If you had the chance, how would you build a nation? What qualities would you want your people and communities to have?
Courage, certainly. To decide in a split second that the right response, the human response to extreme adversity is to turn and face it, not run from it. Just as Jim Murphy MP did when he found himself passing the Clutha bar in Glasgow just as a terrible incident occurred. He could have stayed in his car, called 999 and waited for help to arrive. Instead, he and others, acted to save others, walking into an unknown situation, compelled to do so by some unbidden sense of duty and willing to set aside notions of risk in order to help people in need.
Also, prescience of mind. The ability to make a judgement call and make the right one. Thus, it was not enough for Edward Waltham to simply bless his luck at staying in a neighbouring bar to finish his pint, thereby not being in the Clutha when the police helicopter fell from the sky to land on the pub. He could have stayed away; instead, he put into action his years of training as a firefighter and helped lead the volunteer recovery effort. A human chain was formed to pass injured customers out of the bar to safety: it sounds like the kind of thing a retired firefighter might think to organise.
You’d want your people to be calm and collected in tough situations. Like Wesley Shearer who was one of the first to bring the incident to everyone’s attention, sharing his eyewitness account, posting a photo on twitter which alerted the world’s media to an extraordinary, unfolding situation. He shrugged off suggestions that he should expect media outlets to pay to use his image – there is no doubt that they should and he shouldn’t have to ask. But more than that, he was clear-headed enough to ensure that all who knew him, his mum and their friends knew they were safe. And all from a man aged only 21.
Loyalty would feature highly. In perhaps one of the most heartrending stories to emerge overnight, John McGarrigle was the man who mounted a faithful vigil at the edge of the cordon, staying put all night, poorly dressed for the elements but refusing to go home until he knew what happened to his dad. As he told one of the many reporters gathered alongside him, he’s my dad, where else would I be but here. Sadly, so, so sadly, it does not seem as though he will be rewarded with a happy reunion.
The ability to act quickly would be needed. The speed at which the emergency services responded was astonishing. The way the long rehearsed planning for a major incident kicked into action was impressive. There is no doubt this, coupled with the quick thinking of customers and bystanders, helped to save lives. Add to this mix a dogged determination to give just a little bit more, to stay the course until no more can be done and you have police, fire and rescue, and ambulance services to be very proud of.
You’d want the people employed in such services to have a deep and abiding sense of responsibility. People like Frank McKeown, not just a firefighter but also a part-time footballer with Stranraer FC. He was on shift at the tragic scene all night until 8am and then headed to Clyde to captain his side in a Scottish Cup tie. No one would have minded had he chosen to go home and recover after such an experience, but his sense of duty to both his vocations meant it probably didn’t even cross his mind to ask.
And you’d definitely seek stoicism. Bad enough that police officers were involved in a search and rescue mission for innocent civilians, but they were also searching, hoping to save though it was to be in vain, their colleagues in the helicopter. Then, there’s the health professionals, some of whom no doubt showed up at their hospitals as soon as they heard the news, not bothering to wait to be called out. As the rescue and recovery missions wind down, their work will continue largely unseen, to mend the physical, emotional and mental breaks in the survivors.
Solidarity would be key. Thus, not just a city in mourning but a country. And more besides, with police forces all over the UK and even, the world sending condolences to Police Scotland on the loss of three colleagues. Football matches holding impeccably observed minutes of silence across Scotland. The Holiday Inn Express across the road from the Clutha opening its doors as an emergency reception centre for survivors and also providing those working through the night with refreshments and somewhere to rest. Businesses too arriving unbidden with supplies today. Even politicians setting aside rivalries to unite in leading a city in condolence.
You’d want your nation to be imbued with a sense of the right thing to do. Not just all those incredible customers and bystanders who gave not a thought to their own safety to help others, but for others to engage in small acts of thoughtfulness too. Such as the STUC which at the earliest opportunity called off its annual St. Andrew’s Day anti-racism march in Glasgow as a mark of respect to all those affected by the tragedy, but also because the emergency services were already operating at full stretch. You’d want adversity to make comrades of us all and so it has proved.
But you’d also want resilience, a capacity in your people and their communities to get on with getting on. For time not to stand still but for people to pick up the pieces by carrying on with ordinary, everyday tasks, all the while mindful of the sorrow of others and thinking of how to respect their bereavement and grief.
We can and should after all, only gawp for so long. Those directly affected by such a tragedy need the support and resources that can only be generated by strong communities, which reach out with love and care when needed, but also provide for the practical necessities. We might all be sharing in stunned, terrible surprise right now but what bereaved families who have lost livelihoods as well as loved ones also need is material assistance to help them get through the dark months ahead. Strong communities with resilient, compassionate individuals know that and know how, when and where to show small kindnesses and also, to dig deep.
And you’d want your nation to know how to have a good time. Fun is a necessary part of all our psyches and finding moments of joy a key part of recovery. It would be compounding a tragedy if the young, energetic ska band playing in the Clutha felt they could not carry on. If the owner of the bar couldn’t recover and continue to provide a much valued service. If the Clutha itself, so long an institution on the banks of the Clyde and the birthplace of many romances, friendships and successful music careers, could not – in time – rise from these black ashes.
All these qualities and more you’d want in your nation. You’d want your people to realise how fleeting life is, how the most terrible of circumstances can snatch it away. And to realise what really matters in life and to redouble our efforts and energies to find it and rejoice in it. Black, white, gay, straight, Protestant, Catholic, Yes, No and everything in between. When adversity strikes, ultimately we are one and the same. Human beings first and foremost, members of the family of Scotland.
On this, the darkest of national days, we can share solace in knowing that our people, Glasgow’s and Scotland’s, have all these qualities in spades. We are a nation to be proud of, indeed.
It really does feel like the night before Christmas. I’m not sure if I’ll sleep tonight. And if that makes folk titter, tough.
There’s no doubt that like the bounty Santa brings, there will be some boring detail in the independence White Paper tomorrow. Because it aims to set out a route map to full, sovereign nationhood, there are bound to be sections which are the equivalent of socks and satsumas. Dull and unimaginative but needed.
If we’re really lucky, there will be a few surprises. Things we forgot to put on the list but stuff we’re delighted to find made their way in there anyway.
The problem with anticipation is the nagging fear that the reality won’t live up to the expectation. There’s so much riding on this plan, what if it’s one great big disappointment? Yet, only the Scrooges at Better Together surely will find nothing in it to please them.
It’s important to acknowledge the sweat and tears, the late nights, the energy, enthusiasm and the commitment, of all who have had a hand in shaping this tome’s content, tone and style. I don’t have to read it to know that their efforts deserve acclaim. Backroom boys and girls, many of whom have worked behind the scenes for years, step forward – for once – into the limelight and take a bow.
It would be wonderful if the White Paper starts with a declaration, an opening statement of intent which spikes the senses and sends shivers down the spine. Which speaks to us as we are now and calls on us to commit to a different future.
It would have to go some to match the Radical Declaration of Independence (read it over at Bella Caledonia). I hope some bright spark thought to record David Hayman reciting it, for that would be worth hearing, again and again. It’s a pitch perfect summation of many of our dreams and hopes for what independence might – could – deliver for Scotland.
And while I agree with John Finnie MSP, that its arc is inclusive rather than exclusive, aiming to speak to all and not just some, I would have liked to see a focus on future generations. If I could put one thing above all others on my Santa list for the White Paper, it is that it sets out what independence might achieve for children. The ones born now and those still to come.
Let me explain. Like many independence supporters, I am both Braveheart and Borgen, as David Torrance would have it. At the age of seven, I was in Margaret Ewing (then Bain)’s kitchen the morning after her 22 vote victory in East Dunbartonshire. I remember midge-infested Glentrool rallies, being crooned to in Gaelic by Donnie Stewart. I used to sneak down to listen to the political arguments which waged long into the night in my parents’ house, fuelled by passion and whisky in equal measure. My formative years were spent being infused with existential nationalism. I grew up with independence woven into my DNA.
The early 1980s were doldrum years for the SNP, when the party was mired in a mess of its own making. So, I flirted, subscribing to the New Statesman, Red Wedge and class consciousness. If it was a Saturday, we marched, often barely aware of what protest and why.
But then came the poll tax and suddenly, the SNP rediscovered its rationale. Can pay, won’t pay. More protests, rallies and marches, this time with a Scottish purpose to the fore. Every cut – to manufacturing, to students, to communities – seemed to slash at Scotland’s soul. History might not bear it out, but it’s how we felt at the time, that Scotland was singled out for special treatment.
In 1991, my first son was born and it really did all make sense. The existential pushed aside by the utilitarian. The goal of a better and different Scotland not for me, but for him. Did I want him to grow up in a Scotland like this? Where education and employment opportunities were subject to the whims of the Westminster roulette wheel?
We lived then in a village with 70% unemployment, victim to a creamery closure which removed at a stroke the dignity of work for whole households. Yet, that village in adversity, found its sense of community and its communitarian roots. Everyone looked out for each other. Everyone made different possible by focusing on more than making do. That experience offered a glimmer of a brighter future. Of what might be possible.
And that experience sparked in me an undimmed desire to do better by my own bairns and all of Scotland’s bairns. The boy I had is now a man and still we are yet to arrive. The wee one is nearly no longer a boy. And still we journey.
But tomorrow sees the publication of a plan, in which reside all our hopes, fears and desires. And for those who doubt – still – if Scotland has indeed got what it takes, think on this. In a land of plenty – relative plenty, if you like – how can it be that our children have so little?
Don’t take my word for it, listen to the OECD. In 2009, it published an overview of children’s well-being in 30 countries. None excelled, but some did far better than others. In six key areas – material and educational well being, health and safety, housing and environment, risky behaviours and quality of school life – only Sweden and Iceland scored higher than average on five, while Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway and Finland did so on four. The UK? Higher than average in one, quality of school of life; lower than average in another, risky behaviours; and pretty dismal in all others. Only fifteenth out of 30 on housing, 20th on health and safety and 22nd on educational well-being.
We live in a wealthy, highly developed state, rich in resources, yet we are out classed by much smaller nations with less wealth and fewer resources on how we nurture the next generation. How can it possibly be worse than this? Is this what we want for our children?
No matter if you gave up on hope a long time ago, read the White Paper and think not what independence might achieve for you, but what it might offer for your children and your grandchildren.
You might be happy with making do, but with the chance to change almost within reach, why would you wish it for them?
As usual, I managed to get myself into a little twitter bother yesterday. I was trying to be wry and failed.
I was sorry not to be able to attend the Radical Independence Conference in Glasgow yesterday. The speaker line-up was impressive and clearly the volunteers behind RIC had put huge efforts into organising the conference. There were new voices and folks too and mindful of some of the barriers to participation, the offer of a crèche. All good.
But I can’t have been the only person to have been bemused at a conference theme of failure, hope and transformation looking at options for a new economy and new democracy, with lots of the usual kind of polemicising about social injustice and inequality, all delivered from the comfort of one of Glasgow’s most exclusive hotels.
Oh I know it’s hard to find conference venues to accommodate 1000 people that don’t make the eyes water at the expense. But they do exist, and not in the commercial sector either. Surely if the future is co-operative, fairer and modelled on co-production and inclusion, then how and where you make the pitch counts?
Few of the people yesterday’s conference signalled its concern about – the poor, the disengaged, the missing million whose votes will be so important in the referendum – would contemplate stepping over the threshold of the Marriott hotel. It’s not the kind of place they’d feel comfortable in, never mind afford a room in. That’s what decades of conditioning and ghettoisation do for you.
So despite the clarion conference call being that the referendum needs poor people to vote, I doubt if many of the views expressed yesterday actually came from anyone marginalised and dispossessed. So far, so familiar and so typically patriarchal.
But it’s a small point. The real issue I have with yesterday’s gathering is that it was aimed at and spoke to and with (with a few exceptions) people who are already voting yes. When the 1000 or so folk there might have been better deployed, each of them, getting out there and talking to a few persuadables. The more we hing thegither the more comfortable the better togethers become. Much as it would have been a pleasant way to while away a Saturday, contemplating the future with like-minded folk, I decided to spend it doing something slightly more productive instead.
Indubitably, some who were there are folk who live, breathe and sleep yes. They are – like the diverse, cross- and non- political membership of Women for Independence – out at meetings, out leafleting, out blethering with and listening to voters, at every opportunity.
But here’s the rub. Those attendees are mostly in the SNP.
A lot of them have been doing this for more years than they care to remember. It’s become a way of life. And they are the activist stalwarts who have helped put the SNP into government, not once but twice, and whose efforts have helped get us to this juncture. They have and they do deliver votes. It’s them and their insatiable appetite for one more leaflet run who scare the pants off the yoonyinists, not the creators and conspirators consumed by the cottage industry of ideas that’s sprung up around the referendum.
This cottage industry, made up of the rainbow parts of the Yes coalition, dominated the panels yesterday, and its foremost proponents are inevitably to be found on the platforms at countless Yes meetings all over the country. That’ll be the meetings elected SNP MSPs can barely get a seat at, never mind an opportunity to speak. Even when they are being held in their constituencies.
So what we are getting as a result is a skewed vision of what an independent Scotland might offer, at least in the early days. The reality that is about to be revealed in the 670 page White Paper on Tuesday doesn’t get a look in. The politics which dominated yesterday’s conference is not of a type shared by a majority of Scots. If it was then maybe the Scottish Greens and the SSP might have garnered more than 100,000 votes between them in the election in 2011.
Most Scots don’t want a class conflict, they don’t feel oppressed, they dislike the thought of breaking anyone’s rule and they’re indifferent to the prospect of structural change. And I’m not just referring to the rich. For all that the radicals purport to envision the future, they are awfy fond of harking back to a mythologised, largely ideological past. One that many Scots don’t recognise in their present. Such talk might be inspirational – and often it is – but it speaks to a small number of people who already believe it. And guess what? Their votes are largely in the bag.
Little of what was on the smorgasbord yesterday will feature in the Scottish Government’s plan for independence. As Dennis Canavan rightly pointed out, “It’s the only realistic route map on the table that we have towards independence.”
And if we want to get there at all, everyone needs to get out of the meetings and conferences, to put on hold imagining the future, and just get round the doors and on to the phones. As the SNP, supported by a new army of previously apolitical foot soldiers whose sole aspiration and belief is in independence, is doing and has done.
A little less conversation and a whole lot more action is what’s needed. And if the Greens, the SSP and the unaligned darlings of the left in this debate can deliver their share of yes votes, then we can talk.