The Industrial Clearances and the Death of Labour

Remains of Barony colliery, Ayrshire.

Remains of Barony colliery, Ayrshire. RCAHMS

Alistair Livingston

Commenting on the rise to power of Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew Louis as Emperor of France in 1851, Karl Marx quipped ‘Hegel remarks somewhere that all great, world-historical facts and personages occur, as it were, twice. He has forgotten to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.’ In our dis-United Kingdom, we appear to be witnessing a similar repetition of history.

1. The Irish Question.

In 1801, the United Kingdom of Great Britain became the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. In 1880 this Union was threatened by the election of 63 Irish ‘separatist’ MPs led by James Stewart Parnell. In the 1885 election, Parnell’s Irish Parliamentary Party won 85 seats out of 101, mostly at the expense of the Liberal party.. In 1886 Liberal prime minister William Ewart Gladstone proposed to give Ireland Home Rule. Gladstone’s move was defeated in the House of Commons and the Liberal party proceeded to tear itself apart over the ‘Irish Question’.

Parnell’s success in Ireland had been helped by the Third Reform Act of 1884 which extended the right to vote to 1 in 2 adult males in Ireland. In England 2 out of 3 adult males now had the vote and in Scotland 3 out of 5. The 1884 Reform Act laid the foundations for the growth of the Labour party. Even before then, the first working class Members of Parliament were Alexander MacDonald and Thomas Burt of the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain. MacDonald and Burt were elected in 1874 via ‘Labour-Liberal’ pacts where local Liberal party associations supported trades union financed candidates. Twelve ‘Lib-Lab’ MPs were elected in 1884 before the arrangement broke down leading to the formation of the Independent Labour Party in 1892. In 1906 the ILP formed an alliance with the new Labour party which was established in 1900.

Today, just as the Irish Question once tore the Liberal party apart, it is the Scottish Question which is tearing the Labour party apart. As it turned out, the loss of most of Ireland did not break up the United Kingdom which simply re-branded itself as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in 1922. However, as responses to last year’s referendum and this year’s general election reveal, the potential loss of Scotland is cracking the foundations of the UK to their core. It took a huge effort in September to paper over the cracks in the Union with a string of promises guaranteed by former Labour prime minister Gordon Brown. It now seems that the Labour party in Scotland sacrificed itself on the altar of the Union in vain. If the Labour vote in Scotland does collapse in May, the UK may finally be broken beyond repair.

While there is an element of farce in Labour’s attempts to avoid a dangerous liaison with the SNP after the general election, there is also a tragic aspect to these unfolding events. To understand the depth of this tragedy we must go back 100 years to when Scotland was the workshop of the world.

2. Class Struggle and the Rise of Labour.

In 1913 Scotland produced 43.2 million tonnes of coal and 140 000 people or 10% of the Scottish population were employed in the industry. In the same year, Scotland produced 1.3 million tons of pig iron and 1.4 million tons of steel. On the Clyde, 756 973 tons of shipping were launched equal to 1/3 of UK production and 18% of world wide production. The foundations for the growth of Scotland’s heavy engineering industries had been laid 85 years earlier when James Neilson, manager of the Glasgow Gasworks, discovered that heating the air blasted into iron furnaces dramatically increased their efficiency. This cut the cost of Scottish iron, leading to a rapid growth of the industry in Lanarkshire and Ayrshire.

To feed the new furnaces, new ironstone and coal mines were opened, linked to the furnaces by a network of industrial railways. Many of the new mines were in rural locations, forcing the ironmaster s to provide accommodation for the mineworkers. Across the fields of Lanarkshire and Ayrshire long ‘raws’ of single rooms were built as quickly and cheaply as possible. Here the miners, their families and their lodgers were forced to live. By 1913 conditions the raws had become appalling and a Royal Commission on Housing (Scotland) was established . In Ayrshire, Thomas McKerrell and James Brown of the Ayrshire Miners’ Union submitted evidence to the Royal Commission. This is an extract from their report.

Common Row, Lugar, Auchinleck parish
This row consists of 96 houses built together in a long line without an opening. The houses are built of stone, and the rent is 7s per month. The population of the row was 506. There is not a single washing-house for all this population. The ashpits, the closets, and coalhouses are all built together and placed only five yards from the doors of the houses. There are 17 closets for the whole row. They have no doors, and two open compartments. The stench of the closet and ashpits at the very doors of the houses is abominable. The floors of the closets are nearly all littered with human excrement…The pathways in front of the houses are unpaved, and when we visited the place on the 13th November, 1913, the whole place was an ankle deep quagmire… An open sewer runs down the front of the row, and carries the filth past the doors of the houses to a settling tank, which is erected at the end of the row, from whence the sewage is discharged into the burn. The houses are owned by William Baird & Co.

William Baird & Co had been pioneers of hot blast iron smelting at Gartsherrie in Lanarkshire in 1830, later extending their empire into Ayrshire. Coal from the Common pit supplied their Lugar iron works. The condition of Baird’s houses in Auchinleck parish was typical of miners’ raws across the iron and coal mining districts of Scotland. The Lugar iron works closed in 1928. There were still 27 families living on Common Row in 1932, waiting to move into council houses. However it was not until the 1950s that council housing finally replaced the last raws. James Brown, co-author of the report, went on to become Ayrshire’s first Labour MP in 1918, representing South Ayrshire until his death in 1939.

Like Alexander MacDonald and Keir Hardie, James Brown’s politics were deeply influenced by their experiences as coal miners and of the struggles of the mining communities against the Bairds and other coal and ironmasters. Between 1606 and 1799, Scottish coal miners had been bonded labourers, legally bound to their places of employment. Although freed from bondage in 1799, by the 1840s miners employed by the ironmasters were trapped within an even more oppressive web. As well as the mines they worked and the houses they lived in, the ironmasters owned the shops they bought their food from, the schools their children were taught in and the churches they worshipped in. Ownership of the houses their workers lived in gave the ironmasters in industrial disputes as this account of a strike in 1837 by James Baird of Gartsherrie reveals.

In April 1837 the colliers were receiving five shillings a day, but as trade was looking rather unfavourable, they took it into their heads that they would be able to keep up their wages by working only three days in the week, and they continued to do this for some time. The other coal masters took no steps to resist it ; but we resolved that we would not, if we could help it, have our output limited in this way, and we accordingly gave every man notice to quit in fourteen days…This strike taught the poor men a lesson which they did not soon forget. It was as determined and prolonged a strike as any we have ever had at Gartsherrie. Many of the wives and children suffered greatly during the fifteen weeks of their foolish idleness. When they returned their condition was sadly changed. The best their furniture was gone. Most of the people who returned were in squalid wretchedness, and some of those who had left us had succumbed to their sufferings, and were in their graves. All the time I remained about Gartsherrie—down to 1851 or 1852—I never again saw the colliers up to the same mark of health and comfort as that in which they were before this strike.

Before Lanarkshire became a centre for the new iron industry, the parishes of Old and New Monklands had been rural parishes with no need for a police force. By the 1840s this situation had changed but the Commissioners of Supply for Lanarkshire, who were mainly rural landowners, did not want to take on the expense of providing a police force. The Bairds of Gartsherrie and other local ironmasters then had the two parishes along with parts of Shotts and Bothwell made a into a special police district, financing the new police force through the rates they paid on their extensive properties in the area.

While in theory the Truck Act of 1831 should have prevented the ironmasters from further exploiting their workers by making them buy their food at company owned stores, a House of Commons inquiry in 1871 found that there had been no prosecutions under the Truck Act in Lanarkshire. The problems was that as major landowners, the Bairds and other ironmasters controlled the purse strings of the Procurator Fiscal. Before proceeding with a potentially expensive legal case, the Procurator would have to have the approval of the Finance Committee of Lanarkshire‘s Commissioners of Supply. This was dominated by the ironmasters and mine owners like the duke of Hamilton. In 1871, the auditor of the accounts for Lanarkshire’s Commissioners of Supply told the Parliamentary Inquiry that he would not allow the expenses for a prosecution under the Truck Act because he believed the Finance Committee ‘would not sanction it’.

It was against this background of a class struggle between the miners and their employers that the more radical and socialist politics of Keir Hardy and James Brown eventually prevailed over the more cautious approach of Alexander MacDonald. In the 1860s, MacDonald had even advised Lanarkshire’s miners to emigrate to the USA as an alternative to fighting for their rights in Scotland. Unfortunately, by the time James Brown was elected in 1918, Scotland’s heavy industries were entering a period of slow and painful decline.

3. Origin of the Industrial Clearances.

One factor in this decline was the exhaustion of Scotland’s reserves of ironstone. This, along with the unsuitability of Scottish iron for steel making meant that the inland location of Scotland’s iron and steel industry became a disadvantage. In 1929 the Brassert Report made a proposal to build a new integrated iron and steel production facility near the Erskine ferry on the Clyde to make it easier to supply the furnaces with imported iron ore and coke and to send steel to shipbuilding yards. The cost and disruption involved led to the rejection of this bold plan by a key firm, Colvilles, who chose instead to upgrade their existing works in Motherwell in the 1930s. In 1948 Colvilles proposed developing an integrated steel works at Motherwell. After nationalisation in 1951 this plan inspired the development of the Ravenscraig works. Writing in 1980, 12 years before Ravenscraig closed, Roy Campbell, argued that this inland development ‘could not be justified as a rational economic decision’ given the long term decline in Scotland’s coal and ore resources.

Although Keir Hardie had advocated home rule for Scotland in the 1880s, by the 1930s the Labour party in Scotland had become convinced that Scotland’s industrial decline could only be halted by drawing on the resources of the whole UK. The problem was, as Campbell documented in ‘The Rise and Fall of Scottish Industry’ (Edinburgh, 1980), that by the 1930s the whole immense edifice of Scotland’s Victorian industrial heritage was no longer sustainable. So while the Labour government elected in 1945 nationalised the railways, coal industry and (briefly) the iron and steel industry, neither nationalisation nor bold economic regeneration plans were able to halt let alone reverse the decay of Scotland’s heavy industries.

In his study ‘The Development of the West of Scotland 1750-1960’ (London, 1975) Anthony Slaven noted that the period 1940-1960 was an ‘interlude of comparative prosperity’ for the west of Scotland. The unemployment rate was only 3.5%, but this was still twice the UK average for the period. But contributing o the relatively low unemployment rate was the emigration of 127 000 people from the west of Scotland between 1951 and 1960. As Slaven put it ‘The region failed to generate enough jobs to offer the economically-active age groups.’ While the National Coal Board did open new pits, they also closed many Victorian mines, especially in Lanarkshire where reserves of coal were following ironstone into exhaustion. In Ayrshire, new pits like Kinloch (opened 1953) and Minnivey (opened 1955) were expected to have active lives of 100 and 40 years respectively but geological faulting led to Killoch’s closure in 1972 and Minnivey’s closure in 1975. Some coal from Killoch continued to be extracted via Barony colliery which survived as Ayrshire’s last deep coal mine until 1989.

4. The Industrial Clearances.

The date of Barony’s closure places it within the period of what Iain Macwhirter and Douglas Fraser have both called ‘the industrial clearances’. All that remains of the Barony are the massive ‘A’ frames which supported the winding-gear. The Ravenscraig steel works survived until 1992. In 1996 the site was cleared and nothing now remains of what had been the largest hot strip steel mill in western Europe. Fraser suggested that it was the Proclaimers’ Letter from America which ‘made a link between the industrial clearances of Scotland following the 1980s recession and Allan Ramsay’s lament for the Highland Clearances written 260 years before, Lochaber No More’ (BBC report, 26 January 2010). Macwhirter was reflecting on Jimmy Reid’s death in August 2010.

I don’t think you can lay the blame for Scotland’s industrial clearances to militant trades unionists. They were only doing their job. It was a combination of Scotland’s subordinate status within the Union, coupled with the pig-headed and Anglo-centric monetarism of Margaret Thatcher’s governments that destroyed industrial Scotland. No need to blame the victims. (Herald 12 August 2010).

Although Fraser carefully says ‘the 1980s recession’, Macwhirter explicitly links the industrial clearances to Margaret Thatcher’s governments. It is this connection between Conservative economic policies and the destruction of industrial Scotland which lies at the root of the Labour party’s insistence that voters in Scotland must vote Labour to ‘keep out the Tories’. But the majority of Scots have been voting Labour since 1922, three years before Margaret Thatcher was born.

The first two Labour MPs were elected in Scotland in 1906 when Labour gained 2.3% of the vote. In 1922, Labour first gained the majority of Scottish seats with 32.2% of the vote. Since 1922, the average Labour vote at general elections in Scotland has been 42.8%. Altogether out of 27 general elections since 1906, Labour have had the majority of Scottish seats 18 times with an unbroken run since 1959. Even in the 1951 and 1955 elections, Labour were still the largest single party in Scotland since the ‘Conservative’ vote was split between the Unionist and National Liberal parties.

The only real wobble in Labour’s dominance in Scotland was during the 1930s when the ‘National Government’ formed by Labour prime minister Ramsay McDonald in 1931 split the party. From 36 Scottish MPs in 1929, Labour dropped to 7 in 1931 and 20 in 1935 before regaining their majority with 37 MPs elected in 1945. Unfortunately, the 1930s were the period when the opportunity to restructure Scotland’s Victorian economy was missed. In the 1920s, Scottish industrialists believed that the downturn in their fortunes would be like previous trade recessions which they could sit out by cutting wages and taking on unprofitable contracts to keep the shipyards, mines and steel works ticking over until trade picked up again.

By the 1930s the realisation that this was a ‘great’ depression had begun to dawn and plans for reorganisation and restructuring were being made. In 1930 shipbuilder James Lithgow (1883-1952) was able to persuade the Bank of England to finance the buying up and closure of excess capacity, including those of the Beardmore company which was in debt to the Bank of England. This allowed Lithgow to take control of Beardmore’s Mossend iron and steel assets. This infuriated Hugh Reid (1860-1935) of the North British Locomotive Company who rejected similar proposals by the Bank of England for a reduction in locomotive building capacity since one of Beardmore’s assets had been a rival locomotive manufacturing factory.

Lithgow’s close relationship with the Bank of England also complicated attempts to restructure the steel industry. Lithgow had attempted to acquire the struggling Lanarkshire Steel company which was in debt to Lloyds bank. Lloyds (according to Lithgow) scuppered the deal and rival steel firm Colvilles took over the Lanarkshire Steel company in 1936. As noted above, it was opposition by Colvilles to the Brassert Report which blocked the construction of a brand new iron and steel works at Erskine Ferry. In 1932, the steel firm Stewart and Lloyds came up with an even bolder plan- they relocated their Lanarkshire workforce to Corby in Northamptonshire where there were still large reserves of ironstone. The Corby plant survived until 1980.

Could a strong Labour government in the 1930s have done a better job than the Conservative dominated National Government? Possibly, if Tom Johnston (1881-1965) had been in charge. But Johnston was a radical and a supporter of home rule who opposed Ramsay MacDonald in 1931 and lost his seat in the general election held that year. Although he regained his seat in 1935, it was only the even greater crisis of a second world war that led Winston Churchill to appoint him as Secretary of State for Scotland in 1941. As his Wikipedia entry summarises, following this appointment –

Johnston launched numerous initiatives to promote Scotland. Opposed to the excessive concentration of industry in the English Midlands, he attracted 700 businesses and 90,000 new jobs through his new Scottish Council of Industry. He set up 32 committees to deal with social and economic problems, ranging from juvenile delinquency to sheep farming. He regulated rents, and set up a prototype national health service,, using new hospitals set up in the expectation of large numbers of casualties from German bombing. His most successful venture was setting up a system of hydro electricity using water power in the Highlands. A long-standing supporter of the Home Rule movement, he was able to persuade Churchill of the need to counter the nationalist threat north of the border and created a Scottish Council of State and a Council of Industry as institutions to devolve some power away from Whitehall.

If Johnstone’s energy and ability had been applied to Scotland a decade earlier, he might have been able to set Scotland’s economy on a more successful path. But to do so, Johnstone would have needed powers greater than any Secretary of State for Scotland has ever had, for example the power to nationalise key industries in order to reorganise them. Even if Johnstone had gained such powers, any attempt exercise such powers would have immediately have provoked fierce resistance from Labour MPs representing the industrial areas of England and Wales asking why the Scots were receiving special treatment.

5. Conclusion

Reflecting on the rise and fall of Scotland’s industrial empire in 1980, Roy Campbell speculated that Scotland’s traditional industries might last another generation before they faded away. Campbell was wrong. Within little more than ten years, the industrial clearances set in motion by Margaret Thatcher’s economic policies would bring the last remnants of Scotland’s once mighty Victorian industries crashing -often literally- to the ground. Like the Highland clearances before them, the industrial clearances brought to an end communities and ways working which had shaped the lives of generations.

The labour of these workers produced millions of tons of coal, iron and steel which was then forged into ships or manufactured into machinery and locomotives. While the profits from this labour created immense wealth for a handful of industrialists and landowners, the condition of the working class in Scotland was appalling. Industrial accidents, diseases and sheer physical exhaustion in the work place were matched by the squalor of homes lives spent in cheaply built industrial shanty towns and villages. Any increase in wages during boom times was swiftly clawed back when profits fell during recessions. Strikers were faced with immediate eviction and the full weight of the law- backed up by police and soldiers.

The Labour party in Scotland grew out of the bitter experience of this Victorian class war. From two MPs in 1906 to 36 in 1929, Labour looked set to become the dominant party in Scotland. But then in the crucial decade of the 1930s the party was split by Labour prime minister Ramsay MacDonald’s decision to form National Government with the Conservatives and Liberals. In Scotland this meant that an opportunity to break with the Victorian past was lost and key decisions which were to affect the future of Scotland’s economy for the next 50 years were made by Scottish industrialists and the Bank of England.

While nationalisation in the immediate post-war years brought new investment, the structural problems of maintaining an essentially nineteenth century industrial infrastructure in the mid-twentieth century became more and more difficult. By 1958 a significant lag between Scotland’s gross domestic product and that of the UK had developed. As a result government support for Scottish industry rose from £18 million in 1961-2 to over £96 million in 1969-70.

The above figures are from Campbell’s book and he uses them illustrate the decline of Scottish industry. In October 1970, BP discovered the Forties oil field in the North Sea and in 1971 Shell discovered the Brent field. Reflecting on these discoveries, Campbell commented prophetically :

Natural resources may yet again provide a way to the rise of Scottish industry…The availability of oil provides a parallel with the availability of coal in an earlier generation. But the experiences of the nineteenth century should warn that natural resources may be used profligately and that a prosperity based on natural resources cannot easily survive their exhaustion.

As we now know, the 1974 McCrone report on the economic potential of North Sea oil commissioned by Ted Heath’s Conservative government was suppressed by Harold Wilson’s incoming Labour government in case it boosted support for the SNP. However, by the time the oil began to flow in quantity, Margaret Thatcher was in power. From 1974 to 1979 Denis Healey was Chancellor of the Exchequer. Interviewed in 2013, Healey admitted ‘Thatcher would not have been able to carry out any of her policies without that additional 5% on GDP from oil.’ It was revenue from the oil which allowed the Thatcher governments to indulge in the decimation of the UK’s manufacturing industry in order to destroy the power of organised labour. Effectively it was the ‘profligate’ exploitation of Scotland’s oil which financed Scotland’s industrial clearances.

In 1997, Scottish voters delivered their verdict on the industrial clearances by making Scotland a Tory free zone. In that year Scotland also elected 56 Labour MPs. The expectation was that the new Labour government would reverse 18 year of Conservative misrule. This did not happen. It has taken another 18 years, but now it seems that Scotland has finally lost its century old faith in the Labour party. The immediate loss of faith may have its roots in the farcical actions of a Labour party which within months of sharing an anti-independence platform with the Conservative party now wants Scots to vote Labour to ‘keep out the Tories’. The deeper loss of faith has its roots in the tragedy of the industrial clearances.

Ironically, if the Labour party had had more faith in working class solidarity back in 1974, they could have evaded this fate. If Harold Wilson’s Labour government had published rather than suppressed the McCrone Report, it could have said ‘We will use this new found wealth to regenerate not just Scotland’s decaying industrial areas but those of northern England and south Wales as well.’ Such a declaration of intent would have challenged the SNP’s ‘narrow nationalism’ and confounded the Conservative’s ‘Britain isn’t Working’ narrative.

Tragically, not just for Scotland, but for the rest of the UK as well, Labour’s obsession with the nationalist threat triumphed over their residual socialism. Yet for another 40 years, Labour voters in Scotland resisted the blandishments of the SNP, preferring class solidarity to nationalist separatism.

Soon the final act of this tragic farce will be written by Labour’s former supporters.

“With a rustle of ballot papers the curtain falls on Labour’s history. The show is over. The party’s few remaining members get up to leave their seats. Time to collect their coats and go home. They turn round to find no more coats and no more home.”

The Stats

Labour MPs and % vote in Scotland, from UK General Elections 1918 to 2015.

The highest Labour vote was 49.8% in 1964. The highest number of MPs was 56 in 1997 and again in 2001.
The lowest percentage vote was 22.1% in 1918. It then never dropped below 32% for 93 years until it fell to 24% in 2015.

1918 Labour 6 MPs 22.1% of vote
1922 Labour 29 MPs 32.2 % * Largest party
1924 Labour 34 MPs 35.9% * Largest party
1929 Labour 36 MPs 42.3% * Largest party
1931 Labour 7 MPs 32.6% [National Government]
1935 Labour 20 MPs 36.9% [National Government]
1945 Labour 37 MPs 47.9 %* Largest party
1950 Labour 37 MPs 46.2% * Largest party
1951 Labour 35 MPs 47.8 % * Largest single party (Unionists 29 MPs, National Liberal 6)
1955 Labour 34 MPs 46.7 % * Largest single party (Unionists 30 MPs, National Liberal 6)
1959 Labour 38 MPs 46% *Largest party
1964 Labour 43 MPs 48% *Largest party
1966 Labour 46 MPs 49.8% *Largest party
1970 Labour 44 MPs 44.5% *Largest party
1974 Labour 40 MPs 36.3% *Largest party
1974 Labour 41 MPs 33.3% *Largest party
1979 Labour 44 MPs 41.5% *Largest party
1983 Labour 41 MPs 35.1% *Largest party
1987 Labour 50 MPs 42.4% *Largest party
1992 Labour 49 MPs 39% * Largest party
1997 Labour 56 MPs 45.6% *Largest party
2001 Labour 56 MPs 43.3% *Largest party
2005 Labour 41 MPs 39.5% *Largest party
2010 Labour 41 MPs 42% *Largest party
2015 Labour 1 MP 24% SNP largest party 56 MPs, 50% vote
2007 Scottish election – Constituency vote
Labour 648 374 votes, 32.2%
SNP 664 227 votes, 32.9%

2010 UK election – Scottish results
Labour 1 035 528 votes, 42%
SNP 491 386 votes, 19.9%

2011 Scottish election – Constituency vote
Labour 630 461 votes, 31.69%
SNP 902 915 votes, 45.39%

2015 UK election – Scottish results
Labour 707 147 votes, 24.3%
SNP 1 035 528 votes, 50%

2016 Scottish election- Constituency vote
Labour 514 261 votes, 22.6%
SNP 1 059 897 votes, 46.5%


5 thoughts on “The Industrial Clearances and the Death of Labour

  1. Our future is shaped by our history. Unfortunately our history has so often been re-written by the class-wars victors. Now our citizen journalists are in the front-line of the class-wars and our history has become far harder for, “The Establishment”, to re-write.

    Great article and complements to the author.

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