Professor Lindsay Paterson argues that the relative stability of the union in the nineteenth century was underpinned by a gendered understanding of society. In that era, Scots could be:
‘British for formal and public matters, Scottish for the family and home and community … Britain was male, Scotland was female. As throughout the UK, foreign affairs and the Empire were for men, domestic matters for women.’
As the unionist consensus began to become unstuck and Scottishness again entered the political fray, a whole host of other arrangements for ordering society were also becoming unmoored.
By the middle decades of the twentieth century, women had won a place in public life and the workplace through bitter struggle, traditional masculine industries were facing serious decline and a whole range of identities and lifestyles had undermined age-old hierarchies.
It’s worth considering that the most iconic moment of popular struggle in Scotland’s modern history was partly a crisis of masculinity too. The seminal confrontation between workers and a fragile Tory government at the Upper Clyde Shipbuilder’s yards, which marked its 50th anniversary this year, was bound up with a specific version of what it meant to be male, Scottish and working class.
One of Jimmy Reid’s most memorable slogans: ‘We don’t only build ships on the Clyde, we build men’ placed this fight for jobs in a historic tradition of masculine struggle; haunted by still living memories of the hungry thirties and wartime mobilisation.
UCS introduced a novel strategic innovation – by offering up the work-in as a savvy media spectacle. But its aims were far from radical. Instead, the struggle was about conserving the terms of the post-war social contract centred on the right of male breadwinners to physically demanding, skilled, work.
The notion that these rights were primarily male, and should be instilled through immediate community and wider solidarity became central to the ensuing experience of the collapse of heavy industries in Scotland.
However, as historian Dr Andy Clark has revealed, a series of victories won by women workers in Scotland, using similar tactics to those employed at UCS, have been largely overlooked because they don’t fit with that powerful and pervasive popular narrative.
A succession of work-ins at Lee Jeans in Greenock, Lovable Bra in Cumbernauld, and Plessey Capacitors in Bathgate were successful in assuaging the immediate threat of closure and mobilised wide support.
The forgetting of those victories suggests that the old duality of placing men to the fore of great public debates, while domesticating women’s voices, was still present during the struggle to come to terms with mass unemployment in the early eighties.
Clark’s research on these work-ins, soon to be published in a forthcoming book Dynamics of Activism: Scottish Women’s Factory Occupations, featured at the Occupy! Occupy! Occupy! Conference, hosted by Govanhill Baths, this week.
The two-day event brought together researchers and veterans of occupations across a roll-call of the many work-ins and sit-ins that have flourished in Scotland in the half-century since UCS.
The event provoked a tantalising question that gets to the heart of Scotland’s future. Can these disparate struggles really be threaded together? Can workers who locked the bosses out to save their jobs at fleet-footed multinationals such as Timex or Caterpillar really find common cause with the hippies of Pollok Free State or Faslane Peace Camp?
The answer depends on how you understand the nature of work itself. Part of the strategic innovation that the Communist shop stewards at UCS brought to that struggle was the notion that the workplaces, jobs and skills of the Clyde were a resource that belonged to the surrounding communities.
Whatever the immediate context, an occupation dramatizes a particular problem in a way that few other actions can: in doing so it can draw-in outside attention and compel politicians to provide resolution in order to avoid conflict and embarrassment.
But an occupation is also the embrace of a community asset, an act of stewarding and preservation: mixing the deeply practical and mundane with the symbolic and the sentimental. That, perhaps, is the nature of belonging.
‘A confident community will occupy,’ observed Nicky Patterson of Kinning Park Complex, a thriving (soon to be reopened) hub in Glasgow’s southside that traces its current incarnation back to a five day sit-in organised by arts and community worker Helen Kyle.
These traditions, which stretch through to the present day and the occupation of ‘Baile Hoose,’ a former homeless shelter in Tradeston during COP26, contrast with a national movement for independence that seems to have lost its way.
As factionalism and controversy over a second independence referendum continue, the Yes movement’s remarkable spirit of radical unity in 2014 is now a distant memory. Is there a lesson in the proud history of occupations in Scotland that the movement could use to break out of this impasse?
Benedict Anderson famously described nations as imagined communities. In doing so, he wasn’t suggesting that they were somehow fake. Indeed, almost all communities, save the smallest villages, are in some sense imagined.
Mindful of this, a truly national movement ought to be entwining itself in the thicket of all those grassroots community struggles, in addition to finding some ground of its own to defend.
UCS remains so prominent because the workshops themselves became rallying points: real places where ideas about the future direction of society could crystalize in front of the eyes of the world. They served to make a moral cause pervasive and unavoidable, even for the most powerful.
Or, as one Govanhill resident put it during the occupation of Govanhill Baths in 2001, a sit-in simply makes that most basic of pleas: ‘listen to us.’
Scottish nationalism’s flirtation with radical industrial action and occupations – in the form of the 79 Group’s Scottish Resistance campaign in 1981 – was a brief and abortive affair.
However, six members of the SNP, including Jim Sillars, briefly occupied the former Royal High School on Calton Hill and read out a declaration in the empty chamber that would have housed a Scottish Assembly.
The break-in turned out to be too much for traditionalists within the SNP. Its leader through the party’s wilderness years, Gordon Wilson, quickly aced to purge the 79 Group in response.
The group had previously brought an SNP presence out in support of the workers at Lee Jeans and other labour struggles. Indeed, despite expulsion, by the end of the eighties many members of the group had re-joined and moved the SNP substantially to the left of Scottish Labour.
Key to this stance was their support for poll-tax non-payment campaigns, which involved, amongst a range of radical organising tactics, occupations of sheriff offices and the disruption of warrant sales.
Two of the six arrested under charges of vandalism for the break-in at the Royal High School, Douglas Roberston and Graeme Purves recently reflected in a long-essay on the episode:
‘Our own engagement with the building … fell short of our hopes; but together with subsequent events … it probably contributed something to the narrative of democracy denied.’
Occupations have the capacity to reduce a range of political allegiances down to a single political goal, but they are also flashpoints that tend to leave legacies far beyond their initial basis. For example, UCS itself was a significant step in swinging the Scottish labour movement behind Home Rule at an historic conference the following year.
If the independence movement today lacks grit, direction and purpose, it may partly come down to that peculiar lack of a clear and coherent rallying place to defend or claim. When a brutish UK Government acts with impunity, or the realities of devolution disappoint, the movement’s response should be: don’t mourn, occupy!
Article originally published in the Sunday National