AS strikes not only continue but also escalate with new groups of workers becoming involved, let’s take a moment to ponder why it is that Scotland has produced so many leaders of Britain-wide unions.

The proportion of Scots who are leading – and have led – these unions is far higher than you would ordinarily expect, judged by respective population sizes of Scotland and the rest of Britain. For Scotland, this would be about 8%-10% over time but in fact it is and has been much more.

Of the current crop, there are those leading two of the three biggest unions, Christina McAnea at UNISON and Gary Smith at the GMB. Then, there’s also Dave Penman (FDA – civil servants), Frank Ward (TSSA – transport workers), Brian Linn (Aegis – finance workers), and Steve Gillan (POA – prison officers).

Sitting under them is a plethora of Scots who are senior national officers at the UK level and who have been or could be contenders for the top spot.

Lynn Henderson (PCS), Garry Graham (Prospect), Andy Kerr (CWU), Alan Pottage (RMT) and Tam Macfarlane (FBU) come to mind.

From the 1980s onwards we have had the likes of Harry Conroy (NUJ –journalists), Gavin Laird (AEU – engineers), Alex Ferry (CSEU – engineers and shipbuilders), Jimmy Knapp (NUR/RMT – rail workers), Campbell Christie (SCPS – civil servants), Bill McCall (IPCS – civil servants), John McCreadie (CPSA – civil servants), Alan Ritchie (UCATT – construction workers), Sam McCluskie (NUS – seafarers), Ken Cameron (FBU firefighters) and Barry Reamsbottom (PCS – civil servants).

The National: GMB Scotland Secretary Gary SmithGMB Scotland Secretary Gary Smith (Image: NQ)

Others such as Jimmy Reid and Jimmy Airlie were also prominent in the AEU (Amalgamated Engineering Union) while Mick McGahey was similarly so in the NUM mineworkers union.

And dozens upon dozens of leaders of Britain-wide unions before 1980s, dating all the way back to the late 19th century came from Scotland. But taking the Rabbie Burns-inspired drinking toast, it’s not quite a case of: “Here’s tae us; Wha’s like us? Gey few and they’re a’ deid.”

Rather being something innate to being Scottish, it’s more a case of there being economic, political and social factors that explain the abundance of these leaders of British unions that are Scottish.

But before we get there, let’s not forget the contribution of the likes of Liverpool and London. Liverpool currently provides the new TUC leader Paul Nowak and has provided the likes of Len McCluskey (Unite), Billy Hayes (CWU communication workers) and Jack Jones (TGWU transport workers). London currently provides Sharon Graham (Unite), Dave Ward (CWU) and Mick Lynch (RMT).

So when it comes to Scotland and especially the central belt and Glasgow in particular, five factors stand out above all others.

READ MORE: The Who announce first Scottish tour date in FOUR decades

The first is the sectoral composition of the economy in Scotland.

Manufacturing and heavy industry used to play a significant role in creating huge concentrations of manual or blue-collar workers who were more inclined to unionise and become militant in their bargaining objectives than most other workers.

To some extent that role has been carried over into the public sector in terms of the public sector being larger than in many other parts of Britain with still large concentrations of white-collar workers. Out of this, strong workplace unionism has developed, giving the first launch pad to those that were to become these future union leaders.

The second is the strength of collectivism in the communities these workers came from. Council housing and tenants’ associations along with social clubs were all part and parcel of this.

This is the sense that collectivism outside the workplace helped re-inforce that which developed inside the workplace.

The third is that politics in Scotland has always featured a large left-wing element, which grew and grew from the beginning of the first part of the 20th century. Often this was associated with the Communist Party and sometimes, more latterly, with the Militant Tendency inside the Labour Party.

The fourth is the idiosyncratic impact of Scotland as a small nation.

Future union leaders of British-wide unions were able to relatively quickly become “big fishes in small ponds” on the Scottish scene within their own unions – this was because it was easy to network and work one’s way up to the top of the tree within Scotland, giving exposure outside Scotland and a launchpad from further upward movement in union hierarchies.

Lastly, these budding union leaders were also willing to move home to be able work in their unions’ headquarters in London – all in order to make a bigger difference than they could by staying in Scotland.

This was not a repudiation of any to do with “Scottishness”. Rather, it was often to take southwards what they saw as their Scottishness, expressed in their political values, and make it writ large.

Gregor Gall is a visiting professor of industrial relations at the University of Leeds.