Britain began to lose, lose, lose, in competition with the rest of the world, especially with the newly industrialized nations of Asia. In efforts to protect their members, unions resisted any attempts at modernization. At British dockyards, attempts to introduce containers (rapidly being adopted by all other major industrial powers) led to vicious strikes that helped cripple the industry. In the shipyards, union practices led to senseless waste and inefficiency and eventually led to precipitous decline in Britain's foremost place in the world's shipbuilding industry.
The pattern was repeated in other industries. The once thriving cotton industries of Britain, the envy of the world, could not compete with those employing cheap labor in Southeast Asia and the loss of the colonies meant that supplies of cheap raw materials were no longer available. The newly emerging nations could make their own products from now on, thank you very much.
All these changes greatly affected Scotland. The country relied on too few industries which created havoc when the markets for coal, heavy engineering, steel and shipbuilding began to disappear. There was one ironic result of the British government's plans to rectify the situation. To compensate for job losses in the traditional heavy industries and to attract new industries north of the border, it was necessary to create a vibrant domestic economy.
In order to accomplish this, a social infrastructure was to be built up through a program of schools, hospitals, road and public housing construction. Full employment and prosperous markets would result. British state economic policy would result in Scottish economic well being, and this meant, of course, a massive investment in the construction of a state apparatus to bring about the proposed schemes.
Following a vast increase in government workers in Scotland, (the Scottish Office expanded from 2,400 pre-war civil servants to over 8,000 by 1970), the Balfour Report of 1953 recommended that the handling of government functions in Scotland be undertaken by the Scottish Office. A separate and distinctive arm of government was thus created which allowed the Scottish Secretary to wield even greater powers without direct account to the Scottish electorate. There was bound to be a reaction.
However, it was something else that forced the change that was again connected to the economy. In 1967, smoldering resentment began to burst into flame. The successful exploration and exploitation of the oil and gas deposits in the North Sea, off the Scottish coast, raised the question as to whom the economic benefits should belong. As usual, apart from the dubious benefits of the proliferation of fast food restaurants and U.S. style nightclubs in such cities as Aberdeen, all the advantages (especially the income derived from the sale of oil) seemed to be flowing south, to London.
Quite rightly, most Scots wanted more share for themselves and saw devolution as the only way to secure it. Thus, it came to pass that the days of political obscurity for the Scottish Nationalists were over. The SNP broke through with its astonishing victory over Labour at Hamilton, a "safe" Labour stronghold. Mrs. Ewing, a Scottish Nationalist who stated she wished to see her country seated at the U.N. between Saudi Arabia and Senegal was elected. More than one commentator has noted the youthful vigor of the SNP compared to the run-down Labour machine whose blinkered visions were confined to the social clubs or town councils attended by old and proud, but inflexible war veterans. Following Mrs. Ewing's success, the SNP received a massive influx of new members and seemed on the verge of capturing many other seats.
Alas, the victory caused premature celebrations; the successes were unsustainable. It was as if the party had peaked, for the 1970's saw no repeat of Hamilton. Yet, the warning bells had sounded in Westminster, and in 1968, at the party conference in Perth, Conservative leader Ted Heath announced his support of a Scottish Assembly. The astute politician realized that Scottish nationalism would continue to grow as a political force and that steps had to be taken to counteract it. Whatever his motives, Heath's statement, dubbed "The Declaration of Perth," however vaguely expressed, offered a ray of hope to the ever-patient school of nationalists. They could always refer back to a leading British politician's espousal of a Scottish Parliament.
The response of the Labour Party, in power at Westminster, was that Scottish nationalism was motivated purely by short-term economic difficulties that could be alleviated. Prime Minister Harold Wilson should have read his history books. Irish independence, for example, was not just motivated by economic hardships but by national pride, and it would be national pride that would eventually turn the tide in Scotland. But not yet. Wilson's appointment of a commission on the constitution in 1969 only wasted time; it was not designed to promulgate any action.
Prospects for the SNP in the General Election of 1970 looked excellent; the party contested 65 seats, the largest number to date. Alas, it lost Hamilton and gained only the Western Isles. The burst of enthusiasm that had so electrified Scotland's nationalists in the sixties seemed inexplicably spent. It wasn't. The huge problems facing Britain's leaders only got worse; spending public money to alleviate them did not work. The miner's strike of 1973 and the oil crises initiated by the Arab-Israeli conflict brought matters to a head, and Labour found itself back in power. In Scotland, the nationalists were able to take advantage of the turmoil to find their party once more a major force in Scottish politics.
The oil crisis turned the attention of the Scottish people back to the juicy prospect of becoming an independent nation that could draw on its own plentiful reserves of oil. In October 1973, the Kilbrandon Commission recommended that at a Scottish Assembly be set up. At the same time, the SNP quickly launched its almost irresistible campaign of "It's Scotland's Oil." This immeasurably helped to lay to rest the age old fears of so many that Scotland could not exist economically free from England.
Chapter 15: After the War, Steps towards Independence continued