Why Scotland needs to stop living in the past

Gerry Hassan

The Scotsman, November 14th 2013

Who do we have such a powerful propensity to live much of our life backwards?

This can be seen in the power of the past – from mythical wrongs and injustices, to symbolic, psychic triumphs and disasters – the latter ranging from the Darien scheme to Ally’s Tartan Army’s ill-fated expedition to Argentina.

One defining moment of recent history which operates as a lodestar and hinge year politically is ‘the Year Zero’ of 1979.

There are several versions of this. The most visible and noisy is the Labour-SNP contest of who did what to whom all those years ago. There is the accusation of who brought down the Labour Government, and the counter-charge of who inaugurated the era of Thatcherism.

Bruce Crawford, SNP MP and former business manager of the Scottish Parliament, earlier this year said, ‘After the 1979 referendum, Scotland suffered 18 years of Tory rule we didn’t vote for’. An SNP press release at the same time declared that we ‘were given 18 years of Tory rule’.

From the other side, Johann Lamont, two months ago in First Minister’s Questions, declared, ‘It wasn’t my party which walked through the lobbies to create a Tory Government under Margaret Thatcher’. She then warmed to her theme, asserting to the SNP benches, ‘I know, they don’t like to remember their own history. This is what the SNP did to Scotland and Scotland will never forgive them’.

There is victimhood, anger and evasion of responsibility in both these accounts, but Lamont’s is out on its own in its parallel universe thinking. Labour are still furious at the SNP for having the audacity to exist, challenge them, and call time on what had become the Labour self-preservation society. What logic publically thinks ‘Scotland will never forgive’ a party to whom it has awarded two successive electoral mandates?

However, the Labour-SNP game of pass the parcel of blame for ’79 isn’t the only show in town. There are the voices of ‘civic Scotland’ who present the Scotland of pre-1979 as a land of happiness and opportunity, and who are blind to the many failings of the Scotland of the 1970s. One commentator even dared to pose recently that in the pre-Thatcher world, there were no homeless in Scotland.

This is collective amnesia and invented history. The Scotland of the 1970s was a society characterised by rising poverty, low pay, and structural long-term unemployment. All this is recorded in analyses of the time such as ‘The Red Paper on Scotland’, edited by one Gordon Brown.

This isn’t to deny that all of these socio-economic indicators worsened under Thatcher: Scotland seeing the number of children living in poverty doubling by the end of her reign. But there is a denial of the long term embedded nature of these issues, many of which have plagued Scotland since industrialisation. So much simpler to blame Thatcher and the events of 1979.

There is another strand where this Scottish attitude falls short and that is in its insularity and complete disinterest in the epic global changes of that year and decade.

1979 was a moment of revolutionary change across the planet. Thatcher came to power, Deng Xiaoping began his market capitalist reforms in China, the Iranian revolution overthrew the Shah, and Pope John Paul II visited his homeland of Poland, beginning the unraveling of the Soviet bloc.

As important as all the above, Ronald Reagan began his long march to the Republican Presidential nomination, which he would win the following year, subsequently defeating Democrat incumbent Jimmy Carter, heralding ‘Reagonomics’, the Second Cold War, and Reagan-Thatcher love-in.

All of these changes were products of deep faultlines and recurring crises in the post-war global order: of the collapse of the system of managed capitalism, the inability of Soviet Communism to compete economically with the West, and the failure of secular modernity in the Middle East and Muslim world.

This was the decade which saw the abandonment of the Bretton Woods international order, the floating of the dollar in 1971 as a direct consequence of US over-reach in the Vietnam war, leading to the end of fixed currencies. Following this the 1973 OPEC oil price rise after the fourth Arab-Israeli war and 1979 oil price shock after the Iranian revolution, sent tremors through the world economy.

We are still living in the aftermath of these seismic changes. 1979 and the coming of Thatcher and Reagan the following year came at the end of these huge changes in finance, economics, politics and global power.

While some date the birth of modern Scotland to this momentous year 1979 – we are now so far away from it that it now sits half-way between 1945 and today. That means we have had as many years affected by the Thatcher counter-revolution as the post-war settlement.

We have to let 1979 go. It is meaningless to the generation that has come subsequently – as imagined and invented as Bannockburn and the Battle of Britain – both of which still matter as storied history and as part of our foundation myths.

We have to let the past become history. Previous generations had to let go of their myths: of, for example, Jarrow, the hunger marches, Tory appeasement of fascism and Hitler in the 1930s. That doesn’t mean forgetting; it means putting it in proper perspective.

Scotland has to stop living in the past and trying to continually rewrite perceived wrongs. To take a lead, perhaps Johann Lamont can stop revisiting 1979 and get over the fact that the SNP are a permanent fixture on the Scottish political scene who speak for a large part of our country. Maybe SNP politicians could stop peddling a one-dimensional version of the 1980s where Thatcher set about destroying the very fabric of Scottish life.

Isn’t it time we just grew up a bit and stopped telling the same old hoary tales of how the Tories came to get us? There is an element of truth in this, but it prevents us collectively taking responsibility and maturing for the tough choices we are going to have to take in the next few years.