Margaret Thatcher didn’t kill Scottish coal mining, Gibbs says, but the free-market reforms she introduced accelerated its demise and left communities such as Whitburn in West Lothian and Airdrie, 15 miles east of Glasgow, fighting for survival. The visceral disregard shown by Thatcher, an English Conservative, for what Gibbs calls the coalfield “moral economy” – the expectation, among workers, that industrial employment would be safe, stable, and secure – bolstered nationalist sentiment in Scotland, laying the groundwork for the devolutionary settlement of the late 1990s and, ultimately, the full-throated independence movement of today.
Coal has produced some of the key figures in the campaign for Scottish self-determination, Gibbs notes. Mick McGahey, who served as president of the National Union of Mineworkers (Scottish Area) between 1967 and 1987, was a staunch advocate of Home Rule. Isobel Lindsay, a prominent activist on the nationalist Left, grew up in a mining family. As did Dennis Canavan, the influential ex-Labour MP who went on to support a ‘Yes’ vote to independence in the 2014 referendum. The story of modern Scotland is to a significant extent the story of Scottish coal, Gibbs argues; the industry’s collapse helped “blend [the] dimensions of class and nationhood” in the face of Thatcher’s neoliberal restructuring.
The flooding of the Longannet complex in Fife, just north of the Firth of Forth, in 2002 marked the end of deep coal mining in Scotland – and of a tradition stretching back centuries. Deindustrialisation is often viewed as a sudden, violent process of economic upheaval. But the Scottish and British coal sectors ebbed away slowly over decades – before the application of pure market logic arrived under Thatcher in the 1980s. Thatcherism unwittingly shifted the dynamics of British constitutional politics, Gibbs suggests, driving vast numbers of working-class Scots away from their traditional loyalty to London rule. What’s left of that loyalty will likely be tested on 6 May, when Scotland votes in a devolved election that could determine the long-term trajectory of the UK. The SNP, currently 25 points ahead in the polls, wants to stage a new referendum on the break-up of Britain; its main unionist rivals, Labour and the Conservatives, have pledged to block any efforts to further weaken the Union.
Gibbs’ analysis feels particularly apt in the context of our ever-accelerating climate crisis. Scotland may not mine coal anymore, but the North Sea still produces significant amounts of oil and gas, and renewables make up a growing share of Scottish economic output. Tens of thousands of jobs have been lost in Aberdeenshire and the surrounding areas since global oil prices crashed six years ago. There are growing fears, as well, that Scotland’s much vaunted ‘renewables revolution’ is faltering as green manufacturing contracts are outsourced to foreign companies. For the past decade and a half, Scotland has been run by a devolved SNP administration ostensibly committed to a ‘just transition’ away from fossil fuels.
‘Coal Country’ is a compelling account of industrial transformation and the fall of the carbon economy. Its lessons resonate well beyond the coalfields.
‘Coal Country: The Meaning and Memory of Deindustrialization in Postwar Scotland’ by Ewan Gibbs is published by University of London Press.