Ten minutes north of Edinburgh, and you know you’re somewhere else, far far from England. As the waters of the Firth of Forth spread before the train, and the stone villages glimmer in the sharper air, there is something not found in England space — nature, green, a country never fully industrialised, now in some areas skipping it entirely.
The people in Edinburgh Waverley station have a jauntiness, the women clack-clacking purposefully around in belted overcoats, the men compact, solid, frequently tieless, save for the occasional munter with a moontan, a splayed pudding-bowl haircut and a bottle of Buckfast fortified wine in his palsied mitt, a description that fits no more than 15% of the young male urban Scottish population.
As we wound out of the city, all was luxe calme et volupte, a repose undisturbed even by the phone conversation a woman was having about what we do with the guy who punched somebody or stabbed somebody; do we have a policy, I don’t think so, which possibly counts as standard HR here.
Pretty village succeeded pretty village, the green deepened to emerald. I wondered why this place looked so different …
The usual theory is that northern European Protestant places are linguistic cultures, while southern Catholic places are visual cultures, but perhaps, I theorised as black cows lowed in spire-shadowed fields, the quiet and austere grace of Scotland combines the linguistic order with the visual, a bodying forth of harmony and wholeness arising from its distinctive enlightenment.
Then we arrived in Dundee and that whole thesis went out the window. When had this been bombed, I wondered, and why hadn’t I heard about it. “This is where we’re getting out?” Radio Girl said, her eyes widening in horror.
My new research assistant for tax purposes, Radio Girl may have already been doubting the wisdom of this trip. Now via the British Rail system, she had somehow wound up in Mogadishu. It would be a test of something.
The Actress had been an early candidate for this jaunt, but she announced by text that she was staying in South London until her life improves, which I have to say is possibly the single worst improvement-of-life strategy in history. In any case, Radio Girl breezed into London and the French Pub a week ago, and the matter was settled.
As it turned out, Dundee is a pleasant little city, full of streets of stone buildings and old-style shops, not all of them to let. It was only the area around the station that had been unaccountably left to look like Beirut, circa 1976.
Even the venue for this Scottish hustings disappointed. When someone tells you that there’s an election meeting at St Peter’s Free Church, you immediately picture a draughty stone hall, and a minister railing against sin, but alas, it was a warm white plastered building with comfortable modern chairs and the central heating hissing away.
It’ll be interesting to see how things are north of the border, I had told Keith at yesterday’s Watford extravaganza. He’s expressed some mild, actually spitting, disappointment with the level of debate. I’m pretty sure things will be different in Scotland.
It was. Fair go, it was terrible. No more than two dozen turned up to see the candidates for Dundee West, ahead of watching the PM’s debate later. Trouble was, you had the feeling that the candidates hadn’t turned up either. In their place, with two exceptions, were amiable dopes of the type who turn up to ward meetings to complain about the drains in Beswick Rd and dozen anyone know when someone’s going to do something about them because I have a sheaf of correspondence, etc, etc.
Dundee West has returned only Labour MPs since the 1950s, a working-class heart of a city famously built on “jute, jam and journalism” “theruzbijoomillzurlupthisroa”* the cab driver told us as we dodged between the back streets looking for the venue, jute being the vegetable form of hessian, in case you were wondering. The jam was Keiller’s marmalade, on millions of British breakfast tables for decades. And the journalism was and is DC Thomson, producers of half a dozen newspapers but more famously comics such as The Beano, Commando war comic (“hande hoch Brun! Schweinhund! For you the election is over!”) and most piquant of all venerable comicstrip The Broons about a sprawling Scottish family, whose chaotic adventures have inevitably been co-opted to a certain other Brown who can’t seem to get it together.
The jam and the jute are long gone, the journalism increasingly management of a far-flung media empire, and Dundee has become a knowledge city instead. As Labour’s base has become less guaranteed, the SNP has come up in the polls, to the point that they now have 11,000 votes to Labour’s 16,000, and need about an 8% swing to get it. Tough, but not impossible, and it’s these sort of seats the SNP needs to capture at the UK level to get beyond its base in the rural east coast and western islands.
But that requires convincing people that a real game-changing move is under way, that it is time to seize the hour, etc. As my good friend Tom Nairn notes in his essay today, questions of sovereignty and the future form not only of Scotland, but of England are the really explosive questions.
Sadly, however, SNP hopeful Jim Barrie couldn’t square up to it. With the square jaw and brown suit of a shipyard shop steward c.1955, he certainly looked the part, but his call to support the SNP was … because Scotland should be a free nation? Because the idea of the UK as a partnership of equals is a joke? Because a changed world made it possible for Scots to achieve true self-determination without suffering penalties of scale?
“I want to tell you that if we want a hung parliament then the best way to go in Dundee West is with the SNP”.
Even the rest of the candidates the lurch-like LibDem, the Tory foetus in moleskins and blazer, the shirt-sleeved socialist candidate, and the pleasant dope standing as an independent looked a little confused by this gambit. But it was the spirit of the evening. Candidates stood up and asserted their deep connection with the place. “I worked in the shipyards …” “my family here since 17 …” “I evolved from a species of shrimp found in the River Tay …” before getting onto a list of disconnected policies and tactical suggestions save for the independent candidate who used his whole two minutes reciting his CV and had only reached his years with the Dover Customs service by the end.
Of course there was a weird disconnect between this event, the debate within Scotland, and the leaders’ debates that was beginning as we listened. There, immigration was finally becoming a major debating point, though it was again in the catch-me-if-you-can style of every leader trying to get the other’s nose. David Cameron’s latest wheeze to get around his support of EU open borders is to suggest that future EU joiners would have partial border restrictions placed on their citizens, avoiding the issue that it is the East Europeans coming now that is pre-occupying people so.
For the most part it seemed one debate too many, going around the houses on inheritance tax, the stimulus package, etc, etc.
As a political performance, there doesn’t seem to be much doubt that Cameron won it, with Clegg a decisive second and Broon the hat-trick wooden spooner. Cameron was more assertive. Equally annoying but more assertive. He brought Clegg to heel, and that may well be good enough to start pushing the Lib-Dem percentages back towards its usual home in the lows 20s.
By contrast, if it hasn’t, then I don’t see much chance of Cameron beating back Clegg and establishing a clear Tory lead. But that doesn’t imply that the leads in these polls will translate into votes, simply because the whole experience is so novel and it seems likely that at least some of it will melt away in the silence and privacy of the ballot box.
The debate flowed out of the laptops on the Glasgow train, pausing occasionally as we passed through tunnels. The only other sound was The Proclaimers of all things, leaking out of headphones tinny, miles distant, walking five hundred miles. In the dark, glassy lakes reflected quiet towns. Perth came and went and then Stirling, and other towns never ruined by the kulturkaust that tore the heart out of English cities in the ’50s and ’60s. If Scotland can extricate itself from this ancient political stitch-up, its politics, its culture will be very different from that down south, and the indifference to much of it north of the border is evidence of that.
But I suspect it will be despite the quality of many of the candidates the SNP is fielding, not because of them.
* there used to be jute mills all up this road