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SRB Diary III – Scottish Review of Books
by Kevin McKenna


September 15, 2014 | by Kevin McKenna

THE INDEPENDENCE referendum, it seems, has divided my family yet, despite the hysterical noises coming from the No camp about all the beastliness that’s around, I won’t be calling in the social services just yet. My oldest son Brendan has become a fervent No man and has been moved occasionally to espouse some of the rhetoric of the free market economists. On my next visit to his grandfather’s grave I should not be surprised to see evidence of turbulence in the earth above his tomb. Brendan is a scratch golfer, having been messing about with clubs since his early teens now. I put his rightwards lurch down to having spent far too much time in the lounges of some of the country’s best golf courses. 

While supporting him and his younger brother Martin in assorted tournaments over the years visiting these places is unavoidable and when I do I experience the same feeling that Texan transsexuals must when they choose to come out. My oldest daughter Clare, though, is as fervent a Yes supporter as it’s possible to be and will often call me to ask me to accompany her to a political meeting, which of course, I can’t do as I am still officially ‘undecided’ and have to write about this as objectively as I can. Last week she and her friend attended a Yes meeting in Rutherglen where Tommy Sheridan was holding court. ‘He was just terrific,’ she said and texted  a photograph taken afterwards showing the two of them with the Arden Aristotle.

Last year she and the same friend also experienced one of George Galloway’s ‘Just Say Naw’ events at the City Halls in Glasgow. She insisted on attending, even though she thinks Gorgeous George is ‘mistaken’ on Scottish independence. Doesn’t she realise that George is never mistaken? If Arthur Scargill has more memoirs to sell any time soon then he ought to ensure that Glasgow figures prominently on his publicity tour for a small quorum at least is waiting for him here. Red Ken too, for that matter.

* * *

OF COURSE the attempts by No to suggest that the referendum is in danger of being swamped by aggression and violent aggravation is quite laughable and follows the two-year pattern of their dismal campaign and depressing campaign. I awake this morning to be greeted by the Herald’s splash which quotes an un-named source from the No campaign saying that there will be ‘utter carnage’ at polling stations if Yes chiefs don’t rein in their bully boys. This incredible claim came in the wake of Jim Murphy feeling forced to suspend his ‘100 towns in 100 days’ soapbox tour to defend the Union in the face of an egg and some heckling. 

There is a sinister aspect to such desperate propaganda by the No campaign (and I have a good idea who at Better Together HQ is responsible). If the police are minded to take any of this seriously then I would suggest that, instead of wasting resources by policing Murphy’s tour, they ought instead merely to warn Blair McDougall, head of the No campaign, and his team of inciting unrest by deploying such intemperate and incendiary language (not that I’m suggesting for a minute that the estimable Mr McDougall is in any way responsible).

The independence campaign has been conducted in a mature, dignified and good-humoured fashion and Scotland’s citizens and public figures, on both sides of the debate, can be proud of this. Observers from other countries have already noted all this with approbation and to attempt to smear the Scottish by talking irresponsibly of violence does neither the No campaign nor the country any favours at all.

Indeed I detect, in such tactics, proof of some desperation in the Better Together camp. These claims have surfaced within a few days of Alex Salmond’s humiliation of Alistair Darling during the pair’s second live television debate, screened by BBC Scotland, and the latest opinion poll showing the two sides neck and neck. It’s thought that a high turn-out (a figure of more than 80% is expected) would benefit Yes, as it would include many from those housing estates and schemes who normally feel alienated from Westminster and Holyrood politics and who, it is predicted, would most favour a change in the constitutional status quo. Surely though, the No camp would not stoop to the point where they are actively trying to dissuade people from voting by scaring them?

* * *

LAST WEEK I was caught up in a rather embarrassing situation involving a good friend and the board of a Business Gateway Exchange on which he sits. My friend had asked me to chair the last in a series of independence debates they have been  hosting among their clients and contacts. I was delighted because this organisation, like so many others in civic and business Scotland, has decided to engage in the debate by plugging into the surge of energy that has awoken those parts of Scotland that have lain politically and culturally dormant for too long. I am also honoured as it is an important task that deserves some care and good judgment.

However, the invitation to chair is soon rescinded and my friend calls to apologise for the misunderstanding. There are to be four speakers at the event – two from either side – and so they opted to seek candidates from the campaign HQs. It seems that Better Together, in an act of petulance that has become its characteristic, has threatened to withdraw their speakers if I am confirmed as chair.

Their suspicions and resentment, I suspect, stem from columns I have written in the Observer which have been highly critical of the negativity of the No campaign. I come from a family and community where old Labour roots run deep and I have campaigned for both Dennis Canavan and Tom Clarke when they were my local MPs. Unlike several of the placemen inside the No campaign, my family’s loyalty to Labour and trade unionism did not come with a six-figure price tag attached.

However, I suppose I ought to feel a little more distinguished that some of these people have deemed my presence at this debate to be so toxic. And of course no blame attaches to my friend or his organisation who acted with decorum throughout.

* * *

DAVID Torrance has emerged as one of the campaign’s most important commentators. And I’m sure he’ll forgive me if I describe him as one of the superior Unionist voices to have emerged. Torrance’s unauthorised biography of Alex Salmond, Against The Odds, has become the prescribed text for the flying columns of English-based and overseas journalists converging on Scotland in this our hour of destiny.  

In one of his most recent columns Torrance discussed the almost complete absence of real social mobility in Britain and suggested that this state of cultural stasis exists in Scotland too. Turning to our own shared profession he noted that 70% of newspaper columnists in the UK went to independent, fee-paying or selective secondary grammar schools.

Like me, he attended an ordinary urban comprehensive (as I suspect most of our colleagues north of the border did) but includes himself and probably me too in what might be considered the Scottish establishment. Now I have no problem with him averring that a Scottish establishment exists which is as red in tooth and claw as its sister in England. But I draw a line that such an establishment must include those of us who chronicle and analyse its workings.

For how can any establishment that might include me and some other similarly scrofulous members of the press ever be deemed to be an establishment at all?

I suspect though, that Torrance is as spooked as I am at the prospect of being part of anyone’s establishment. I have shared more than a few television and radio studios with him over the last year or so and how else can I explain his choice of light evening apparel which normally consists of a tee-shirt bearing an obscure motif of uncertain vintage… and jeans of course. Either that or Better Together have got to him and insisted that he don such unruly raiment to put me off my stride.

* * *

I WONDER if, in years to come, those of us who have been given ring-side seats on which to view the referendum campaign will have cause to consider what a privilege we have been accorded? Of all those generations that have come and gone since the Treaty of Union in 1707 this is the one which has been chosen to decide if it ought to remain or instead perform the obsequies at its passing. We who now find ourselves chronicling its beat and cadence for newspapers and the broadcast media, bear a heavy responsibility to report it properly and with due grace and humour. By and large I feel that this has been achieved, though there have been a few troughs. 

During a recent broadcast for Radio 4, live from BBC Scotland’s headquarters at Pacific Quay in Glasgow, I suggested that it was no surprise that the most earnest and enthusiastic proponents of the Union were those who had the most to lose in terms of salary and expenses: Westminster MPs such as Douglas Alexander, Alistair Darling and Jim Murphy. This though, was unfair of me.

Alexander’s arguments for maintaining the Union have been easily the most persuasive on the No side and it’s probably fair to say that he would be able to command a salary and expenses package far higher than that which he currently commands in his role as Westminster Labour’s Shadow Foreign Secretary and the MP for Paisley and Renfrewshire South. His assertion that those of us on the left have a moral duty to maintain unity and common cause with the left in England to overturn the politics of greed, unearned privilege and reprisals against the poor which are embedded in the policies of the Tory/LibDem coalition is compelling. It borrows from the old sense of internationalism and common purpose which underpin proper ideas of socialism and are what brought many of us who spring from Christian-Democrat households to the Labour Party initially.

It won’t be Scottish nationalists who will determine the outcome of the referendum; there are simply not enough of them to do so. It will be determined by the number of Labour voters who think that Alexander’s message of internationalism and solidarity with England’s socially isolated communities remains worth fighting for in the modern UK Labour Party.

From this Issue

Say Not Soft Things

by Rosemary Goring


by Kevin McKenna

Rock of Ages

by Stuart Kelly

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