DEEP ROOTS OF SCOTTISH NATIONALISM: A long record of responses to industrial decline

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30 Mar 2016

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The link between industrial closures in Scotland and campaigns for devolution or independence started a long time before Mrs Thatcher, according to research by Ewan Gibbs, to be presented at the Economic History Society’s 2016 annual conference in Cambridge.

His study shows that: 

  • Deindustrialisation was a long and drawn out affair in Scotland – not just a 1980s phenomena.

  • The coal miners’ union opposed centralisation and closures from the 1960s by mobilising a Scottish identity.

  • The miners ‘invented traditions’ such as the Scottish Miners’ Gala to make local traditions national and demanded a Scottish Parliament as far back as the 1940s.

  • Mining festivities were Unionist AND Nationalist.

 The author comments: 

‘Modern Scottish national identity and nationalism is not a simple outcome of the 1980s. There is a longer history of the sense of Scottishness that people have now developing through and from more protracted economic changes – and how the culture of industrial communities were given a national framework by labour movement politics in response to them.’

Gibbs notes that it is a cliché of recent Scottish history that there is a link between industrial closures and the call for a devolved Scottish Parliament and then independence. This was a powerful narrative during the 2015 independence referendum.

The set story usually refers to the impact of Thatcherism during the 1980s and 1990s through the community devastation brought by the closure of major workplaces such as the Ravenscraig steelworks and Linwood car factory, as well as the 1984-85 miners’ strike.

The new study demonstrates there is a much longer industrial history behind the emergence of a politicised Scottish national identity in the late twentieth century. Using government and trade union records, and interviews with former miners and their families, Gibbs’ research traces a much longer record of responses to decline.

After coal employment peaked in the mid-1950s, the restructuring of the industry through concentration of ‘super pits’ in the most productive coalfields, largely located in Yorkshire and the English Midlands, and increasingly centralised control within the nationalised industry, contributed towards mounting opposition to pit closures within Scotland.

The National Union of Mineworkers’ Scottish Area (NUMSA) created a national mining community from its establishment in the mid-1940s, by launching the Scottish Miners’ Gala in 1947. It was a deliberate effort to bring together differing, sometimes competing, local traditions in order to create a specifically Scottish-wide coalfield identity.

This annual event combined mining traditions including brass and pipe bands with political speeches. Between the 1940s and the 1980s, the Gala was addressed by leading labour movement personalities such as Tony Benn and international visitors, including delegates from North Vietnam in 1969 and the South African ANC in 1988.

From the late 1960s, NUMSA’s opposition to pit closures and centralisation in the Coal Board was expressed in support for a Scottish Parliament, especially by the NUM President and prominent communist, Mick McGahey.

Miners’ memories of the Gala recalled it as a major coalfield coming together for children and families. A large demonstration of suited men would file in behind their own pit’s banner, marking their community’s pride and independence, but also their part of a bigger and united collective. This had Nationalist and Unionist overtones through presenting NUMSA as a Scottish entity and part of a wider British movement.

The 1984 Gala stood out as a date when McGahey gave the main address, a rallying cry for unity during the miners’ strike. After the strike, the Gala fell into disrepair as the NUM coffers were bled dry and the industry shrank towards its eventual demise. But not before it had shaped politics and social life in Scotland.


Ewan Gibbs; 07754379242

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