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SRB Diary: Reading the Runes – Scottish Review of Books
by Alan Taylor

SRB Diary: Reading the Runes

May 30, 2015 | by Alan Taylor

A few days before the General Election a friend who had been campaigning on behalf of the SNP in Edinburgh South texted to say he’d placed a bet on the Nationalists to make a clean sweep and win every seat. If I recall rightly the odds were 5-1 which at the time did not seem to me to be overly generous. Like everyone else, of course, I was reading the polls rather than the runes, spending inordinately more time in front of a computer screen than out and about talking to ‘real’ people, ‘ordinary’ people, doing their damnedest to feed their ‘hard-working’ families and  to stay afloat in a sea full of sharks and charlatans. My best guess, transmitted to a fellow journalist in Hong Kong, was that the SNP would do well to take forty seats and that the other nineteen in Scotland would be divvied up between Labour, the Tories and the LibDems. There were, I added, only two certainties in this election. The first was that Alistair Carmichael, the LibDem Scottish Secretary of State, would retain his constituency in Orkney and Shetland and, second, that the only party leader guaranteed to hold on to his or her job when the dust had settled was Nicola Sturgeon, both of which came to pass. But, as we now know, Labour’s vote collapsed and the SNP came within a whisker of capturing all 59 seats in Scotland. Ironically, the one seat Labour did hang on to was Edinburgh South, where the candidate, Ian Murray, increased his majority from 316 in 2010 to 2637. This in an area which encompasses pukka Morningside, Newington and the Braid Hills and which, by rights, ought to be prime Tory territory. But even here, with a less than satisfactory candidate, the SNP came second, which was consolation of sorts for my empty-pocketed friend.

* * *

ON my way to cast my vote in Musselburgh, in the church hall where I used to drill with the BBs, I bumped into a former provost of whom I am fond. A Labour man, he had just come from doing his stint at the polling station, where he had been hoping to sway switherers. Until lately Musselburgh was part of the East Edinburgh constituency, when it invariably voted Labour. Since 2005, however, we have been embraced by East Lothian, which was also relatively safe Labour territory. At last year’s referendum the county decisively rejected independence which, according the cognoscenti in Staggs, our local bar, did not bode well for the SNP at this election. But the former provost did not look like someone whose party was on the cusp of victory. With a good ten hours to go before the polls closed he looked decidedly glum and railed against Alex Salmond, calling him ‘deceitful’, ‘untrustworthy’, ‘unpopular’, and other cruel epithets. In no mood for an argument, I gently remonstrated. Was Salmond any more deceitful and untrustworthy than his Labour or, indeed, his Tory and LibDem counterparts? Unlike Gordon Brown, for example, he had not stomped off into the sunset after the referendum. Would Labour, I asked, be in such a pickle had Brown and Darling, who were credited with saving the Union, stuck around? This cut no ice with my friend who continued to insist that Salmond was unpopular, the basis for his argument being that  a lot of people don’t like him. That may be so, I conceded, but equally as many people do like him, for how otherwise does he win elections? The ex-provost shook his head as if he would rather lose it than revise his opinion.

* * *

WHEN the polling stations closed and the BBC could finally, legitimately, release the results of its exit poll I went to bed thinking, like Paddy Ashdown and Alastair Campbell, that there must be some mistake and that the SNP could not possibly achieve the result that was predicted. At five the following morning I woke to the pleasing, north-eastern burr of Jim Naughtie, sounding as chirpy as a blue tit that had just caught a worm, and the news that what had been forecast was fact. During the preceding days I’d noticed that a number of anti-Nationalist commentators had begun to peddle the line that we Scots had fallen under some kind of spell and that no matter how sensible the arguments put to us we were determined to ignore them. The insinuation was that because we did not wish to do as they demanded we were a nation of dopes and delusionists and that we deserved everything that was coming to us. This view has been in the ether since the mid-1990s when the possibility of devolution found its way on to the agenda. What is remarkable is that so many of those who resisted the idea of a Scottish parliament and everything that has followed since, including minority and majority governments led by the SNP, continue to pour out the same scornful drivel in the vain hope that it will scare us into the retaining the status quo. As history has shown it is a tactic that has had limited success. In the meantime, Scots, while not yet prepared to favour independence, increasingly think independently and are showing that loyalty to any one party is provisional, not tribal.

* * *

OVER the past few months I have been struck by how many folk, in the media and in civvy street, have switched allegiances, usually more in sorrow and frustration than in anger. I detect in these confessions a deep note of regret and a sense that they are somehow betraying someone, be it their peers, their party or their parents. Regarding the last-mentioned, my mother died before I was of an age to engage her in political banter. My father, however, showed a deep interest in politics and I recall many even-tempered if passionate arguments when we explored the pros and cons of the miners’ strike and whether Arthur Scargill and Mick McGahey, whom my father, who worked for the National Coal Board, knew quite well and admired, were likely to prevail against Ted Heath. Now I come to think of it, though, I have no idea how my father voted. He certainly never told me and it was hard to tell from what he had to say on which side of the fence he stood. The choice then, in the 1970s,  was much starker than it is today. You were either for Labour or the Tories. The SNP was peripheral. No one in our neighbourhood ever mentioned the Liberals. My father took his news from the Daily Express which, like the Tower of Pisa, leaned to the right. He was also a kirk elder which suggests he was conservative with a small ‘c’. Would he have voted for the big ‘C’? It’s possible, even probable. 

* * *

EAVESDROPPING on vox pops I am struck by how the BBC always finds someone who insists that he or she has always voted Labour and always will. This is not true of other parties. It reminds me of 1966 when, after just seventeen months in government, prime minister Harold Wilson held a general election and campaigned under the slogan ‘You know Labour Government Works’. Wilson, like Salmond, was the kind of politician you either loved or loathed, like an Islay malt. My father was a Wilsonian, principally because he, too, was a pipe smoker. Wilson’s gamble paid off and he increased his Commons’ majority from four to 96. The poet who best reflected the era was Christopher Logue who died in 2011 at the age of 85. Logue was an active leftie, contributing to the New Statesman and Private Eye and eager to bring poetry to workers on factory floors. His great achievement is his adaptation of Homer’s Iliad as an epic, modernist poem, War Music, which appeared in five volumes. But he is best known for his poem ‘I shall vote Labour’, which perhaps party apparatchiks should commit to heart as they attempt to define their purpose. Here are its last few lines:

I shall vote Labour because if I do not
vote Labour my balls will drop off.

I shall vote Labour because

I am a hopeless drug addict.

I shall vote Labour because

I failed to be a dollar millionaire aged three.

I shall vote Labour because Labour will build

more maximum security prisons.

I shall vote Labour because I want to shop 

in an all-weather precinct stretching from Yeovil to Glasgow.

I shall vote Labour because

the Queen’s stamp collection is the best

in the world.

I shall vote Labour because

deep in my heart

I am a Conservative.

* * *

WHICH was the most remarkable result? Most folk, I guess, would opt for that in Paisley and Renfrewshire South where Douglas Alexander, Shadow Foreign Secretary and co-ordinator of Labour’s doomed UK campaign, lost his majority of 16,614 to Mhairi Black, a twenty-year-old student, who took a majority of 5,684 to Westminster. Jim Murphy’s demise in East Renfrewshire was less dramatic but, given his position as his party’s Scottish leader, no less emblematic. My vote, however, would go to Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath where Gordon Brown bequeathed his successor a majority in excess of 23,000. Come 8 May – the 70th anniversary of VE Day – that had metamorphosed into an almost 10,000 majority for the SNP. K&C’s new MP is Roger Mullin, who previously had fought and lost four elections. He is a professor at the University of Stirling where he specializes in ‘Applied Decision Theory’ which, says Wikipedia, helps ‘a person make simple decisions in the face of uncertainty’.

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