though the market is well regarded and well respected amongst the general populace in either Scotland or Britain, especially after the crisis of neo-liberalism gave us the credit crunch which then ushered in a recession and, in turn, the age of austerity.
Instead, is it that we have reluctantly submitted to the might – rather than the right – of the market?
Even if this is the case, it is still a pretty strange state of affairs, given the traditions and heritage of popular resistance in Scotland, like Upper Clyde Shipbuilders’ work-in, the Lee Jeans and Caterpillar occupations and the six month strike at Timex.
What puts this in even more stark contrast is that when the likes of Game, La Senza and HMV announced the cessation of operations throughout the British Isles, workers in the Republic of Ireland occupied a number of their stores in the likes of Cork, Dublin and Limerick.
Using militant means, the occupiers gained moderate ends – the payment of wages, holiday money, severance pay and the like, as opposed to saving their jobs. But they were not alone, for occupations also took place in manufacturing at the likes of Lagan Bricks, Vita Cortex and Waterford Crystal.
Since 2008 when the global recession began, the Republic of Ireland, with a population of 4.5 million, has seen 24 occupations of workplaces compared to just 12 occupations in Britain with a population of 63m. Scotland has been no different from England, the north of Ireland and England in the paucity of occupations.
What then accounts for the decline in the traditions of collective resistance which have led us to this sorry state? In Scotland, there seem to be three key components in addition to the more general factors that affect the rest of Britain. But let us just remind ourselves of these more general factors.
Throughout Britain, union membership has declined from a high point of 13.5m (55 per cent of the workforce) in 1979 to 26 per cent (6.1m) in 2012 and strikes are at low historical ebb, despite recent public sector industrial action over pensions.
The roll call of union defeats in the 1980s stretched right across the big battalions from the steel workers and printers to miners and dockers. The union movement has yet to recover its collective confidence and prowess since then.
Labour has long since jettisoned its social democratic policy in opposition and in government, so the collective encouragement and support to resist has taken an almighty battering as the people’s party succumbed to the ideology of not just “you can’t buck the market” but “if you can’t beat them, then join them”. No more are there to be any marches for jobs, throwing of the mace or disruption to Queen’s speeches. Respectability and neo-liberalism rule the roost.
Yet in Scotland, there was the potential to resist this retreat. First, the 1980s and 1990s saw the emergence of the popular front to oppose Thatcherism and the Tories by which the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC) organised an alliance of nearly all and sundry. From the Liberals and “wet” Tories across the political spectrum to the radical left and including along the way the churches and the “great and good” from public life, the STUC put together a coalition whose breadth was remarkable.
In Campbell Christie, the STUC then had a heavyweight leader who led civic Scotland and spoke for Scotland with a progressive vision. He led more of an army than the “feeble 50” of Labour MPs at Westminster could muster. Together, these STUC-led coalitions harangued Tory governments over the closures of Ravenscraig and Caterpillar amongst others. “Scotland United”, the cross-party anti-Conservative party movement after the 1992 general election was the last great outing of this strategy.
But as former Scotsman journalist, Keith Aitken, wrote in his history of the STUC: “Retrospection yields the dispiriting and somehow surprising realisation that almost none of the … coalitions achieved their primary objectives [even though they] were remarkably successful in distilling and sustaining the extraordinary mood that settled in Scotland against Thatcher.” In other words, the good fight was fought, but without victories, the will to continue was eroded.
Second, many of the leadership and leading lights of the SNP today comprise a set of people who were members of a republican and socialist internal faction called the “79 Group”. Among their number were Roseanna Cunningham, Margo MacDonald, Alex Salmond, the late Stephen Maxwell, Jim Sillars, Kenny MacAskill and Stewart Stevenson. In the early 1980s, they advocated for what they called “a real Scottish resistance” including “political strikes and civil disobedience on a mass scale” in the words of Jim Sillars. They won support for this strategy at the 1981 SNP conference.
Their importance is not that they never led such Scottish resistance. Indeed, the only occupation they led and organised was of the Royal High School, the proposed home for a Scottish assembly, in Edinburgh on 16 October 1981. Rather, it is that they ceased to argue for this sort of industrial resistance.
Now they are advocates of complying with the markets and trying to get Scotland to act smartly and sharply in order to beat off the competition of other countries. Solidarity has been superseded by entrepreneurialism.
Last but not least, the implosion of the radical left, most obviously, the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP), has removed from the scene the last cheerleaders for resistance. Back in 1996, the forerunners of the SSP financially supported a nine-week occupation at Glacier metals in Glasgow. Today, no part of the radical left is capable of such an act of solidarity. Even the Occupy movement in 2011 in Edinburgh, Glasgow, London and elsewhere in Britain never occupied any place of economic significance – neither a workplace nor a bank. No spanner was thrown in the works.
The consequence of all this is that workers are angry but resigned to their fate, trying to cope with getting several part-time jobs to make up for a full-time one.
• Gregor Gall is professor of industrial relations at the University of Hertfordshire (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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