The nationalist interpretation of Scottish history.

Author:McClymont, Gregg

The Invisible Spirit: A Life of Post-War Scotland 1945-75

Kenneth Roy

ICS, 2013

For social democrats, the post-war years are usually seen as halcyon days. Across the Western world, including the United Kingdom, societies became healthier, wealthier and more equal. Inequalities were compressed as the dynamism of industrial capitalism was harnessed by the state--both national and local--and by strong trade unions, in the interests of the many not the few. Political parties, while never enjoying a golden age of public approbation, enjoyed mass memberships. Voter turnout was high. Trust in 'official' institutions and in the good intentions of public servants was maintained, although here too there was never a golden age. Political and social democracy co-existed for the first time. The Attlee Government's promise of a revolution in social security and health-care won it first the votes and then the loyalty of a substantial urbanised and unionised working class employed in an economy characterised by the regionally concentrated heavy industries that had suffered such brutal punishment during the inter-war period. 'Never Again' was the folk memory of the hungry 1930s, to which in the post-war period the working classes and sections of the middle classes subscribed.

The swing back towards the Conservative Party that gathered pace across the 1950s was originally a middle class revolt against the 'austerity' imposed by the compression of inequalities across UK society. It did not seriously threaten social democracy; rather, the Conservatives added the distinctive and popular attractions of the consumer society to the social democratic foundations Labour had established. Governments--Labour and Conservative--proceeded on a consensual basis until the worldwide institutional breakdown of Keynesian social democracy during the 1970s, under the combined pressures of the oil price shock, stagflation and the associated issues of wage inflation outstripping price inflation.

Kenneth Roy's history of Scotland from the end of the war to the first drop of 'Scotland's oil' in 1975 eschews this (mostly) positive story. A BBC Scotland reporter and anchorman turned journalist and literary entrepreneur (founder and editor of Scottish Review), Roy's assessment of social-democratic Scotland is in fact deeply negative: 'it would be futile to pretend that it [this book] describes a prosperous and well-governed people' (p. 516). His theme is Scotland 'betrayed' by its establishment. 'No Gods and Precious Few Heroes' would be an appropriate alternative title (1). The negative tone is leavened only occasionally by the humour which I remember as a feature of Roy's Scottish newspapers columns. (As a Glaswegian I especially enjoyed: 'The city magistrates deplored the effect of each new outrage on "the good name of Glasgow", an overworked phrase which made a large assumption about Glasgow's name' (p. 332)).

The judiciary is too quick to send capital murder defendants to the gallows and guilty of hypocritically protecting its own, while presiding over avoidable miscarriages of justice (pp. 325-32). The teaching establishment appear as belt-happy, rote-teaching disciplinarians (pp. 203-4, 239, 263-6, 319-21, 513). Industrialists are often dissolute, dogmatic and too quick to blame the workforce rather than themselves for economic failure (pp. 241, 268, 272-5, 338, 341-4, 346). Civil servants are on occasion corrupt and generally out of touch with Scottish aspirations (pp. 471-80). The media (in practice for Roy the Glasgow Herald and the BBC) are complacent, out of touch, and at times craven to the powerful (pp. 48, 212-3, 345-6, 507-8). The Kirk is hypocritical, authoritarian, and a net contributor through its Presbyterianism to the miseries of mankind (pp. 130, 181, 512, 277-8, 288, 317). Politicians are generally of low quality--self-interested, short sighted, and 'pygmies' (pp. 269, 357-60, 378-80, 401, 443, 513).

Roy's post-war Scotland is in the grip of a malaise, one which he explains in nationalist terms, as a crisis of self-confidence brought on by the union's weakening of Scottish identity: 'The Britishing of the Scots did not wholly quash a national yearning for something better or, at any rate, different' (p. 514). The book's title The Invisible Spirit is to be understood in this context: as a reference both to the frustrating absence of Scottish national feeling in the post-war period and to the causal relationship between a measure of self-government and a reinvigoration of Scotland's distinctive culture, economy and society (p. 505; see also pp. 63, 93, 170, 267-8 279, 355-6, 376). Home Rule (as well as the decline of Puritanism and the end of deference) ensures Roy has a much sunnier view of the 'post-post-war era' than one might expect from an author hostile to Thatcherism (evident for example in his attitude to the Toothill report on the Scottish economy, pp. 272-5).

Class or nation?

The story of the National Covenant dominates Roy's political history. Brainchild of one of the book's few heroes, John MacCormick (Tom Johnston and John Boyd Orr are others), the Covenant was a declaration in favour of a devolved Scottish...

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