Wednesday, December 31, 2014

An Old Year: III.

One of my great-grandfathers was secretary to the Scottish Socialist Federation. It didn't count as a paying job. In fact, the city fathers of Edinburgh thanked him for his efforts by putting him out of work. In those Victorian days, victimisation was not a word in common use.

What made it almost funny was the job at stake. That great-grandfather was a carter. He shifted the manure left on the streets of Scotland's capital by the horses and carriages of the great and good. I can't improve on the metaphor. As it transpired, though, the position was too good for the likes of him.

A few years later, a grandfather on the other side contrived to give us a bit of family comedy. He got his cards, as a teenager, for organising a strike at a soap works in my fair city. The job was filthy, dangerous and nasty. The teenage firebrand wasn't having it. So much for him.

He became a railwayman instead. I still have a badge that used to hang from a watch chain. It boasts of “The Society of Railway Servants”. Even as a child I used to think, “Servants?”

The other grandfather would have had to stand on a tall box to come up to my shoulder. When Hitler's war was done, when he had finished laying their airfields and building their bridges, this one stuck with his union when they said craft trades still had rights in a brave new Britain.

Eloquent folk on posh papers called it a “demarcation dispute”. For granddad, on muddy building sites, it was pitched battles with pickaxe handles, men clubbing men, to establish – not that he'd have used the words – a worker's right to recognition and fair pay. He was quick on his feet. It must have helped.

Somewhere there's a letter from one of those fine Edinburgh hotels thanking my beloved grandmother for turning up during the turmoils of 1926. They didn't know the half of it. She was just a child then, and she didn't come from a family that could lose a day's money for the sake of a gesture. What's heartbreaking about the piece of paper, though, is what's on the reverse.

Bread, flour, milk: a pencilled list, priced and counted exactly, to get a family through the week. That grandmother would drive her husband demented when the wee chap came on the door, year after year, and the whispered dialogue began. “Could I have a word with Mrs Mackay?”

She gave them those “wee cups of sugar”, those ten bob notes, those words of comfort. She told men what would happen – and you could count on it – if the violence didn't stop. Year after year, my grandmother brought their children into the world. It was, with no sentimentality or fuss or chatter, what you did. The most political person I ever knew was a woman who could not have cared less for politicians.

None of those people believed in a promised land. If they guessed at all, they guessed and hoped that next year's kids might be luckier. They did not stoop to theory. They did not waste words on argument, or history, or old battles. If you had asked, they might have said things would be better next time. Nothing was settled, nothing finished: you go on, if you can go on, until the world is a better place.

Those old, long-gone people would have enjoyed 2014. They had no need to discuss or defend their “national identity”. What were you if not a Scot? The matter wasn't worth a row. They might have been baffled to hear that Labour, their Labour, was ranged against their country, but they would have digested the problem. A people's party without the people is no party.

That, in no small part, is where we are. The great-grandfather who took the minutes for the Scottish Socialist Federation would have grasped our reality instantly. He was, then and now, outrageously radical. He was one of those who believed that politics as you are given bears no resemblance to Holy Writ. Do it differently, do it otherwise, do it better: why not?

In the National Library of Scotland, there's a letter, written by the great-grandfather's brother. It might count as a parable for our times. In essence, it's a reproof, a ticking off to Labour past and present, in all its self-importance and self-regard. It's a letter from a James Connolly to one Keir Hardie saying – basically – that if you can't organise a simple meeting, kid, you're no earthly use to any of us.

That's one version of 2014. The Labour Party in Scotland stood revealed as an organisation that would have struggled with a menage, far less a national issue. Its only purpose seemed to be to dodge every question. It worked on behalf of the state and lectured the people. It ceased, finally, to regard itself as a movement.

Those still being paid by Labour don't care for that kind of talk, of course. They know their party has a big Scottish problem, but they no longer know what such a problem might involve. Things have become so complicated, Jim Murphy is misunderstood as an answer. A figure too right-wing even for Ed Miliband is just the ticket, apparently, for Scotland.

As most of the forebears would have said, “Hell mend them”. There are other problems to solve. How do we proceed now? Not, surely, by refighting old battles. Not by listening to the same old tales. Not by faction-fights and diatribes. Scotland in 2014 was inventive, creative, off-the-wall and daring. For some of us, the referendum campaign was fun. Can such things happen on demand?

People wanted many different things from a single vote. Good people thought that by saying Yes they might earn a just society. Some said we could clean up our land and air, our seas and our soil. Others said we could put a stop to the lunacies of austerity, or nuclear weapons, or economic apartheid. We hoped for a lot. Our dismal opponents just said “No”.

One part of this might be simple. You might begin by noticing that a new Scotland has already arrived. Then you might say that diversity is the very point of the enterprise. There are worse cliches than Mr Tamson and his numberless bairns.

Then – for this could matter – you might want to regard politics as something more than an endless fire-fight. Agreement is a bigger prize than any wee bump in the opinion polls. I've been using my own version of granddad's pickaxe handle for too long. If the arguments remain the same, the methods must change.

We can live without a Labour Party. I'm not sure we can live without the beliefs that first brought Labour to birth. When that party remembers as much, our politics will be respectable again. But I won't hold my breath. The important thing about those old, departed folk is that they didn't think for half a minute they were being radical. They believed they were being human.

We could try that. There's a country yet unmade, and a politics waiting.

The Old Year: II.

Personally, I never met a guinea pig I didn't like. They're lovely creatures. Not a patch on a Chinchilla, but the next best thing you'll meet to a human being. Warm, cuddlesome, docile, and hardly ever given to biting the hand that feeds...

Of course, when a guinea pig turns savage, egged on by the usual Commies, who knows what might ensue? Some might object to being treated like experimental lab rodents. That, obviously, wouldn't do.

We always knew, more or less. The decades of denials piled up, but we knew. You had a choice: either you were a theorem for the fun boys at the Adam Smith Institute, or you were a lab rat. In either event, a poll tax was due. Per skull.

As we reported yesterday, a Conservative government performed that ancient constitutional trick and lied through its shining teeth over the community charge. Everything said back then – everything – was just a description of the facts. Scotland was used as a proving ground. The life of a lab rat is no kind of life.

Still, that was a while ago. I must have “moved on” since then. Self-evidently, I must have forgotten the stout British Tories who would use the realm of Scotland for such a purpose. If I put my mind to it, I could even bring to memory some Labour boy from Kirkcaldy who argued – to my face – that to oppose the poll tax was to hurt the elderly. What became of him?

Oh, that: a pledge. An act of conspicuous arrogance from the person who told me that opposing the community charge was arrogant. What's worse, his friends still don't see it. Treat a nation as a bunch of lab rats and hope to maintain this Britain. If you say so.

I still owe money. Some folk who did well in the Labour Party spent months trying to hunt me down. I was one of those “Can Pay, Won't Pay” characters. They used to attempt to make charges against papers I didn't in fact work for. They used to use means I found unpleasant. What stilled my heart, and still does, was that the Labour Party did those things.

There is a distinguished BBC presenter who worked out the poll tax for himself. Once he had grasped that his cleaner was paying more tax from a working woman's wage than Mr Famous, he got the point. The poll tax was an obscenity, an offence against basic decency. And wrong.

What comes down through all the years is rhetoric. Rhetoric like, “Seriously? You can't see the problem?” Rhetoric like, “You do know what happens when a dominant power treats a minor possession as lab rats?”

What matters most about Kate Devine's story yesterday is that they couldn't admit it. In fact, it was fantastically important that assumptions be denied. British Tories; Scottish Tories; British Labour and Westminster power: “Would we treat you in such a fashion? The very idea.” No such thing happened. But it did, though.

It was easy for me. When the shifty guys turned up, I didn't have to fret much. I knew my little bit of law. I even said to one fat kid that I was glad he was wasting his time on my door instead of persecuting those who'd fear more. The boy, to his enormous credit, said: “I know Mr Bell. I'm glad, too.”

To be reminded of the poll tax is to be reminded of how we dealt with that kind of stuff, once upon a time. It's not so long ago. It was wrong, unfair and unjust. So we – and you can pick your preposition – opposed. This is not bad habit.

The past is past and dead, however. It was a council tax then, it's a spare room surcharge now. How do you respond? The poll tax was a moral issue. Some search their pockets and came up short on morality. And still do. They did, however, understand the meaning of a question.

But here's the thing. In all of those three decades, governments of Britain assured me, solemnly, that no one lied to me over the poll tax. My country was not used as a bottle of lab rats. The Lady Thatcher did not regard me, this voter, in such a fashion. The British state was never so careless with my rights. My bit of UK plc would never be used with such reckless abandon.

Until it was. I place my own interpretation on our reports. Personally, I'm hanging back for an apology. Realistically, I'm waiting to see what befalls. You just ran that poll tax thing on the Jocks because, in essence, you don't care? You ran that one in Jockland before – in essence - “the real thing”?

OK. I consider that fair, considering. It amounts to a version of Britain that I suspected was in the works. A bunch of lab rats: nice. In my memoir, Diary of a Running Dog, I'll be sure to put it down under “Tough but fair, huzzah.” But if you keep this up, you lose.

Why so? In essence, it's what we told you in all those old poll tax fights. If you must go on treating the people as peasants, you will have a some mean-spirited peasants on your hands. It's not complicated, or new. Lying to us is stupid; bullying us is witless. You have more?

I suspect you don't. Those old poll tax tales say to me that the British state is a hollow shell. This isn't my problem. Back then, you persecuted a lot of people I cared about. But you – all of you usual suspects – didn't wish to know of that. You invented a “spare room subsidy” instead.

You're not fantastically bright, friend. That's OK. On this side, we have to puzzle things out. “Another poll tax?” Course not. “Those horrors will try to impose a tax on letting a disabled child sleep secure.” “They wouldn't do that.” “Yeah, they would.”

So those of us – of a certain age – wonder about the poll tax, and why we fought it into the muck from which it sprang. Quaintly, it was a point of principle. It was wrong. We fought it, all those years ago, because of the people who thought it a jolly good idea. We fought it because the fight was honourable. A footnote: we won.

And something more. We knew – I knew – that the poll tax was an experiment conducted upon the realm of Scotland. It seemed to me then a bad idea for a United Kingdom. It seemed like a profoundly stupid thing for a good British patriot, like Margaret Thatcher, to attempt. But she did it. That old, shabby poll tax taught this recalcitrant hooligan more about the name on his passport than anything else ever would.

I still owe some tax. Will they give me a start in a foot race? I'm not so swift, these days. Or will they just ask instead who's in the spare room? Once upon a time, you knew who could trust. With the poll tax, it changed for good.  

The Old Year Ends. Part One.

As the year expired, an elderly lady materialised on TV sets across the land. In deference to centuries of invented constitutional theory, Her Majesty did not purr. Instead, she gave us a little talk. Her theme was reconciliation.

This was odd, even by the traditional standards of the royal house. It displayed a strange ignorance. It seemed to insist that Scotland in 2014 had endured terrible scenes of estrangement, anger and upset. HM Queen, like the rest of the British establishment, seemed to need to believe that Scotland had gone to war with itself over a vote.

An egg got broken: that, as best as I could tell, was the casualty figure. Everyone who was anyone got death threats. In the slapstick of social media, tempers and spelling sustained some damage. But that was it. Two million said they'd rather be British; 1.6 million said they'd rather not; and no one had to call the cops.

So what was Mrs Windsor on about, exactly, at Christmas? With whom – for grammar survived – did our 1.6 million require reconciliation? An historian yet unborn will one day say 18 September 2014 was the day Britain died. It was the day when close to 45% of the lieges told the nice old lady that, all things considered, they had their eyes on another kind of future.

But they did not riot. They did not, most of the time, fare badly with friends, family, or colleagues. Though too polite to say so, HM was another who was still determined to believe things about the desire for self-determination that are simply – very simply – untrue.

In 2014, people who really ought to know better called me a Nazi. Some of the old-school followers of the flag promised me an execution “come the day”. The nicer opponents just wished me a long spell of unemployment. Permutations on various uses for eggs and half bricks were plentiful. Back in the real world, people went about their business, and made their choices.

The Queen missed that part. Scotland made its choice in 2014 with enormous dignity, in enormous numbers, and with great panache. The kids turned out; the grandparents turned out; folk who'd never vote for any of the usual local deadbeats turned out. Reconciliation was neither desired nor required. The community of Scotland voted. And even those who voted No – especially those who voted No – made a point about their country. It lives.

Tragically, you will not find any of that in my forthcoming campaign diary, Memoirs of a Government Stooge. This was a good year for Scotland, but a bad year for most versions of my trade. I used to avoid the “parcel o' rogues” cliché. As it transpires, the gold is still plentiful, like the stooges, but passable prose is hard to come by. The stooges should be ashamed, but are not. There's time enough, though, for fun with them in the years ahead.

That point was missed this year, by winners and losers alike. The most important day for me was the day after. I did my share of consoling. A lost vote is scant recompense to those who were not around in 79. But you have to remember reality on behalf of those who are less dim than a monarch. We got a vote on independence? We got almost 45%? So why do you think our opponents were so very agitated on that morning after, and on every morning since? They fear something.

Self-determination is a glacial thing in this country of ours. In 1979, we were robbed of an “assembly” with no legislative powers worth a damn. In 2014, we declined Alex Salmond's prospectus of HM Queen, Nato, and a currency left in the sweaty mitts of George Osborne. We chose to regard those facts as details while we determined a future. But anyone who thought all matters were settled in the early hours of 19 September failed to attend to facts.

What do you do, exactly, with 1.6 million churlish folk? You could demand that they just “get over it” and go back to voting for their local Jimmy or Jim. Sitting in the back room of a London tower block, you could write a long lecture on “anti-politics”, then explain to the provincials that a vote for self-determination is just another protest against a “status quo”. There are lots of ways to miss the point. The status quo ante covers most.

In 2014, Scotland decided that things could not go on as before. Those who wished to keep their powers, and their jobs, and – no small detail – their bonuses from head office, took fright. David Cameron, a Prime Minister, made stentorian speeches to describe his love for the churlish sorts. Her Majesty's head of government feared that his heart would be left in bleeding pieces if the churls got too churlish. But that didn't work.

The other one, the Conservative given charge of the Queen's Treasury, decided that scaring the Jockos would work better. I'd say only this: if George Gideon Osborne puts that effort on his CV, the Tory Party is in bother. Still, a few soft nationalists toughened up. A few Scots asked themselves about the actual negotiable worth of the currency the Chancellor meant to reserve – with half a dozen constitutional howlers – as his personal gift. A majority didn't care for that behaviour. They really didn't care for it.

In 2014, there was a historic event that had nothing to do with a plebiscite. This part is complicated. A great many Scots – possibly as many as 1.6 million – don't know, to this day, quite what they did, or why they did it. They've heard the shouting. They've seen all the usual media suspects announcing that the corpse lives, breathes, and walks. But we all know: on 18 September 2014, the Labour Party in Scotland expired. How come?

Like many, I get queasy during this part of the tale. In 2014, one mark of Labour's decline was that so few in its ranks understood why an alliance with the Tories would disgust quite so many people, and so deeply. What, asked their stoats and weasels, time and again, is your problem? If you followed their logic – feel free to take a crack – a pact with bankers' hirelings was the only way to ensure justice for all. Such was their genius.

Labour's role in Scotland in 2014 was to secure the proles for Britain. There is no nice way to put it. Threaten their pensions, frighten their children, make a desert of their future, but – so that message ran – get it done. These were old pages from an ancient script. The cold numbers say it worked a treat, on schedule and on target. The revenge taken on Scottish Labour is, however, another story entirely.

You could tell it in terms of those astounding SNP membership numbers. You could tell it by the semaphore of opinion polls, spelling out SOS for Westminster politics and Ed Miliband. You could even make a story from all the old comrades hearing last orders for a peerage. None of that would get you beyond act three in Labour's little tragedy. When push came to shove, the party that wrote Scotland's story for a century preferred suicide to the national interest. And, still worse, was proud of the fact.

We, 1.6 million of us, just turned our backs. They think we'll be “reconciled” to the rebranding of honest Jim Murphy? They think we'll be stampeded, as usual, by the old, rational fear of Tories? Labour is done. We're over it. In 2014, for or against, we were not dealt with honestly, from January to September. Those seasons will not be forgotten or forgiven. Humpty Dumpty can kiss goodbye to his wall, and whatever else he was sitting on.

If you happened to be old enough, nevertheless, it made for a strange year. A Scotland without Labour – Labour rough, foolish, thuggish, compassionate, or stolidly determined – involved an act of imagination. What were we without the familiar cast and the usual soap opera? When Johann Lamont quit as her party's branch office under-manager after the referendum, she managed – ever the good teacher – to deliver a lesson and ask a question. If Labour has rendered itself worthless, what remains?

Strange to report, some of the smarter girls and boys already had answers scrawled on the backs of their hands. While the usual dullards filled their column inches with tales of protest votes and anti-politics, a new Scottish generation presented itself on behalf of the Common Weal, as a National Collective, as a Radical Independence Convention. They were as incoherent, sometimes, as any nascent movement. They were also a lot of fun. More than that, they cared deeply and thought hard.

With my own faded colours up on the sagging mast, I spent most of 2014 wondering what had become of the British state. Why were its responses so feeble, its prose so vapid, its tunes so banal? For much of the referendum campaign, the only noise from the No side seemed to involve a clamour for “passion” on the United Kingdom's behalf. Time and again they tried. Time and again, while superannuated stand-ups and hack actors dumped their love bombs, they failed to manage sense, far less joined-up sentences.

I found that revealing. More than once, I caught myself thinking, “Jeez, I could make a better case for Britain than that”. In the year when we were being told to honour the carnage inaugurated in 1914, when the meaning of a United Kingdom forged in unspeakable sacrifice should have furnished a phrase for the meanest hack, we instead had self-satisfied jokers cackling that “No means no”. And so Britain died.

They haven't quite noticed yet. Her Majesty did her Christmas thing as though normal service had been resumed. Scottish Labour went on acting as though a Jim Murphy is the solution, not the name of the condition. But 1.6 million are beyond all that. We've handed in our notice. It's why all the instant cliches over who really won and truly lost have such force this winter. That British game, we say, is a bogey.

In England's capital, there is no shortage of folk turning a bob by explaining that these are strange days for conventional politics. They employ a couple of propositions. One says that a loss of trust in “Westminster” has invigorated those known traditionally as “other parties”. The antithesis holds that those others have done for the big old parties. A variant, tricky to prove, says that this is going on all over the western world.

So think of that, if you voted Yes in September. When you come to your senses, you'll go back to voting mostly-Labour. Were you living below the Border, you'd probably be backing the racist ticket. Your considered response to 307 years of Union was just a spasm, an “anti-Westminster” thing. You'll get over it. You'll be reconciled. Understood?

There's some truth to it. As 2014 ends, the parties accustomed to treating Westminster as their private Hogwarts can barely scrape together two-thirds of the vote in the average opinion poll. They and their institution are not held in esteem. Their scandals have given the very business of political argument a bad name. Coalition government has left many – let's say – unimpressed, and made the death of Liberal Britain seem less strange than inevitable.

None of that has much to do with what happened in Scotland in 2014. In all the chatter over parties and the usual politics, an essential fact got overlooked. A new generation got to vote and said, simply, “Why?” Their parents sentimentality for Labour evaporated. Any deference towards Conservatives and monarchs and old stories of a scepter'd isles disappeared. They looked at their country and imagined a better future. Their opponents just told scary tales.

The Yes voters lost, of course. There is no point in arguing over it. Equally, no one of a sound mind believes the 2014 generation will lose twice. Britain's best efforts turned out to be paltry. This writer expected more, in spring, than a few hacks turning puce for the sake of the honours list, or a consignment of party leaders shipped north in a hurry to placate the locals. For Unionists, the advice is offered free: poor show.

Those who believed their country should determine its own future might also wish to look back on the year ending. Why were so many of our people so easily frightened? Why were we hemmed in by an argument over bank-notes? Why did our older folk fall hostage to puerile arguments and barter a future that was not theirs to trade? And who said, finally, that we must dodge the heart of the matter?

If you seek the independence of Scotland, you must be ready and willing to talk about the country and its people. Your opponents will have plenty to say about “identity politics” while promoting a British identity. It's tricky and complicated. It tends to get messy. You have to be alert to every nuance. But in the end you have to be honest.

In my opinion, the referendum was lost because too many of us were afraid to say why a Scot would not want to be British. Too much time was spent attempting to square a circle: everything would change and yet, somehow, nothing would change. Currency, monarchs, the telly: it was as though we were doing no more than rearranging junk in the attic. And too many of us – this scribbler included – said we'd deal with these little matters later. That was a mistake.

Despite everything, 1.6 million believed that Scotland's interests could be managed better in Scotland. They are no worse off for it. The mess emanating from the Smith Commission will make life difficult for a few years, but a principle will be secured. In future, no one will ask why a power should be retained by Westminster. They will ask why it hasn't been devolved to begin with, as a matter of course.

Long years ago, sitting in a Glasgow pub with the finest Scottish novelist of my generation, the question of independence came up. My answer then, as now, was that it would happen in my lifetime. I didn't anticipate that we'd be cutting it a little fine, but Willie, cheery as ever, couldn't see it happening. McIlvanney was the one who called us feart in 79, after all, and he wasn't wrong. But in 2014, the fear fell away.

I'll remember that. They brought up every pop-gun in the armoury and people far younger than I found all their threats comical. Scotland woke up. Its young men and women turned the lead of the usual political crap into gold. They didn't get an answer worth the name from the decayed hulks of old political traditions, but they kept on asking their questions. They exposed the rot.
Things are set fair, I think, for a wee country.