Socialist Worker

Reshaping the Scottish working class

The changing workforce in Scotland is reshaping the working class, write Alex Law and Gerry Mooney, yet inequality is growing

Issue No. 2051

 (Pic: Tim Sanders/

(Pic: Tim Sanders/

Plenty was said about the national question during the Scottish elections. In contrast, very little was said about the class-divided nature of Scottish society.

Where class is referred to by Scottish journalists and politicians it is used as an excuse to blame the size of the public sector and “traditional” working class attitudes in Scotland for the lack of national economic competitiveness.

Yet in important ways, class structure has changed out of all recognition.

Until the 1980s, Scotland was defined by skilled, manual jobs predominantly done by men in heavy industry, coalmining, shipbuilding, engineering, oil, steel-making and assembly line plants.

Workforces in places like the Fife coalfields and Clydeside shipyards were steeped in the socialist traditions of the labour movement out of which a collective sense of “them and us” seemed to flow more or less spontaneously.

For generations this sense of class solidarity meant not only trade union loyalty, but also largely unthinking support for the Scottish Labour Party.

The composition of the working class is now overwhelmingly white collar, employed in private and public services, and, increasingly, female.

This has led some to suggest the irrelevance of class as a way to describe workers covering as diverse settings as call centres, retail, public services, hotels and restaurants, and services like nail bars and tanning shops.

Others characterise Scotland as a middle class “professional society”.

True, since 1981 the number of managers and professionals has increased from around 12 percent of the workforce to around 22 percent. But the category “managers and professionals” covers a multitude of sins.

Many public service jobs that were seen as “professional” like teaching and social work have been subject to a process of “proletarianisation”. These occupations now come under a range of controls imposed on them to intensify the rate at which the work gets done.

What of the other 80 percent or so of the workforce in Scotland? They can be identified as working class due to the conditions under which they sell their labour for wages.

Mostly, they perform work as a dull routine under the control and supervision of management. Call centre workers for example face boring work with little capacity for initiative.

If Scotland was in any way becoming more middle class, we might expect that it is also now more equal.

In fact, Scotland sees a growing gap between the richest and poorest. One in five individuals in Scotland – one million people – live in poverty.

On other measures of deprivation, such as housing and ill-health, Scotland is a hellish place to live for a sizeable proportion of the population.

Such a picture gives lie to the claims, now being repeated in some quarters, that poverty is in some ways attributable to the “dysfunctional behaviour” of a residual “underclass” or to a lack of “aspirations” on the part of working class Scots.

It is clear that the composition of the workforce in Scotland has changed. But it is less clear – as the Scottish Household Survey shows – that most workers are better off or feel better off.

Other surveys show that the majority of workers do not see themselves as part of a “professional society”. Even those that sociologists label as “professional” mostly identify themselves as “working class” (51 percent) rather than “middle class” (43 percent). And the vast majority of the rest of the workforce have little difficulty identifying themselves as working class.

Workers have a clearer idea of their own class situation than politicians, journalists or academics. This might also reflect the fact that even the slight possibility of “upward social mobility”, where an individual could rise from a “lower class” to a “higher” one is coming to an end.

There is also an over-supply of qualified people to such an extent that even some middle class children in Scotland will struggle to enter professional jobs in the future and will end up within the ranks of routine white collar workers.

Scotland is therefore going through a social transformation. It is one where the working class has been reorganised and replenished.

The middle class appears to be shrinking under the pressure of changes to the labour process and the declining opportunities in the labour market.

As the election shows, the reformed working class has less ideological commitment or spontaneous loyalty to the Scottish Labour Party. The new working class represents a fresh basis for contesting nationalism on the basis of socialist politics in Scotland.

Alex Law is a lecturer in sociology at the University of Abertay and Gerry Mooney is a senior lecturer in social policy at The Open University. Both are supporters of Solidarity. They are editors of the forthcoming book New Labour/Hard Labour? Restructuring and Resistance Inside the Welfare Industry to be published by Policy Press in October

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Tue 15 May 2007, 18:31 BST
Issue No. 2051
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