‘My only country /is six feet high,’ Norman MacCaig wrote in 1973; ‘and whether I love it or not/I’ll die/for its independence.’ This sort of muscular individualism, teetering on the edge of satire, is now unfashionable in MacCaig’s country. Scotland styles itself instead as a place of co-operation and the commonweal. It is afflicted by the same soaring levels of poverty and workplace exploitation as the rest of the UK, but devolution has enabled the Scottish government, controlled by the SNP with the co-operation of the Scottish Greens, to try and compensate with the highest top rate of income tax in the UK: 47 per cent for those earning more than £125,140 and 42 per cent for anything over £43,663. This is supposed to help fund the expansion – or at least slow the contraction – of the devolved social state, to which a new range of social security benefits, a national investment bank and plans for a national care service have recently been added. To protect tenants from their landlords, the Scottish government is planning to implement a system of rent controls in 2025.
All this is worthwhile in principle, but that doesn’t mean it is free from political calculation. As one disgruntled Labour MSP, George Foulkes, complained during the vigorous early days of the SNP’s first government, they are ‘doing it deliberately’. These are state-building manoeuvres, designed to establish the credibility and groundwork for a transition to independence, carried out by two pro-independence parties locked in constitutional combat with the UK government. The intention is also to display and substantiate the collectivist, left-leaning ‘Scottish values’ which have been the rhetorical basis of Scottish nationalism since the 1980s.
The association between Scottish identity and the left isn’t new. In 1924, the Independent Labour Party MP James Maxton spoke of turning ‘the English-ridden, capitalist-ridden, landlord-ridden Scotland into a Scottish socialist commonwealth’. In 1968, Tom Nairn criticised the ‘common myth of Scottish left-ness’, arguing that although Scotland was ‘certainly a more egalitarian country than England’, its ‘gritty sense of equality derives from the old theocracy, not from Jacobinism or Bolshevism … the democracy of souls before the Almighty, rather than an explosive, popular effort to do anything.’ The problem was that in the years between Maxton and Nairn, the most commanding Scottish electoral performance was by a right-wing alliance of the Unionist Party – in Scotland the Conservative and Unionist Party was known as the Unionist Party until 1965 – and the National Liberal Party. Together they claimed 50 per cent of the vote in 1955.
It wasn’t until the 1980s that Labour found the confidence to claim that Scotland was theirs, and that the Conservatives at Westminster had ‘no mandate’. As Gerry Hassan and Eric Shaw argued in The Strange Death of Labour Scotland (2012), ‘Labour Scotland’ was always something of a myth, inflated by the first-past-the-post electoral system. Labour never won a majority of Scottish votes, though it came very close in 1966 and dominated in terms of seats until 2015. Labour’s supposed ideological pre-eminence got tangled up with the case for a Scottish Parliament, which was increasingly presented by Labour and others as not only a means of reversing deindustrialisation and reducing unemployment, but of doing so as an expression of Scotland’s authentic left-wing soul. It was assumed that a self-governing Scotland would lurch to the left, perhaps radically so.
Over the first two decades of the Scottish Parliament, this assumption has been frustrated. Writing in 2004, five years into devolution, the historian Richard Finlay noted that ‘for all the talk of Scotland being more radical than England and of the nation being predisposed towards left-of-centre redistributive policies, these characteristics have not really manifested themselves in any meaningful way.’ Some genuine policy differentiation has emerged, in the form of free universal services such as university tuition, prescriptions, period products and bus travel for young and old. But there has been little direct confrontation with the middle classes who also benefit from these things.
Since the Greens joined the SNP in government in 2021, however, things do seem to have shifted further left. Humza Yousaf, who replaced Nicola Sturgeon as SNP leader and first minister in March, has so far consolidated this position, hiking taxes on second homes, talking up further taxation on the rich and pledging not to implement the UK government’s new restrictions on public sector strikes (as health minister, Yousaf, like his English counterpart, claimed that junior doctors’ demands were ‘unaffordable’, though he did manage to reach an agreement with Scottish nurses). For those still dissatisfied, the two pro-independence parties have an easy answer: it will take full independence to release Scotland’s true self, lighting a ‘progressive beacon’ (a favourite phrase of Sturgeon’s predecessor Alex Salmond in his pomp) for the world to follow.
But sceptics and worriers across the political spectrum still suspect that darker energies lurk beneath the left-wing sheen; that independence will release something else that has been biding its time. Salmond spoke of a ‘Celtic Tiger’ Scotland, nuzzling up to global capital, and many on the left are still wary of the SNP’s eagerness to impress big business – and of the public’s repeated electoral approval of this model. Others fret about the old religious inheritance. Yousaf narrowly won the SNP leadership against Sturgeon’s former finance secretary Kate Forbes, a member of the fundamentalist Free Church of Scotland, who emerged from the contest as the backbench standard-bearer of the social and fiscal conservatism that still lurks within her party and in the Scottish media.Perhaps the SNP really is ‘doing it deliberately’, and taking the left for a ride.
Explanations for the Unionist Party’s success in 1955 have found ways of making it consistent with an otherwise collectivist national soul. Historians have argued that Scotland was sociologically hostile to the right as a result of its large industrial working class, so right-wing success had to be a matter of ideology. Unionism benefited from Protestantism and imperial pride, but also from its careful articulation of Scottish identity, which has been described by Graeme Morton as ‘unionist-nationalism’. As secularisation and decolonisation stripped things back to the sociological basics, the story goes, Scotland settled into a comfortable centre-left consensus.
There is a paradox here, because Scotland’s sociology has not been static. Politics across Britain were transformed in the decades after the war by growing social and geographical mobility; old class and community-based solidarities were replaced by the more atomised, consumerist lifestyles Raymond Williams called ‘mobile privatisation’. That this benefited the SNP rather than the Conservatives has been accounted for in various ways: the improving organisational capacity of the SNP during the 1960s; the discovery of North Sea oil; or David McCrone and Steven Kendrick’s elegant theory, which emphasises the role of television in a distinctly Scottish news media, producing a ‘Scottish frame of reference’ for contentious state planning decisions that could be exploited by the SNP.
The story of the right’s decline in Scotland is also the story of the SNP’s rise. If the SNP was the natural beneficiary of deep, structural changes, then its success had a certain inevitability. From inevitability flows confidence, not just about the party’s success, but also about the success of its ultimate goal. This account has, in a strange way, also underpinned Labour’s thinking. Labour has traditionally drawn confidence from the idea that Scotland is fundamentally anti-Tory, but this historic sense of entitlement has been haunted by a tribal bitterness about the SNP, which always threatened – and eventually managed – to steal the country from under Labour’s nose. Labour is excused from confronting and embracing Scottish identity by this perceived structural betrayal. Scotland abandoned Labour, and all the party can do is wait tragically in the wings for it to come to its senses.
But what if things weren’t quite so inevitable? Malcolm Petrie, in Politics and the People: Scotland 1945-79, challenges much of the received wisdom about an era – after the war, before Thatcher – that is gradually fading from collective memory. He does this by focusing on political culture itself, rather than the great tectonic plates of economics, technology and social structure which have usually undergirded the narrative. This aligns his approach with what is known as the ‘new political history’, a historiographical tendency that has made great strides in England since the 1980s but is still finding its feet north of the border. The Scots have a reputation for fatalism, after all, and the new political history questions deterministic readings of politics rooted in social and economic change.
Petrie’s first book, Popular Politics and Political Culture: Urban Scotland, 1918-39, took this approach to explain the decline of Scotland’s interwar radicalism, now immortalised in the mythology of Red Clydeside. Despite a grotesque imperial war, a general strike and a depression, the radical left ended those two decades less powerful than it started them. Petrie showed how the expansion of the suffrage in 1918 produced a new style of popular politics: less localised and class-based, and therefore less direct and disruptive; more distant, parliamentary and deferential, as electoralism recomposed the people in its image. Labour’s appeal to the nation overpowered the class conflict and moral preaching of the Communists and the Independent Labour Party, whose extra-parliamentary militancy could be portrayed as increasingly illegitimate in an expanding, pacified democracy.
Scottish nationalism was largely absent from this account: the SNP barely existed, and the nationalist symbolism deployed by Scottish radicals seemed insignificant once Labour got close to Britain’s levers of power. Politics and the People, however, moves on to explore the collapse of popular faith in the expanding state. This is not a case of radicalism returning to the scene – nor even, at first, of Scottish nationalism’s arrival. Instead, Petrie begins his account with a striking analysis of Unionism’s postwar success.
In doing this, he restores to the scene the question of individual liberty – that country to which MacCaig declared his allegiance in 1973. Individualism was not, Petrie reminds us, some malign Thatcherite concoction or a fungus of the flourishing suburbs; it pre-dated the big state and survived in its shadow. This is not a uniquely Scottish story, and one of Petrie’s goals is to illuminate Scotland’s place in a British set of developments: with the wartime coalition sundered, Conservatives across Britain returned to their 1920s portrayal of Labour rule as a step towards communist tyranny. Petrie questions accounts that have the Tories learning from Labour’s victory in 1945 and embracing greater interventionism: individual freedom remained central to the party’s appeal well into the 1950s. This wasn’t simply a right-wing pitch. However cynically, Unionist politicians went so far as to argue that state monopolies would inhibit the right to strike. The central purpose of such appeals was the construction of an ‘anti-socialist coalition’ between Unionists and the National Liberals, capable of beating back the Labour leviathan.
The same deal was made in England, but there the Conservatives were the senior partner; in Scotland, liberalism was far more powerful, especially in rural areas like the north-east, the south-west and the Highlands. This ensured that in Scotland in particular, ‘National Liberalism infused Unionism with the traces of an ideological tradition that had long claimed to be the guardian of individual liberty,’ allowing Unionists to ‘tap a liberal language of freedom’. Unionism’s success was not simply a right-wing form of collectivism, with the group identities of religion and empire standing in for class and democracy; it also drew on Scotland’s distinctive heritage of democratic and often radical individualism, wary of metropolitan tyranny and suspicious of socialism’s helping hand.
Petrie’s work recovers not just Scottish individualism, but a whole political lifeworld that is vanishing between the country’s mythic poles of Highland clearances and urban collectivism. He focuses intelligently on the way politicians sold themselves to the public in ‘those regions where the SNP would experience the greatest electoral success during the 1970s: Perthshire, Stirlingshire, and the rural north-east and south-west of Scotland’. These were Conservative and Liberal strongholds, and their drift to the SNP reveals something about Scotland very different from what is suggested by the SNP’s recent urban landslides.
The ‘anti-socialist coalition’ thrived in these forgotten zones, but it also made an appeal to the patriotism of the whole nation. Winston Churchill, speaking in Edinburgh in 1950, declared that ‘if England became an absolute socialist state … ruled only by politicians and their officials in the London offices’, it should not mean that ‘Scotland necessarily would be bound to accept such a dispensation’; there would instead be a ‘searching review’ of ‘historical relations’ between the two countries. Unionism sought to present socialism as a threat to both individual liberty and national dignity, with Scotland’s distinctiveness threatened by London planners. Yet this, Petrie notes, sat uneasily alongside unionists’ resistance to any kind of legislative devolution for Scotland. They sought to resolve this problem by claiming that the problem was the growth of the state, not the nature of the constitution, and that Home Rule of any kind would only entrench the new bureaucratic threat.
While such appeals helped the right reclaim and hold power throughout the 1950s, Petrie suggests that they also stored up problems. Anti-socialist paranoia about central government tyranny was harder to sustain under a Conservative government that actually had to govern an expanded central state. In office, the Conservatives came under pressure from voters frustrated by taxes, trade union power and inflation, and their fellow anti-socialists spotted an opportunity to break cover: the Liberals, regaining confidence, began running more of their own candidates in the late 1950s. Jo Grimond, the Liberal MP for Orkney and Shetland, became party leader in 1956, and took the Conservatives to task for ‘conserving socialism’ rather than offering something ‘different in kind from a socialist government’.
In the 1959 general election, the fragmentation of the anti-socialist bloc contributed to an electoral divergence between Scotland and England that has since come to define tensions between the two. While the Conservatives gained seats across the UK, they fell behind Labour in Scotland. The party responded by coming to terms – at least on the surface – with the big, modern state, differentiating between good and bad forms of planning. Petrie notes that this was an over-reaction to a fairly sturdy electoral performance, in which its losses were more to do with small fluctuations in particular seats and the return of an independent Liberal Party, rather than the growing appeal of the left. But after losing almost a fifth of its vote in 1964, the party entered a more profound identity crisis, fearing that it had become stuffy, elitist and out of touch with an increasingly urban society. The desire to associate itself with UK-wide ‘modernisation’ as a solution to economic problems led the party to rebrand itself in 1965 as the Conservative and Unionist Party (the name it already had in England). All of this, Petrie suggests, ‘jarred with the more nuanced bases of the party’s support in Scotland’, and it suffered further losses in 1966.
By the late 1960s, there was undoubtedly room for a party which sought to negotiate rather than reject Britain’s modernisation, and which pitched individual freedom against the ‘remote control’ of the Westminster establishment. This was the case across the UK, but it took different forms in different places. Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech was central to the populist turn against a supposedly out-of-touch political elite in England. In Scotland, Petrie suggests, a similar sense of frustration benefited the SNP.
In 1961, Magnus Magnusson had given Scotsman readers a portrait of the ‘World of Scotnattery’. Scottish nationalism, he noticed, was becoming strongest ‘out in the country, in the towns and burghs, in places where there is still sufficient sense of a common culture and a common tradition to make it a meaningful proposition’. The SNP’s breakthrough came in 1967, with Winnie Ewing’s by-election triumph in the safe Labour seat of Hamilton, south of Glasgow, but its appeal had been growing in these quieter places throughout the decade. A new generation of nationalists was attempting to inject some urban social democracy into the SNP’s programme, but the party’s agenda had since its foundation in 1934 been ‘rooted in … individualism and distrust of bureaucracy’. It was officially opposed to ‘state socialism’, ‘nationalisation’ and ‘irresponsible bureaucracy’; even advocates of a more centre-left approach, like William Wolfe, who became party leader in 1969, dreamed of a nation based on ‘self-effort, not dependence on charity or on being able to provide cheap “peasant” labour’. Petrie notes that Radio Free Scotland, the famous pirate radio station run throughout the 1960s by Gordon Wilson, Wolfe’s successor as party leader, hinted at ‘an equivalence between the situation in Scotland and the position prevailing in the communist states of Eastern Europe’.
Petrie is not saying that the SNP simply stole unionism’s clothes. All parties were tailoring their appeal to the same political culture, which was being transformed by the pressures of rapid modernisation and the expansion of the state, and set on edge by the Cold War. Postwar Scots were not outside the fray, stuck watching party political broadcasts on their new televisions; many were grabbing hold of the new world and trying to keep it from getting away. Petrie cites a study of SNP local election candidates by the Glasgow Herald in 1968, which found that the ‘typical candidate was a man in early middle age, standing in the area in which he had been born, and who was either a small business owner or shopkeeper, or otherwise a skilled tradesman who was not a member of a trade union’. The SNP was a ‘party for the little man’, the Herald concluded, ‘neither a working-class socialist nor a wealthy Tory’, and thus ‘disenfranchised by the major party machines’. In largely rural areas it was the more established Liberals who tapped into these frustrations. But much of Scotland was balanced far more delicately between town and country, and here the SNP, with its blend of novelty and tradition, was well poised to profit from discontent.
In 1973, the left-wing nationalist Margo MacDonald triumphed in the Govan by-election, refreshing the idea that an SNP challenge was possible in Labour’s industrial heartlands. But the party’s big steps forward came in the two general elections of 1974. In February the SNP won seven seats with 22 per cent of the national vote. In October, that rose to eleven seats with 30 per cent. While the party surged into second place in Labour seats across the country, most of its new MPs represented the old unionist heartlands that Petrie emphasises: places like Banffshire, Argyll, and Moray and Nairn, where church spires still claimed the skyline.
The SNP’s success in the early 1970s is often attributed to the discovery of oil in the North Sea, which was just beginning to come ashore. The ‘It’s Scotland’s Oil’ campaign promised to make voters ‘rich Scots’ rather than ‘poor Britons’. Petrie is not the first to suggest that this argument has been overstated, and indeed that the grasping materialism of the campaign’s message may have backfired; but he also provides a new perspective on two underappreciated factors, both of which reinforced the SNP’s ability to speak for the nation against central government.
The first was Britain’s entry into the European Economic Community. By the late 1960s, the SNP had begun to rethink its early support for European integration, focusing instead on the lack of Scottish representation with the slogan ‘No Voice, No Entry’. The party claimed that Scotland’s dissolution into both the UK and the EEC would threaten not only its economic distinctiveness, but ‘our national identity’, and would violate the Treaty of Union itself. Initially, membership for an independent Scotland was still seen as a possibility, but any nuance was soon squeezed out. The party’s long-standing opposition to the idea that ‘to be bigger is to be better’ was reinforced by E.F. Schumacher’s influential book Small Is Beautiful (1973), and the bureaucratic EEC was increasingly portrayed as anathema to the virtues of a pint-sized Scotland – especially in those small-town constituencies where the SNP’s appeal was strongest. By taking a firm stance against membership, the SNP could legitimately claim to be ‘the only major political party opposed to entry’, tapping into widespread discontent with the Westminster parties, which were internally divided on the question.
The second issue on which the SNP could distinguish itself was the radical overhaul of local government in the mid-1970s. In 1966, Labour had continued Conservative efforts at reform by appointing a royal commission chaired by Lord Wheatley to upgrade Scotland’s local authority structure, and its conclusions were drastic. It proposed a two-tier system of regions and districts to replace the existing guddle of boundaries, some of which – the royal burghs – dated back to the 12th century. The Wheatley reforms were implemented in 1975, and Scotland’s civic establishment, always in search of excuses for a heroic wail of defeat, puffed out its chest. ‘Loyal local tears were wept as loyal local places had their names wiped from the map,’ the Glasgow Herald claimed, yet the same newspaper welcomed the improved ‘efficiency’ and ‘relevance’ the reforms would bring.
The people living under and around these new lines on the map were more clearly opposed. The commission’s proposals cut and stitched together old identities with little sensitivity, focusing on urban centres and economic areas over established community ties. In his speech on becoming Glasgow University rector in 1972, the trade unionist and communist poster-boy Jimmy Reid connected his triumphant resistance to the closure of Upper Clyde Shipbuilders to this wider spirit of faceless rationalisation: ‘In a few years, when asked, “Where do you come from?” I can reply: “The Western Region” … where and how in your calculations did you quantify the value of a community? … Such human considerations do not feature in their thought process.’
Reid’s speech was popular enough to be reprinted in the New York Times, but with all reference to Scotland, including the commission’s reforms, left out. Nobody at Westminster seemed to be taking notice of the widespread local resentment caused by this ‘blueprint for bureaucracy, not democracy’. With Labour, Liberals and Conservatives all largely on the side of the former, the opportunity to dissent on Scotland’s behalf fell to the SNP. These ‘patterns of tradition and local identity’, the party wrote to the commission, were ‘closely woven into the fabric of our national spirit’. William Wolfe linked everything together, noting that ‘if Wheatley is bureaucracy writ small, the Common Market is bureaucracy writ large.’ Petrie suggests that ‘identifying a direct electoral dividend’ from this opposition is hard, but its importance lay in giving the SNP something tangible to illustrate its central case: Scotland’s distinctive interests were being neglected by a remote and uncaring British state, thus calling the utility of the Union into question; and only the SNP was speaking for Scotland against this increasingly alien political establishment. The reforms went ahead, though slightly softened. Reid’s ‘Western Region’ became Strathclyde, containing almost half of Scotland’s population, neatly illustrating one of the commission’s main flaws.
Labour’s response to the rise of the SNP was to put forward a modest scheme for legislative devolution, which prompted intense internal resistance. The party had already developed a mechanism for managing such disputes: holding a referendum to affirm the UK’s EEC membership in 1975 meant that Labour’s differences of opinion on the question could be rehearsed in the open while the public made up their minds. By 1979, James Callaghan had been forced to take the same approach as a means of handling proposals for Scottish and Welsh assemblies. While the Welsh version was decisively rejected at the ballot box, Scotland’s equivalent had a more ambiguous fate. The narrow majority of voters in favour fell short of the requirement, inserted by backbench rebels, that 40 per cent of the registered electorate had to endorse the assembly or the proposals would return to Parliament. While Labour squabbled, the SNP withdrew its support for Callaghan’s fragile government, which lost the subsequent vote of confidence. Margaret Thatcher surged into power with her own alternative to centralised bureaucracy.
Petrie argues that these two referendums implied a new relationship between politics and the people, not only formalising the new gulf between the two but reorganising political habits around it. In Scotland, the decision – after some government resistance – to publish the Scottish result in the EEC vote threatened to expose political differences within the UK, although Scotland voted the same way as England (the Union wasn’t so lucky with Brexit in 2016). The SNP had in fact envisioned a parliamentary road to independence until the 1960s, when referendums in overseas territories – Gibraltar especially – cast a rare spotlight on the notion of popular sovereignty. There were still plenty of sceptics – even Labour’s Donald Dewar, who would become Scotland’s first minister after the 1997 referendum, warned of ‘hopelessly confusing the respective roles of government and Dr Gallup’. Indeed, the most enthusiastic supporters of a referendum on Scottish devolution were its opponents, who wanted to use the popular vote as a ‘People’s Veto’ of Parliament’s schemes. The Scotsman was quick to note the irony that the MPs most fond of ‘the supremacy of Parliament’ were the ones undermining it.
Petrie suggests that this is precisely what happened. His new narrative of postwar Scottish politics is, in a sense, a tale of unintended consequences. Unionists developed a critique of central government as distant and remote, treading on the ‘little man’, only to find it used against them when they were in power. Conservative attempts to ‘modernise’ only added to the frustrations of the independent-minded voters they had once courted, and the SNP was able to exploit an elite consensus over Europe and local government reform to ‘speak for Scotland’ against the new bureaucracy. Efforts to resist devolution reinforced the growing sense that the people could exercise a direct, decision-making power outside of Parliament – even at the level of Scottish nationhood.
The real action happened in the 1980s, outside the scope of this book, when Thatcherism bedded in, the Campaign for a Scottish Assembly got going, the Proclaimers started releasing music and Labour finally made up its mind. But Politics and the People does include an important early moment in the story of devolution. In 1979, during a parliamentary debate over the Conservatives’ repeal of the 1978 Scotland Act, Bruce Millan, Labour’s new shadow secretary of state for Scotland, stood up in the Commons and declared that the Conservatives had ‘no majority in Scotland’, and ‘no particular mandate from the people of Scotland’. Here, finally, was the most consequential rhetorical shift of all.
It is an argument we hear a lot today, but not from Millan’s party. It has helped the SNP to overwhelm Labour, which now faces the unprecedented prospect of winning the next UK election without a Scottish mandate. It has become the central problem of the UK constitution, absorbing everything from Scottish independence and Brexit to gender recognition reform. But as Petrie shows us, it was not inevitable: the rhetoric of ‘no mandate’, with its implication of deep political differences, has its roots in the decades of political manoeuvring after the Second World War, in which people and Parliament drifted apart – and Scottish politicians of all stripes played dangerous games to bring them back together.
It is worth wondering who the next victim of unintended consequences may be. Sturgeon’s resignation as SNP leader has tipped the party into crisis, much of which concerns a police investigation into the party’s finances that has seen its treasurer, Colin Beattie, and its outgoing chief executive, Peter Murrell (who happens to be Sturgeon’s husband), arrested and then released without charge. Yet there is a deeper political problem facing Scottish nationalism. In absorbing so much of Labour’s urban vote, the SNP has finally tipped the scales of its own electoral interests away from those older, more rural places that were once home to so many of the party’s MPs. By seizing Labour’s heartlands, and then welcoming the Greens into government, the party has associated itself even further with an image of metropolitan collectivism which – as Scotland well knows – is liable to provoke outbursts of peripheral discontent. Green hostility to road-building and the government’s proposals for Highly Protected Marine Areas are beginning to disturb the party’s base, as fishing communities and car-dependent outlands, muttering about the ‘new clearances’, add their weight to decades of discontent with ‘central beltism’. This is not so much a left-right divide as a question of who – or where – gets to occupy the centre of the political imagination. The success of Scottish nationalism, and the new status of the Scottish Parliament, means that this question can now be asked of Scotland as well as Britain.
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