The polling cards arrived at our house last week. It was the morning after a leaders’ debate like none before in my lifetime. I didn’t watch it but I’ve scoured the commentary. Things are different. And in Scotland they are very different, writes Chris Creegan.
This will be the ninth general election I’ve voted in, the third in Scotland. I’m a strong advocate of compulsory attendance at the ballot box and I’ve always voted; in seven different places and two different countries, but always for the same party. However this post isn’t about my voting intentions. Rather it’s about the context, quite radically altered, in which I’ll vote this time and my political journey to this moment.
The first general election I voted in was 1979. It was my last year at school and to earn some money for a post A Level holiday I worked at the count. It was an exciting night but I was on the losing side, a pattern that was to endure for nearly 20 years, in national elections at least.
The first election to leave its mark on me had taken place more than five years earlier though, in February 1974 when I was 12. Those were the days when political impersonations came in the form of Mike Yarwood rather than Rory Bremner. Harold and Ted, Vic and Len; this was the corporatist 70s. We weren’t a political household by any means. My dad’s vote was a secret between him and the ballot box.
But for some reason I was curious, sufficiently so to take a night off from Radio Luxembourg’s Fab 208 on the tiny transistor radio that sat under my pillow, to listen to the results come in. The night waves of that election accompanied my political awakening. Forty years later and the political landscape is unrecognisable. But something that flickered that night has stayed the same for me. Politics matters.
It’s that continuing belief which has made the last two years some of the most turbulent on my political journey. In Scotland last year we had a poll which was about politics but not (necessarily) about parties. Working out which way to vote, for me at least, suddenly got more difficult than it had ever been. In the end much more difficult.
When I moved here in 2003 my attitude to independence was relaxed, too much so for some of my London friends who feared I might go native. It seemed to me then that if, in time, the settled will of the Scottish people settled elsewhere, that would be fine. My attitude transcended traditional political boundaries. Yet I was no nationalist, quite the contrary and declaredly so.
I was however a strong supporter of devolution, and I couldn’t help feeling that the version we had was a bit flimsy. It lacked oomph. And that mattered to me, because for politics to change anything it has to be serious, robust and accountable. There has to be a reason to believe. Politics has the power to make life better, but to do that its institutions have to be capable of being transformative.
That kernel of truth took me, over the space of a year, from being a No voter to a Yes voter in the referendum. The vote became, not the threat of breaking something up, but the opportunity to create something new. Whether Yes or No offered a better prospect for what really matters to me, social justice, was a moot point. And it remains a hotly contested topic.
Social justice has resonated for me since my teens. Although from a reasonably comfortable background (economically at least) I realised then that I was gay. And that was the catalyst for my commitment to social justice. A case of enlightened self-interest perhaps. But it took me all the way to elected local office as well as a host of other campaigns and places. It’s shaped my working life for more than 30 years.
In the end though it wasn’t the social justice argument, in itself, that swung me. It wasn’t the belief an independent Scotland would be more socially just per se. Rather it was the belief that it offered a new chance to make that happen. It was the belief that things could be better, not together, but apart. And so it was a vote about change that might beget change. But it was more a leap into the unknown than a leap of faith.
Because it was about the possibility of change and not a panacea, Project Fear didn’t work for me. I’d always believed that change meant taking risks and making sacrifices. And so the more the fear ramped up, the closer I moved to voting Yes. The opportunity of a smaller state, of government closer to the people without the seemingly immutable and increasingly irrelevant trappings of Westminster, became exciting. My long held rather cerebral interest in devo plus, max or something or other, took an emotional turn.
Much has been said about the head and heart tussle that became the preoccupation of Scots in the run up to September 18th 2014. But my tussle wasn’t about nationalism versus unionism. It was about which alternative offered the chance for politics to matter, to be relevant to people, because without that social justice would remain a pipe dream.
It’s for that reason that my choice is perhaps best explained by the story of a woman I’ll never know referenced by Iain Macwhirter in his book Disunited Kingdom. Iain writes that like many journalists reporting on the referendum, The Guardian’s Libby Brooks had ‘to confront some of her own prejudices.’
“I met a woman whose teeth told me all I thought I needed to know about her. Barely past her 20s but already the mother of five young children, she was standing outside a branch of Greggs, waiting for her boyfriend to fetch sausage rolls. She told me that she had registered to vote, having never done so before, and that she supported independence. When I asked why, she said she thought Scotland could do better under a Holyrood government that was more in touch with the country’s needs. She added, casually: ‘And of course I’ve read the White Paper.’ All my crappy preconceptions puddled at me feet”.
Of course Scotland voted No on September 18th, but the sense of possibility which that encounter conjured hasn’t diminished. Quite the reverse. Whether it has for the woman outside Greggs I don’t know. I hope not. So on May 7th Scotland goes to the polls a changed country. And just a few short months after the referendum I have to make up my mind all over again. This poll isn’t about independence but the result is scarcely less significant for Scotland’s future.
When I first moved to London in the early 80s I worked in the shadow of Westminster and just over river from County Hall. These were buildings where people made decisions that could change things. I can still remember the thrill that engendered. Now County Hall is a hotel and Westminster is quite literally crumbling.
It’s said that the tectonic plates of British politics have shifted. Maybe, but I’m not sure we’ve seen anything quite like that yet. We’ll know more on May 8th. Either way in the shadow of Edinburgh Castle, where I now live, there’s a new buzz. Things look different from here.