Demolishing ‘Modern Scotland’: A Political Vision in Ruins

The demolition of Cockenzie power station and Red Road flats two weekends apart from one another has changed the Lothian and Glasgow skylines forever. The destruction of the two mid-twentieth century behemoths provided major spectacles. Significant crowds gathered to see the controlled explosion of one of the last generation of coal-fired power stations; and what had been Europe’s tallest high rise flats, providing a home for almost 5,000 people at its peak. Cockenzie had been a prominent part of the landscape of Central-Eastern Scotland, whilst Red Road was visible from much of Glasgow, particularly if you arrived in the city on the M8. However, although the structures were upright until very recently, the social and political foundations on which they were built were dynamited long ago.

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Red Road flats under construction

The stories of the fate of the coal industry and the failure of tower blocks are both established narratives, and contested terrain. The demolitions have brought them to public attention once more, while at the same time raising the question of the value of heritage, and the arguments behind what we destroy in the name of progress, and what we preserve in the name of posterity <http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/scotland-blog/2015/sep/24/goodbye-to-cockenzie-power-station-a-cathedral-to-coal>. Yet, the simultaneous destruction of two compelling symbols of Scottish modernity raises questions about what led to their construction and the ultimate designation of their status as locations of economic and social failure. Cockenzie and Red Road were both products of the last major effort to reconstruct Scotland as an industrial nation during the mid-twentieth century. They were the product of British state intervention, and a commitment towards conjoining economic development with a conception of a modern form of social life.

The decades following the Second World War were marked by a heightened drive towards bringing new industries to Scotland, and building new housing in place of inner city slums. There was a particular focus on ‘clearing’ inner city Glasgow in favour of relocation to new towns, peripheral estates, and high rise flats. The latter were incentivised for local authorities by government policy, whilst they were also seen as prestige projects. The building of Red Road was inspired by examples from Marseilles following a visit from the Glasgow Corporation. As demonstrated in the 1966 public information film, ‘Homes in the Sky’, < https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Db8WYY1Er-Q > they were seen as the epitome of advancement, providing a practical solution to overcrowding by building upwards. The commentator proudly notes the presence of Soviet experts – keen to learn from the cutting edge example that Glasgow was providing.

Cockenzie was also part of a modernist vision for Scotland. It was constructed alongside the Kincardine and Longannet power stations in Fife during the late 1960s. All three were to be powered by the National Coal Board’s (NCB) newly sunk ‘super pits’. In the case of Longannet this extended to the mechanical efficiency and engineering spectacle of coal directly being fed into the power station from conveyor belts connecting it to the deep mine complex sunk beneath the power station. Cockenzie received coal from Monktonhall and Bilston Glen collieries in Midlothian, which both commenced production in the mid-1960s. As part of the NCB’s strategy production was focused on highly capitalised super pits, which made the most efficient use of increasingly capital intensive coal extraction methods, and employed large workforces. Both collieries reached peak production in the early 1970s, with Monktonhall’s employment reaching a height of 1,786, and Bilston Glen a somewhat larger total of 2,386.(figures from Canmore.org.uk)

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Cockenzie power station

Against the grain of more recent politicised misconceptions, coal was a key figurative in the modernising of Scotland after 1945. However, the energy that the new power stations provided was destined to aid diversification beyond the ‘staple’ coal, steel, shipbuilding, and textile industries. This was in line with a widely shared policy objective among the Scottish civil service, business and both Conservative and Labour political elites founded on the perspective that overdependence on the export facing staples with their origins in the first industrial revolution of the nineteenth century, had left Scotland severely vulnerable during the interwar depression. Modernisation was envisioned through achieving external investment, with marked input from American multinationals, in light engineering and vehicle building sectors. This involved the deployment of the UK state system of regional policy, which, through a combination of capital controls, coercion, and incentives, directed industrial investment. Key examples of firms brought to Scotland include the Timex watch making factory in the ‘juteopolis’ of Dundee, and the construction of the Rootes (later Chrysler) car factory in Paisley, part of an effort to attain a Scottish presence in the industry which lent ‘Fordism’ its name. The mid-1950s construction of the Caterpillar tractor factory in Uddingston, South Lanarkshire, atop the site of former coal workings, was an apt metaphor for the process. It came alongside the destruction of miners rows housing, which was largely replaced by new public housing.

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Willie Ross

The politics of managing this transition were statist, technocratic and unionist. Planners and civil servants engaged in the construction of five New Towns, and local authorities in the building of large high rise projects and peripheral estates. The associated extensive slum clearances and rehousing often took place with minimal local input. Politicians such as the hard boiled Willie Ross, Secretary of State in the Labour governments of 1964 to 1970, and 1974 to 1976, presented the attainment of better homes and cleaner, safer, and more well paid employment, as the beneficial product of Scotland’s place within the union, and as triumphs relating to their own efforts to advance Scottish interests.

After witnessing the destruction of Red Road flats a colleague told me that he thought there would soon be less physical remains of the industrial era’s transformation of Scotland in two centuries of coal and steel than the Romans short-lived, limited presence. It seems probable that the closure and subsequent destruction of Longannet will likely take place in the near future, and that there will be little physical reminders of the last major transformation of industrial Scotland. The changes the came with the abandonment of a full employment policy, financialised capitalism and the associated abandonment of capital controls commonly summed up as ‘Thatcherism’ put pay to the modernisation agenda long before the demolition firms. Elements of technocratic social democracy have retained salience in Scottish political and public life, but in the present economic and political environment, despite much talk of ‘reindustrialisation’, the commitment to the scale of social and economic transformation envisioned in the mid-twentieth century seems as distant from the horizon as the Red Road towers and Cockenzie power station will do in years to come.

Ewan Gibbs is an ESRC PhD Candidate in social and economic history at the University of Glasgow            

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