by Brian Morton

SRB Diary: Election Diary – A View from the Edge

May 12, 2010 | by Brian Morton

Bigotgate: The moment Gordon Brown’s campaign imploded

The much-vaunted british election debate turns out to be more like a Masterchef eliminator. Three hopefuls explain what’s on their menu and why they want to change their lives, then some fat bloke criticises their seasoning. Where’s the beef? I shouted. Where’s the fucking beef?

There’s a stock scene in weepy World War Two movies when the hero, back from the front, all hurt but still craggy, and heroine, probably played by Greer Garson, sit in the garden under a perfect evening sky. As a lone Spitfire snarls overhead, he turns to her and says “The war suddenly seems tiddily far away, darling”, “Yes, tiddibly, Ralph, and such a puhfectly silly little war . . .” This is how friends and family like to think we act and sound since we moved ‘away’ to Argyll seven years ago. (Incidentally, I have a glottal stop, but the wife is authentically posh, so the casting is just about possible.) Being far away from ‘things’ is probably more a cast of mind in others than a real entailment of living in the wilds. In a wired-up world, nothing seems quite remote enough: recession, wars, earthquakes, vol-canos, elections. It’s all beamed straight in. But friends in the South do routinely say “It must all seem very far away to you up there …” In the smallest degree, they’re right. When you grow – or catch – most of your own food and live on freelance cheques, the grinding of the global economy might seem not much louder or more threatening than summer thunder. When the children are simply turned out of doors with a vague warning about fast-flowing burns and adders (which we never actually see, but snakes are essential to an Eden), it’s hard to get exercised about youthful alienation or any other symptom of urban meltdown. And yet, we grimace when the same friends say “Your life must be so much … simpler”. I wonder …

The election date has finally been set, though that government minister with the ’tache, the one who looks like a metalwork teacher but has been given an army, navy and air force to play with, gave away May 6 as the likely date long ago. Older daughter is eligible to vote for the first time, but seems vague about whether she did actually apply for a postal vote and is inclined to ask ‘naïve’ but telling questions like “Dad, what’s the difference between Labour and Conservative, anyway?” If only she could have asked me in 1979, when I knew. We ourselves are long absent from the electoral roll, a mixture of cranky libertarianism and plain oversight, but not because this time round any of it seems puhfectly silly or irrelevant. Life is simpler out here only in the sense that the issues are blunter and unspun, like getting water down from the hill and in a potable state. There are days when it would make a Haitian spit. Even the more abstract and general political questions tend to have a bucolic tinge, like why the local farmers are unable to make a living off land that on an April morning is greener than a green thing. On grass as rich as this, the cows belch and moan “No, honestly, I couldn’t eat another thing … I’m rammed”.

The yowes say that, too, and there are blackface lambs all over the place. Walking by the burn yesterday, just before we learned that Gordon Brown was ‘going to the country’ (an ironic turn of phrase if ever there was one), we found orphaned twins still trying to suckle their dead mother, who looked like the sort of thing Ted Hughes could have whipped up into quite a fine poem. We got there just before the hoodies and ravens did: April is the cruellest month (different poet) after all. It felt properly biblical, bringing them home and rooting out old babies’ bottles with perished teats. We’ve named them Liam and Noel, because they have that kind of lairy confidence and sibling aggression, nutting each other out of the way to get to my fingers. The farmer is coming to get them tomorrow, having admitted that last year he probably wouldn’t have bothered, because the bottom had fallen out of the mint sauce trade. There will be tears and baa’ing. Not from the children, who consider them a noisy nuisance, but from me. We’ve bonded.

THE NEAREST ELECTION poster or flier is eight miles away, the stylised thistle of the SNP, who’re trying to wrest Argyll back from the Liberal Democrats. For a time, the Conservatives nursed some hope of taking what’s not so much a marginal as a potential three-way wobbler. Passing the yellow square, placed impressively high on a telegraph pole, we speculate whether we would – if we had the franchise – give the nod to whoever took the bother to put up posters as far out as us, or maybe to the party that put one in the most inaccessible place. The crag on Blairbuidh looks a likely spot. A mile or so further on, I ask Sarah to stop, because I’ve seen a poster of some sort almost at our road end. It reads: 40,000 volts. DANGER OF DEATH. I might have pulled the switch for Scottish Power.

power and its harnessing is one of the things that makes life out here ‘simpler’, but also not, and it’s one of the things that we are never quite able to take for granted. The landlord put in plans for a wind farm, way up out of sight and sound on Black Craig, but was knocked back because it interfered with someone’s view. We’ve looked at solar panels, at a usable drop of seventy-five feet in a nearby burn that never dries and at a small, farm-scale turbine. Given that what passes for a calm day here would still disrupt a careless comb-over, and that the waters in the loch slosh in and out over a narrow threshold, generating potential gigawatts of power, we endlessly wonder why we are paying such enormous utilities bills and why we have to grope for candles twice a week in the winter.

THE ONLY ISSUE that generates more heat locally is the ferry tender, which is more complex than the Schleswig-Holstein question, and understood fully only by one locally based academic, who writes long letters to the press about it all, which we don’t read. Cowal is, in more senses than one, our Laputa. It is an island when we choose it to be – like when boring acquaintances threaten to come and visit, or when we want to dip out of a dull meeting in Glasgow or Edinburgh, at which point the douce Firth of Clyde becomes the boiling Hellespont – and solidly mainland when it suits our purpose. It doesn’t quite drift like Laputa, politically speaking, but its perceived remoteness and localism, plus a hefty quotient of ‘white settlers’ pursuing the Good Life and escape from overcrowded classrooms, binge drinking and the knife culture makes it electorally atypical to the point of eccentricity. There is something deeply reassuring about those constituencies where block votes on class lines deliver vast majorities, but there’s something almost equally interesting about a constituency so socially diverse that no sociological generalisation applies. Perfect soil for the prickly gorse hue of the LibDems, though there’s less self-reliant social democracy in evidence on the local scene than there is the remote self-satisfaction of those who have ‘got out’ of the city.

THE FERRY SITUATION is the choke point that influences pretty much anything else that goes on here: food and fuel prices (high), health provision (precariously local, but now substantially over the water, too), the tourist economy, crime rates, sport. It also meant that we managed to stand apart from the moil of accusation and justification over MPs’ expenses when the local man rightly pointed out that visiting constituents on Gigha really does require an overnight.

IS NICK CLEGG the only prominent politician to be named after a biting insect? There was a Harry Midgley, of the Northern Ireland Labour Party, who organised aid for the rebels in the Spanish Civil War, but apart from that I can’t think of anyone. Apart from the ’Nats, of course.

THE FIRST TELEVISED DEBATE. I wasn’t sure what to expect, and flicked over channels twice before I realised I wasn’t watching an archive concert by the Three Tenors. It was all set-pieces, with not much swordplay. My family moved to Dunoon the weekend of John F. Kennedy’s famous 1960 debate with Richard Nixon. Everyone now thinks that JFK won because Tricky Dick sweated and looked shifty. Don’t they know that Joe Kennedy bought Jack the election by fixing the ballot in Illinois trade unionists up north? Anyway, who in a modern television culture would be charmed by JFK’s wall-eyed stare (which almost made him look like a horse refusing a fence) and those strangled patrician diphthongs.

THE MUCH-VAUNTED british election debate turns out to be more like a Mas-terchef eliminator. Three hopefuls explain what’s on their menu and why they want to change their lives, then some fat bloke criticises their seasoning. Where’s the beef? I shouted (remembering another more noble American election). Where’s the fucking beef?

The first election debate: It was like watching archive footage of The Three Tenors

I MET OUR local Jacobite candidate today [he turns out to be the only candidate I meet during the campaign] which was delightful if a little more prosaic than I’d expected, given the party affiliation. He has strong views on the ferry tender and other local issues, but says nothing at all about the restitution of the Stewart line or the Divine Right of Kings, which seems strange. But perhaps once you’ve lost a crown, losing a deposit is a drop in the bucket.

NANNY MCPHEE is on the stump. Emma Thompson, who has a house just over the hill, has come to sign copies of her new book NMcP and the Big Bang – set during that same silly little war – and predictably she draws a bigger crowd than any of the candidates, albeit many of them below voting age. It raises an interesting thought. Forget the nanny state; let’s just throw in our lot with The Nanny. If the main parties were simply to agree on and enforce the Five Rules – go to bed when we’re told, get up when we’re told, get dressed when we’re told, listen and say thank you, and do as we’re told – and all the pettifogging quibbles about policy disappear with a sharp rap of the stick. As do the warts, snaggle teeth and unruly grey hair. But that’s enough about Gordon Brown.

I JUST WORKED out that under a new system of proportional representation – a complicated algorithm involving corners, and making full allowance for sheer, damned bad luck and bent referees – St Mirren would have been in Europe this season, rather than floundering and flirting with relegation. I may yet become a convert.

THE LATE JO Grimond thought that the ‘natural’ condition of British politics was a steady to-and-fro contention between two basically centrist parties, essentially liberal and social-democratic, with a small Marxist labour party on the far left, and a High Tory ‘country party’ on the right. It’s hard at one level to disagree with him, though one questions the idea of a ‘natural’ state of politics in the international flux. The emergence of New Labour left the kind of socialist rump he predicted, but what of the country interest? Who represents the rural community, particularly now that the countryside, certainly in Scotland, certainly in the West, is now so thickly underplanted with ‘outsiders’ whose voting interests may range across the spectrum but who are certainly unlikely to vote according to a country interest – other than a vague Green-ness, which isn’t the same thing.

MID-WAY THROUGH THE campaign, a local dairy farm, so long established it probably supplied yoghurt to St Ninian when he civilised this corner, is closed down and the herd is sold off. A near-new milking parlour is mothballed. The given reason is that a creamery on nearby Bute has gone under, removing a key outlet for dairy produce in the area. However, there is another, more anecdotal explanation. A Polish farmhand, one of the substantial community of Poles in the area which has left an unexpected imprint on food retailing in the area (sauerkraut, unfamiliar sausages, and the like) explains that at home he would be getting 50-something pence an hour for his work, while here he gets the minimum national wage, a situation that allows him to send home money each month. The kicker, though, is that a Scottish farmer gets the same for a gallon of milk as a Polish farmer. Go figure.

SECOND DEBATE. more like The X-Factor or Britain’s Got Talent, we thought, with Gordon Brown hapless but unexpectedly harmonious in the Susan Boyle role, Cam-eron doing Blur (sorry, Blair) cover versions, and Clegg clearly still going for some kind of swoon factor. It did serve to confirm our previous surprise recognition that Cameron, almost uniquely for a contemporary politician, doesn’t do telly very well, and clearly dislikes it. He is an old-fashioned stump politician, better on the soap box than the goggle box, and with a delivery that works best at town hall level. If this is the television election, it seems interesting that the front runner – ignoring Clegg’s dash out of the stalls – isn’t comfortably part of the television culture. We were thrilled he chose Alan Titchmarsh for his one-to-one, but only because we hoped we might get tips on how to revive frosted spuds.

IT’S NOT QUITE true that there are no election posters out this far. For the last ten months, we’ve been looking at one of the biggest of all. It’s a supersize version of the famous Labour’s not working. We call it International capitalism is fucked. Unlike the Saatchi poster, it isn’t faked. Remember that it was revealed to be a cut and paste of a small number of people from Central Casting. Several of them appeared more than once in the Tories’ iconic queue of jobless. Ours involves a certain trompe l’oeil in that the ship you can see out our kitchen and bedroom windows isn’t one ship at all, but a ‘raft’ of six, moored together for an indefinite period in what’s called ‘cold lay-up’. Victims of the downturn in international trade which has marooned an estimated 10% of the international merchant marine fleet, the ships basically just sit there, and may be joined by others if there’s no let-up in the current slump. It’s an interesting question why Maersk vessels are in Scotland, rather than up a fjord or under the battlements of Elsinore. There’s an interesting answer, too. The Danes don’t want them cluttering up their inshore waterways, and having them here continues a long and honourable tradition of dumping unpopular objects and intitiatives (Dounreay, Polaris, the poll tax) in and on Scotland. The Holy Loch is now once again given over to boating, a little light trading and watching for migrating ospreys, but the impact of the US naval presence in the area is still evident, even more than a decade after its final departure during the détente years.

MILITARY ACTIVITY is higher than normal in the Clyde at the moment, with exercises going on somewhere out beyond the Western approaches, but the decline in trading activity means there’s not much activity on the Maersk ships in Loch Striven and plenty of time to contemplate what they represent. Given that each one carries 4000 containers, we’ve had time to think just how many tons of tasteless aubergines from Dutch glasshouses and plastic tat from China each ship can carry. We routinely spurn the aubergines, but with two children in the house we’re as guilty of the other stuff as anyone else.

FRIENDS WHO REGARD my non-voting with the same baffled distaste they reserve for my non-driving – “how do you manage?” – often ask whether I ever voted. Yes, and for the briefest time it went further than that. Back in 1979, when you could still explain to your unborn daughter the difference between Labour and the To-ries, I executed the manoeuvre known as ‘entryism’ and pounded an urban beat in Norwich on behalf of Jim Callaghan. It was a sobering exercise in single-issue politics, one to set alongside the ‘ferry tender’ in Cowal now. Virtually every family I doorstepped – and this in a traditionally Labour half of town, a dour, problematic estate left high and dry by the decline in British shoe manufacture (a Norwich staple) – said that ‘this time’ they’d be voting Tory because they wanted to buy their council house. Almost everyone, except one large guy in a stained singlet who wanted to discuss the merits of supply-side economics as against trickledown. No, he didn’t. He said “If yow don’t get off my facking step, bor, Oi’ll set my facking dog on you.” Wouldn’t that put you off the electoral process a bit?

CENTRE AND PERIPHERY. You don’t hear that rhetoric quite so much any more, just as talking about internal colonialism marks you down as a collector of New Left Review back issues. It’s always been a cliché to say that one man’s periphery is the heart of another man’s world, though Mental Maps (that well-thumbed Pelican paperback of the 1960s) was very much part of a centre-periphery way of thinking and was more about how the metropolitan capitals viewed the fringes. Still, the old riposte that natives of Lerwick or rural Argyll don’t feel at the ‘edge’ of anything but in the middle of something of their own has acquired new weight with the coming of the information revolution. But again, I wonder. I can access the same information as you, but it plays differently out here. The edge is an excellent place to observe the game unfold – you don’t after all spectate football from the centre circle – and it delivers a perspective on the unfolding comedy which is more sober and more objective than maybe first appears.

WE MISSED THE last television debate – I think there was some golf on the other side – but we heard the follow-up discussion, which was entirely devoid of policy analysis and devoted entirely, the segment we saw at any rate, to asking a single self-regardant question: whether television and the debates in particular had changed the nature of electoral politics in Britain for good. The opposite, of course, is the case. Politics, which is the ultimate in ‘reality’ programming, has changed television and taken away its last vestiges of real editorial independence. Presenters get to huff and puff, deliver incredulous cut-aways and rehearsed one-liners, but what election 2010 did in broadcast terms was to close the distance between Jeremy Paxman and Simon Cowell to the point where the tanned, t-shirted one seems the more serious proposition and poor old Paxo is left to do what he does best, which is strutting and fretting in a vacuum.

We play our rustication for laughs, but even those who join in start to get the point. It isn’t that the local farm or the existence or not of a car ferry across the Firth are our only political concerns. It is more that this kind of issue, with a focal length that doesn’t at first reach beyond parish or community scale, has been steadily eroded or elided in national politics, to the extent that major-party manifestos, no longer driven by clear ideological principles and all collapsing towards the centre, are ever more distant from the day-to-day work of a non-metropolitan constituency MP. The devil really is in the detail, and the top-down approach of party wonks and managers, even without a single overarching philosophy to steer it has left local issues stranded in some kind of exceptionalist dumpbin rather than reinstating them at the root of political thinking. That’s what us thinks, anyways, when we can get the straws out of our mouths long enough to say it.

THE CAMPAIGN may have been puhfectly silly in many aspects, but the election itself unfolded with more seriousness and excitement than I’d seen for some time. I half expect to see beaming Pashtun tribesmen appearing at Nick Robinson’s shoulder to show off an empurpled finger-tip. British people rioted mildly outside understaffed polling stations. There is even a whiff of electoral fraud in the air. If some stations stayed open past ten o’clock and some failed to process everyone who queued, are these results void, particularly if they come in a relative marginal?

The reality of a hung parliament, the first, I think, since 1974 doesn’t simply present a challenge to the parties to form a workable government. It constitutes a more serious challenge to the populace. In few major democracies is there such a radical imbalance between awareness of political issues, coupled with freedom of choice, and ignorance about the political process itself. It would have been entertaining at least to quiz some of those people stuck outside an underspent and overworked polling station in Hartford or Birmingham and ask them: how does a Bill go through Parliament and become law?; what does the Speaker actually do? (apart from worry where his wife is); what’s a guillotine debate or an early day motion?; and crucially, who has the right to form a government tomorrow if the outcome isn’t clear, and they’ve been telling us it wouldn’t be clear for weeks.

Landslides are as dangerous in politics as they are on our back roads, though less frequent. To illustrate the perils of a one-party state, you don’t need to look at Zimbabwe, but at Britain in the 80s under Thatcher and again in the 90s under her whelp Blair, vast ‘consensual’ victories that turned out to be, whoops!, socially and culturally divisive and deeply so. Party machines fear hung parliaments and minority governments, but minority, coalition and national governments are by far the safest and most responsive of administrations, depending absolutely on an informed electorate and on sufficient slackening of the whips’ authority to guarantee that conscience not party puts MPs through the lobbies. It, of course, presents the Liberal Democrats with the biggest problem. Having seen the campaign euphoria burst, Nick Clegg can only send his troops back to the constituencies to prepare to join someone else’s government. He can claim that under a reformed voting system the result would have been different, which is like saying that St Mirren would be top of the Premier if Rangers and Celtic were handicapped with racing weights.

Television handed Clegg the equivalent of a novelty chart hit. He’ll be back singing in pubs tomorrow. If he has any sense. His only ethical position is to eschew power (even though he may crave it) and withdraw to a position of permanent, principled opposition, and with the suggestion that the two main parties may have to consider some way of working together in order to ensure stable and effective government. The convention states that Gordon Brown, as sitting prime minister, gets first shot at forming a coalition. A common sense view argues that, on the contrary, David Camer-on has the most MPs and should therefore form an administration. Either way, Nick Clegg has the money cards. He has the opportunity to make an historic, paradigm-shifting decision (as suggested above) or he can cut a deal. Neither course absolutely guarantees there won’t be another election this year, as in 1974. It’s a tricky one for Clegg, who can only get what his party wants by doing nothing . . . If this were a new-fangled blog, rather than a manuscript that has to brought in to town by ox-cart, I could fudge these predictions/prescriptions five minutes from now as the inevitable deal is struck. But let them stand …

“ Is Nick Clegg the only prominent politician to be named after a biting insect? There was a Harry Midgley, of the Northern Ireland Labour Party, who organised aid for the rebels in the Spanish Civil War, but apart from that I can’t think of anyone. Apart from the ’Nats, of course.”

 

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