Scotland after World War 2

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Post War Reconstruction: Scotland after World War 2

The end of the Second World War was a major turning point in the modern history of Scotland. With the fighting over, hopes were high that the country would play a leading role in the confident New Britain.

The post-war period brought a new spirit of optimism north of the border. Sons and husbands were returning from the fighting, a Labour government committed to social justice was in power, and there were promises that a managed economy would bring a better future for all.

The promises made by the government were brash and bold - but the reality was very different. For Scotland, the 1940s marked the beginning of a long economic slide which was to end in the industrial devastation and widespread misery of the Thatcher years.

When the war ended, Scots were still largely dependent on primary and heavy industries such as coal mining, shipbuilding and steel production. The government recognised that it would make sense to try and encourage new companies to come north of the border to try and create a broader spread of work and investment.

However, this grand scheme never really came to fruition, and a much-needed opportunity was wasted. This was a pity - Scotland's traditional industries were outdated and the problems which would turn the country into an industrial wasteland within a couple of generations were already beginning to build up in the background.

At the time, however, these things didn't matter, because the old industries were still doing well. In the aftermath of war, new ships needed to be built and Scotland's coal was required to supply the energy needed for production. The country's factories and shipyards also earned much-needed export currency, so they were left alone to make money.

Bold plans were also put in place to make urban Scotland a better place to live. The crowded tenements which had turned parts of cities like Glasgow into some of the worst slums in Europe were torn down and replaced by giant housing estates such as Easterhouse, Drumchapel and Castlemilk.

To begin with, people were enthusiastic about living in these new housing schemes, and demand for the homes they provided was heavy. It was only later that people started to realise how poorly planned they were. They had been built without pubs, shops or community centres on the edge of the cities, and were often badly served by public transport.

People quickly began to yearn for the neighbourliness and community spirit of the traditional tenement close. But it was too late to go back - huge areas such as Glasgow's Gorbals were laid waste in the rush to put people into "better" housing. It did not take long for the giant housing schemes to begin to run down and, in some cases, to turn into slums themselves.

Other public planning experiments fared somewhat better. Scotland's new towns - East Kilbride, Irvine, Glenrothes, Livingston and Cumbernauld - were planned in the post war period and are still regarded as great successes. They helped to provide new homes around the cities, gave people high quality living environments, and were some of the first places to attract the new jobs and investment which Scotland eventually came to desperately need.

As the 1950s progressed and the war started to slip from the memory, Scotland's major industries could no longer hide their problems. Competition from places like the Far East started to damage the competitiveness of the Clyde shipyards. The Lanarkshire coalfield had practically been mined out, and the steel plants were using equipment which was virtually obsolete.

Industrial relations often verged on the abysmal. Directors of companies refused to spend money investing in their plants, and their managers were often hopeless.

The workers, too, were stubborn: backed by powerful trade unions, they refused to consider flexible working practices and fought against the idea of a single man being made redundant. The seeds of the destruction of Scottish industry were being sewn, and both sides were doing the planting.

Successive governments - even Tory ones - became committed to a policy of nationalisation and centralisation. State takeover of industries meant that they became run from London, not Scotland, and the interest of Scots were not always put first.

One of the main problems was Scotland's distance from markets. Many light industrial companies refused to even consider locating north of the border, since it was too far away for them to serve their customers in the Midlands and south of England.

The Scottish unemployment rate edged up to the point where it was double that of England, and many factories survived only because they paid their workers low wages. The government realised something had to be done. If the free market could not provide the answer to Scotland's problems, it decided, than the state would.

The Conservative government twisted the arm of the steel conglomerate Colvilles to build a steel strip mill at Ravenscraig near Motherwell. The giant plant was needed for the service it could provide to other new Scottish industries by sending them high quality steel for manufacturing.

Ravenscraig was part of an integrated government plan to get major manufacturers to set up operations north of the border. The British Motor Corporation, or BMC for short, was persuaded to build a tractor and lorry factory in a development area at Bathgate in West Lothian.

On the other side of the country, the car manufacturer Rootes was cajoled into building a plant at Linwood, near Glasgow, for the production of its new Hillman Imp. The company had been refused permission to develop at its plant in England, and the government was only too happy to hand out a large grant to persuade the company to come north.

The decision to bring Rootes to Linwood was taken in 1960. It took three years, and tens of millions of pounds, to build the facility. However, the plant was dogged with problems from the start.

Virtually none of the workers had ever built a car before - they were used to working in the shipyards and in heavy engineering plants. The factory was also only used as a glorified assembly line, with parts being bolted together. It was hardly the cutting edge of technology.

As jobs were being created at the car plants, they were still being lost on the Clyde. Shipyard after shipyard shut down because they simply could not compete against foreign yards.

The coal mining industry, too, was in serious trouble. The mines had been nationalised, but the Scottish pits were becoming far too expensive to work and could not compete with the cheaper production which was possible from English mines. They, too, began to close.

There were some successes - it was a time of great pride, for instance, when the liner Queen Elizabeth II was launched in 1967 from John Browns in Clydebank. But she was to be the last of a long line of Queens coming from the Clyde shipyards. It was the end of an era.

Efforts were made to maintain and develop Scotland's transport system to help its economic competitiveness. The formation of the Highlands and Islands Development Board in 1965 helped provide a boost to an area which desperately needed help, and the completion of the Forth Road Bridge in 1964 finally opened up Fife and beyond for road traffic.

None of it, however, was enough. Slowly but inexorably, Scotland was sinking deeper and deeper into an economic quagmire. Frustration with London rule was on the rise again. It would not be long before the nationalist dam would break - and this time, it would not be turned back.

Meanwhile...

  • 1964 Martin Luther King is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize
  • 1964 Cassius Clay wins the World Heavyweight Boxing Championship
  • 1964 Race riots in Harlem in New York
  • 1964 The Queen opens the Forth Road Bridge

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