Summer Detours: Under the Bridges

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If, like me, you’ve visited New York on the cheap, you may be aware that the Waldorf Astoria contains a Starbucks in its lobby thereby allowing pretty much anyone to wander in off the street and loiter amid its Gilded Age splendour.

Smack bang in the middle, you’ll find an ornamental clock depicting the Forth Bridge. A wonder of that era, and a wonder still, I recall a strange jolt of pleasure at seeing something so familiar so far from home. Prior to that, I was just another Frappuccino-sipping punter like everyone else, but here was a secret differentiation that was my own. I think some call that feeling national pride.

The bridge achieves something that few structures ever do: it is so integral to the landscape that it seems hard to imagine its absence or to conceive of how people adapted to its arrival. Once, there was no red cantilevered cliff face, and then there was.

While it remains a chokepoint in the network (one that the Scottish Greens’ proposed tunnel would help circumvent) I would miss the precipitous view as a necessary step in all those journeys north, often journeys home, that I have made. Chastised, triumphant, bleary or wide-eyed, the expanse of the firth always offers something to wonder at.

Of course, the shiny new road bridge further along can’t compete. Not least because of its strangely placeless name; hymned by Scots Makar Jackie Kay in her poem ‘Queensferry Crossing’.

The bridge in Kay’s poem is not quite many things: part ship, part cormorant, at one point a harp. But in the end, it is only really a symbol: ‘The urge to build bridges runs deeper/than the great rivers they ford.’

What the bard must overlook is that, while we may have the urge to build bridges of the mind, we no longer have the capacity to build actual bridges – leaving such things to China, mostly.

This is a kind of national orphanhood: we continue to imagine that we are a people of engineers, builders and makers/makars – who somehow still feel kinship with the image of a bridge when we stumble across it in Manhattan.

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The reality is that we no longer know how to build or engineer, and so are simply left with the empty urge, and instead slip over the river up or down the M90, leaving little trace.

This could be easily brushed off as braindead nostalgialike a folk singer droning on about how the old bridge was better than the new one, and how the ferry was actually better than the first bridge, and how the ferrymen were broken-hearted when they could no longer ply their noble route.

Despite the weight of industrial memories in the mind and on the landscape, such dismissal is still all too common and often comes from the same voices who want to wrap up the powerhouse past into a tale of inventions and innovators. This has, in turn, fed a strain of easy progress in Scottish politics that was validated by the devolution settlement. Back then, Scots were simply moving with broader trends in a rapidly globalised economy: the Parliament itself seemed to embody a post-national way of doing things.

Climate change upends this, along with most of the breezy assumptions of Middle Scotland that still echo across the Holyrood chamber. The spectre of global crisis and climate disruption makes even seemingly permanent structures unstable. The pandemic is a mere warm-up, perhaps, to coming decades in which normative affluence and comfort are elusive: either to be still more jealously guarded or to be held in common.

This is all the more challenging for a politics that still runs in fear from embedded popular nightmares about the 1970s: a decade dominated by debates over wages rather than interest rates, in which the ideal political subject lived from selling their labour rather than off fixed assets.

But questions of work are at the heart of how we adapt to the era of climate breakdown: specifically the forms of work that we choose to prioritise, the means by which it is organised, the core functions that its serves. In a report out this week, SEPA claims that climate change will cost Glasgow alone £400 million a year: a price tag that, in a nation of engineers or political innovators, could be recast as investment. Instead, we’re left feeling redundant; with that empty feeling that someone else will do the work.

Addressing the need for an unprecedented re-organisation of Scotland’s precarious, service-centric workforce, is the unspeakable prospect that no one wants to confront. Instead, technocratic fixes like a Universal Basic Income are debated to deflect from the looming need for economic transformation. Such fixes promise to dispel the truth that works in the contemporary economy is increasingly soul-sapping and purposeless. Given that it is ultimately organised in the service of a tiny class of the incomprehensibly wealthy while the planet burns, this should not be surprising.

The good work of transformation requires a vast rediscovery of economic agency. Scotland currently lacks the capacity not only to build large bridges, it lacks the capacity to effectively construct wind farms, district heating systems and public transport networks. Even a couple of ferries are too much to ask.

What do our current priorities look like on the ground? Scoot up the bridge to one of Fife’s largest modern-day employers, to Amazon’s vast Dunfermline operation, and you will find the work of destruction carried out on an apocalyptic scale. It’s a place staffed by workers bussed in from across the country, hired and fired and treated with the kind of disdain once associated with the depression era. The task of some of these workers, as revealed by ITV News in an undercover investigation, is to fulfil a target of destroying 130,000 unused items a week.

Meanwhile, before the oil in the North Sea is channelled to Grangemouth to be transformed into petrol, plastics and perhaps eventually the unused products in Amazon’s bins, those who work it are struggling for a post-carbon future.

As a recent report by Friends of the Earth Scotland, Platform and Greenpeace found – workers want to transfer their skills via a ‘passport’ into the offshore renewables sector. Existing regimes and the globalised companies that run the show don’t allow for this.

This is part of a wider picture in which offshore wind fabrication for Scottish waters is carried out in Indonesia, and maintenance is an often mirky business often carried out by ‘flags of convenience’ vessels staffed by workers paid a pittance.

This litany of failure is the result of an economy that is organised around extraction, servitude and consumption, while our ongoing reliance on inward investment makes for policy that is skittish and biddable. In the year Glasgow hosts COP26 Scotland’s carbon-heavy, car reliant, consumption economy will be presented to the world as a global leader: a rhetorical disguise for the lack of agency and will in Edinburgh to pursue a programme of systematic public intervention. The nation of engineers is now much more akin in its governing logic to a nation of management consultants.

There is a twin image in Kay’s bridge poem ‘A girl crosses the old red in a crimson dress/An old man walks the suspension’ the latter evoking the iconic black and white images of workers walking the Forth Road Bridge’s suspension cables out into the void.

If the girl grows up to be an engineer we might not fall in.

Comments (5)

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  1. Dougie Harrison says:

    Reading this in today’s ‘Sunday National’ – well done Mike, for giving space to another author in a different medium, which reaches some folk who don’t habitually read Bella, from time to time, including some of Scotland’s opinion-definers – I welcomed the fact that this site, and the newspaper, have given space to an author whose words really made me THINK anew.

    So thank you Christopher, for a most penetrating piece. It made me read some of your earlier pieces on Bella, especially ‘Rule Breakers and Makers’ (7.8.20). Between them they have made this auld marxist-trained belated supporter of independence, remember a few things I was in danger of forgetting. Including some of the lessons I learned as a back-room economist to the STUC in the late 70s and through all the long dark Thatcher years of the 80s. You have at least given more point to the wee political memoir I decided to write several years ago. Maybe you’ve even stimulated me to complete it; after about 50k words I haven’t reached the end of the 1980s yet.

    So, many thanks pal.

  2. Colin Robinson says:

    An alternative to the view that the ‘good work of transformation requires a vast rediscovery of economic agency’ is the view that economic agency is an illusion; that no government or other agent can shape an economy through its actions.

    As systems, economies are just too complex and impredictable to be instrumentally managed to any significant effect. Like all human activity, economies are deterministic chaos systems; they evolve through the anarchy of the myriad aggregate decisions we make rather than brought about by any intelligent design.

    1. Colin Robinson says:

      It means that economies – and their emergent ideologies – are shaped by efficient rather than final causes, by the blind chance of our myriad interactions rather than by our purposeful designs.

      But Chrissie, thou art no thy-lane,
      In proving foresight may be vain:
      The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men
      Gang aft agley,
      An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
      For promis’d joy!

    2. Rich says:

      To say “no government or other agent can shape an economy through its actions” is twaddle ! Anybody ‘in business’ is doing this every day – paddling their own boat within the larger stream or shouting orders to the engine-room .
      The more powerful enterprises hire lobbyists to influence and/or buy their own ministers and MPs to influence government policy – do they do this because an economy cannot be shaped ? Both government and industry shape economies and , though there is a degree of surprise as to outcomes from time to time , for the most part planning is in the longer term and the ‘shape of things to come’ is largely able to be predicted , planned for and directed.
      It was a scheme that went agley which our Bard talks of, but a scheme is untinkable without the expectation of a degree of agency .

      1. Colin Robinson says:

        That’s basically what I’m saying, Rich; economies evolve through the anarchy of the myriad aggregate decisions we make as producers, traders, and consumers every day rather than through the engineering of politicians. Liberalism, socialism, neoliberalism – all the best-laid schemes of mice and men, all economic idealisms – have foundered on the reef of impredictability. And for that we should be thankful.

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