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Scotland and the Scots, 1707-2007

Christian Auer

XVII. Economic and social conditions

XVII. Economic and social conditions

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1During the First World War the Scottish economy had become over dependent on traditional heavy metallurgical industry and on coarse textiles. When peace came there was a fall in demand for Scottish industrialists’ products and certain sectors of the Scottish economy, such as coal mining or steel manufacture, underwent a steady period of contraction.

  • 1 T. M. Devine, Nation, op. cit., p. 323.

2The situation worsened after the crisis of the late 1920s. By 1931-1932 average male unemployment was just under thirty per cent for Scotland as a whole and over 50%, even in some parts 60 or 70%, in certain key sectors of the economy. At the height of the Depression in 1932 there were about 400,000 Scots officially out of work. The consequences as to the living conditions of ordinary people were important: Scotland had infant mortality rates 30% higher than in England or Wales and 23% of Scots lived in overcrowding housing. For many families it was a period of unemployment and profound dislocation. One historian has referred to the interwar years as a period of “economic trauma.”1

3After the Second World War Scotland benefited from new export markets. Shipbuilding was one the sectors that continued to expand during the first decade after the war. Between 1948 and 1951 the Scottish shipbuilding industry built 15% of the world’s ships. Scotland also became one of the favourite destinations for American multinationals. By 1951 Scotland had attracted over 70% of all American investment into Britain. NCR in Dundee, IBM in Greenock, Burroughs in Cumbernauld and General Motors in Lanarkshire were some of the first companies to go to Scotland.

  • 2 Harold Macmillan, 20 July 1957,, accessed 6 September 2009.

Let us be frank about it – most of our people have never had it so good. Go around the country, go to the industrial towns, go to the farms and you will see a state of prosperity such as we have never had in my lifetime – nor indeed in the history of this country.2

4Harold Macmillan’s comment was particularly relevant to Scotland, which was indeed experiencing a kind of economic recovery in the late 1950s. Unemployment was at historically low levels, average earning increased by over two-thirds between 1952 and 1964, health was improving, in one word living standards were rising as never before. Scottish society showed definite signs of prosperity:

  • 3 Tom Brennan, urban sociologist, quoted in R. J. Finlay, op. cit., p. 241.

In matters of personal behaviour, improvements have been as dramatic as in standards of living. […] people are better dressed, houses are very much better furnished and decorated, and are in every way cleaner and healthier.3

5The economic situation started to deteriorate in the 1960s. The nations that had been defeated in the Second World War had recovered and were again competing with Britain. All the big staple Scottish industries were suffering: the jute industry faced increasing competition, the demand for coal decreased (fifty pits closed down between 1965 and 1970) and the shipbuilding industry came under strong competition from Germany, Holland and Japan (six of the twenty-five shipyards of the Clyde had to close down).

6The eighties in Scotland were a period of mass unemployment, factory closures and poverty. Between 1979 and 1981 Scottish manufacturing lost one fifth of all jobs. In the 1980s the number of coal pits fell from fifteen to two. Demand for steel also fell. In 1990 there was only one shipyard left on the Clyde. Tens of thousands of jobs were lost in companies all over Scotland. Scottish unemployment rates in the mid eighties were higher than the average rates in the rest of Great Britain. The employed labour force fell by 3% in the United Kingdom but by 8% in Scotland. Between 1972 and 1994 the number of unemployed rose from 150,000 to 233,000.

7Yet new economic activities were developing at the same period. The discovery of oil in the North Sea had a definite impact on employment in the north east. Grampian region became one of the most prosperous areas in the United Kingdom and Aberdeen became the oil capital of Europe. The number of jobs created by the energy industry in and around Aberdeen has been estimated at half a million. Electronics manufacture became another flourishing economic sector. The area stretching from Ayrshire to Dundee was nicknamed ‘Silicon Glen’ because of its concentration of high-technology industries.

8From the mid-eighties to the end of the century the Scottish economy underwent a major transformation: at the beginning of the twenty-first century the Scottish economy has become modern and high-tech with a dynamic service sector and an expanding tourist industry.


1 T. M. Devine, Nation, op. cit., p. 323.

2 Harold Macmillan, 20 July 1957,, accessed 6 September 2009.

3 Tom Brennan, urban sociologist, quoted in R. J. Finlay, op. cit., p. 241.

© Presses universitaires de Strasbourg, 2013

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