How Scotland Can Escape the ‘Great Car Economy’

Roads to Nowhere: can Scotland Escape the ‘Great Car Economy?’

The use of the term “movement” to describe mass political organisation has its origins in the mid-19th century. At a time when enormous industrial growth had created a vogue for speed and motion, the metaphorical link to transport was clear. Amidst all those new railways, steam packets ploughing the oceans, and telegraph wires buzzing underneath them — the association of new politics with the raw energy of industry and progress, that transformed everything it touched beyond recognition, was perhaps inevitable. 

The age of steam, steel and smoke has gone from Scotland. But something of the way we might want to be radical retains that idea of forwardness and motion that the dirty monstrous machines of Victorian capitalism first inspired. In contrast, techno-optimists and most of the progressive political establishment now project a clean carbon-free future, where our bodies will be whisked around as seamlessly as a byte of data along a fibreoptic cable. But mainstream ideas about how we organise the world are still grounded in our grimy past far more than many would care to admit. As expressed in the latest advert for the electric Nissan Leaf, we may wish to float into the futuristic ether, but the reality of feeding machines — made more efficiently, in ever greater numbers — is resource depletion. All of this dynamism (expansion) is fired, one way or another, by the exploitation of cheap natural inputs. 

It’s never easy to look at the things capitalism would prefer hidden — and many of its key innovations in recent years have been about better masking and obscuring the inherent waste, exploitation, and spiralling inequality propagated by ‘wealth creation’ and the mindless pursuit of growth.

Old Futures

With the enormity of our own industrial revolution now largely part of folk memory, contemporary Scottish capitalism sees itself as the smooth tram ride that takes you out to Edinburgh Airport, via immaculate financial services offices and reflecting pools. But an equally accurate image of our ‘dynamic’ Scottish economy today is Linwood — the small Renfrewshire town forever associated with the much loved, if notoriously temperamental, Hillman Imp. There’s plenty of movement happening in this small corner of the nation — flights in and out of Glasgow Airport, the constant hum of the nearby M8. But all those journeys that began here with steel sourced from Ravenscraig, that included a notoriously inefficient return trip south of the border, are no longer possible. The lot of Scotland’s post-industrial towns like Linwood was not so much to disappear — it was to stop being locations where things started, to become places that people wanted to avoid, to move around. Trip up in the mobility game, and you easily find yourself lost. 

But let’s not dismiss the democratic dreams captured by Scotland’s national vehicle – and its central role as heroic failure of the post-war British car industry. The Imp once represented a bridge to the brightest of light manufacturing futures for workers weaned in the cradle of Victorian heavy industry. But for many, the rise of car ownership meant something far more personal too. The freedom of getaways in a cheap, efficient, vehicle brought the luxury of movement and travel to the many. Whole cities were reshaped around this grand vision of a family of four moving at 70 mph of their own accord. The bright era of social mobility enjoyed by baby boomers was made tangible by this new literalauto-mobility. 

You could step back, of course, and cooly critique the chaos and damage created by this oddly conformist freedom — not least because it was initially premised on cheap oil secured by the rearguard of empire. But that doesn’t mean this freedom was any less real to those who experienced it. This revolutionary extension of mobility opened up the country and the many worlds within it. Like most revolutions, the death toll was contested (but almost certainly high) much of the old still lingered on alongside the new, and many of the impacts are still unravelling. But sometimes you just have to move with the times. 

The Sovereign Driver

As David Edgerton has demonstrated, the Fordist model of ‘welfare capitalism’ — with its core commitment to affording workers a wage high enough to buy their own product — developed in the UK in explicitly nationalist terms. As a result, the ability to make and export cars has long been a symbol of national self-sufficiency, virility even. Behind coverage of this ever-more precarious sector, with Brexit looming over what remains of the British car industry, a distinctly national anxiety is still present.  Cross-border supply chains may guarantee that each vehicle that rolls off an assembly line in Britain is a thoroughly cosmopolitan machine, but the possibility of car factory closures still seems to ask a bigger question.

Namely, is a nation-state without the ability to make its own cars really worthy of the title? As Andrew O’Hagan noted in response to Labour’s 2009 attempt to boost national car production with a scrappage scheme, “The downturn in the industry chills us, but mainly because – and we don’t feel this way about pharmaceuticals or petrochemicals – it makes us imagine we might have to stop being who we are.” 

This deep identification, he argues, is partly due to an imaginative relationship that casts drivers as “sovereign in their cars.” Perhaps it was a similar idea of sovereignty that inspired the Gilets Jaunes to adopt a uniform which identified them explicitly as drivers — as free individuals who feel the social contract between citizen-driver and state has expired. In Scotland, the STUC has not been coy in implying that, without establishing a national stake in, and productive base for, Scotland’s new low-carbon economy, a botched transition could lead to similar social unrest here.

But support for a sovereign vehicle owner’s democracy, Margaret Thatcher’s “great car economy,” also means accepting a map of immobility and social exclusion. This is a key area of policy where Scotland has dutifully followed in Maggie’s footsteps. Bus services for the poor remain deregulated and cars rule our roads thanks to lavish state support. Less than a decade ago we opened the M74 extension (£692m) — a motorway constructed through communities with some of the lowest levels of car ownership in the UK, in full knowledge of its negative environmental and social impacts and against the advice of a public inquiry.

Road building remains a dominant governing priority in Scotland, with several flagship projects showing the continued popular political commitment to private cars and their insatiable appetite for greater road capacity — including the Queensferry Crossing (£1.35bn) and the long-awaited Aberdeen Western Peripheral Route (£1bn). Current plans also include further road improvement and building schemes, amounting to roughly £1bn of public spending across five projects. This can only embed issues around our carbon heavy transport sector — the dirtiest in the Scottish economy, and one which saw a notable increase in emissions over the period 2011-16.

Electric Escapism

Recently, the Scottish Futures Trust has placed fresh emphasis on electric vehicle charging points — with an eye on the Scottish Government’s ambitious aim to phase out combustion engines in Scotland by 2032. However, like most proposals that offer seamless change (the sovereign driver in his dangerous metal box will remain the key subject of how we organise moving people around) this policy ignores extensive evidence that electric vehicles still contribute substantial emissions over the course of their lifecycle, currently between 17-30% less than internal combustion engines.

Furthermore, experts have pointed out that air quality issues will remain, largely due to particles from brake pads and tyres. This is the point at which the futuristic desire to float into some mystical future begins to infect policy — the shiny newness of products imbued with ideas of ethereal cleanliness promising an escape from the present, and by implication from the finite resources of the planet itself. Yet the reality remains over-tourism based on luring motorists en-masse to overburdened rural roads, and poorer communities still disproportionately impacted by bad air quality and road traffic accidents.

Globally, the inequality embedded by private car use is even starker. Around 85% of the world’s cars are owned by 15% of the population — and growing the electric private fleet into the hundreds of millions will be easily cancelled out by the massive overall rise in vehicles, set to double to two billion by 2035. Technology cannot substitute the enormous political bravery required to re-balance our priorities away from roads and cars. 

Invisible Industry

The assertive language that once mobilised Scottish nationalism around national industry — that saw post-industrial towns like Linwood seared into the national psyche by the Proclaimers’ ‘no more’ refrain — has largely disappeared. The sovereign consumer at the wheel of the family saloon is still with us as a political subject, the worker who built it is not. 

As Ewan Gibbs argued, the closure of the Caley rail works in Glasgow provides just one example of how, “Scotland’s existing industrial workers are rendered historicised and invisible.” Devolution has not inherited this visceral link between the politics of the nation, and the politics of work and industry that emerged in the final decades of the last century. This poses particularly acute challenges for the current transition to a low-carbon economy, which has seen wind-farm jackets fabricated in Indonesia and shipped to be deployed in the waters off Scotland — conspicuously visible from the former industrial heartlands of Fife.  

This is just one of the countless local manifestations of Naomi Klein’s key insight about the climate crisis: ‘we have not done the things that are necessary to lower emissions because those things fundamentally conflict with deregulated capitalism.’ The big ideological shift to neoliberalism in the 1980s has left countries like Scotland shorn of the industries, skills, public assets and political will required to enact radical change for the common good.

Scotland’s oft-cited (and probably overstated) antipathy towards the core tenets of Thatcherism and its successors, does not provide a free pass out of this deeper dilemma, and the managerialist constraints of devolution seem largely ill-equipped to offer a fresh perspective. Either way, as Christopher Harvie argued in his 2001 polemic on the dire state of car-centric Scottish transport policy, we have to confront the reality of Scotland as: ‘a deindustrialised society, no longer capable of putting together the sort of technology – a combination of high-tech and traditional craftsmanship – which a modern and environmentally-sustainable country required.’

Despite all that it represented, the short-lived Scottish car industry is now another dusty artefact in our draughty national museum of industrial loss. But how might we re-cast a new vision of pride, ownership and universalism embodied in the freedom of the open road?

We could depart from the clogged motorways of the central belt and instead look north to Orkney. With a surplus of community renewable energy, and inadequate grid infrastructure to export it south, the islands’ electric car pool operates as a grid battery. In this model, the driver’s traditional ‘sovereign’ isolation is inverted: each journey becomes viable as part of a shared network, mobility becomes an asset held in common.

A Different Pace?

In the mid 20th century, in step with a burgeoning car culture, Scotland’s planners were convinced that population density was the mother of all urban ills. They would go on to pursue measures radical enough to destroy whole communities in an effort to disperse populations. From within a system, such ideologically inspired targets lie beyond question. Looked at from without, after the institutional consensus has crumbled: they are often revealed as absurd and arbitrary.

Perhaps part of the problem in establishing a coherent and radical alternative vision is the all-encompassing need for speed itself. In an age when billions of pounds literally move through markets in nanoseconds (in some cases causing vast losses that we don’t fully understand) slowness can be, if not radical, at least advisable. We need long term, low-return investment, particularly in grid infrastructure and public transport. The big change represented by a Green New Deal or Just Transition must be rapid in implementation, but to work, it must accept an economy that can operate at a different pace. 

Time is the sole irreducible unit of value in our lives. Once it is spent, we cannot get it back. The fight to protect time from the encroachment of capital is a long one — a slogan within the historic mass international movement for an eight-hour working day is useful here: “shorten our hours to prolong our lives”. That workers were previously often expected to work well over 60 hours in a six-day week, seems barbaric. Yet today, a Universal Credit claimant is expected to accept a job offer that requires them to spend no less than three hours a day travelling to and from work. For many, the need for mobility is a brutal, soul-sapping, imposition in pursuit of an arbitrary goal. 

An economy that does not steer itself towards the accumulation of ever more things, ripped from the earth at any cost, is also one which would not demand constant movement. It would escape the tyranny of clocked time (first introduced in the Victorian factory system to quell labour discontent) and foreground instead the rhythms of other frames for labour long made invisible by capitalism — care and nurture, the pattern of the seasons and the diligence of craft. The alternative is still more rapid depletion of our lives as human beings, and, ultimately, of the entire web of life on this planet too. 

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