I’m not sure that being told by every political commentator and Sunday newspaper – in suitably sonorous tones, of course – that there are 500 days to go to the referendum is a cause for celebration or to reach for alcoholic anaesthetic. Groan or cheer, there are indeed 500 days to go and we can only hope that things will get better, to coin a phrase.
For the referendum is managing to unite folk in the most curious of ways. I found myself taking part in a Stirling University on-air and on-line debate last Tuesday and nodding vigorously in agreement with Murdo Fraser MSP. Now that doesn’t happen everyday. But asked to comment on the tone and the content of the debate so far, he opined that the current slanging match of “he says, she says” proportions was boring – even he was bored – and it was doing nothing to switch people on. Yep, we are all bored. Bored united that’s us.
That’s because every time one side releases an analysis or an evidence paper on one of the ”big” economic issues, the other side whacks it from all sides and declares there is nothing to see here worth discussing. And because it’s all on big, esoteric, intangible economic concepts, given that most of us fail even to apply a degree of rigour to our own daily finances, this is just too scary to pay proper attention to. If we cannot be bothered to reconcile our own household income and expenditure on a monthly basis, then we’re hardly likely to seize upon a paper discussing billions and trillions in its balance sheets. We don’t really understand the currency thing either, other than wishing to be assured that the money we have to spend in real form in our wallets and purses will still be worth something somewhere.
it will be interesting, therefore, to see if either side can get the debate on to issues of daily meaning to us all and in terms which we can grasp. There will be two cheers if forthcoming papers – from either side – on things like mortgages, savings, wages and pensions actually talk in a language which sparks proper scrutiny and interest by the voter at large. I’m not holding my breath though.
So if we’re all bored united, a good number of us are scunnered united too. Apparently, difference is not wanted nor welcome. I listened to a number of young people at Stirling University who felt they had to explain, regularly, that despite an English accent and itinerant childhoods, they considered themselves to be Scottish, having lived here for most of their lives. The fact that they felt the need to lay out their antecedents to justify their involvement and entitlement in this debate shocked me.
Identity is a complex political issue and it’s one which the SNP has worked hard over the years to dispel as a divisive factor in the constitutional debate. Its re-emergence for many who cannot cut themselves metaphorically and show tartan blood flows in their veins is troubling. And it is undoubtedly fuelled by the baiting by supporters on both sides of people’s legitimacy to engage in the debate.
Heaven forfend anyone deemed not to be “Scottish” or to be Scottish but not living here should voice an opinion one way or the other. Worst of all, should anyone try to inject comedy into the proceedings. Susan Calman dared to poke a little fun at her ain country and folk and was roundly abused for her trouble. Behind her quip that at least she hasn’t become Scotland’s Salman Rushdie – yet - lies a dark truth that some who refuse to toe a line, imagined and set by a largely invisible and anonymous group of social media fans, might find themselves being hounded out and hunted down. Shocking.
The other lot can do what they like, though I’d prefer they too behaved themselves. But I care only for a yes vote and to all those independence supporters who spend far too many hours commenting on online news pieces and blog articles, and wading into people’s timelines on twitter and jumping into debates on Facebook pages, think on this.
If Stephen Noon – whose credentials surely need no introduction – is blogging calling on folk to “be respectful of the views expressed by others” and Andrew Wilson – former MSP and all round sharp cookie – uses his Sunday column to affirm that “any independence supporter who engages in destructive abuse of anyone is destroying votes for Yes”, then the game’s up. Both these men are close to the leadership, as they say, and be in no doubt that these messages have the support of the very top in both Yes and the SNP.
We can all think on how we behave online and ensure that we are not being intemperate, intolerant or inappropriate in our discourses – I hold my hands up here as much as the next person for occasional lapses. It’s time for us all to raise our game. And as we enter the next 500 days, let us resolve to make the debate both interesting and pleasant, for those at the heart of it, those on the sidelines and everyone in between. This is a once in a generation opportunity, so let’s deliver the kind of debate the Scottish people deserve and which is worthy of the epithet.
On 31 May 1916, the biggest sea battle of World War One began. In just under 24 hours, the Battle of Jutland, fought in the North Sea, claimed over 5000 British lives, over 2500 German ones, a further 1000 injured sailors from both sides and destroyed 25 vessels. Fortunately, my papa survived.
He’d joined the Marines, after lying that he was sixteen, in 1911 (or thereabouts). He served until the early 1920s, surviving the whole of World War One and also the Russian Civil War. And when he returned to his rural village in south west Scotland, he rarely ventured furth of his native land again in his lifetime until he died at an astonishing 89, with the cause officially recorded as “old age”. Such were his adventures as a child and as a young man, having seen much of the world by the time he was 25, he appeared to have sated his appetite. For him, the farm, the ploughing, the curling and in later years, the bowling, the occasional glass of stout and annual village sports day were stirring enough.
And this is as about as much as I know of his having fought in World War One. The only thing I learned of note about his maritime escapades was that during the Russian Civil War, the river froze and they had to travel up it in canoes. When I asked what they did during that war, he replied that they played cards a lot.
I remember too when after years of campaigning, medals were awarded to the merchant seamen who had served in the North Atlantic convoys throughout World War Two. Despite being civilian crews, these men undertook some of the most dangerous journeys during the war, sailing back and forth to Canada to load up with vital supplies. Yet, for decades their vital contribution to the war effort went unrecognised. It is estimated that over 5000 supply ships were sunk and over 40,000 civilian crew lost their lives.
I suggested to my Granda, who as a young man, like many from his hometown, had signed up for the merchant navy and spent nearly the entire war on those convoys, that he write in and apply for his medal. He shook his head. That was in the past, he said, and there was no point in raking it all up or seeking medals now. Some things are best left alone was his view.
And that was that. Until now.
Until the UK Government hit upon the cunning wheeze to “celebrate” the centenary of the start of World War One in 2014. And until some Scottish Labour MPs decided to make a political football out of it, what with the centenary coinciding with the independence referendum and the 700th anniversary of Scotland winning its war of independence at Bannockburn. Oh, and of course the SNP MPs couldn’t resist hoofing said football out of the park.
The very idea that we should celebrate the start of any war is stomach churning. The thought that we should mark the supposedly Great War which claimed hundreds of thousands of lives of so many men of so many different nationalities, who died often as a result of the stupidity of their commanding officers or from want of weapons which worked or as a result of gassing or gangrene, and very often in defence or attack to claim a few yards of bogged territory across northern France or southern Belgium, is appalling.
Unless of course, the intent is to tell the true story, of what really happened. And of course what happened to the ones who came home, with limbs missing or faculties dulled or nerves shot. And if we’re to tell the story of the start, then it’s only right and proper that we tell of the ending too, of how thousands came home to a land “fit for heroes”. Which of course was nothing of the kind.
Nor should they miss out how all those who volunteered were sold a pup. Picked out by Kitchener’s ominous digit on the eponymous poster, many did indeed sign up out of a sense of patriotism or to escape a humdrum life and have an adventure. But the recruitment was skilful – it promised a shilling just for signing up – and targeted areas of high unemployment or where there was a military and martial tradition. Poverty was as an efficient a recruiting sergeant as patriotism, particularly in Scotland.
Thus, tens of thousands of Scots men volunteered to serve King and Country before conscription was resorted to, to keep the trenches full of fodder. Indeed, Scotland sent proportionately more warriors into this war than any other part of Great Britain and consequently, endured proportionately more casualties. Whole villages, workplaces and even famously, the Hearts football team signed up en masse before the creation of such pals’ battalions was stopped, when the potential impact of all those losses was realised.
But if they want to tell the real story of World War One and do honour to all those who served, those who were killed and those who survived, then perhaps we should simply follow the example of all those old warriors who through most of the 20th Century until the last one died in 2007, said very little about it at all. Indeed, most were content to let their silence – scrupulously and faithfully maintained once a year in a special act of remembrance for all they endured, for those they lost and for all that they fought to live for – do their talking for them.
And to all those male – and they are mostly male – politicians who want to glory in the raptures of a terrible war begun over an imperial squabble among belligerent and bellicose members of the same Royal family and European dynasty a century ago and to all those pumped up politicians of this parish who want to squabble over which war deserves greater glorification, the one of 100 years ago or the one of 700 years past, I only have this to say. Grow some.
The early news bulletins on Friday morning all led with US stories – the search for the Boston bombing suspects and the killing of one of them; the – at that time – unexplained explosion, fire and deaths in Waco, Texas; the delivery of a letter suspected to contain ricin to the President; and President Obama’s furious reaction to the rejection of proposed gun controls by the Senate. Had I missed the part where Scotland became independent only to opt for a new union as the 51st state? Oh, and that the end of the world was nigh?
Following the coverage of the manhunt for the Boston bombing suspects over Friday and into Saturday morning felt like being an extra on the set of a Hollywood blockbuster. It was hard to distinguish who writes whose scripts. There’s been some interesting commentary from the US on it all, not least on the appropriateness of putting a city into lockdown and subjecting law-abiding citizens to the removal of their civil liberties for their own safety. There is a dichotomy at work here, not just confined to the US, that waging war on terrorism which threatens civil liberties requires the subjugation of these rights and liberties in order to wage it, particularly when it comes to the handling of suspects.
Also pointed was the hordes of armed officers conducting a street by street search while accompanied by media, creating a compelling watch-a-thon on TV and social media networks for the world. So too, was all that effort, expense and technological resource being expended by federal and local law agencies to apprehend the suspects, while detection and arrest happened largely as a result of what amounts to good old-fashioned police work: relying on the testimony of witnesses to identify the suspects, releasing the suspects’ images publicly and a member of the public passing on vital information as to the injured brother’s whereabouts. There’s a reason why it’s about policing with the consent of the people and why policing only ever works effectively when conducted in conjunction with communities.
Terrorism appears to terrorise the US authorities – there is a thesis to be written on why, and why its status as a continent which is almost, nearly an island, which has never been invaded by a foreign power in modern times contributes to its fear. For now, it can be captured neatly in the fact that the Czech ambassador to the US had to issue a statement telling Americans where Chechnya actually was. What is less pertinent is its melting pot status as a mongrel nation, despite the best efforts of right-wingers to insist that the fact that these brothers were “brown-skinned” is compelling. President Obama’s heartfelt and nuanced address at the memorial service for victims of the bombing provides important counter-balance, as does his call to try to work out and understand how this happened – the younger brother, after all, was the epitome of the American dream.
The story which best encapsulates the tensions at the heart of the constitutional and political premise in the US is the Senate gun control one. A huge outpouring of communal grief and bewilderment over the murder of innocents at Newtown school allowed Obama to seize the moment and the initiative. The Senate might have whittled his plans down to a bi-lateral compromise to extend background checks on gun owners to achieve a victory of sorts but the pro-gun lobby still won out.
As the Guardian uncovered, all but three of the 45 Senators who voted against the proposal have received money from firearms lobbyists. Sickeningly, money talks in a way which dead children cannot. Reacting, Obama did not mince his words, as we might say over here. His anger was palpable in his stinging rebuke to those who brought the proposal down and who claimed that victims and their families have no locus in law-making.
The idea that stringent background checks are not carried out on the millions of gun owners in the US is shocking, but then this is the country where, in many states you can buy your rifles and ammunition along with your groceries in Walmart. The other US stories might have dominated this week, but this is the one with legs. It should also promote reflection here.
Scotland and the UK has some of the tightest gun controls in the world and a parallel low rate of gun-related murders. The appalling events at Dunblane resulted in the banning of hand-guns and in the imposition of a stricter test, but the legislation is still broad. A firearms certificate can be granted if the chief police officer is satisfied on the fitness of the applicant to be “entrusted with a firearm” and he or she has “good reason” to possess or own a firearm. Given that Scotland’s eight police forces only recently amalgamated into one, how sure can we be that the same fitness test and good reasons have been applied consistently across the country? Moreover, how is someone’s fitness actually determined?
None of this would matter if firearm ownership was not on the rise. According to the latest published statistics, the number of firearm and shotgun certificates on issue are at their lowest level in ten years. But the number of weapons owned on each certificate is at its highest over the last ten years, meaning more weapons owned by and registered with a smaller number of people, with more dealers too – 347 in 2011 compared to 337 in 2010. There are now 71,860 firearms and 138,939 shotguns owned legally in Scotland: that’s a heck of a lot of firepower in our small nation.
All of which prompts questions. Why do fewer people in Scotland need more guns? How often is their fitness to own firearms reviewed – when they first apply for a certificate or every time they apply to add more weapons? What do they need more weapons for? How often are firearms de-registered and what happens to those weapons? Are certificates cross-referenced by area ie to check that a person only has one certificate and not multiple ones and therefore, multiple caches of arms?
Every tragic shooting in the US awakens memories of Dunblane but also tends to conclude in complacent assertion that it could no longer happen here. How assured can we be of this when we appear to be operating with somnambulant policy and practice, whereby the number of weapons in communities all over Scotland is growing, with no one bothering to question whether this is appropriate or desirable.