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

Friday, September 18, 2015

The Personal is Historical; the Historical is Personal

Guardian Obituary of my partner 

A few days ago this question was posed on my Facebook page. 

If it's not too philosophical, just which train was it you caught to transport you from radical punk to researcher and preserver of 19th and 20th century railway and industrial history? It's a fascinating journey. Although the outward journey from rural CD to radical punk in London in the 70's is perhaps even more so. 

These are the pics which inspired the question.

Model of coal mine I am making.

Inspiration for model- coal mine in Cumbria 1971

At just over 2000 words my response is a bit long for Facebook, so I am posting it here instead.

1.Castle Douglas to London and back again: 1976-1997.

1. 1 In 1976 I left Kirkcudbright Academy for Stirling University. Unfortunately my main subject was English Literature because English was my best subject at school and my career guidance at school had suggested I should aim to become an English teacher. On reflection History would have been the better choice with Politics rather than Philosophy as my second subject. Also a university in a city would have been amore interesting place to study rather than Stirling’s rural campus. However, Through a student society I did discover what was then called the radical or alternative technology movement which was a proto-Green movement.

1.2 The outcome of the career misguidance was that instead of returning to Stirling in autumn 1977, I moved down to the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire to help my uncle and aunt reconstruct a cottage on a smallholding there. I then looked for work locally and on my first try got a job in nearby Lydney as a Clerical Assistant in the Engineering Depart of  the J Allen Rubber Company for the duration  of a project to build a complete rubber glove plant for export to Malaysia. 

1.3.  When that job ended in late 1978 I was offered the post of Trainee Draughtsman in the Engineering depart of the main (London Rubber) factory in London. I started there on 2 January 1979. After many adventures, including running a punk record label, graduating in Social Anthropology from the prestigious School of Oriental and African Studies, getting married to an ex-punk Greenham Woman and having three children I moved back to Castle Douglas in July 1997. This move was prompted by my wife’s death in 1996. I found it very difficult to be a single parent with young children (one with severe disabilities) in inner city  London. 

2. Discovering Galloway’s History 1997-2012

2.1 Before I moved back to Castle Douglas, on a visit home in spring 1997 I discovered that Dumfries and Galloway Council were drafting a Structure Plan which would guide economic development in the region over the next five years. I read the draft of the Structure Plan and responded to the consultation by suggesting turning the middle (Castle Douglas to Creetown) section of the Dumfries-Stranraer railway into a long distance cycle path. The idea was too ambitious for the time, but did get me thinking about the Dumfries and Galloway and its potential future.

2.2 Following on from this, after I had moved back I started digging into local history and the influence of the past on the present/ future. These investigations led on (eventually) to my Master of Philosophy thesis on the Galloway Levellers Uprising of 1724 at Glasgow University Dumfries campus 2006-9 under the supervision of Professor Ted Cowan (campus Director).

2.3 An unexpected by-product of the Galloway Levellers research was the discovery of a dense network of connections between the later (after 1760) era of ‘Improvement’/ economic development in the region and leading figures of the Scottish Enlightenment. These included Adam Smith who after acting as the 3rd duke of Buccleuch’s tutor influenced the duke’s improvement of his Dumfriesshire and Scottish Border’s estates. Another leading Enlightenment figure was Henry Home/lord Kames who had close  and influential -via marriage and friendship- links with local agricultural improvers William Craik of Arbigland, Richard Oswald of Cavens/Southerness and Patrick Heron IV of Kirauchrie -Kame’s brother in law.

2.4 Beyond the region, a group of economic migrants from Galloway moved to Lancashire in the 1780s and became leading figures in the Manchester cotton industry 1790-1850.A different group, including William Ewart from Troqueeer and John Gladstone (born in Edinburgh but from a Biggar based family) moved to Liverpool. William Ewart was god father to John Gladstone’s son the Victorian prime minister William Ewart Gladstone.  

3. Scottish History and Politics 2013-15

3.1 In 2005 I started writing a blog called ‘greengalloway’. As the title suggests, it was meant to about Galloway from a Green perspective. However, for the first post I didn’t have anything Green about Galloway to hand so I recycled an article I had written about radical punk in London. To my surprise several of my old friends from London commented enthusiastically on the post so I wrote some more as a way to document an otherwise forgotten part of recent history. I then started adding pieces of ‘work in progress’ from my Galloway Levellers research to create a rather confusing mixture of 18th and 20th century radical histories- with some contemporary events thrown in eg the campaign to keep Glasgow University’s Dumfries campus open in 2006. 

3.2 In March 2013, Lucy Brown who had returned home to Dalry to work on her PhD thesis [ Lucy now works for Joan McAlpine MSP contacted me. She had read my greengalloway blog and wondered if I would be interested in helping set up a regional branch of the Radical Independence Campaign which had been launched in November 2012. I agreed and became active in Dumfries and Galloway Radical Independence, giving several talks to meetings and writing for our blog- 64 posts to date.

3.3 While there were over 20 RIC branches from Inverness in the north to ourselves in the south during the Referendum campaign, RIC’s main focus was in what used to be Labour’s industrial heartlands. Perhaps significantly, areas like Glasgow, Dundee and North Lanarkshire which showed strong Yes support were also the areas where RIC was most active, campaigning strongly in the most deprived (social/ council housing) areas. 

3.4 Reflecting on the strength of the Yes vote n thee areas and the dramatic decline in support for the Labour part, over the past year I have been researching and writing on Scotland’s industrial history. My starting point was a local connection- James Beaumont Neilson (1792-1865) who invented the ‘hot blast’ technique of iron smelting. From my parent’s house Neilson’s ’Hot Blast’ monument near Ringford is clearly visible, but although familiar since childhood, I had not realised quite how important Neilson’s discovery was. Essentially it laid the foundations for the growth of Scotland’s heavy engineering industries. The growth of these industries and the expansion of coal mining which supported them transformed Scotland in the nineteenth century. Neilson’s son Walter played his part in this development as a builder of railway locomotives in Glasgow. 

4 Summary and (not yet) Conclusion

4.1 Punk originally emerged in the 1970s as a reflection of the narrative of ‘crisis’ in that decade as the certainties of the post-war social democratic consensus gave way to social and economic confusion. The cultural revolution of the 1960s had made the personal political- eg the women’s rights and gay rights movements. But the optimism of the 1960s social revolution gave way to pessimism as the economic impact of a sudden rise in oil prices in 1973/4  sent ripples through the UK and global economies. 

4.2 The election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 and Ronald Reagan in 1980 heralded what at the time seemed like a temporary rightward shift in the economic, social and political spheres. Radical punk emerged as part of a ‘culture of resistance’ to this shift. In particular the heightening of Cold War tensions and the revived threat of nuclear war made imaginative young people face the prospect of their own mortality- similar to the effect of the Cuba missile crisis in the 1960s described in Jeff Nutall’s 1968 book on that era’s counterculture ‘Bomb Culture’.

4.3 At the same time the economic policies of the Thatcher government had a direct effect on my career prospects. The factory I where I had started working in 1977 was closed in 1982 and (although I had left by then) the main London factory closed in 1992. The Project Engineering department of the London factory I had joined in 1979 was wound up in 1983. I had been taken on there in the expectation that the London Rubber Company would continue to expand, but by 1983 contraction rather than expansion was the reality. If I had not left to run radical punk record company I would probably have been made redundant anyway. 

4.4 The Thatcher/Reagan years turned out to mark a permanent (so far) shift to the right, to what is now called neoliberalism. The 2008 global financial crisis did not mark the end of the neoliberal project. Instead it has  continued as a new age of  ‘austerity’. Significantly, a key theme of RIC during the independence referendum campaign was the argument that an independent Scotland could  reject neoliberal austerity in favour of a more socialised economy.  

4.5 Although some RIC branches are still active, after the referendum several key players in RIC set up the Scottish Left Project which has very recently become a Scottish left alliance called RISE [Respect Indpendence Socialism Environmentalism] which will be putting up regional list candidates in next year’ Scottish parliament elections. Although I have been a Scottish Green party member for nearly ten years I am willing to support RISE so long as they take the ‘Environmentalism’ part of their name seriously. In the past socialists have tended to dismiss green issues as middle class issues.

4.6 My current ‘work in progress’ therefore involves linking the economic and social history of urban/ industrial Scotland with environmental concerns- in particular climate change. This research has, however, thrown up a political complication. There is a popular perception n Scotland that it was Margaret Thatcher’s economic policies which saw the destruction of Scotland’s traditional mining and heavy engineering industries. But I have found that the eclipse of Scotland as traditional industrial nation has its origins many decades earlier. 

4.7 As an example, the closure of the Ravenscraig steel works in 1992 (by John Major’s Tory government) has come to symbolise the ‘industrial clearances’. Yet back in 1929, a report on the future of the Scottish iron and steel industry recommended shifting production from the Motherwell area of North Lanarkshire to a new integrated steel production centre near Erskine Ferry on the Clyde. But this would have meant closing existing plants in Lanarkshire which was too big a step for the companies involved. These plants were built before Lanarkshire’s iron ore reserves had been exhausted (which they were by 1929) and when only relatively shallow  (so cheaper) pits were needed to mine Lanarkshire’s coal.  Instead of relocating to a coastal site, the main steel company (Colvilles) planned to buikd a new steel works near Motherwell. The war and then nationalisation delayed these plans until 1967 when Colvilles built Ravenscraig. It was never very successful, leading to its eventual closure in 1992. If a different decision had been made in 1929 Scotland might still have a steel industry.

4.8 Despite the result a year ago today, the independence question remains open and there could well be another referendum. This is partly because ‘independence’ has become for a significant number of people an answer to every political, economic and social question. It isn’t. the Scotland of today and tomorrow is a Scotland shaped and created by the past. Not the ancient past of Bruce and Wallace or the Jacobites, but the more recent past of James Neilson and the Colvilles. Even rural and agricultural Dumfries and Galloway has been shaped by this recent past with an economy geared up to feeding the industrial towns and cities of central Scotland.

4.9 If I had chosen (or been advised to choose) History as my specialist subject at university back in 1976 by now I might have a greater academic knowledge of the past. But it would be a more abstract knowledge, not a knowledge/ understanding of how historical forces ( the Thatcher era for example) shape and direct the lives of those caught up in the abstract process of change. Put another way, the critical thing to achieve is what Marxist call ‘historical consciousness’- which also has to be a form of collective (= class in Marxist terms) consciousness. My hope is that by writing, talking, communicating, sharing what I discover about 19th and 29th century railway and industrial history I am making a contribution to our collective historical consciousness. Unlike radical punk, which ended up communicating only to itself, radical history has the potential to connect with everyone  since we all at once inherit and add to /pass on our family/community/personal/regional/national histories. The radical aspect lies in the possibility that once we become conscious of history we can become active rather than passive participants in making future history.  


Blogger Unknown said...

Good stuff! Thanks for your consciousness.

2:04 pm  
Blogger John Serpico said...

This is really interesting, Alistair. You're probably already aware of them but I'd like to point you in the direction of the Bristol Radical History mob (www.brh.org.uk) as they're coming from a very similar place as you. Check them out, get in touch, as it might prove to be mutually beneficial if not right now then at some point in the future? Ask for Roger, tell him I sent you!

7:42 pm  

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