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.



  1. What did we do to lose you

  2. Well said blog! It was interesting to learn and eager to more old year concepts.

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