The adoption of the song “Let’s work together” by the SNP at its Perth Conference has led me to think back over the people I have worked with over the years in pursuit of the party’s aims.
I left Edinburgh at the age of 6, after the death of my father, and for the next 12 years lived in the north of England. In those years, I suppose, my nationalism was a form of homesickness, though I was happy in Lancashire and retain an affection for the place. I wore an SNP badge on my blazer throughout the 60s at secondary school and can’t remember anything but positive interest from my friends and teachers. I was known as ‘Jock’ because everyone had a nickname, but the general reaction to the idea of Scottish Independence was positive. Indeed, many in the north west felt so remote from London Government that I think they felt quite envious that Scots had the possibility of an alternative. Interestingly, throughout years of canvassing, I generally found that the English living in Scotland, along with other nationalities, were more likely to be in favour of Independence than not. For most of them it was obvious.
We spent an Easter holiday in Edinburgh every year, and in 1968, while visiting friends in the Duddingston area, I noted that Arthur Donaldson, SNP National Chairman at the time, was speaking at Portobello Town Hall. Uncharacteristically forward, for me at the time, I suggested to our hosts that I would like to attend that meeting, and the man of the house generously agreed to take me. This was around the time of the huge advance made in the local elections by the SNP and the hall was packed. It was many years later before I discovered that my companion was a leading light in the Edinburgh Labour Party and must have risked severe embarrassment by accompanying me there, though I did notice at the time that he was a bit disgruntled when I got up to join the standing ovation at the end of Donaldson’s speech!
The late sixties were, of course, momentous times in politics and my political awareness, which had probably started with JFKs’s election when I was 8, was heightened by the Paris riots, Grosvenor Square and the Civil Rights Movements- in the US and in Ireland.
Returning to Edinburgh to university in 1970 progressed my interest. At an early Scottish History tutorial we had discussed the possibility of Independence in the near future. I had opined that it would need a single unifying event to spark the flame across the country. Six months later the UCS work in suggested that political sensibiity was still thriving in Scotland, and this was reflected over the next few years in a cultural uprising, with the 7:84 Company’s ‘The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil, Bill Bryden’s ‘Willie Rough’, and constant agitptrop theatre from the likes of Wildcat, an upswing in interest in folk music with the likes of Dick Gaughan and the fine work of Hamish Henderson at the School of Scottish Studies, as well as Sorley McLean’s involvement with the setting up of Sabhal Mor Ostaig.
These were exciting times and I finally joined the party as a fully paid up member in 1973, Edinburgh Newington’s Membership Secretary, Jim Campbell, arriving, all tweedy and deerstalkered, at the door of my room in the Pollock Halls of Residence, with my membership card. The routine of branch meetings, leafleting, discussion and planning began. It was an interesting Branch at the time; Dougie Stewart – visually a cartoon Nationalist in kilt and woolly socks – was actually a modern and progressive Chairman. In that first year we had as activists: Roseanna Cunningham, recently returned from Australia – to add a Aussie twang to my English accent and the American vowels of my Midwestern girlfriend – economist Gavin Kennedy’s London pronunciation, Arve Johannsen from Norway, and Irish Professor Owen Dudley Edwards. As agent was Kerr McGregor – an eco warrior before the term had even been invented, and our 1974 candidate was Bob Shirley, coining our campaign slogan: “Shirley? Surely!”
It was a crash course in learning about campaigning and both elections in 1974 were exciting and instructive. At the Meadowbank count we were talking to the Labour candidate. Her husband came up and aid:”Oh – talking to the children, are we?” It was a clear demonstration to me of the attitude of certain parts of the Scottish Labour party who have never quite got over the fact that they have no right to expect Scotland’s blind support.
After 1974 we moved to the Inch Gilmerton Branch in Edinburgh South and worked hard building support on the council schemes and high rises of Inch, Liberton, Southouse, Moredun and Gilmerton. Again, years before Del Boy, the site of Kerr McGregor’s yellow three wheeler being used as a campaign car, my hybrid accent ringing out the SNP message through battery powered speakers, must have raised at least some curiosity amongst the voters.
Campaigning was constant – for local elections and then the 1979 Referendum. Again, it was a good grounding in political action and I met with a wide range of activists and voters and learned something about the realities of politics. A switch to the more leafy Marchmont Branch ensued and then a spell as a community councillor. 79 Group membership produced a slight hiatus in my activities, before I launched myself once more into campaigning for Kenny Mackaskill in Livingston in 83 and 87, where I met a new intake of activists such as Gregg McArra and Fiona Hyslop. It was not unusual for a certain Alex Salmond to dive in and out of the campaign office from time to time. Again, Livingston, as a new town, was a different situation for me, and I was part of a fresh approach to campaigning that gave me a lot of cause for thought. This was especially the case when I found myself up lamposts in places like Breich at 2am, attaching posters in the teeth of howling gales!
But, I’d been campaigning, meeting, discussing almost constantly for around fifteen years, the Referendum result had been deflating and the Thatcher juggernaut was exhausting. Like others in the Party I felt it was time to step back and focus on family and work. There was a certain amount of disillusionment, I suppose, and political exhaustion. I’d never been single mindedly political, there were always other important areas of my life, and it seemed a good time to stop.
Of course, if you’re a political animal, you never actually stop campaigning – it’s an attitude, a way of looking at life. As a teacher, as a parent, as a neighbour, my core values never changed; I hoped that I displayed my beliefs by the way I went about my life; my political instincts were to fight for compassion, respect and responsibility – whether in my pupils, my family, my community, or indeed as a country. My nationalism is based firmly on the conviction that no country has the right to abdicate responsibility for its citizens, the society it creates, or the decisions it makes which affect its neighbours.
I campaigned in the second referendum, though, after my long sabbatical, and like many of my generation of activists, watched the setting up of a Scottish parliament, and then the establishment of an SNP Government, with a kind of surreal bemusement, as if this was a kind of delayed reward for those years of door chapping, leaflet stuffing and fundraisers in drafty halls.
And gradually, the fire has returned. The SNP in Government has made mistakes, but it’s also shown a desire to stand up for Scotland’s people, to encourage the country to play its part in the world, and to project us as an outward looking modern nation, rather than an enfeebled and remote region, as some are willing to accept. Cyberspace has encouraged a level of debate and an exchange of ideas far beyond what was previously possible and getting involved in the blogosphere has sharpened my political appetite again – not for major involvement but for playing my part as a foot soldier and maybe putting to use some of my experiences.
It’s been quite a shock to reflect on how far back my political involvement goes; the political world has changed utterly in that time, but the basics remain – that Scotland needs to take control of its own affairs if it is to play its part – not just in the international community, but also in nurturing its citizens and giving them the best chances. As a teacher, I am well aware of the talent our country possesses for the future, of all the many positive options. I also know that in the times that are coming our young people need to gain a new view of the possibilities of politics, a belief that things can change for the better and that they can effect and affect that change. It’s not about a ‘new generation’, it’s about the present generation – it always is.
I have worked in the SNP with people of all ages, from all backgrounds, from many countries, and with some of huge intellect and wisdom; I have spoken to voters in old town tenements, new town maisonettes, ex-mining villages and student flats. The best of these people have, without fail, been open minded, keen to work for others, and internationalist in every good sense of the word. They are what Scotland has to offer, and they are needed more than ever.
So, the legs may not fancy the high rise stairs, but the keyboard fingers are flying! Bring on May 2011!