“What Do We Want? When Do We Want It? NOW!”

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Outside the Reading Room until 6th January there is a small display of leaflets dating from the 1960s,’70s and ‘80s from various Scottish activist groups.

Scotland was not immune to the burgeoning protest movements epitomised by the “1968” actions across the world. The political and social background featured the end of post-war austerity and greater consumerism, the establishment of more colleges and universities (with consequently large gatherings of young people) and the sometimes painful and violent ending of Britain’s Empire. The growth of TV, radio and cinema opened up faster communication and facilitated more diverse narratives away from the accepted “norm”.

The decline of Britain’s heavy industrial base had begun before the Second World War had temporarily boosted manufacturing, and the cracks really began to show throughout the 1960s and ‘70s as foreign imports grew and exports fell. Traditional gender roles were changing; at the same time as the numbers of skilled men in heavy industry were falling, with the development of light industry more and more women were going out to work. Women were fighting for their rights, too – “equal pay for equal work” was enshrined in law in 1970 (Equal Pay Act). The sexual revolution was enabled by the development of the contraceptive pill and the decriminalisation of male homosexual acts in 1967 (as recently as 1981 in Scotland) – lesbianism was never illegal!

Anti-Vietnam war demonstrations took place world-wide, and the Cold War brought with it the fear of nuclear Armageddon. Specific events, such as the United States Navy setting up a nuclear base on the Holy Loch in the ‘60s, brought this threat to Scotland’s doorstep. In the ’80s, a Margaret Thatcher-led Conservative government polarised opinion, particularly in Scotland.

Strikes, protest marches, sit-ins, peace camps and demonstrations became a feature of public engagement with the political and social issues of the day. A spur to those who were isolated from mainstream politics, and an inspiration to the creative forces in the cultural scene, many found their political voice through the activism of this period.

We hold a large and varied selection of such publications on diverse subjects: Anti-vivisectionist and pro-animal rights; anti-nuclear (power and weapons); women’s rights; gay rights; affordable housing; anti-racism; anti-capitalist; anarchist groups; revolutionary socialists, etc. Pre-Facebook, Twitter and other social media, they are a fascinating insight into Scottish activism, and trace the history of the continued struggle for further rights, and the protection of those already won.

Jan Usher

Social Sciences curator, General Collections at the National Library of Scotland.