Scotland's roller coaster ride to economic recovery

We stand enveloped in the clanging din of a factory floor, surrounded by metal and concrete. Men in blue workcoats feed shiny sheets of aluminum onto conveyor lines that lead to machines turning out ventilating ducts for new buildings. Two lifting cranes rumble along ceiling rails above us.

Shouting into my ear is a stocky young manager named Bill Irvine. He lives with his wife, Elizabeth, and son Alan in nearby Milngavie. Instantly, with Scots pride, he corrects my pronunciation to the proper ''milguy.''

As he stands there, hands in coat pocket, Bill Irvine is as good a symbol as you can find today of the new battle of Britain. It is the battle for economic recovery, and it is being fought in varying ways right across the Western world.

As a boy of 19, Bill Irvine clambered over the hull of Cunard liner QE2, installing ductwork in the last great liner to be built on the Clyde, successor to the Lusitania, the Queen Mary, the Queen Elizabeth, and dozens more.

Now, 18 years later, he has come full circle, almost to the same spot. He manages a small factory that makes air-conditioning and heating ducts and fabricates tanker bodies for trucks carrying oil, milk, and whiskey.

Around him stretch once-prosperous streets now bleak with people out of work: one man in every five. In 1946 the Clyde had 20 shipyards. Today it is down to three. Competition everywhere is tough.

Instead of relying on worldwide orders to a proud and famous shipping center, Bill Irvine must pin many of his hopes to a government device known as an Enterprise Zone. It offers rental and tax concessions to attract new industries to create jobs.

He puts his head down and gets on with it. He has almost doubled his work force, to 40, by reducing his overhead costs in the zone. He has a large new contract to keep his men busy.

''Without the zone things around here would be a lot worse,'' he says. ''We've invested about (STR)800,000 ($1.3 million) in the plant, and we've got about (STR)250,000 back in various rebates and so on.''

But why choose Scotland as the starting point to look at post-Falklands Britain? Why the Clyde? Why not London, the obvious choice, home of every sixth person in the country?

Because today's symbols have to include the grinding, unglamorous, unheroic, unsung, but vital everyday business of economic survival - of creating jobs and hope in the midst of a Western world economic recession.

Scotland, like Wales and the north of England, is one of the areas hardest hit. Nowhere in Western Europe is there anywhere quite like it, nowhere that matched the scale of its past engineering achievements, no place whose fortunes have changed so fast.

The Scotland encountered by this correspondent was not the one of legend and romance, although all of that is still to be found, mainly farther north. There were no kilts, tartans, or bagpipes.

I did eat haggis, with what the menu said were ''bashed neeps an' champit tatties.'' They turned out to be unheroic mashed turnips and mashed potatoes. And when a local official was asked why he was not wearing the kilt to dinner, he simply replied, ''You haven't seen my legs.''

No, I found a western Scotland trying to ride up the other side of a roller coaster track, the same curve that has swung Britain itself from the heights of post-Industrial Revolution prosperity to the low point of plant closings and mass unemployment in less than three decades.

Neither Scotland nor the rest of Britain fights a stirring, beribboned war against a Napoleon or a Hitler these days. Its young men do not leap into fighter planes and engage the enemy in dogfights at 10,000 feet. No sirens wail. No bombs fall. Few cameras roll.

The struggle is longer-term, but just as fundamental. Compared to it, the Falklands campaign against Argentina was a piece of cake.

Britain led the world into the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century. Now it struggles to survive the microchip and the service industry boom, cheap Asian labor and high energy prices, salaries too high and output per worker too low.

In a dramatic switch in national mood from 100 years ago, Britain struggles with change instead of leading it.

It tries hard to preserve the humane, relaxed quality of life that overseas tourists find so attractive. But Dean Acheson's prophetic words of 30 years ago remain true: Britain has lost an empire but not yet found a new role.

Bill Irvine sums it all up in his phlegmatic, dogged way.

''When I was on the QE2 job, for a contractor called Windsor Engineering,'' he recalls, ''it was 1964 and I was just a lad. The Clyde was busy. No hint of the troubles to come.''

Yet change was rushing in. Familiar landmarks began to disappear almost overnight - not just factories that once led the world in making steel, textiles , shoes, engines, sewing machines, and toys as well as ships, but landmarks of the mind. No longer were people sure that Britain fully controlled its own economic future.

Oil prices went up, inflation soared, world trade contracted, low-paid Asian workers undercut Scottish prices.

Scotland does have some rays of hope, however. US electronic companies such as International Business Machines, Digital, Honeywell, National Semiconductor, and Motorola have helped create a Scottish ''Silicon Valley.'' New towns like East Kilbride outside Glasgow offer Rockwell Valves of the US and other overseas businesses a base within the Common Market with skilled, English-speaking people desperate for work.

Wang Laboratories have just announced a (STR)38 million ($64 billion) word-processor factory on the campus of Stirling University. It is expected to employ 700 people within five years. Oil under the stormy North Sea has generated 45,000 jobs and spun off 45,000 more.

London pours in government money to retrain and strengthen incentives to overseas investors. The large Strathclyde Regional Council, although dominated by the anti-Common Market Labour Party, was quick to send its own representative to lobby in Brussels for Common Market funds.

Bill Irvine took advantage of the oil finds in 1975. He left Windsor Engineering to begin insulating giant offshore oil rigs in Edinburgh and in Glasgow. Two years later he joined his present company.

''I wouldna' say that the oil prosperity of Aberdeen has made that much impact down here,'' he muses. ''The company I'm now with, Enterprise Sheet Metal , is fortunate, though, in being part of a group based in Aberdeen. There's money up there, right enough.''

He is thankful that he has worked right through the tough times. But a number of people who went to school with him now have nothing to do. He worries deeply about the impact on their self-confidence.

The time-honored Scots way of solving hard times has been to emigrate. Michael Kelly, the red-haired and lively lord provost (mayor) of Glasgow, estimated at dinner one night that 20 million people of Scots descent are scattered around the world.

''But it's no good thinking of emigrating today,'' Bill Irvine says. ''Unemployment is high now in America, and in Canada, and Australia, and even in Africa, I hear.''

One legacy of heavy industry is visible everywhere: Victorian red brick blackened by a century of smoke and soot.

Over in the offices of the Strathclyde Regional Council, which governs 21/2 million people in western Scotland, or almost one Scot out of every two, officials fill in grim statistics.

In Bill Irvine's part of Scotland, the Clydeside area has more electoral divisions with the worst kind of overcrowding (two or more persons over the age of 14 sleeping in a single room) than in the Newcastle or Liverpool areas, or in inner London. Figures for households without cars, without bathrooms, and lacking (or sharing) hot water are also extremely high.

Over the last decade, more than 100,000 jobs have been lost in Strathclyde (''strath'' means ''valley''). Unemployment has jumped from 70,000 to 190,000. Some 20,000 people a year have been pulling up stakes and emigrating.

I stood with a young social worker in Glasgow's east end. ''Young people are pretty desperate,'' he said, despite a large government effort to clear up and rebuild.

For all the official enthusiasm, my eye was caught by strange low roofs on new factory buildings, and the absence of windows. It turned out that the roofs were designed to make it harder for teen-age gangs to climb onto them in their constant effort to break through skylights and steal tools inside.

The first task of one factory training unemployed youngsters was to make a steel cage in the center of the floor for its tools. Door hinges were firmly welded to metal frames.

Scottish pride is still intense. People are wounded when a southerner says ''England'' when he means Britain.

''What is Scotland? Well, it's different to Britain,'' said R. B. MacLuskie, the thoughtful director of the Scottish Council for Educational Technology. ''Different legal system, different schooling. . . .''

''Oh, Presbyterian tradition, Celtic background, Labour voters, North Sea oil ,'' began another dinner guest in Glasgow.

''More efficiently set up local government than in England,'' insisted Robert Calderwood, the chief executive (county manager) for Strathclyde. He can compare: He was formerly chief executive of Manchester. ''Local government there doesn't include education, police, water, drainage, or social work. We do. . . .

''Mind you, Scots need to know more about England. Scots are nationalistic, cautious, certain of their own rightness. England needs to understand us more as well.''

As for devolution (Scotland having its own regional, autonomous assembly), the idea will revive again only when a formula is found to finance it without levying new local taxes in these difficult times. One answer, from James Byrnes, convenor (chairman) of the Strathclyde Council, is for Parliament to assign to Scotland its share of tax revenue, plus all the value added tax (VAT) paid by Scottish people.

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