Published by EH.Net (April 2022).

Jim Phillips, Valerie Wright and Jim Tomlinson. Deindustrialisation and the Moral Economy in Scotland Since 1955. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2021. ix + 285 pp. $110 (hardback), ISBN 978-1474479240.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Professor William A Wardle, former Principal of York St. John University, and James Watt College of FE/HE.


This is a work of considerable merit and of significant interest to an academic audience within and beyond the boundaries of economic history. It is the product of a team at the Adam Smith Business School at Glasgow University, well-rehearsed in articles on this topic. Their intention to connect economic circumstances to the current, exaggerated nationalist mood in Scotland leads them to overemphasise a linear pattern and understate how the material presented could connect to wider, comparative debates.

With its economic focus and political innuendo, it is a work that fits well within the Scottish-branded field of political economy. At one level, we have a very informed narrative of the sequence of deindustrialisation, itself passing through three phases. The description of the openness and vulnerability of the Scottish economy at the outset is supplemented by a characterisation of a developing sense of futility: not only the failure to be competitive in the market but to even convince key investors and policymakers of the viability of continued investment, whether through commercial funds or government intervention. The other dimension of the book is as a contribution to the understanding of the economic antecedents of modern nationalism in Scotland. In both domains, the question of Scottish ‘exceptionalism’ is raised. Frustratingly, the work poses these exciting questions but without suggesting direct answers, and comparative analysis is left relatively undisturbed.

The work engages with political and societal causes and consequences of deindustrialisation as it proclaims its central interpretation: that deindustrialisation was a managed process in Scotland until malevolent external influences disturbed its progressive path. This intervention – sometimes indifference – created unanticipated closures and levels of unemployment, and disrupted permanently the political equilibrium. Collateral damage was inflicted on urban communities, setting in train a chain of local political reactions culminating in the nationalist surge of the early 20th century. Until the 1970s, the authors see deindustrialisation as a managed, collaborative process between government and workers.  The suggested substantivist narrative is that this Scottish experience was dislocated by the new Westminster politics and ideological determination of the late 1970s, transforming trust into confrontation and a new, nationalist surge. Devolution, intended as a solution but implemented as a compromise, could not check the vented political anger at what appeared to be externally imposed and repeated blows to the Scottish economy.

This hypothesis is presented by the authors on the basis of deep understanding of both wider processes and the relevant case studies: shipbuilding on the Clyde, car manufacturing at Linwood, and the history of Timex in Dundee. It is a balanced selection covering, respectively, an increasingly non-competitive traditional sector; an intermediate modern one; and a risk laden endeavour to introduce a new car manufacturing capacity into virgin industrial hinterland.  The range of source material is impressive in both the use of primary sources and interviews. Interestingly, the interviews are focussed on representatives of the labour force, which may contribute to a running accusation that employers and politicians failed to sustain their duty of care.

The distinctive narrative of deindustrialisation widens and deepens understanding of sequence and consequence in Scotland. It raises also interesting questions about connection to wider debates about the connection between global and local. The lens widens only as far as to embrace the political economy of Scotland’s Central Belt, where economic damage and disappointment were greatest, matched by the most severe political reaction to the established political order, dominated by the two unionist parties, Conservative and Labour. The authors make it clear that not only was deindustrialisation well in train before the breakdown of moral economy but that, in fact, the manner of deindustrialisation shattered the structure of this reciprocal moral bargain.

The coexistence of the terms ‘deindustrialisation’ and ‘moral economy’ in the title perhaps promises more than it delivers. The analysis presents a scenario where, before the 1970s, the moral economy underpinned the earlier transition to new industrial formats and outputs in Scotland. The consequence was political stability, preserving the established unionist choreography displayed by Conservative and Labour parties.

A counterfactual question emerges as to whether deindustrialisation could have been arrested or slowed down in Scotland if the protocols of the moral economy had been maintained. International influences and global competitiveness were undoubtedly predominant in affecting the performance in the three sectors identified. The unanswered question is about different employer reactions, alternative investment decisions, and government policies which would protect industries rather than throw them to market forces.

The headline combination of ‘deindustrialisation’ and ‘moral economy’ raises two points of comparison. First, how different, and for what reasons, was Scotland’s pattern of deindustrialisation? Second, how did a ‘moral economy’ in Scotland differ from such configuration elsewhere. On the first point, the book does not engage with extensive comparison.  Perhaps understandably, it is concerned with the distinctive Scottish narrative. Yet there is a sense in which the description of external policy shifts and exposure to market forces is underplayed, leading to over-statement of the importance of the breakdown of consensus. This selectivity overlooks longer-term and endemic performance failings in shipbuilding; fundamental design, process and costing faults in the rushed production of cars at Linwood; and over-expectation and around new investment in Timex in Dundee. In other words, had the traditional industries run out of road and the newer manufacturing sectors based on exceptional support and decisions that were political rather than accountable in business terms?

The core argument that ‘forced deindustrialisation’ from the 1970s challenged and ultimately destroyed a working and sustainable moral economy could be seen to gloss over a reality in which the mutual relationship actually inhibited necessary change. The moral economy was underwritten by a list of supportive centralised actions, including regional policies, government subsidy, biased and benevolent government measures and arm-twisted private investment. Moral economy was, in fact, a multi-layered rather than binary dialogue, more complex than a worker-employer/government dialogue. Its existence, in spirit as much as substance, provided artificial protection against the realities of modernising traditional industry or meeting the rigorous entry criteria of new industries.

On the second issue, the nature of Scotland’s moral economy, the nagging issue is one of stretched comparison, or credibility. The description and analysis of the dialogue and common ground between employers, government and workers are entirely convincing. Less so is the direct linkage to E P Thomson’s coinage of the term ‘moral economy’ as pertaining to a particular set of rural circumstances in the eighteenth century.

Presented with a failure of consensus, or reciprocity, the recourse of workers and citizens in Scotland’s central, deindustrialising belt was to embrace newer political perspectives, notably Scottish nationalism. These aspects of the book demonstrate a drift in its narrative to a form of economic anthropology. The overarching mood of moral economy is depicted initially as a relationship of trust between employers, including government, and labour. The pattern of the breakdown of moral economy, according to the authors, occurs over three phases, matched to the sequence of deindustrialisation. The loss of moral economy accelerates as the deindustrialisation reaches its latter phases. At the same time, the political momentum quickens.

The loss of moral economy worsens the effects of deindustrialisation, but did not cause it. In particular, from the 1970s, there had been a shift in government perspective on its obligations, engendering a militant, disruptive response on the part of organised labour. These events, in turn, began a political sequence weakening the strength of the unionist position and undermining the predominance of the Labour Party in Scotland’s Central Belt. Scottish nationalism had new energy, a new set of causes, and in the invigorated Scottish Nationalist Party, a new platform.

The detailed research on the three industrial sectors is not really connected to the wider set of global influences. Instead, the book emphasises the distinctive, pattern of events in Scotland and attributes accountability for industrial loss. With its focus on specific sectors and in a restricted geographical area, the work derives its central hypothesis from a given, and restricted, set of factors. As such, the work is argumentative rather than comprehensive, and not a panoramic account of Scotland’s economic performance.

It is a compelling account of the origins of Scotland’s new political direction. As the authors emphasise, deindustrialisation was well under way before the moral economy broke apart. Indeed, they assert that Scotland’s prior experience was one of accommodation and compromise rather than confrontation. This perspective leaves us with the question of its sustainability. Notwithstanding the shift in political direction from the 1970s, was the moral economic bond strong enough to withstand the external shocks generated in the international economy?

This tight, well-disciplined book promotes deeper understanding of Scottish deindustrialisation. Equally, it contributes not only to the generic debate on ‘moral economy’ but also to the understanding of the options available to participants in the economic drama. In Scotland, the workforce could select from the trilogy of economic actions identified by Albert Hirschman – Exit, Voice and Loyalty – but in reverse order. It is also a set of case studies around the interaction between local and global circumstances, affecting industries of different vintage and type.


Professor William Wardle is a former Principal of York St. John University, and James Watt College of FE/HE. He has been a member of the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council and his bespoke consultancy engages internationally with institutions, agencies and governments.

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