‘Cuckoo clocks,’ said the President. Orson Welles on the Prater Wheel slipped in and out of my mind. ‘Cuckoo clocks: the one area where the Swiss haven’t run us out of business.’ Last year I was made cochair of a government-university colloquium on the future of industry and society in Baden-Württemberg, Europe’s most prosperous region, but one perilously dependent on the building of cars. In July we were in the early planning stages and the university president, Adolf Theis, was playing devil’s advocate with some other ci-devant industries: ‘The watchmaking companies in the Black Forest went over to quartz, lots of capital investment, but they lost out at the lower end to the Pacific Rim, and at the quality end to Swatch. And they’ve nearly all gone, or been taken over. But the cuckoo clock people didn’t change at all. They’ve survived, and they’re still family firms.’ ‘People associate cuckoo clocks with the Black Forest,’ the chancellor said. ‘They don’t want digital technology. They’re paying for tradition.’

‘Harris tweed.’ It seemed useful to throw that in, as various people in the room were armour-clad in the steel-blue weave that, so they tell me in Stornoway, is made specifically for the German professor market. ‘Whisky.’ Post-industrial man was making his point. Post-industrial man seems now to have cornered a nice little earner in applied pessimism.

Blame it on my childhood. Where the Eaglescliffe Hall now is, God alone knows. I couldn’t trace it in Lloyd’s Register, but it may have been renamed. At best, ships live half as long as humans, and it would now be 38 years old. I was at its launch in October 1956: the photo shows me in school cap and muffler, with Great-Uncle Alex and Great-Aunt Jean, Cousin Jean, two small Canadian girls, their father and their mother, in a Grace Kelly hat, who broke the champagne bottle and sent the ship – splash! – into the River Carron. Then Uncle Alex took us round the miniaturised industrial world of the shipyard: the pattern-lofts, where the templates of ribs and plates were cut in plywood; the foundry with its moulds of wet black sand; echoing corrugated-iron sheds where shears clipped steel sheet like cardboard, and whorls of silver metal spun off lathes. Plumbers, electricians, carpenters’ shops: wee men in big glasses chop-chop-chopping with a chisel until a perfect mortice joint emerged. ‘Fine day, Mr Aikman. Everybody satisfied wi’ the boat? No a great looker, but she doesnae have to be. This your grandson? Great-nephew. You want tae be a shipbuilder too, son.’ The sense of a command in that, most of a lifetime ago.

The Grangemouth Dockyard was into one-offs, small specialised ships of up to 3000 tons: a wine-carrier for Bordeaux, a missionary ship for the Solomon Islands, a river-steamer for the Limpopo. The Eaglescliffe Hall, an ugly slab of a boat, was a coaster for the Great Lakes. Uncle Alex was the classic paternalist, prided himself that Grangemouth had only once come out on strike, and then only because of a national dispute. Bow-tied and double-breasted, he pared a plug of ‘thick blue’ – the tobacco he had smoked as a Clyde-side apprentice before 1914 – and jammed it in his short Stonehaven pipe. He had hopes that my modelmaking might lead to naval architecture. Jane’s Fighting Ships and copies of the Motor Ship would come through the post. I had the interest, and all the shop-talk, but my maths was rotten. Just as well.

A hundred and fifty-five years earlier, Grangemouth Dockyard had built the Charlotte Dundas, the world’s first practicable steamship, intended for towing barges on the adjoining Forth and Clyde Canal. This she did, successfully, but the wash from the paddlewheel carried the banks away and she was laid up. In 1861, some clown spotted the veteran lying around Grangemouth harbour and had her broken up. This somewhat ominous precedent was apt. The shadow of Suez lay over the launch of the Eaglescliffe Hall, but even my uncle, shrewd and undogmatic though he was, didn’t realise what the canal closure and the new supertankers for the ‘round the Cape’ route would do to the shipbuilding industry, making the size of ships expand fifty-fold, into inflated versions of the graceless Eaglescliffe Hall, and putting the British shipbuilding industry in hazard. And none of us could foresee that, 38 years later, there wouldn’t be a single shipyard between Dover and Wick.

My uncle retired in 1970, and the firm which bought the dockyard closed down the shipbuilding part, just before the market for oil-rig tenders – precisely the sort of ship Grangemouth was good at – soared. The repair yard continued for a few years, but that, too, went in the late Seventies. Six years after the launch of the Eaglescliffe Hall, the blood-brother of the man who scrapped the Charlotte Dundas closed the Forth and Clyde Canal to build a new road across it without the expense of a lifting bridge. Almost immediately, the boom in leisure sailing began. (Some time around the end of the century the canal will be reopened, at great expense.) The Scots had somehow managed to balls up both industry and heritage.

Grangemouth Dockyard, the catalogues of Burmeister and Wain and the Motor Ship returned to mind when, researching the history of North Sea oil, I spent much of my time, troglodytic, in the cellar of the university library in Tübingen, working my way through back numbers of the Economist and the Financial Times, and various hefty monographs – usually in German – on offshore technology, rigs, pipelines, platforms. I was recovering a technological story which didn’t seem to have impinged on my (or most of my friends’) consciousness in the Seventies: the sense that off-shore oil brought about an industrial revolution as important in its way as those associated with cotton, railways or cars.

One aspect of the oil story was straightforward and not encouraging. Oil bankrolled Mrs Thatcher until 1987, allowed the pound to be pushed up to crazy levels in 1979-81, and thus destroyed a fifth of British manufacturing. The rapidity of its exploitation was made possible by the risks construction workers and divers were forced into taking by the ‘political economy of speed’, but the technological results were in many ways even more subversive of traditional industry. Take ‘positioning’: by combining satellite directions with the computerised control of electrical propellers on an oil-rig, or a supply vessel, you can keep the rig or the boat in position to within a few square centimetres. Which is (in terms of ocean exploitation) like inventing the wheel. And positioning was only one innovation: fibre-optic cable made it possible for robot submarines to replace divers, or for ‘intelligent pigs’ to travel along, check and repair pipelines. Oil – employing at most perhaps 80,000 people – still consumes 25 per cent of UK industrial investment. It has become the prototype of the manufacturing of the future, in which the fully-automated factory – dispensing with lighting, heating, canteens, lavatories, car-parks – becomes the industrialised West’s response to the low-wage ‘little tiger’ economies. Much of the hardware for this, ironically, comes from Scotland’s parallel industrial revolution: microprocessors from Silicon Glen.

The human consequences of North Sea oil were mainly negative: the closure of most labour-based heavy industry, the internationalisation of control of the Scots economy and the creation of a displaced society in which few of the traditional myths – Red Clydeside on one hand and John Buchanite Tory collectivism on the other – have still got any clout.

Piecing together a history in which one has been involved, one tends to isolate symbols or epiphanies which offer metaphors of change: Yeats’s ‘monstrous familiar images’. Another vignette. A party given in 1968 by members of Edinburgh University’s infant politics department on a June night in a garden at Duddingston, under the crag of Arthur’s Seat. (I later found out that the garden belonged to the widow of Scotland’s first Freudian psychoanalyst and father of Nicholas Fairbaim MP.) Various academics, actors, politicians – Labour and Nationalist – were there: Godfrey Quigley, playing Captain Boyle at the Lyceum. Laurence Daly of the Miners’ Union, John Mackintosh MP, Robin Cook. The Hamilton by-election had taken place six months before, and the advent of the SNP had kicked Scottish politics into life. It was a talking rather than a dancing party, and the politics themselves seemed intoxicating enough. Around two we processed through the bright garden, like Yeats’s Duchess of Urbino and her courtiers talking ‘The stately midnight through, until they stood / At their great window, looking at the dawn.’

Perhaps it was not so much Yeats as Fellini’s Dolce Vita. A cocky neo-Enlightenment hedonism persuaded us for a decade that we were an élite. (Rereading the first edition of my book Scotland and Nationalism on this subject is like chewing silver paper.) Oil seemed likely to bankroll independence, and did bankroll conference after conference on us, from Helsinki to Cornell, until on 1 March 1979 the electorate lost interest, inducing a hangover of almost terminal proportions. The only criterion for an élite is success, and we got relegated. Some of the Duddingston celebrants left the country, took to drink, died, got out of politics. But others satisfactorily compounded with that world of financial services and consultancies which floated on the oil. At best we were Matthew Arnolds’s ‘remnant’. Class counted.

In retrospect, this episode recalled the subterranean Institute in Alasdair Gray’s Lanark, where the delegates to an interminable conference spectate on the external world via an immense camera obscura. Gray probably stole this contraption from the Edinburgh Outlook Tower of his hero Sir Patrick Geddes, the pioneer sociologist and town-planner. He uses it to create an image not of engagement but of alienation; the Institute’s élite is literally predatory on losers deemed to have lost all human qualities. Yet if ‘all history is intellectual history,’ as Joe Lee, the doyen of peripheral historians like me, writes, then sorting out the implications of industrial change means coining new paradigms. Another Gray image – ‘If a city hasn’t been used by an artist, not even its inhabitants live there imaginatively’ – is a particularly handy paradigm, directly relevant to the oil. This interpretative lacuna accounts not just for Mrs Thatcher’s amnesia about the income which sustained the first seven years of her administration, but the fact that Ben Pimlott, Philip Ziegler and Austen Morgan, three heavyweight biographers of Harold Wilson, under whose premiership the petroleum exploitation and taxation regime was set up, fail to mention it.

In Scotland, up until the Eighties, we had contrived an equally toxic sort of alienation: a constitutionalism that bypassed industry. It’s thanks to the imaginative ferment of the place since then that the economic basis of the story – Scotland’s shift from imperial partner into internal colony – has re-emerged. Not reassuringly; as the novelist Alan Sharp put it, ‘the truth will make you free, but first it will make you fucking miserable.’ We had aped the first Enlightenment by producing a mobile and loquacious class of literati and pushing around a patient working class. Devolution in 1979 might only have been fun for some; although it would at least have put Thatcher off her stride. But the bitter wisdom of the Eighties seems to have forced the realisation that you can’t master the economic situation without a public dialogue about technology, society and their organisation. This draws the country alongside contemporary Europe and away from the South: compare the business and cultural sections of the Herald, the Scotsman and Scotland on Sunday, and their Sachlichkeit – articles which deal with ‘real’ industry and technology – with the surface quality of the same themes in the ‘quality’ metropolitan press.

There are caveats, of course. Where the culture of the skilled working class had once been is an anomic, unknown Scotland whose grim council-house settlements (Wilsontown, Legbrannock, Newarthill), bereft of their founding mines or factories, sprawl across the central belt from Dalmellington to Tranent. The drug-slugged no-go areas of Irvine Welsh’s Edinburgh make East Berlin look like Shangri-La. But I’m leery about the single working-class past: the Scottish working and middle class were always linked by religion and politics – the Calvinist Godly Commonwealth, Catholic socialism, the promotion mechanisms of the ‘empowered people’ – and by an unruly Kynd Kittock’s Land of howffs and good cracks captured in Hugh MacDiarmid’s ‘Drunk Man’ and kept up by the late great John Smith in the saloon of the Night Scotsman. A middle class which in the South went Thatcherite and cocooned itself in a Sunday Times lifestyle tended in Scotland to stay Labour or Nationalist, and have a lot more fun.

Not just that, the political community has expanded. Voluntary bodies had always been thick on the ground, but Winnie Ewing and Margo MacDonald were portents. Cross-class co-operation has enabled the industrial strength of women to catch up with their traditional role in keeping Scottish society together. A mass of pressure groups agitate for children’s rights, single parents, rational transport, and they have in turn energised other political organisations.

No way is all this a success story. Wrangling between the home rule parties, and even the resistance to the poll tax – which meant that thousands of voters fell off the register – helped the Tories to cling onto their seats at the last election. Yet something has changed. In Scotland, the chimeras of British power dispersed in the Eighties. The essentially republican nature of the country now foregrounds structural and economic problems. Which makes it possible for Scots to do two things: to appraise industrial possibilities rationally, and to talk to Europe.

Back to cars and cuckoo clocks. Industrial modernisation seems likely in Baden-Würtemberg to parallel the evolution of the oil business, towards more or less full automation. All the possible solutions to the resulting employment problem are social ones as much as industrial ones: civil society needs to be developed through the partnership of state and community, in ways which will draw on combinations of energy conservation, the information revolution and continuing education. In this, Scotland’s recovery of its history and identity, and the fact that despite the foregoing hard knocks, society and politics remain so enjoyable, can be cited as precedents. Useful, at any rate, in persuading the Baden-Württemberg Colloquium that there is life after the car, and for that matter, after the cuckoo clock.

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