An open letter to Andrew Wilson
I’ve been reading your columns this past few weeks and can’t help thinking, egotist that I am, that they’re more than a little directed at the likes of me. I’m writing this letter to let you know that they have indeed got me thinking and – music to your ears – listening.
You’re fond of starting your pieces with a wee homily or quote (I thought Dumbledore’s treatise on leadership was top class, by the way). So allow me to start with a wee story of my own.
Forty years ago, Chile was subjected to a brutal military coup. That event and its devastating consequences for the democratically elected government, its supporters and indeed, anyone suspected of harbouring non-right wing thoughts featured briefly on the news agenda. And now we have a wee film – the brilliantly titled Nae Paseran – documenting the brave and bold actions of a group of workers at the Rolls Royce plant in East Kilbride who took a stand against the coup.
The year after the dictator seized power, the workers refused to service engines on his planes and they refused to let them leave the plant so others could complete the contract. It took four years for warrants to be obtained and they came for the engines in the middle of the night, scuppering the workers’ chances of making one final stand. But they had the last laugh: the engines had been inside crates all this time, never serviced nor oiled, and were completely useless by the time anyone got near them.
I say laugh, but actually they were deadly and earnestly serious. Pinochet was using planes with engines like these to drug activists and then drop them comatose out of planes and into the Pacific ocean. Even in those much slower news days, the men at the factory were well aware of what was going on. And decided to withdraw their labour in support of workers in Chile who were being tortured and detained. And in support of their fellow human beings, in a country few of them would ever get the chance to visit, and their rights to be who they wanted to be.
It’s the kind of supremely Scottish tale of gallusness that deserves wider legend in our contemporary history. But it also depressed me faintly.
The prospect of middle age inclines us all to flights of melancholy for times past and the way things were. You and I were weaned on marches, rallies, protests and stands of one kind or another. My mother refused to take me to the supermarket in the 80s, so fed up was she – who had taught me all the politics I know – with my consumer boycotts. But fast forward 30 years, and I have a son whose heritage is being denied him through our education system, even at its most basic level. In Primary 3, he came home drawing the Union flag as Scotland’s, having been taught this by his teacher. And this year, he was asked to choose a country to study and present to the class: one of the options was the United Kingdom.
While I’m pleased to report that some of the nurture won through and the chicklet chose Denmark, we both know that the unsubtle reinforcing of the establishment and its mores in childhood can be life-shaping. If anything, the establishment has raised its game in recent years, perhaps as the threat has become more real than fancy. The result of instilling conformity is that ultimately, few tend to kick against the traces: without going into the complex reasons why, there are damned few these days prepared to practise the art of solidarity or stand up for what they believe in, as the Rolls Royce workers did then.
But this vignette also serves to remind me why I believe in independence and what it might achieve for Scotland and her people. Not to go back – we’ll leave the misty-eyed eulogising to Gordon Brown and his ilk – but in order to go forward. That Rolls Royce workers’ tale ultimately fills me with hope.
For I don’t want to live in this Scotland anymore: I want to live in a different Scotland.
Where social justice is more than just a soundbite; where inequality is challenged and addressed. Where rights are embedded, upheld and promoted. Where every single one of us is valued and nurtured. Where we take our place in a commonalty of nations, through a range of unions, alliances and agreements. Where we turn the chip on our shoulder into an asset: a willingness to speak up for the interests of the wee nations and little people everywhere.
I know you share these aims, though we might differ on the detail of what they might mean. That’s a good thing and something else to give us all hope, that there are lots of ideas on what an independent Scotland might look like and be.
And that’s your issue really. That too many of us are focused on what happens afterwards that we’re forgetting that we have to get there first. It’s been a regular and trenchant criticism in the comments on many pieces I’ve blogged over the past year.
But my retort – and I think it’s a legitimate one – is that that first year should have been the forum for debate, to allow a thousand ideas flourish. Instead, the party you and I both still call hame chose to shut things down, triangulating where it saw policy issues that might prove tricksy as the big day hove into view. It did so too early and assumed we were all marching to the same beat, when some of us needed space to catch up with the leaders.
There is a luxury of occupying the cheap seats watching the action unfold, rather than having to be front of house to hold a line. It’s why when invited on to panels and programmes to give a view or three, I purposefully describe myself as a pro-independence supporter. Representing only myself gets only me into bother, a point which seems to pass some by.
Your last two columns state plainly that it’s time to put away such childish things: your backstage pass to the main actors in this production means we should pay heed to what you are suggesting.
So I have been pondering, as probably we all have, at what being one year from this date with destiny means. And what it should mean to us all. And how we should reflect that in our sayings and doings.
Your plea is an eloquent and heartfelt one. It is absolutely about where our priorites lie. Which is why I will do more – leafleting and canvassing, but more too of the small conversations, the blethers on one to one which make a difference. And more panels and meetings, as many as I can manage. And I will arrange to buy more annual leave next year and devote every minute of it to persuading people to choose yes. I know you – and many like us – are making similar choices.
But a plea from me – there are lots of agendas in the mix, people with an eye on this ball, but on others too. They need to set those aside and focus, utterly, on the only game in town. And remember why they got into this game in the first place.
We only have this one chance: there won’t be another in our lifetimes.
I doubt I’ll be blogging anytime soon on the benefits of NATO membership or on why the monarchy is a good thing, but on the crucial tenets of the platform, I am perhaps a lot less off-message than you (or others) imagine. It’s maybe just that all those years in the back row have given me the luxury as well as the ability to see things in shades of grey than simply in monochrome. Something I’m sure you recognise. So, craving your indulgence, I’ll continue to express things in a language and tone that works for me. And I think, occasionally works for others who are inching their way towards yes.
So, I’ve been thinking and listening. To you and others, and I will continue to do so, especially when you’re right.
This is about we, not me. And about us, not them.
And more than anything else, it’s about getting us to the starting point of a journey which promises to be full of twist and turns, which has as much uncertainty as it has clarity, which is desirable nonetheless because of the opportunities it offers, which people have given over their lives to achieving, which can give our children and our grandchildren a future quite different from the present.
It is a journey which will never end, so long as we work like never before to persuade people to embark on it.
I’m looking forward to seeing you on the other side and us all setting out on that journey together.