.comment-link {margin-left:.6em;}


As all that is solid melts to air and everything holy is profaned...

Monday, June 15, 2015

LSD and Climate Change

Pushed to the margins over the past 40 years, the radical counterculture survives- but only just. But if we accept the reality of climate change, then we also have to accept  a radical restructuring of society away from ever increasing consumption of commodities -‘goods and services’- made and maintained by burning coal and oil but produced by our alienated labour. The radical counterculture  emerged out of the desire to end our alienation from the world we create, driven by psychedelic visions which broke down the boundary between self and world. Like Marx on acid, the result was a revolutionary movement which sought the negation of capitalist realism. The history of the radical counterculture shows that we already possess the consciousness needed to make a new reality. We must make a new reality because the old one is melting in the heat of climate change...

We took the wrong step years ago...

This year, 2015, marks the 250 anniversary of James Watt’s steam engine. A form of steam engine had been in use since 1712. Watt’s breakthrough in 1765 made the steam engine operate more efficiently so it needed less coal and was cheaper to run. Due to technical problems, it was not until 1776 that the first full size Watt engine began work pumping water from a coal mine. It took another 20 years of development before Watt’s engine could be used to directly power machinery in a cotton spinning factory. Even then, it was only after Richard Trevithick pioneered the use of smaller- high pressure- steam engines in 1800 that they became practical for use in factories, in steam locomotives and in steam ships.

So, although Watt’s invention was an essential step towards an industrial revolution, the full impact of the shift to a coal fuelled, steam powered  economy was not experienced until the nineteenth century. This is important since it meant that Watt’s eighteenth century Scottish contemporaries -James Steuart and Adam Smith -developed their theories of political economy (Steuart 1767, Smith 1776) based on a society and economy reliant on renewable sources of energy. In such an economy, sea transport relied on wind power and land transport by road or canal on horse power. The energy which drove manufacturing industries was water power and human labour.

The revolution which had most impact in eighteenth century Scotland was not an industrial revolution. It was an agricultural revolution. Across lowland Scotland, the heirs to the Society of Improvers in the Knowledge of Agriculture (set up in 1723) swept away a 600 year old system of subsistence farming. Its replacement was an improved system of enlightened agriculture based on rational if not always scientific principles. Although only a few members of the Scottish Enlightenment were directly involved in the agricultural revolution, they were all eye-witnesses to the transformation of a medieval landscape into  a modern one.

This had two significant impacts. Firstly, it led the Scots thinkers to develop dynamic theories of society in which early societies based on hunting gave way to pastoral societies based on livestock farming, then more advanced societies based on arable farming. The final stage in this process was a society based on commerce and trade. This ‘civil society’ was also more enlightened and better educated than earlier  societies ands so less warlike and superstitious than previous stages of society.

Secondly, it was believed that as the limits of agricultural improvement were reached, economic growth would begin to slow. The problem foreseen was  that as improvement was extended to more marginal/ less fertile land a law of diminishing returns would kick in. The cost of improvement would become greater than the profits from improvement. The growth in population which the first phase of improvement had encouraged- when food quantity had risen while food costs had fallen- would start to slow. At the same time wages would have to rise as food prices rose and this would act as a check on economic growth. The end point of the process would be the ‘stationary state’ beyond which further economic growth would be impossible.

In theory then, as the agricultural revolution reached its limits in the nineteenth century, the rapid growth of economy and population which had occurred in the eighteenth century would begin to tail away. This did not happen. Instead both the economy and the population of Scotland (and the UK) grew dramatically in the nineteenth century. One reason why this occurred is that the commercial class of the new civil society revolutionised the economy. Just as the agricultural improvers had applied enlightened rationality to farming, so the economic improvers applied enlightened rationality to industry and commerce.

However, while it was accepted that agricultural improvement was a long term process which could not show rapid results, investments in industry and commerce took place within a much more competitive environment. This led to a form of economic evolution in which capital invested in businesses which improved production was reproduced while capital invested in businesses which did not improve production was lost.

If this process had been confined to one country, problems of, for example, food and raw materials supply , would still have limited economic growth and the stationary state would still have been reached. But the UK was already a trading nation with overseas colonies so the problem of ’capitalism in ne country’ did not arise. At its simplest, the UK was able to exchange manufactured goods (produced cheaply via competition) with food and raw materials from other countries and its colonies. This exchange then had the effect of pushing other countries to improve their manufacturing industries or risk becoming economic colonies of the UK.

Could this revolutionary process have been achieved without a simultaneous shift from renewable energy sources to fossil fuels? Put another way, could capital have gone global without setting climate change in  motion?

The first question has been argued over by historians and economists in discussions about the importance of coal in the origins of the industrial revolution. The case for coal has been made by Tony Wrigley who has  estimated that English coal production in 1800 produced energy equivalent to 11 million acres of woodland against a total English land area of 32 million acres. [E A Wrigley ‘Energy and the English Industrial Revolution’, Cambridge  2010, p. 39]. The implication being that, in a variation on the stationary state theory, to fuel the English industrial revolution, land which was necessary for food production and animal fodder would have had to have been given over to timber production and that this would have created a conflict between economic growth and population growth.

The counter-argument is that cheap timber from around the Baltic or from north America could have been imported as a substitute for coal. While this might have worked if cost alone was the deciding factor in choosing between coal and wood as a fuel, the need to transport huge volumes of timber from sea-ports to end users would have been immense. When a railway from Liverpool to Manchester was proposed in 1825, a Liverpool timber importer supported the railway because the existing roads and canals could not cope with Manchester’s increasing demand for timber. In 1821 100 000 tons of Baltic and Canadian timber had arrived at Liverpool. By 1824 this had increased to 160 000 tons. This wood was not need for fuel so delays in transporting it were not critical. But if Manchester’s cotton mills had relied on timber for fuel, any delays would have forced the cotton mills to close. The railway opened in 1830 and solved the transportt problem-by using coal fuelled steam engines.

1830 also saw the beginnings of  a coal fuelled industrial revolution in Scotland. Here, the coal was used to produce iron. Wood, as charcoal, had been used 100 years earlier in iron furnaces in the Highlands where there were still extensive forests. But although there was wood, there was no iron ore in the Highlands so the industry had not taken off. In Lanarkshire and Ayrshire coal and iron ore were both present so the industry was able to expand rapidly. The use of coal (as coke) allowed the size of iron furnaces to grow, making iron production more efficient. By the 1860s, iron furnaces in north-east England were 100 feet tall. In theory, these furnaces could have used charcoal from Baltic timber but the charcoal furnaces would have had to be much smaller to stop the weight of iron ore crushing the charcoal. The economies of scale would therefore have been lost and millions of tons of wood would have had to be imported to replace the 3 millions tons of coal the north-east England iron industry consumed annually in the 1860s.

To summarise, without coal the British industrial revolution which began in the late eighteenth century would have faltered in the nineteenth century instead of continuing to develop and expand. But the coal was used and its use allowed the British industrial revolution to continue. This in turn allowed the UK to become the dominant global power in the nineteenth century, compelling rival economies to adopt coal fuelled industrialisation. In the twentieth century another fossil fuel- oil- came into use. The cumulative impact of burning billions of tons of coal and oil has been to release enough carbon dioxide into the atmosphere to trigger global warming. Global warming in turn is now driving global climate change.

One of the impacts of global warming, which is already becoming apparent, is a gradual rise in sea levels which will at some point overwhelm the flood defences of cities like London . Meanwhile climate , through prolonged droughts and extreme floods , will impact on food production. Our ability to adapt to these impacts depends on how  quickly we can shift to renewable energy sources and make the decision to leave as yet unused resources of coal and oil in the ground rather than burning them.

If we lived in a rational and enlightened world, the accumulation of scientific research into the relationship  between global warming and climate change would by now see huge efforts being put into de-carbonising the global economy. There would be recognition that although burning coal and oil has delayed the onset of the stationary state for 200 years, there really are limits to economic growth and that we have now reached those limits.

Why then are there so few signs of transition to the stationary state? In ‘The Enigma of Capital’ (London, 2010)  David Harvey provides some clues to the answer. Using work done by Angus Maddison, Harvey notes that in 1820 ‘the total output of goods and services in the capitalist world economy was $694 billion’. By 1913 the figure was $2.7 trillion, by 1950 $5.3 trillion, 1973 $16 trillion, 2003 $41 trillion and by 2009 $56.2 trillion. Harvey goes on to state that ‘Throughout the history of capitalism, the annual compound growth rate has been close to 2.25%;’ and that to maintain the ‘health’ (profitability) of capitalism requires an annual growth rate of  3%. If the growth rate falls below 1%, capitalists make no profit. As Harvey goes on to explain

When capitalism was made up of activity within a fifty-mile radius of  Manchester and Birmingham  in England and a few other hotspots in 1750, then seemingly endless capital accumulation at a compound rate of 3%  posed no big problem.

But if we bring global warming into the equation, there was a big problem. As discussed above, for the English industrial revolution to take-off after 1750, a shift from renewable sources of energy to coal had to take place. If this shift had not taken place then ‘seemingly endless capital accumulation at compound rate of 3%’ would not have been possible. The growth rate would have fallen towards 1% - the stationary state again- and the early capitalists would have made no profit. No coal, no capitalism…no capitalism, no climate change.

This relationship between coal, capital and climate change helps to explain why it is proving so difficult, effectively impossible, to cut global carbon dioxide emissions. For the past 250 years, ever since James Watt invented the world’s first thermodynamically efficient steam engine, global economic growth has been intimately tied-up with the use of fossil fuels as an energy source. The social impact of this prolonged period of economic growth has been to embed the belief that the only practically possible way to organise society is on the basis of  ‘endless capital accumulation’ -what Mark Fisher has described as ‘capitalist realism’.

Under capitalist realism there is no alternative to business as usual. Under capitalist realise we have no choice but to keep burning coal and oil so capital can keep accumulating and the economy keep growing. Is this rational? With the possible exception of the theory of evolution, no branch of science has been subjected to the same level of sustained and vehement criticism as climate science has. Yet the science has survived these attacks and is now as certain as any part of scientific rationality can be. Climate change is real and it is rational. If so, then capitalist realism cannot be rational. If it is not rational than it is not real. If it is not real then it is a form of myth. An illusion, a delusion. If it is not true then it must be false, it must be a lie.

There is a savage irony at play here. As Donald Cardwell explains so lucidly, James Watt was aware that his steam engine would be more expensive to manufacture than Newcomen’s simpler atmospheric engines. Watt therefore had to ensure that his engine could save enough fuel (coal) to be an economically viable product. Unlike John Seaton (1724-1792) who dramatically increased the efficiency of the Newcomen engine through a lengthy process of trial and error, the need to maximise the economic efficiency of his engine made Watt the founder of a new science- thermodynamics.

In particular, Cardwell draws attention to the patent application Watt took out 4 January 1769 in which the steam cylinder is to be kept as hot as the steam entering it while the condensing cylinder is to be kept as cold as possible. ‘These ideas…constituted  the basis of thermodynamics; but nearly sixty years were to elapse  before cognate scientific knowledge and technological practice  had advanced sufficiently for Sadi Carnot (1796-1834) to present them  in one great synthesis.’ [ D. Cardwell ‘From Watt to Clausius-The Rise of Thermodynamics in the Early Industrial Age’, Cornell University Press 1971, p. 55]

The science of thermodynamics is an essential foundation for the science of global warming and climate change. Furthermore, as Cardwell shows, there was a symbiotic relationship between the advance of thermodynamics as a science and the economically driven development of increasingly efficient heat-engines. The rational- thermodynamics- emerged out of the irrational- the pursuit of ‘seemingly endless’ economic growth.

From the 1840s onwards, as the new science of thermodynamics was being developed from the work of Watt and Carnot, Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx developed their rational critique of capitalism.

In 1790, before steam power had been applied to cotton spinning, Manchester had a population of 40 000. By 1831, after steam power had been applied, the population had grown to 142 000. One of Manchester’s new inhabitants was Peter Ermen who arrived from Germany as a 23 year old in 1825. Ermen set up as a manufacturer of cotton thread and his two brothers Godfrey and Anthony later joined him there. In 1838 Peter Ermen decided to set up a new business and went into partnership with Friedrich Engels from Barmen in Prussian Germany. The new firm of Ermen and Engels shared its offices with the existing Ermen brothers firm. To keep an eye on his investment, in 1842 Friedrich Engels sent his 22 year old son, also called Friedrich, over to Manchester where he stayed for 2 years.

During these two years in Manchester, Friedrich Engels junior met Mary Burns, an Irish working class woman who was to become his partner until her death in 1861. Through Mary, Engels was able to ‘discover the proletariat’ as Stathis Kouvelakis puts it [ ‘Philosophy and Revolution From Kant To Marx‘, Verso 2003, Chapter 4]. Karl Marx published reports of Engels discovery in publications he was editing which then formed the basis for Engels book ‘The Condition of the Working Class in England’ published in 1845. In 1850 Engels returned to work for Ermen and Engels in Manchester where he stayed until 1870.

The Proletariat originated in the industrial revolution, which took place in England in the last half of the last (18th) century, and which has since then been repeated in all the civilized countries of the world. This industrial revolution was precipitated by the discovery of the steam engine, various spinning machines, the mechanical loom, and a whole series of other mechanical devices. These machines, which were very expensive and hence could be bought only by big capitalists, altered the whole mode of production and displaced the former workers, because the machines turned out cheaper and better commodities than the workers could produce with their inefficient spinning wheels and handlooms. The machines delivered industry wholly into the hands of the big capitalists and rendered entirely worthless the meagre property of the workers (tools, looms, etc.). The result was that the capitalists soon had everything in their hands and nothing remained to the workers. This marked the introduction of the factory system into the textile industry. [Friedrich Engels ‘The Principles of Communism’, 1847, Part 4]

Although Engels mentions the steam engine here, it is listed along with other expensive ‘mechanical devices’. In 1847 (or even 1947) it was not possible to anticipate that by 2047 the industrial revolution which placed everything in the capitalists hands leaving nothing for the workers would have changed the world’s climate. This raises a question- with the climate change clock ticking away in the background, will the Proletariat be able to gain the upper hand over the Capitalists before 2 to 4 degrees Celsius of global warming becomes irreversible and we all become bit players in a Mad Max movie?

At the rate of current progress in the struggle between capital and labour, the answer is no. The cotton factories of Manchester have passed over into history but the capitalism they gave birth to continues to shape and reshape our world and our lives in its image. The workers of the world are still exploited and still in chains. As the Clash put it in 1976, all the power is [still] in the hands of the people rich enough to buy it.

1976 also saw the publication of a book which laid the foundations for what was to become the Green movement. Although  the science of climate change and global warming was not directly mentioned in the book, the ‘radical technology’ of its title focused on the need to develop renewable energy sources to deliver a sustainable ‘steady/stationary state’ economy. To achieve this goal a social or cultural revolution which would overturn capitalism was necessary.  However, as the authors explained in their Introduction, there was a problem.

Right from the beginning we were all socialists of one kind or another. We didn’t need any persuading that capitalism had to go. And yet, many of the things we felt were most wrong in capitalist society were heartily approved of by many others who called themselves socialists. We began to realise that there are two great streams of socialist thought. One, represented by Marxists and social democrats, however deep its disagreement with capitalism, at least shared its rational, materialist values of Progress, Science, Efficiency, Specialisation, Growth, Centralised Power, and fascination with the numbing achievements of smart-ass technology like Apollo and Concorde. And this was not all. They seemed to have a model of social development similar in many respects to the ideology of corporate liberalism.: that society should be organised for maximum production, with the products themselves being the principle rewards, offered as a compensation for the inevitable alienations of life and work in an industrial economy.

But the other great stream of socialist thought, represented by the anarchists and the utopians, looked at things quite differently. At first one could hardly take them seriously. They seemed to believe that subtle human satisfactions should be given priority over production requirements; that life should be satisfying in all its aspects; that power should flow from below; that the action is not all in the city; that production and consumption need not be segregated in the factory and the home, but could be fused in the community; that revolutions are born of hope not despair… What to do while waiting for the revolution? We let our imaginations off the leash and  get on with building parts of the post-revolutionary society where ever and whenever we can. [Radical Technology, 1976, p.8]

Tragically, by the time these words were written in 1976, the possibility of building another, greener UK had already slipped away. The 1974 Labour government had been elected on a manifesto promising radical change, including a commitment to industrial democracy and using revenue from North Sea oil to buy leading companies- social ownership of the means of production. But a combination of the conservatism of Labour party and trade union leaders, institutional resistance from the Treasury and a right-wing press already laying the foundations for Margaret Thatcher’s election in 1979 blocked the reforms. In the background there were also plots by elements of the security services and right-wing businessmen involving a military coup if the Labour government moved to far to the left under the influence  of ‘communist agents’. The plotters believed Labour prime minister Harold Wilson was one of these communist agents.

If the Labour government elected in 1974 had been able to push through radical reforms, could that really have made a difference? Possibly. If the economic/social/political direction of travel had been along lines more favourable to what the radical technologists called  ‘the other great steam of socialist thought represented by the anarchists and utopians’, instead of that great stream having to become a culture of resistance to the rightward shift we have seen since then, it would have become part of mainstream culture rather than remaining a counterculture.

As a consequence, when the evidence that the climate was warming started to build up in the 1980s, the creativity and dynamism of the counterculture would have been available as a collective resource for the social imagination. This would have facilitated the necessary shift towards a sustainable future.

Pushed to the margins over the past 40 years, the radical counterculture survives- but only just. But if we accept the reality of climate change, then we also have to accept  a radical restructuring of society away from ever increasing consumption of commodities -‘goods and services’- made and maintained by burning coal and oil but produced by our alienated labour. The radical counterculture  emerged out of the desire to end our alienation from the world we create, driven by psychedelic visions which broke down the boundary between self and world. Like Marx on acid, the result was a revolutionary movement which sought the negation of capitalist realism. The history of the radical counterculture shows that we already possess the consciousness needed to make a new reality. We must make a new reality because the old one is melting in the heat of climate change.

250 years ago James Watt acted in accordance with the rational reality of his time. These are different times and reality itself, thanks to Watt and his successors, has changed. The new reality creates a new rationality This new rationality is no less material, no less rooted in the physical world than the old. Indeed, since our scientific knowledge of the world is now greater than it was in Watt’s time, our new consciousness, the consciousness we must now aspire has to include a greater recognition of our being within the world.

A great change in the relationship between our lives and thought and the world we live in and influence has occurred over the past 250 years. Within the past 30 years knowledge that global warming and climate change are real events should have been influencing our collective understanding of that change in relationship. But because the knowledge of global warming and climate change has taken place within the same period as the rise of ‘neoliberalism’ the dominant culture of the economic elite has ignored and even disputed this knowledge since it cuts away the foundations on which their power is built.

The industrial revolution took off as the eighteenth century Age of Enlightenment began to falter in response to political reaction against the French Revolution. Despite Engels initial belief that the conflict between an impoverished proletariat and super-rich capitalists would spark an ‘English Revolution’, increasing use of coal as an energy source created enough wealth to buy-off the threat of revolution. Instead the belief that endless economic growth was possible took hold. The abstract philosophical ideals of the Enlightenment, which involved progress through greater social rationality, were supposed to have achieved actual and concrete form in an endless industrial revolution.

By now the end of the endless revolution should be in sight and the awareness of that ending should be sending ripples through the collective consciousness of humanity. But it isn’t in any obvious way. Radical politics still seems more focussed on challenging the neoliberal turn to austerity on the grounds that austerity is limiting economic growth -even though growth under the present set up will require more coal and oil to be burnt…

What will it take to change that?

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

If voting could change the system...

There was a knock on my door the other night. When I opened the door I was surprised to find Richard Arkless, SNP candidate for Dumfries and Galloway. If I had more presence of mind I would have invited him in for a chat, but I didn’t. Instead we spent ten minutes rapidly going through the implications of a cohort of SNP MPs arriving at Westminster after 7 May.

What I tried to explain very briefly was that having lived in England for 20 years, my hope is that the SNP MPs will shake up the UK in a constructive way, opening the way for progressive change. This was a difficult point to get across in a short conversation.

Part of the difficulty is that the radical politics and culture of the England I know has always been viewed as a threat by the UK establishment. From the anti-nuclear protest movement of the 1980s to the current anti-fracking movement, England’s ‘culture of resistance’ has been physical suppressed by the UK state and marginalised by the UK the media.

My late wife was a founder member of the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp so I was very aware of the role of the mainstream media in manufacturing consent for the status quo. But I was still taken aback by the full spectrum hostility directed against the Yes side during the Scottish independence  referendum  campaign. There was no neutral position, no hint that possibly the UK was an archaic institution in need of major reform. Or rather there wasn’t until couple of late opinion polls suggested that Yes might win when suddenly Scotland was promised major reform of the UK if there was a No vote…

Observing the intensity of opposition to Scottish independence also made me realise  how impossible the position of English radicalism has been. While English radicals have opposed the UK state, their opposition has always been fragmented and has never been able to cohere into an effective alternative. As the Labour party have moved to the right since the 1970s and without a proportional representation voting system,  English radicalism has also had to operate outside of parliamentary politics. The right-wing bias of UK media has further marginalised English radicalism, giving Ukip the oxygen of publicity while denying it to the English Green party.

I joined the Dumfries and Galloway Radical Independence Campaign in  March 2013. My hope then was that a Yes vote in September 2014 would rock the status quo in the  rest of the UK to the benefit of English radicalism. A strong element of RIC’s contribution to the independence debates was the need to break with the UK as a neoliberal state. We also pointed out that by working with the Conservative party in the No campaign, the Labour party in Scotland were nailing their colours to the neoliberal mast. At the local/regional level I worked out that for Yes to win in Dumfries and Galloway, virtually every Labour voter would have to vote Yes. Many did, but not enough. The No vote was 65.6%, one of the highest in Scotland.

Eight months later and the Labour vote is melting away here. Unless a significant number of Labour voters shift to the Tories, Richard Arkless will become our SNP MP, following in the footsteps of George Thompson (1974-1979) and Alasdair Morgan (1997-2001).

Significantly, even if Richard and 40 or more other SNP MPs are elected on 7 May, another independence referendum is not going to happen any time soon. Yet their election is still going to shock the status quo of the UK. Ironically, as an unintended consequences of last year’s  No vote, the  presence of this group of Scottish MPs at Westminster may do more to change the rest of the UK than independence would have done.      


Saturday, April 25, 2015

Austerity no more?

Photograph shows the engineering department of the London Rubber Company, Lydney, Gloucestershire November 1978. I am third from the right in the front row, aged 20. In 1981 as result of the Thatcher governments economic policies, the factory  was closed with the loss of 1000 jobs.

Looking at UK opinion polls showing Labour and Conservative parties neck and neck reminds me of  the two general elections held in 1974. Back then I  was a 15 year old pupil at Kirkcudbright Academy and George Thompson, who was my French teacher, was the SNP candidate for the Galloway constituency. I my lunch hours I helped with the SNP campaign but in the February general election George Thompson only got  9038 votes- not enough to beat the sitting Conservative MP John Brewis who got 13 316. In the second general election, held in October, George Thompson won by a wafer thin majority of 30. Then in 1979, George lost the seat by 2922 votes to Conservative Ian Lang, now Baron Lang of Monkland.

In 1979 I had just moved to London to take up a job working for the London Rubber Company. I had started working  in one of their factories in Gloucestershire in 1977. In 1981 that factory was closed thanks to Margaret Thatcher’s economic policies. In 1992 the London factory was also closed. By then I had moved on and in 1997 I returned to Scotland. But I sometimes wonder if  things had been different, would I still be living and working in London?

When I started working for London Rubber in 1977, the company was still expanding and growing. By the time I left at the end of 1983 it was contracting. Although I had  ‘It’s Scotland’s Oil’ plastered all over my schoolbag in 1974, it was not until I read an interview with Denis Healey in May 2013 that I made a connection with what happened to the London Rubber Company in the 1980s. This is what Healey said:

I think we did underplay the value of the oil to the country because of the threat of nationalism but that was mainly down to Thatcher. We didn’t actually see the rewards from oil in my period in office because we were investing in the infrastructure rather than getting the returns and really, Thatcher wouldn’t have been able to carry out any of her policies without that additional 5 per cent on GDP from oil. Incredible good luck she had from that.

The ‘underplaying’ of the value of the oil followed the suppression of the (in)famous McCrone Report in 1975. Digging a little deeper I found an interview from 1991 with Alan Budd, who had been an advisor to the Thatcher government in the 1980s.

Curtis: For some economists who were involved in this story, there is a further question: were their theories [ about monetarism] used to disguise political policies that would have otherwise been very difficult to implement in Britain?
Budd: The nightmare I sometimes have, about this whole experience, runs as follows. I was involved in making a number of proposals which were partly at least adopted by the government and put in play by the government. Now, my worry is . . . that there may have been people making the actual policy decisions . . . who never believed for a moment that this was the correct way to bring down inflation.
    They did, however, see that it would be a very, very good way to raise unemployment, and raising unemployment was an extremely desirable way of reducing the strength of the working classes — if you like, that what was engineered there in Marxist terms was a crisis of capitalism which re-created a reserve army of labour and has allowed the capitalists to make high profits ever since. Now again, I would not say I believe that story, but when I really worry about all this, I worry whether that indeed was really what was going on.

More recently, as support for the Labour party in Scotland has plummeted , I have wondered if the Labour party had been bolder back in 1975 and  published rather than suppressed the McCrone Report would it really have led to Scottish independence 40 years ago?

Realistically, it is an impossible question to answer since there are just too many ‘unknown, unknowns’ involved. On the other hand, researching the actual history of the 1974-79 Labour government has been an eye-opener. In particular, I have discovered just how difficult it is for left-radical policies to be put into practice in the UK. This is an important point for any attempt to understand the present (April 2015) situation where the Labour party in Scotland appears to be in meltdown. Is this due to a rise in Scottish nationalism, or is it down to a loss of faith in the Labour party’s left-radical credentials?

In the February 1974 general election the SNP gained 6 Scottish seats. This rose to eleven in the October election. However, nine of these eleven  SNP seats were in rural areas and at the expense of the Conservatives, not Labour. Looking at the results for the Galloway constituency, George Thompson’s win for the SNP in October 1974 seems to have been the result of anti-Conservative tactical voting by Liberal and Labour supporters rather than an increase in SNP support. More worrying for Labour were the 35 Labour held seats where the SNP came second.

At this point I was going to  suggest that the incoming Labour government elected in February 1974 kept quiet about the McCrone Report in case it boosted support for the SNP in the run up to an anticipated second general election. But according to wikipedia : ‘After discussions between St. Andrews House and the Cabinet Office in London, Prof. McCrone passed the report on to the new Labour government on 23 April 1975, along with a covering letter.’

If Labour were not aware of the McCrone Report until after the October election then its importance is  diminished. Unlike 2014 when the independence referendum brought into focus arguments about the economic viability of an independent Scotland, in 1974 when the SNP gained 30% of the vote in October, only 12% of Scots wanted independence. [Tom Devine, ‘The Scottish Nation 1707-2007’, Penguin 2006, p. 576] At general elections from 1979 to 2010, most Scottish voters remained loyal to the Labour party. Labour also managed to keep their vote up in Scottish parliament elections from 1999 to 2007 and only really lost out to the SNP in the 2011 election.

If the 1974-1979 Labour government did ‘downplay’ the value of North Sea oil as Denis Healey claimed in 2013, was that that entirely due to the nationalist threat? An alternative explanation is that the downplaying of oil wealth was also influenced by conflicts within the 1974-79 Labour government over economic policies. These conflicts arose because after Labour lost the 1970 election, a group on the left of the party reflected on the failure of the 1964-1970 Labour government to achieve radical change and came up with a series of proposals which they hoped a future Labour government would deliver on. These were set out in ‘Labour’s Programme 1973’ followed by ‘The Regeneration of British Industry’ which was a White paper published in August 1974.

Included in these radical proposals were the setting up of a National Enterprise Board and a National Oil Corporation. The aim was for the State in alliance with trade unions to take a leading strategic role  in pursuit of socialist economic policies as a way to counter the power of multi-national companies  to shift production across borders and avoid political control. ‘Regional regeneration’ was another aspect of these plans which aimed to ensure a redistribution of power and wealth. [John Medurst ‘That Option No Longer Exists-Britain 1974-76’, Zero books, 2014, pages 32-3].

Unfortunately, the proposals drew on theory developed by the Institute for Workers Control set up in 1968 following the almost revolution in France and the practice of the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders 1971-2 occupation. Although they would have only led to the radical reform rather than the  revolutionary supersession  of capitalism, the proposals were too bold for Harold Wilson and other Labour party leaders. They also outraged the Conservative party, the right-wing press and elements of the UK’s ‘secret state’ who believed that the Labour party, from Harold Wilson down, had been infiltrated by communists.

As it turned out, the global economic crisis which followed the 400% rise in the price of oil from $3 dollars/barrel in 1973 to $12/barrel by March 1974 intervened, allowing Labour to water-down the plans.

But at the same time, the rise in the price of oil helped the development of North Sea oil. Extracting oil from under the North Sea was more expensive than extracting oil from under the deserts of the Middle East. So the higher the price of oil, the more valuable the North Sea reserves became. This brings us back to Denis Healey’s claim that  the 1974-79 Labour government underplayed the value of the oil through fear of Scottish nationalism. This may be true, but it is also true that underplaying  the value of North Sea oil would have helped Healey and Wilson in their internal struggle against the radical left of the Labour party.

If the Labour government had talked up the future value of North Sea oil this would have encouraged the radical left to argue that the profits from North Sea oil should be used to help regenerate British industry. On a ‘more jam tomorrow’ basis, it might also have helped the Labour government avoid the conflict with public sector workers ovr wage rises which led to the 1978-79 ‘Winter of Discontent’ which helped Margaret Thatcher win the May 1979 election. If labour could have squeezed a victory in 1979, then they rather than the Conservatives would have had the benefit of the ‘additional 5% on GDP’  Healey mentioned.

From a Scottish perspective, the talking up of the potential of North Sea oil might have seen a stronger Yes vote in the 1979 devolution referendum. However, such an outcome would not necessarily have led to an increase in support for Scottish independence in the 1980s. The majority of Scottish voters remained loyal to the Labour party from 1979 to 2010. Even in the 2014 independence referendum, a significant part of  support for a Yes vote came from Labour supporters who wanted an alternative to neoliberal austerity. And, it would appear, they still do. The hope now is that if Scotland can elect enough SNP MPs  this will pull a potential Labour government to the left, steering  the UK away from the neoliberal path it has followed since 1975.

But as Richard Seymour noted back in 2010, the  programme of the 1974 Labour government

was a utopian programme in the strict sense that no thought had been given to the range of social forces it would be necessary to assemble and mobilise in order that its goals could be achieved, and its accomplishments protected. It was simply assumed that an elected government could bring these changes about, and that once implemented the ruling class would have no alternative but to accept them.  
[ http://www.leninology.co.uk/2010/08/collapse-of-consensus-myth-of-popular.html ]

Over the past 40 years the UK has undergone a radical shift to the right. This means that the prospect of even a minimal attempt to veer left is provoking a perfect storm of apocalyptic headlines. These are similar to the prophecies of plague and pestilence which Scotland was warned would follow independence, but now the volume has been turned up to 11 since it is the rest of the UK which is under threat. Bizarrely,  it would seem that simply by voting SNP, Scots now endanger the future of the UK as a ‘democracy’. In the 1970s, a similar level of apocalyptic frenzy was directed against the 1974-79 Labour government. The one thing missing in comparison to the 1970s is the claim that the SNP has been infiltrated by communists.

Harold Wilson was not and never had been a member of the Communist party and the leadership of the Labour party were opposed to radical-left policies. But in the fevered atmosphere of the time, elements of the right wing fringe of the UK establishment contemplated the need for some form of military coup to restore ‘order’ in case Wilson’s socialist policies led to a general strike/ communist revolution. These plans faded away once Margaret Thatcher replaced Ted Heath as leader of the Conservative party in 1975. The focus then shifted to ensuring Thatcher’s election. The right-wing press played their part in this by relentlessly pursuing a narrative of economic chaos and industrial crisis, of a ‘broken Britain’ which could only be mended by electing Margaret Thatcher as a strong leader.

What did the UK‘s right-wing ‘ruling class’ expect from a Thatcher victory in 1979? The title of a book by Keith Robbins published in 1983 sums it up -‘The Eclipse of a Great Power, Modern Britain 1870-1975’. The hope and expectation was that the UK’s power and prestige would be restored. That somehow a combination of liberals and socialists had allowed Great Britain’s imperial splendour to fade, reducing the UK to second-rate status. While a restoration of the empire was impossible, a restoration of the UK’s economic fortunes seemed achievable- if the power of organised labour as ‘the enemy within’ could be crushed. Along with this nostalgic objective, there was a second more practical and ‘neoliberal’ [not a term used at the time] objective- the ending of restrictions on the UK’s finance sector.

In January 1970, Ted Heath’s Shadow Cabinet met at the Selsdon Park hotel in south London. The outcome of this meeting was set of right-radical free market policies which influenced the Heath government after the Conservatives won the June 1970 election. However these met with strong opposition from trade unions and led to an increase in unemployment to 1 million in January 1972. This forced Heath to make a ‘U turn’ and abandon the Selsdon policies in favour of more Keynesian policies. This was opposed by the Selsdon Group [formed in 1973] of right-wing Tories who later became supporters of Margaret Thatcher. They were determined that the next time a Conservative government was elected there would be no ‘U turn’. Defeating the National Union of Miners, who had humbled the Heath government was another aim.

Without the help of North Sea oil, the first Thatcher government would probably have suffered the same fate as the Heath government, collapsing into economic chaos by 1981. But it didn’t and with the patriotic boost provided by the 1982 Falklands war, Thatcher won the 1983 election. Labour finally got back into power in 1997, but by then the British form of neoliberalism first sketched out at the Selsdon Park hotel in January 1970 had been adopted by Tony Blair’s ‘New’ Labour party. The 1997 general election also saw the SNP gain 6 seats, including Galloway and Upper Nithsdale won by Alasdair Morgan. The same election saw the Conservatives wiped out in Scotland.

Unlike 1974, in 1997 Labour won on a landslide with 418 seats, giving them majority of 179. With 45.6% of the vote in Scotland and 56 MPs, Labour were confident enough of their strength in Scotland to hold a second Scottish devolution referendum which led to the establishment of a devolved Scottish parliament in 1999.

And now? For the Labour party and the UK establishment, all that once seemed so solid is melting into air. Their victory on 18 September last year is turning into ashes. William Blake’s prophetic cry ‘Rejoice, Empire is no more’ will be heard across the land. The partial eclipse of a great power will have become total. In an anti-democratic coup, soon after 7 May a sealed train will carry  a small group of Scottish nationalists to London where they will seize power, holding the Mother of Parliaments to ransom until their
outrageous demands are met. They will then depart, leaving a chaos of Biblical proportions in their wake.

Looking for some kind of more realistic conclusion I am going to re-quote Richard Seymour on the left-radical programme of the Labour government elected in 1974 -

It was a utopian programme in the strict sense that no thought had been given to the range of social forces it would be necessary to assemble and mobilise in order that its goals could be achieved, and its accomplishments protected. It was simply assumed that an elected government could bring these changes about, and that once implemented the ruling class would have no alternative but to accept them.  

If an anti-austerity alliance is to prevail after 7 May,  a UK wide range of social forces will have to be rapidly assembled and mobilised if the goal is to be achieved and its accomplishment protected .

Friday, March 27, 2015

When Darkness Dawns Encyclopaedia of ecstasy Vol 2

‘When Darkness Dawns’ :The Encyclopaedia of Ecstasy Volume Two : November 1983

The last part of Volume Two was written on 11 November 1983,the same day that Operation Able Archer ended. During the ten days of Able Archer 83 the world came as close to nuclear annihilation as it had in the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.

The front and back cover were created by Paul Forder and the drawing on the last page by Val Drayton. The text was written by Alistair Livingston between 1979 and 1983. It is an extreme piece of writing.

Operation Able Archer 1983- from wikipedia 

Able Archer 83 was a ten-day North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) command post exercise starting on November 2, 1983, that spanned Western Europe, centered on the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) Headquarters in Casteau, north of the city of Mons. Able Archer exercises simulated a period of conflict escalation, culminating in a simulated DEFCON 1 coordinated nuclear attack. The exercise also introduced a new, unique format of coded communication, radio silences, and the participation of heads of government.

The realistic nature of the 1983 exercise, coupled with deteriorating relations between the United States and the Soviet Union and the anticipated arrival of Pershing II nuclear missiles in Europe, led some members of the Soviet Politburo and military to believe that Able Archer 83 was a ruse of war, obscuring preparations for a genuine nuclear first strike. In other words, they were concerned that what was called by those staging it, a training exercise disguised as an attack, was instead an attack disguised as a training exercise. In response, the Soviets readied their nuclear forces and placed air units in East Germany and Poland on alert.

This is known as the 1983 war scare. The 1983 war scare is considered by many historians to be one of the closest times the world has come to nuclear war since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. The only incident more severe was the Norwegian rocket incident of 1995. The threat of nuclear war ended with the conclusion of the exercise on November 11

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Encyclopedia of Ecstasy 1 reviewed

One inspiration for EOE 1

Dangerous Visions have just reviewed EOE 1

Full text here

Most of it below...

I’ve hardly encountered a specimen from the postpunk years of the early 1980s that better exemplified how mixed up and stimulating all the categories were getting, than The Encyclopaedia of Ecstasy, Vol. 1, an utterly mind-boggling zine put out by Alistair Livingston in 1983. Livingston had/has associations with the anarchist collective/zine Kill Your Pet Puppy which ran from 1979 to 1984…. he references Crass and Bauhaus and Blood and Roses. While one wouldn’t necessarily expect that a “psychedelic goth punk fanzine,” as Livingston himself termed the project, would contain visions that might have emerged from Arthur Rimbaud‘s absinthe-drenched writings, the fact is that any movement led by Crass and Psychic TV was going to be awfully erudite and aestheticized, fueled by some pretty foreboding concerns over technology and culture. It’s so “political” that it fans out into almost pure (hyperverbal, psychedelic) sensation. In keeping with the absinthe feel, one page is titled “Vivé La Decadence, Paris 1893-London 199?”

The cover, complete with an all-seeing Masonic pyramid, reminds me a great deal ofGustav Klimt, which when you consider that it appears to have been executed purely with blocky magic markers, is awfully impressive. (The Klimt association is far from accidental—page 6 features a Xerox’d shout-out to Klimt’s “Jurisprudenz,” which was later destroyed by the Nazis.) At one juncture Livingston inquires, “why aren’t crass the psychedelic furs?” (Good question!) There are suggestive cut-and-paste headlines such as “whoops there goes another nuclear plant” or “man sees world saved by robots.” At the bottom of page 1 is an exuberant shout-out to the like-minded: “There is more… Like “Kill Your Pet Puppy” (a zine)…. The Anarchy Centres, the Black Sheep Co-op, punk lives (!), the people, the music, the squats, the whole beautiful chaoticness.”

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

In the sky a lurid glow

The Neilson Mausoleum- Tongland kirkyard

How iron furnaces forged modern Scotland.

Post-referendum, the Labour vote in Scotland appears to be in meltdown. It now seems possible that despite victory for the No campaign last September, the SNP will win enough seats in the May UK general election to create a further constitutional/political crisis/major headache. But will a strong SNP vote mean that most former Labour voters  have become nationalists?  Or will a significant number of SNP voters in May be voting not as ‘nationalists’ but as opponents of neoliberal austerity? That suggestion is a simplification of an older and deeper dimension of Scotland’s politics, one which is tied up with the beginnings of the Labour party in Scotland. This in turn connects to the Scottish experience of industrialisation and ‘old’ rather than neo liberalism.

The following is a beginning. When it got to 3500 words I paused it. Even in this condensed form it will need another 4000 to finish and many more to do justice to the subject.

Hot Blast

In 1994 an attempt was made to blow-up a statue erected in 1834 on Beinn a' Bhragaidh. Attempts to have it more lawfully removed have also been made. An inscription at its base reveals why.

In lasting memorial of-George Granville-Duke of Sutherland Marquess of Stafford KG-An upright and patriotic nobleman-a judicious kind and liberal landlord-who identified the improvement of his vast estates-with the prosperity of all who cultivated them-a public yet unostentatious benefactor-who while he provided useful employment-for the active labourer-opened wide his hand to the distresses-of the widow the sick and the traveller-a mourning and grateful tenantry-uniting with the inhabitants of the neighbourhood-erected this pillar-AD MDCCCXXXIV (1834).

For many people the statue and its inscription  mocks and insults the memory of the thousands of people evicted from the land by the duke of Sutherland and other landowners during the Highland Clearances.

Three hundred miles to the south of Beinn a' Brigade a smaller monument on Barstrobrick hill in Galloway erected in 1888 commemorates an event which changed and disrupted the lives of hundreds of thousands of Scots, Irish and other nationalities. Yet this monument to human misery has never attracted any more than passing attention and has never been threatened with demolition or removal. Perhaps if the monument had been built on the same ‘eminence’ as this parish church, it would have attracted more attention and less indifference.

From the steeple of the parish church, which stands on a considerable eminence, the flames of no fewer than fifty blast furnaces may be seen. In the daytime these flames are pale and unimpressive; but when night comes on, they appear to burn more fiercely, and gradually there is developed in the sky a lurid glow similar to that which hangs over a city when a great conflagration is in progress. Dense clouds of smoke roll over it incessantly, and impart to all the buildings a peculiarly dingy aspect. A coat of black dust overlies everything, and in a few hours the visitor finds his complexion considerably deteriorated by the flakes of soot which fill the air, and settle on his face. There is something grand in even a distant view of the furnaces but the effect is much enhanced when they are approached to within a hundred yards or so. The flames then have a positively fascinating effect. No production of the pyrotechnist can match their wild gyrations. Their form is ever changing, and the variety of their movements is endless. Now they shoot far upward, and breaking short off, expire among the smoke; again spreading outward, they curl over the lips of the furnace, and dart through the doorways, as if determined to annihilate the bounds within which they are confined; then they sink low into the crater, and come forth with renewed strength in the shape of great tongues of fire, which sway backward and forward, as if seeking with a fierce eagerness something to devour.

In 1869, when the above was written, the parish church mentioned overlooked the rapidly growing town of Coatbridge in Lanarkshire. This growth began in 1830 when the first blast furnace built  for the Baird family at Gartsherrie  was fired up. The blast furnace was one of the first to use a new technique which was to revolutionise  the Scottish iron industry and make Scotland the workshop of  the world. The new technique involved superheating the air blasted into the furnace. This reduced coal consumption from 8 tons per ton of iron produced to three tons. This made the Scottish pig iron the cheapest in the world. In 1825, Scotland produced only 25 000 tons of pig iron per year. By 1840 this had risen to 240 000 tons, to 564 000 tons by 1848 and over 1 million tons by 1862.

The ‘hot blast’ technique of iron smelting which created this phenomenal growth was discovered by James Neilson, manager of the Glasgow Gas Works in 1828. The monument on Barstobrick hill was erected by his son Walter Neilson in honour of his father’s revolutionary discovery. After making his fortune through his discovery, James Neilson had bought Queenshill estate, including Barstobrick hill, in 1848. Neilson’s choice of Galloway to retire to was influenced by a family tradition that John Neilson of Corsock in Galloway was an ancestor. James Neilson was a strongly religious man and John Neilson was a Covenanter ‘martyr’ -or rebel- who was executed in Edinburgh in December 1666 after being captured following the battle of Rullion Green.

There is a difficult point to make here. When the duke of Sutherland and other Highland landowners began reorganising their estates, were they intentionally setting out to destroy the traditional ways of life of their tenants, or were they trying to improve the lives of their tenants? In Lowland Scotland, it is accepted and understood that the re-organisation of estates by landowners was intended to modernise and improve farming practice, making it more profitable for landowner and tenant. The aim, which was accomplished, was to move from subsistence to surplus, banishing the spectre of ‘dearth’ (famine)  from the land.

The problem in the Highlands was that the its very different physical and human ecology meant that trying to copy a process which had worked in the Lowlands failed, with disastrous consequences. But, given the very limited knowledge of physical and human ecology available at the time, how could  Highland landowners have predicted the destructive consequences of their actions? In the context of the Highland Clearances, such arguments are dismissed as apologetic excuses. But by the same logic, does that mean we must hold James Neilson and the Scottish iron masters who profited from his invention accountable for the appalling human cost of the industrial revolution they created?

Extending this argument and with the benefit of environmental hindsight, would it have been better for Scotland if its coal and ironstone had been left untouched beneath the ground?

Coal had been exploited in Scotland since the middle ages, a move pioneered by the great abbeys who used it to boil sea water in  to make salt. However, even by the beginning of the nineteenth century, most coal was still used domestically and production was based on small, shallow mines. Of the future iron producing areas, the expansion of coal mining in Ayrshire had been limited by the failure of several attemtps to break into the Irish coal trade. Since the mid-seventeenth century, coal mining had been built up in West Cumberland to supply the Irish market and Cumbrian coal retained its dominance of this market through the eighteenth century. While coal from Lanarkshire supplied Glasgow, as late as 1769 coal mining was still not a major industry.

By 1769 work had begun on the Forth and Clyde canal and James Watt had surveyed the route of what was to become the Monklands canal. James Steuart, who owned the 12 000 acre Coltness estate was a former Jacobite who had spent 20 years in exile in Europe. Steuart was interested in political economy and had already published his book ‘Outlines of Political Economy’.  In 1769 Stueart published ‘Considerations on the Interest of the County of Lanarkshire in Scotland’. The main focus of this paper was Steuart’s fear that the Forth and Clyde canal would damage the economy of Lanarkshire by allowing imports of grain from the eastern Lowlands to be sold cheaply in Glasgow. Lower grain prices would have a damaging impact on the process of agricultural improvement in Lanarkshire. Ironically, in 1836 Steuart’s son sold Coltness estate for £80 000, not for its agricultural value, but for the coal and ironstone which lay beneath its fertile fields.

Between 1769 and 1836, Scotland did undergo an industrial revolution. This revolution was based on cotton. By 1835 there were 125 cotton mills in Scotland, but although steam was a mature technology, 44 % of the power used in the mills was still supplied by waterwheels. Likewise although there were steamships and steam locomotives at work in Scotland by 1830, their demand for coal could still be met by traditional coal mining. Population growth and economic growth would have increased demand for coal through the nineteenth century. More modern, deeper mines would have been developed to meet this demand, but without the stimulus of the iron industry, this change would have been more gradual and less traumatic.

The discovery that coke could be used instead of charcoal to smelt iron was first made by Abraham Darby in England in 1709. It took fifty years before the technique was successfully applied in Scotland at the Carron iron works. After 1759 no new iron works were built in Scotland until 1785 when the Clyde iron works was built and over the next forty years only a further eight  were constructed. This contrasts with the situation in South Wales where production of pig iron grew from 12 300 tons in 1788 to 277 643 tons in 1830. This was 41% of total UK production. Scottish pig iron production in 1830 was only 39 000 tons or 5.5% of total UK production.

Why was the South Wales iron industry so much more successful than the Scottish iron industry before 1830? There are two main reasons. Firstly, production costs were lower. The Welsh coal had a carbon content of 80%, twice that of Scottish coal. This meant that the Welsh needed less coal to produce their iron. The Welsh coal and ironstone were close to the surface in the hills and could be mined using horizontal shafts driven into the sides of the Welsh valleys. This reduced the labour costs involved in mining the coal and iron stone, producing another cost saving. Secondly, the Welsh had the advantge of ‘location, location, location’. The iron works were linked to Cardiff and Newport by dense network of eighteenth century canals and waggonways. From Cardiff and Newport the Welsh iron could not only be exported by sea but also sent, via the river Severn and the English canal network, to the already well established metal bashing industries of the West Midlands.

Until 1830, the main disadvantage of the Scottish iron industry was that the low -35% to 40%- carbon content of Scottish coal meant that it took as much as 8 tons of coal to produce one ton of iron. This made Scottish iron more expensive than Welsh iron. Apart from the Carron iron works, which specialised in the production of cannons -the Carronade- the other Scottish iron works were only able to survive because the transport costs of shipping Welsh iron to Scotland offset its cheaper production costs. If progress on deepening the Clyde to Glasgow had been more rapid, or if a rail link to England had been established earlier, the Scottish iron industry might have withered away before Neilson’s hot-blast could revolutionise it.

Neilson had become manager of the Glasgow Gas Company in 1817. In 1824 he was approached by an ironmaster who asked if the techniques used to purify the gas could be used to remove sulphur from the air used in blast furnaces. As Neilson explained in a paper he read to the Glasgow Philosophical Society in 1825,this question had arisen because ironmasters had observed that the iron produced in winter was superior to iron produced in summer. In the absence of  scientific knowledge, some ironmasters believed that there was more sulphur in the air in summer while many others believed that colder air produced finer iron. Neilson argued that the difference was due to the higher oxygen content of cold air. He also noted that warmer air had a higher water content.

This led him to experiment with heating the air to dry it out. His first experiment involved supplying an ordinary blacksmith’s forge with heated air ‘the effect was that fire was rendered  most brilliant, with an intense degree of heat’ while blasts of cold air produced only ordinary brightness and heat. Unfortunately, as Neilson later recounted, there was a ‘strong prejudice’ and a ‘superstitious dread’  amongst furnace managers against meddling with furnaces that were producing good quality iron. However, one of the furnaces at the Clyde iron works was producing poor quality iron so Neilson was allowed to experiment with heating the blast supplied to this furnace. This improved its performance and Neilson was able to use the results of his trials at the Clyde iron works to produce a provisional patent for his invention in 1828 and a full patent in 1829. The first hot-blast furnace using an ‘improved apparatus’ began operations at the Clyde iron works in 1830.

If it had been left to existing ironmasters, their ‘strong prejudice’ against innovation would have led to a slow uptake of Neilson’s hot-blast. The rapid adoption of the new technology was driven by the Bairds of Gartsherrie. The Baird family had been tenant farmers in Lanarkshire for generations. They had profited  rise in food prices during the Napoleonic wars,  but as prices fell after 1815, Alexander Baird took on the lease of a coal mine near the Monklands canal in 1816. Alexander had 8 sons and made William, then aged 20, manager while Alexander junior, aged 16, became the selling agent in Glasgow. In 1825 the brothers took the lease of a pit at Gartsherrie in Old Monklands parish. The problem with supplying coal for the Glasgow market was its seasonal nature with high demand in winter and low demand in summer. The existing coal suppliers also operated a cartel, keeping the price of coal high by restricting production. It seems likely that the Bairds decision in 1828 to build an iron furnace at Gartsherrie was driven by a need to find a use for surplus stocks of coal and the fact that there were extensive reserves of ironstone in the immediate area.

The Bairds first furnace was fired up in 1830 and was a hot-blast furnace. This meant that they were immediately able to produce pig iron more cheaply than their traditionalist competitors. Emboldened by the success of their new venture, by 1843 the Bairds had built 16 blast furnaces at Gartsherrie producing 100 000 tons of pig iron per year making it the largest iron works in the world. As they built more iron furnaces, the Bairds improved the hot-blast systems used and stopped paying royalties to Neilson. This led to a legal dispute which Neilson won in 1843. During the trial, the Bairds revealed that in the ten years between 1833 and 1843 they had made £ 260 000 net profit from hot-blast iron.

The Bairds ability to make huge profits from Neilson’s hot-blast was in part due to the discovery that Lanarkshire’s blackband ironstone (iron ore mixed with coal) and raw splint coal could be used directly in their furnaces. More pig iron could then be produced from less coal and iron ore. But in addition to this cost saving, the Bairds and other ironmasters made sure that the labour costs involved in mining the coal and ironstone were also reduced. This was achieved by what can only be described as a class war directed against their employees.

The problem faced by the ironmasters was that, as Alan Campbell explained in ‘The Lanarkshire Miners’ (Edinburgh, 1979), between 1606 and 1799 Scottish coal miners had been legally bound to their place of employment. While this form of neo-feudal serfdom guaranteed mine-owners a dedicated workforce, it also deterred new entrants to the workforce. The bonded miners believed that their wages were linked to the price of coal, so when coal prices were high so were their wages. This encouraged them to limit the amount of coal they mined so its price remained high. Well into the nineteenth century, the early miners’ trade unions continued trying to keep their wages up by restricting how much coal they mined.

However, although the new hot-blast iron furnaces needed less coal, high coal prices risked losing the resulting cost-advantage. The furnaces also had to be kept going 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year. The ironmasters needed a constant supply of cheap coal and as more hot-blast furnaces were built, they had to keep increasing the supply of coal and ironstone to the furnaces. To do so, the ironmasters opened their own coal and ironstone mines. At first these mines were close to the iron works but as production increased the ‘industrial frontier’ was pushed further out into the Lanarkshire and Ayrshire countryside.

To accommodate their workforce, the ironmasters built housing for them, as cheaply as possible. To feed their workers, they also opened company stores where the workers had to spend their wages. In theory the Truck Act passed in 1831 made this illegal, but as late as 1871 the House of Commons had to set up an inquiry into its effectiveness after a petition signed by 100 000 miners. In Lanarkshire it was found that there had been no criminal prosecutions under the Truck Act. This, it turned out, was because the ironmasters had effective control over the legal system in Lanarkshire.

Before Coatbridge 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 plus parts of Shotts and Bothwell made a into a special police district, paying for the new police force through the rates they paid on their extensive properties in the area.

By 1869, although there were 415 Commissioners of Supply owning property with an annual value of £100 in Lanarkshire, the smaller Finance Committee, dominated by the ironmasters and large landowners like the duke of Hamilton who was also a mine owner, 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. In 1871, the auditor of the accounts for Lanarkshire’s Committee of Supply said that he would not allow the expenses for a prosecution under the Truck Act because he believed the Commissioners ‘would not sanction it’.

James Baird’s account of a strike at Gartsherrie iron works.

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.
Thus we were left with eight furnaces, and not a single collier at Gartsherrie. We were not
obliged, however, to draw upon our reserve supplies. We had  now an " open cast " ready for work, and at Gartgill we had about twenty acres of the Pyotshaw coal hanging on the roof of the main coal, and it could be easily brought down. This we found could be accomplished by ordinary labourers, and we were soon able to procure a large output from the open cast and  from the Pyotshaw coal—a good many labourers who had been
working about the pits being now employed at the common coal faces. In the course of three weeks the output had been so much increased that we were able to carry on the whole of the furnaces. So stubborn, however, were the colliers, notwithstanding what they saw we were able to do, that they did not look near us for fifteen weeks.
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.

Labels: , , , , , , ,

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Enyclopaedia of Ecstasy 1983