David Jamieson reflects on the profound ideological changes in Scotland over the last 20 years, by recalling the now apparently lost politics of his grandparents.
As a child of Ayrshire, Burns Night used to remind me of the interminable, yearly rounds of competitive Burns readings. Kids were neatly divided into the small minority who really fought for recognition, and the many rattling through recital the quicker to end the horror.
In recent years, with the transformations in Scottish political life, the yearly celebration tends to set me thinking about my Granddad (Jamieson).
Like most who worked in the coal mines, he was automatically, reflexively Labour. And like most reflexively Scottish Labour people, he was also a Scottish nationalist (small n).
He didn’t discuss politics much. He liked to sing, and garden, and he liked poetry. He still caught up regularly with his friends at the miners’ club, and once every couple of years he went to the polling station and crossed the box next to Labour. The only thing he and Gran ever said in defence of this decision was that Labour were the party for us, and that the Tories were the party of rich people.
He was, presumably, more typically Labourite than my other Granddad (Larkin). He had been an active trade unionist and Labour activist, and was later in life sensitive to the deterioration of the Labour party under Blair and co. I think for Granddad Jamieson it didn’t register much. He simply turned out on polling days and did his solemn duty.
He had a degree of hero worship for Burns. He used to say I looked like the National Bard, which I liked because I knew how highly he thought of him. He once gave me a book making the more than dubious case that Burns was superior to Shakespeare. MacBeth, he told me, was a calumny on the Scottish people.
He took me to see the opening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999. On the Royal Mile as the Queen’s carriage rolled by, I followed my mum and dad in keeping my hands by my side, as he, with a slightly embarrassed smile on his face, gave a polite little wave. He aptly reflected the mood of uneasy truce in the crowd – the unspoken awkwardness of the ceremony and the ideas and institutions it brought together in contradiction (there was a Republican protest elsewhere at the Queen’s procession, though this was airbrushed from official reportage – which was endlessly sentimental).
The tension was suddenly broken when, 10 metres or so behind the golden carriage, came men in high-vis vests scooping up the horse shite. In contrast to the timid acknowledgement of the sovereign, a mighty roar rose from the Edinburgh crowd as the shit-scoopers held their shovels aloft and swaggered in procession. My Grandad laughed until the tears stood in his eyes.
Over 2 decades later, the truce is shattered beyond repair. That delicate balance of Labourism, Scottish nationalism and Unionism which was the real mass politics of Scotland for so many decades has been swept away. Just as the 9 Scottish Labour leaders since then have destroyed the lines of communication to this sense of class solidarity, so they have lost any organic access to the Scottish nationalist and Unionist sentiments.
Their malaise is and isn’t their fault. The mines really are gone. The Devolution era really is different to the one which preceded it. I recall later my Dad recalling his father’s wave to the Queen, half-critically, and half in endearment. My Mum retorted that it was his generation – he had grown up with her, progressed in a distant but parallel life-cycle. It was an insightful comment. For millions of people the royal family were a monument of privilege and empire, but also a symbol of resistance to Nazi Germany, and a token of historical continuity.
It only occurred to me much later that two generations, my Grandfather’s and my father’s, had acclimatised to de-industrialisation very differently. For my Grandfather, old loyalties and identifications were strained and counter-poised. This was the delicate balance of social democracy, Scottish nationalism and Unionism upon which Labour built its fortifications. For my father, who would go on to become a supporter of national independence, the brutalisation of the country’s industrial base, and the grim unfolding of New Labour, were corrosive to any form of identification with the British state. In both cases, millions of men and women were on the same path.
Handed a difficult – perhaps impossible – transition by historical forces, Scottish Labour handled it as though they had hooves. Across the two decades of the Scottish Parliament, they demanded a wearied Labour voting base choose their identifications; British, or Scottish and then later socialist or nationalist. By the time they appealed to socialism, they had already sunk any leftist credentials in a wave of privatisation and war. They had scolded the millions of Scots and Brits who opposed the outrages of the War on Terror, as irresponsible pacifists.
As a parting cruelty, they rendered the old husk of Scottish Labour so weak, and its moral and ideological example so hollow, that an SNP leadership sharing many of the same personality flaws was able to dance at its wake. When the ghost of Labour occasionally returns to the scene, it is to do yet more damage to its own memory. Gordon Brown’s talks with senior Tories on plans to save the Union indicate yet more visitations to come.
As a body of polling by the British state journal of record, the Times, indicates, the traditional ideological adhesives that bound old Scotland to the Union have warn down to almost nothing. Last ditch state intransigence and confusion at the top of the independence movement remain the only major obstructions to its final demise.
Burns, to my Granddad, meant many things. Some of them ought to have been contradictory, but for as long as a certain ensemble of post-war British society held intact those contradictions could be held at bay. It’s unwinding meant the end of the balance and the truce.