Friday, 11 December 2015

Passing of Ian Bell

Very sad news.

A fine and principled writer, capturing so much political truth, articulating so much radical hope.

As a small tribute, here's part of Ian Bell's powerful and poignant blog article, 31 December 2014, lamenting that year's lost opportunity, yet asserting the coming day of independence:

The Old Year Ends. Part One.
As the year expired, an elderly lady materialised on TV sets across the land. In deference to centuries of invented constitutional theory, Her Majesty did not purr. Instead, she gave us a little talk. Her theme was reconciliation.

This was odd, even by the traditional standards of the royal house. It displayed a strange ignorance. It seemed to insist that Scotland in 2014 had endured terrible scenes of estrangement, anger and upset. HM Queen, like the rest of the British establishment, seemed to need to believe that Scotland had gone to war with itself over a vote.

An egg got broken: that, as best as I could tell, was the casualty figure. Everyone who was anyone got death threats. In the slapstick of social media, tempers and spelling sustained some damage. But that was it. Two million said they'd rather be British; 1.6 million said they'd rather not; and no one had to call the cops.

So what was Mrs Windsor on about, exactly, at Christmas? With whom – for grammar survived – did our 1.6 million require reconciliation? An historian yet unborn will one day say 18 September 2014 was the day Britain died. It was the day when close to 45% of the lieges told the nice old lady that, all things considered, they had their eyes on another kind of future. 

But they did not riot. They did not, most of the time, fare badly with friends, family, or colleagues. Though too polite to say so, HM was another who was still determined to believe things about the desire for self-determination that are simply – very simply – untrue.

In 2014, people who really ought to know better called me a Nazi. Some of the old-school followers of the flag promised me an execution “come the day”. The nicer opponents just wished me a long spell of unemployment. Permutations on various uses for eggs and half bricks were plentiful. Back in the real world, people went about their business, and made their choices.

The Queen missed that part. Scotland made its choice in 2014 with enormous dignity, in enormous numbers, and with great panache. The kids turned out; the grandparents turned out; folk who'd never vote for any of the usual local deadbeats turned out. Reconciliation was neither desired nor required. The community of Scotland voted. And even those who voted No – especially those who voted No – made a point about their country. It lives.

Tragically, you will not find any of that in my forthcoming campaign diary, Memoirs of a Government Stooge. This was a good year for Scotland, but a bad year for most versions of my trade. I used to avoid the “parcel o' rogues” cliché. As it transpires, the gold is still plentiful, like the stooges, but passable prose is hard to come by. The stooges should be ashamed, but are not. There's time enough, though, for fun with them in the years ahead.

That point was missed this year, by winners and losers alike. The most important day for me was the day after. I did my share of consoling. A lost vote is scant recompense to those who were not around in 79. But you have to remember reality on behalf of those who are less dim than a monarch. We got a vote on independence? We got almost 45%? So why do you think our opponents were so very agitated on that morning after, and on every morning since? They fear something.

Self-determination is a glacial thing in this country of ours. In 1979, we were robbed of an “assembly” with no legislative powers worth a damn. In 2014, we declined Alex Salmond's prospectus of HM Queen, Nato, and a currency left in the sweaty mitts of George Osborne. We chose to regard those facts as details while we determined a future. But anyone who thought all matters were settled in the early hours of 19 September failed to attend to facts.

What do you do, exactly, with 1.6 million churlish folk? You could demand that they just “get over it” and go back to voting for their local Jimmy or Jim. Sitting in the back room of a London tower block, you could write a long lecture on “anti-politics”, then explain to the provincials that a vote for self-determination is just another protest against a “status quo”. There are lots of ways to miss the point. The status quo ante covers most.

In 2014, Scotland decided that things could not go on as before. Those who wished to keep their powers, and their jobs, and – no small detail – their bonuses from head office, took fright. David Cameron, a Prime Minister, made stentorian speeches to describe his love for the churlish sorts. Her Majesty's head of government feared that his heart would be left in bleeding pieces if the churls got too churlish. But that didn't work.

The other one, the Conservative given charge of the Queen's Treasury, decided that scaring the Jockos would work better. I'd say only this: if George Gideon Osborne puts that effort on his CV, the Tory Party is in bother. Still, a few soft nationalists toughened up. A few Scots asked themselves about the actual negotiable worth of the currency the Chancellor meant to reserve – with half a dozen constitutional howlers – as his personal gift. A majority didn't care for that behaviour. They really didn't care for it.

In 2014, there was a historic event that had nothing to do with a plebiscite. This part is complicated. A great many Scots – possibly as many as 1.6 million – don't know, to this day, quite what they did, or why they did it. They've heard the shouting. They've seen all the usual media suspects announcing that the corpse lives, breathes, and walks. But we all know: on 18 September 2014, the Labour Party in Scotland expired. How come?

Like many, I get queasy during this part of the tale. In 2014, one mark of Labour's decline was that so few in its ranks understood why an alliance with the Tories would disgust quite so many people, and so deeply. What, asked their stoats and weasels, time and again, is your problem? If you followed their logic – feel free to take a crack – a pact with bankers' hirelings was the only way to ensure justice for all. Such was their genius.

Labour's role in Scotland in 2014 was to secure the proles for Britain. There is no nice way to put it. Threaten their pensions, frighten their children, make a desert of their future, but – so that message ran – get it done. These were old pages from an ancient script. The cold numbers say it worked a treat, on schedule and on target. The revenge taken on Scottish Labour is, however, another story entirely.

You could tell it in terms of those astounding SNP membership numbers. You could tell it by the semaphore of opinion polls, spelling out SOS for Westminster politics and Ed Miliband. You could even make a story from all the old comrades hearing last orders for a peerage. None of that would get you beyond act three in Labour's little tragedy. When push came to shove, the party that wrote Scotland's story for a century preferred suicide to the national interest. And, still worse, was proud of the fact.

We, 1.6 million of us, just turned our backs. They think we'll be “reconciled” to the rebranding of honest Jim Murphy? They think we'll be stampeded, as usual, by the old, rational fear of Tories? Labour is done. We're over it. In 2014, for or against, we were not dealt with honestly, from January to September. Those seasons will not be forgotten or forgiven. Humpty Dumpty can kiss goodbye to his wall, and whatever else he was sitting on.

If you happened to be old enough, nevertheless, it made for a strange year. A Scotland without Labour – Labour rough, foolish, thuggish, compassionate, or stolidly determined – involved an act of imagination. What were we without the familiar cast and the usual soap opera? When Johann Lamont quit as her party's branch office under-manager after the referendum, she managed – ever the good teacher – to deliver a lesson and ask a question. If Labour has rendered itself worthless, what remains?

Strange to report, some of the smarter girls and boys already had answers scrawled on the backs of their hands. While the usual dullards filled their column inches with tales of protest votes and anti-politics, a new Scottish generation presented itself on behalf of the Common Weal, as a National Collective, as a Radical Independence Convention. They were as incoherent, sometimes, as any nascent movement. They were also a lot of fun. More than that, they cared deeply and thought hard.

With my own faded colours up on the sagging mast, I spent most of 2014 wondering what had become of the British state. Why were its responses so feeble, its prose so vapid, its tunes so banal? For much of the referendum campaign, the only noise from the No side seemed to involve a clamour for “passion” on the United Kingdom's behalf. Time and again they tried. Time and again, while superannuated stand-ups and hack actors dumped their love bombs, they failed to manage sense, far less joined-up sentences.

I found that revealing. More than once, I caught myself thinking, “Jeez, I could make a better case for Britain than that”. In the year when we were being told to honour the carnage inaugurated in 1914, when the meaning of a United Kingdom forged in unspeakable sacrifice should have furnished a phrase for the meanest hack, we instead had self-satisfied jokers cackling that “No means no”. And so Britain died.

They haven't quite noticed yet. Her Majesty did her Christmas thing as though normal service had been resumed. Scottish Labour went on acting as though a Jim Murphy is the solution, not the name of the condition. But 1.6 million are beyond all that. We've handed in our notice. It's why all the instant cliches over who really won and truly lost have such force this winter. That British game, we say, is a bogey.

In England's capital, there is no shortage of folk turning a bob by explaining that these are strange days for conventional politics. They employ a couple of propositions. One says that a loss of trust in “Westminster” has invigorated those known traditionally as “other parties”. The antithesis holds that those others have done for the big old parties. A variant, tricky to prove, says that this is going on all over the western world.

So think of that, if you voted Yes in September. When you come to your senses, you'll go back to voting mostly-Labour. Were you living below the Border, you'd probably be backing the racist ticket. Your considered response to 307 years of Union was just a spasm, an “anti-Westminster” thing. You'll get over it. You'll be reconciled.


There's some truth to it. As 2014 ends, the parties accustomed to treating Westminster as their private Hogwarts can barely scrape together two-thirds of the vote in the average opinion poll. They and their institution are not held in esteem. Their scandals have given the very business of political argument a bad name. Coalition government has left many – let's say – unimpressed, and made the death of Liberal Britain seem less strange than inevitable.

None of that has much to do with what happened in Scotland in 2014. In all the chatter over parties and the usual politics, an essential fact got overlooked. A new generation got to vote and said, simply, “Why?” Their parents sentimentality for Labour evaporated. Any deference towards Conservatives and monarchs and old stories of a scepter'd isles disappeared. They looked at their country and imagined a better future. Their opponents just told scary tales.

The Yes voters lost, of course. There is no point in arguing over it. Equally, no one of a sound mind believes the 2014 generation will lose twice. Britain's best efforts turned out to be paltry. This writer expected more, in spring, than a few hacks turning puce for the sake of the honours list, or a consignment of party leaders shipped north in a hurry to placate the locals. For Unionists, the advice is offered free: poor show. 

Those who believed their country should determine its own future might also wish to look back on the year ending. Why were so many of our people so easily frightened? Why were we hemmed in by an argument over bank-notes? Why did our older folk fall hostage to puerile arguments and barter a future that was not theirs to trade? And who said, finally, that we must dodge the heart of the matter?

If you seek the independence of Scotland, you must be ready and willing to talk about the country and its people. Your opponents will have plenty to say about “identity politics” while promoting a British identity. It's tricky and complicated. It tends to get messy. You have to be alert to every nuance. But in the end you have to be honest.

In my opinion, the referendum was lost because too many of us were afraid to say why a Scot would not want to be British. Too much time was spent attempting to square a circle: everything would change and yet, somehow, nothing would change. Currency, monarchs, the telly: it was as though we were doing no more than rearranging junk in the attic. And too many of us – this scribbler included – said we'd deal with these little matters later. That was a mistake.

Despite everything, 1.6 million believed that Scotland's interests could be managed better in Scotland. They are no worse off for it. The mess emanating from the Smith Commission will make life difficult for a few years, but a principle will be secured. In future, no one will ask why a power should be retained by Westminster. They will ask why it hasn't been devolved to begin with, as a matter of course.

Long years ago, sitting in a Glasgow pub with the finest Scottish novelist of my generation, the question of independence came up. My answer then, as now, was that it would happen in my lifetime. I didn't anticipate that we'd be cutting it a little fine, but Willie, cheery as ever, couldn't see it happening. McIlvanney was the one who called us feart in 79, after all, and he wasn't wrong. But in 2014, the fear fell away.

I'll remember that. They brought up every pop-gun in the armoury and people far younger than I found all their threats comical. Scotland woke up. Its young men and women turned the lead of the usual political crap into gold. They didn't get an answer worth the name from the decayed hulks of old political traditions, but they kept on asking their questions. They exposed the rot.
Things are set fair, I think, for a wee country.

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