“Come down to
I’ve a cabin beside
— Go-Betweens Veronica Lake (B-side to Lee Remick, West German pressing)
Huge, ponderous, his tie merely a dickie bird on his enormous gut, John Robertson, MP for Labour, levered himself to his feet on stage in this bunker-like community centre.
“Someone asked a question about the building industry. Well, the building industry provides a lot of jobs …” “Aye, you’ll be looking for one as a brickie in a couple of weeks,” said a woman behind me, to general laughter. A man in front of me turned round to her: “That were no funny, not as funny as the last thing you said.” “Arr, who are you to tell me what’s funny?” she hit back. A thin man beside her — son? Toyboy? — threw in: “Aye it’s plenty funny. You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
The half-dozen candidates watched from the platform. They weren’t in the slightest bit bemused. The chair didn’t even try to impose order. Welcome to Glasgow, where even the hecklers get heckled.
Here we were on the outskirts of the city in a place called Drumchapel, which looks like what a lot of Glasgow looks like, a rough go at recreating a Slovakian mining town in 1971. Every housing complex appears to have experimented with a different style of design, anything considered except variation and sensuous ornament such as people have been making house around for 12,000 years.
Here it was some sort of Lego-ish lock-on thing, whereby each house was locked to the next, clicked together, and between units, open fields. Folks had been decanted here over decades, from the Gorbals, the vast slums surrounding the city, demolished wholesale by local councils run by Labour and Communist Party councillors, and putting up vast towers, a testament to forthrightness — and a disaster, dividing the city, destroying communities, building vast areas of isolation and despair.
The place was in trouble well before Thatcher came and kicked it in the nuts. It’s a fantastic city, full of scruffy bars and neighbourhoods that do not yet know they are, and a distinct absence of hipsters. And funny. Everyone in Glasgow is funny. No one knows why, but it’s true.
They have a droll, understated style, which is impossible to match. Billy Connolly isn’t doing anything other than just talking. Little of it survives on paper, although the cab driver who picked on hearing the destination: “Going to Drumchapel? Oh aye, that’s a novel idea.” The slight emphasis on the “to” and “novel”, that’s what nails it. You’d have to be more than a little nervous here about what you’d be up against in a hustings.
You’d be especially nervous if you were Robertson, the longtime Labour MP, who would have been pretty confident of his continued tenure until about a fortnight ago. The Saltire-blue tide of Scottish nationalism has been rising for months, but Glasgow has always felt itself to be above the high-water mark: a fervently socialist, even communist city, where the SNP have long been derided as the “Tartan Tories”, provincial Presbyterian types, determined to keep down the working class.
Labour was a concession: the city was the proving ground of Willie Gallacher, who would go onto be the Communist MP for West Fife in the Depression. When Blairism and New Labour proved too much, even for its gritted-teeth solidarity, Glasgow swung support behind the Scottish Socialist Party, which took six seats in the devolved Scottish Parliament before imploding after its leader, the charismatic Tommy Sheridan was caught doing another type of swinging at a different sort of party and persuaded SSP members to lie in court when he sued News Corp for libel over reports about it.
Now, though Labour have taken a leftward turn, even Glasgow has given up on them — satisfied that the SNP’s trek further to the left is a real thing. Had Labour been able to limit its collapse and hold the SNP to the 45% polling they were getting, then Glasgow North-West would remain safe. But Labour pretty much cut off and killed Scottish Labour when Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy declared there would be “no cuts” in Scotland, a desperate attempt to match SNP resolve.
“Jim Murphy won’t be running our economic policy,” shadow chancellor Ed Balls announced, and that was that. SNP support started tracking upwards again. It is now at an extraordinary 54-55% across three polls, which would give it a clean sweep across Scotland, 58 of 59 seats, with only the Orkneys and Shetland — not Scotland at all, simply a Viking demesne — staying with the sitting Liberal-Democrat, Hrothgar the Skull-Drinker-From.
The Lib Dems would lose 10 seats, Labour all 38, and even the Tories would be wiped out in their one hold, the borders constituency of Dumfries Etcetera (that’s its real name), which they have on a 38% vote on a 60% turnout. That is the eye of the storm that he has found himself in, and only his bulk, poor man’s gravitas, and sense of right is keeping Robertson anchored to the ground.
That said, of course, he’s five times the candidate of anyone here, capable of snapping off a straight answer and giving a not unobjectionable statement of Labour values at the start. “Well, I’m a Labour man, I came up through the Labour ranks, and I want better jobs, better communities, like the ones I got when Labour ran the place.”
But he’s one of those self-made candidates who draw from one a mixture of admiration and deep frustration, the former for their struggle up to here — in a school system which, Inca-style, until the 1970s, sorted everyone’s life path by a single exam taken at the age of 11 — and frustrated by their refusal to do any systematic rethinking of the positions they inherited.
Robertson has the idiosyncracies of the autodidact — old Labour left economically, with a hint of suspicion at “new-fangled” jobs, a foreign policy hawk, and a few things all his own, such as a firm support for homeopathy and its continued inclusion in the NHS. With decades practice, he rises at each question, and swats away his opponents with a bearish roar, or tries to.
He has been mostly lucky in them. The Lib-Dem and the Greens are of no consequence, each in their appointed way: the Greens rep is the usual, a smart and focused professional teacher with facts and policy at her fingertips, who knows that this crowd are no more likely to vote for Greens than they are to eat them; the Lib-Dem is a set of eccentric obsessions who gather in one man. He seems pleasant enough, but he is also inevitably a thin Scots ginger, of the type Ewan McGregor et al have fun with in Shallow Grave.
This is a reverse of the situation as stood a decade ago. Though the Greens’ policy bank remains a grab-bag of unicorn rainbow farts about compost-trains and work leave for bad chakra energy, its reps are increasingly people who see the party as a representative of a focused left-technocratic politics, while the Lib-Dems, outside of winnable seats, are now repped by people who just wandered into the office one day, talking about a single land tax, or the British-Israelites, or the health-benefits of urine drinking or whatever. That didn’t matter much. A lot of hustings is polite waiting while minor candidates make their pointless statements.
Problem was the SNP candidate wasn’t much better, an example of a well-known surge effect — people who put their hands up for a seat no one else could be bothered to contest may suddenly be off to Westminster. Carol Monaghan was a striking presence in a sea-blue dress — and like everyone else here, she’s pale as mashed potato, so it gave her the air of a Scots flag in motion — but she’s a high school physics teacher by profession, and her responses were given in one-sentence chunks, as if we were being taken through the differential analysis of rotating conic sections, in an airless room, on the last class of the day.
‘”Labour is not the answer to austerity but the cause of it.” Pause. All got that? On we go. “Only a new deal between us can set it right.” Understood. “That involves a new way of thinking about the Union.” And on and on. A half-day’s media training would have sorted that out, but one suspects that never occurred to anyone. The Greens candidate, Moira Crawford, was a teacher too, but primary — “Now does everyone understand what a deficit is? Do we? Do we really?” — but at least she engaged us, appealing to our inner five-year-old.
Which was not far off the mark, because there was a lot of that on display. Crowd Glasgow simply had a different interpretation of the phrase “OK let’s hear from the candidates,” regarding it as a sort of starter-gun for everyone wanting to throw in.Roger Lewis, the Tory candidate, a young man who looked like David Miliband, and may well have been, had started with a chummy Unionist appeal: “Well I was born in Wales, and I grew up and studied in England, and I have made Glagow my home.” A half-beat and then: “Aye well we’d throw you out for a start from the back”, and the hall collapsed in laughter.
Only Monaghan got a fair hearing — and the Communist Party candidate, Zoe Hennessy, a young woman who worked at, and unionised her local supermarket, and with a Veronica-Lake peekaboo permanent wave, batting lashes and Taylor Swift lips provided the unlikely, and sole, element of glamour for the evening.
Oh I know I know. OK the Tory Boy was rock-jawed and hunky in his blue suit, OK is their parity now? He stole a couple of glances at her. I hope they copped off together, but I suspect she would have been more likely to garrotte him first. Anyway, she really gave it to the Labour guy on being early adopters of privatisation and austerity, but her main target was the SNP, slated as offering nationalism as a form of pseudo-liberation by a party that is a pretty recent convert to left-wing economics.
“It’s the SNP that enforced zero-hours contracts in Holyrood [the Scottish parliament]” she charged, and Monaghan didn’t have an answer to that, because it was true, and not much capacity to think on her feet.
The crowd weren’t going to help do down the SNP, but they were happy to join in the carve-up of Labour. This was a crowd with a strong socialist ethic, angry about the Coalition’s benefits regime, and not just on their own behalf either. Teachers, hospital workers, local govt civil servants came to the microphone not to assail the Tory, whom they could barely see, but to assail Labour for not putting out a clear ant-austerity message.
“Every week we get now tens, now hundreds of people who’ve been ‘breached’ who have no money, no food, cant pay their rent. What are you going to do about that? You havent committed to fully abolishing it.”
There was a level of moral anger here, not seen elsewhere, and Robertson appeared surprised by its full force. He struggled to hide his disappointment at this desertion. You could see his mighty frame struggling to keep in the anger, the urge that all pollies get to curse their base, the urge they never fully defeat, the moment they always come to: what are (you) people going on about? What are you people going on about? He couldn’t swing his guns right, the Tory was a bot candidate, sent in by Central Office. Was a time they could have got a real candidate here, a working-class Tory, St Alf Garnett of the Shipyards. But that’s gone now.
Scottish Toryism, a force for decades, relied on the country’s role as a centre of the empire — shipbuilder to it, supplier of its soldiers, and much of the intellectual heft that justified it — and its call came back through it. Paisley, milled originally in, erm, Paisley, down the road, was a Kashmiri pattern taken back by squaddies on India service. Snooker, invented in the officers’ mess, combining billiards with Indian ball games, came down to the troops and came back to Scottish and Northern pubs. And IPA, the pint you sit over for two hours, is Indian Pale Ale, brewed to withstand the long voyage to the subcontinent from northern breweries, become an unshakeable taste.
Glasgow was the second city of the Empire, when Edinburgh was an antiquarian backwater, and Manchester a sink of mills and illnesses. The city was half-loyal, half-revolutionary for decades. When news of the Bolshevik revolution reached it, it erupted. Red Clydeside, 1919, the strikes that got the 40-hour week. That’s the sort of thing Robertson hoped he could draw on, in however mild a fashion.
But just as he reaches for it, there’s a goddam Scottish nationalist hitting him from the Left, a Green quoting his record back against him, and a Commie of all things. Jaysus. Poor old Robbo was being hit on all sides. Labour’s pallid response to Tory austerity was one thing, but then the questions on Trident started coming. “Who would want to hit back in all all-out nuclear war? Who would want to survive?” someone asked, and the audience whistled and stamped their feet. This was where the big beast died.
He had already been caught up on lying about voting against the Iraq war — he didn’t realise that someone could get Hansard on an iPhone — and he got himself into a terrible tangle over Russia. Suggesting that it would have been better had the Ukraine retained its nuclear weapons, he was shouted down in unforced scorn. He looked now, not merely hurt, but as if he did not understand his people anymore. Old Labour, building socialism within the confines of a global imperial power replaced by…what? This tartan Cuba? Was that your aspiration in the Drumchapel social club?
Aye it was. This was an audience with one big idea — that it was empire that was doing them down, being on the periphery of it, taking its scraps. I wondered how real it was, and found out later during a cigarette break — the cigarette break and the audience were a one-to-one correspondence, like some demonstration of set theory, the entire crowd moving outside to smoke, and somehow becoming a different entity — when I asked around.
“Oh aye, no Trident. Absolutely not.” This was not an inner-city leftie audience. This was people who’d been decanted to the fields to get on with it. But their political identity coalesced around the rejection of a technology of death, of death-in-life. It was here that the SNP candidate did manage to lift above the bunsen burners and the benches to something greater. When you think about it for a moment it’s obvious — once you have made the breach with Union and empire, then the means of its enforcement cannot be a matter of indifference to you.
When a country starts to crack and break, so too do the affiliations it has created within you, and that is what is occurring in Scotland at the moment, something so far beyond the comprehension of those trapped within the old categories, the sad exhausted hacks in Jim Murphy’s office, that they have not been able to formulate a strategy to counter it. What is happening in Scotland is “republican” in the widest sense, not particularly to do with the remnant existence of a monarchy, but more about how public citizenship relates to private subjectivity. The crisis of modern politics is that there is no relation, so people who want that seek it out in the most extreme and violent movements, or the most fantastically abstract ones. Yet here it is, reshaping people, audience and speakers.
There was no UKIP guy to take the pressure off, sadly, but there was Chris MacKenzie, a young and very stoned man representing CISTA — Cannabis Is Safer Than Alcohol — and who, after some initial hostility, won the audience’s heart. In a borrowed suit, and un-ironed shirt, slacker uniform, MacKenzie had one of those head bands which ties your long hair at the back, and looks weirder than long hair itself.
MacKenzie began with the sensible argument about cannabis and quickly admitted that he might not have much to say ” because most of my policies are about cannabis” but was gradually enticed into the stoner’s “Hallelujah Chorus”, the hymn to hemp. Ah hemp, the seed that, had it stayed legal, would have forestalled imperialism, war, the works. By question four, the audience tensed in anticipation of amusement at how Chris would relate the question to hemp. Economic regeneration? Hemp would grow in a northern temperate climate. Obesity? Hemp had 14 of the 16 amino acids found in animal protein. Had he smoked before he came out? “I might put a no comment to that'” he said to rolling laughter.
But it was generous laughter, shared, joyful. It was a understanding that a joker in the pack says you’re playing with a real deck of cards, that the fool has a license to say what few can say — that politics is mostly over, and many questions are now technical questions within a framework of shared values. Not even the Tories are Tories anymore. They’re just the right faction of a political spectrum which is green-republican across the board. If things look more dire than this picture, it is because interests from an old world survive into the new one, and we must deal with them. Running beneath us all, there is a spring of common sense, which knows that the Right, in its current form, is simply over, and it’s now just a question of pushing them out of the way.
What would help that along the way? A clean sweep by the SNP. Fifty-nine, the whole country represented by a single party. That would be the moment we had all been looking for. The effect on other parties, but especially the Tories, would be devastating for it would be a connection of popular will and politics, a true union, that would put the pallid shadow game of existing politics to shame.
I’d got a final question in on the notice paper “what do you think your party’s greatest mistake has been”, which produced some darkly comic responses (“well the Communist Party has only got five councillors, so I’m sure you wont be asking us to talk about our mistakes….”) but got from the SNP’s Monaghan a full-throated roar: “The only mistake we made is not making Nicola Sturgeon leader earlier!” a rebuke to the more centrist even neo-liberal Alex Salmond faction. It was a dodge, but it was fair enough. And it is becoming something other than the thing as usual, a left-nationalist politics as strong as a thrown hammer, and that, that, is a novel idea. Come on down to Veronica Lake, Veronica Lake….