Losers

Ross McKibbin

  • The Politics of the UCS Work-In: Class Alliances and the Right to Work by John Foster and Charles Woolfson
    Lawrence and Wishart, 446 pp, £9.95, July 1986, ISBN 0 85315 663 8
  • A Lost Left: Three Studies in Socialism and Nationalism by David Howell
    Manchester, 351 pp, £29.95, July 1986, ISBN 0 7190 1959 1
  • The Miners’ Strike 1984-5: Loss without Limit by Martin Adeney and John Lloyd
    Routledge, 319 pp, £14.95, October 1986, ISBN 0 7102 0694 1
  • Red Hill: A Mining Community by Tony Parker
    Heinemann, 196 pp, £9.95, October 1986, ISBN 0 434 57771 5
  • Strike Free: New Industrial Relations in Britain by Philip Bassett
    Macmillan, 197 pp, £10.95, August 1986, ISBN 0 333 41800 X

The Upper Clyde Shipbuilders work-in of 1971-72 has been so overlaid by industrial disaster that it is probably no longer even part of the folk memory. It is hard now to associate Jimmy Reid the benign television guide to the inhabited ruins of industrial Glasgow with the compelling CP shop-steward of 1971. Yet as Foster and Woolfson argue, the work-in was a definite moment in Scottish history and not just a symbol. The strength of their book lies in its structural analysis: the fate of the Clyde shipyards is placed firmly in the context of the Scottish and international economy.

Upper Clyde Shipbuilders was created by the first Wilson government – the book has a treacherous preface by Tony Benn – out of the wreckage of the old Fairfields yard. In 1971 it was allowed to go ‘bankrupt’ by the Heath Government. The work-force responded with unexpected spirit, occupied the yards as a ‘work-in’, and mobilised much support throughout Scotland. The Government, taken aback, in due course negotiated a sort of settlement, partly with the American company, Marathon Oil, which created Govan Shipbuilders. That arrangement lasted until the 1974 Labour Government nationalised almost all the shipbuilding industry.

The debacle of British shipbuilding is one of the grimmest aspects of our fall, but Foster and Woolfson give it a specifically Scottish context. They argue that the collapse of Clydeside shipbuilding is a consequence of the actions of Scottish capital, and point out that the Scottish shipbuilders had always seen a semi-depressed Scotland as in their interest. They resented competition for scarce raw materials and found it more profitable either to close idle yards or invest their profits abroad. They disliked Lloyd George and Keynes; opposed heavy re-armament and favoured non-competition and cartelisation, which they associated with Neville Chamberlain and appeasement. But their ‘privileged access’ to the British state was largely closed to them in May 1940 with ‘the final collapse of Chamberlain’s efforts to end the war’, as the authors inaccurately put it. Churchill disliked Scottish Conservatism, and the corporative-regionalist policies followed both by wartime and postwar governments had no place for them. They were further isolated by the remarkable invasion of American capital after 1945. Scotland had a higher penetration of US capital than any other area of Europe, and the attitudes and wages of American companies undermined Scottish-owned engineering. The response was to bleed the shipyards even more of profits and investment and hand them over to the Scottish investment trusts and finance houses, whose power in the Scottish economy was proportionately increased. The result was the neglect and final redundancy of Scottish shipbuilding. This, together with a last defensive action from an intensely tradition and status-conscious work-force, produced the UCS work-in, and some of the most interesting material concerns the work-in itself. The analysis is Leninist rather than Marxist, though the neo-Stalinism is largely confined to the footnotes. Not altogether confined, however: one of the authors’ principal categories is ‘monopoly’ and that includes Labour governments as well as American multinationals. It normally signifies non-Scottish, multinational or English-based finance, but is also synonymous with ‘corporative’. The theoretical underpinning for it is provided on p.78, fn 76, an explanation I found almost meaningless. This rather heavy-handed concept is not actually necessary to the argument though some more refined adjacent concept may be.

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