Why Glasgow 2014 matters

I’ve been a big fan of the Scottish Review for a long while.  I like its spikiness.  Most of all, I like Kenneth Roy’s carmudgeonly spikiness, his refusal to blithely accept what is laid before him as news offerings. Insightful, thoughtful, necessary and often, uncomfortable.  It’s a great read.

But I disagree wholeheartedly with his dismantling of the importance of sport and the Glasgow Commonwealth Games in his most recent post.

I like sport.  I like watching it, in all its forms, much more than I like doing it.  And this summer, I’ve managed to spectate at not just one, but two big events: the Tour de France and the Commonwealth Games.

Getting tickets to go and see some of Glasgow 2014 mattered.  The Games probably won’t return to our patch until I’m past it or even no longer here.  And I wanted to make sure that I got to see something big on my doorstep and to do so with my family.  I wanted, too, for my sports daft son to see what commitment and hard graft could achieve.

It all surpassed my expectations.  I managed to schlep around five Games venues and one massive cultural one (Glasgow Green) with my Women for Independence badge and Yes Scotland wristband un-noticed, unremarked and unmolested.  I didn’t make a big thing of them, they are just part of me at the moment, and neither did any of the stewards or security.  So much for heavy handedness.

And schlepping around was no bother either.  We made it out of Tollcross swim centre and back to the West end of Glasgow after just 45 minutes of waiting and travelling.  The same thing happened the following night getting from Hampden to Byres Road.  And we either walked, bussed or cycled in between times.  Those bikes for hire are a revelation.  For a few quid, Boy Wonder and I travelled from the SECC to Glasgow Green and on to Hampden with only one complaint of us daring to cycle in a cycle lane that happened also to contain pedestrians.

Then there was the sporting fare itself.  We managed – as we would – to go to four different events and see only one measly Scottish bronze medal won.  I think I’m still traumatised by the Big Yin’s college pal, Mark Tully, missing out on a bronze medal in the 50m breaststroke by one-hundredth of a second.  And worrying that someone somewhere is helping him to move on from it. But medals would just have been the icing on the cake, for being there was enough. It was amazing.  And truly amazing was to see a wonderful tapestry of largely young people, of all colours, backgrounds and abilities from all across the world, taking part and doing their best.  In our backyard. I watched in awe of them all, all that dedication, hard work and for scant reward.  It sure matters to them.

But most of all, it mattered to their families.  I erroneously assumed that they’d be well looked after, with special tickets and seating areas but sport at all levels doesn’t work like that.  The best seats, even at these Friendly Games, were reserved for the sponsors, the officials and the hingers-on.  They were often empty way into sessions.  All around us at the swimming and the wrestling especially, were competitors’ families.  Watching them through the agonies and occasionally the ecstasies of their offsprings’ efforts was a privilege indeed.

Why were they in the cheap seats with the rest of us? Because they spend a fortune – sometimes money they don’t really have – traipsing their bairns around the country (whichever country that might be) and other countries simply to enable them to compete.  And occasionally, it pays off.  At the swimming, there were the parents of an English girl who won a surprise silver medal – they were as surprised but as delighted as she was.  There were the Canadians and the Australians across from us, rushing frequently down to the barriers to squeeze the life out of their conquering heroes and heroines.  They just couldn’t stop beaming and some couldn’t stop crying.  And the South African parents who came back to their seats sporting their son’s medal, earning a cheer from everyone all around, happy to share in their joy.

Having said thanks to the workers, the Clydesiders, the competitors, the coaches, the stars and the merely happy to be theres, for me, the one huge omission is to say thank you to the families.  For doing what they do, to enable their children to compete, involving huge commitment, to put joy in their lives and ours and bringing them to Glasgow to compete.  You made it for me.

But these Games also matter to us.  They matter in terms of showing our young people that there are other things to do than wanna make it big on the football pitch.  Towards the end of the swimming, Boy Wonder turned and said, “Go on then, I’ll go back to swimming lessons.”  That there, that’s the legacy.  Because he has potential, because it is good for him and because one day, it might just be him out there, doing incredible things in a pool with thousands cheering him on.  These Games gave permission to children all over Scotland to dream and to dream big, but not without acknowledging that hard work is required.  A life lesson in two hours by a pool.

They also matter because for once, Scotland got to shine.  We got to show our ain folk and everyone else what it is like to have athletes of our own compete for their home (or chosen to be home) country.  Neil Fachie might be a gold winning Olympian and have enough medals to warrant a strong room instead of a garden shed, but winning Gold for Scotland capped them all.  Just something about getting to compete and winning for your nation and country, he said.  Standing on our own and winning: nothing wee, poor or stupid about it.

So good is our set up in fact, that some come here especially to get involved – that’s what’s happened in Judo, where we won an astonishing number of gold medals (not that we were allowed to watch them being won live on TV, of course).  People leaving their coaching and training set-ups elsewhere in the UK to come to Euan Burton and Judo Scotland because the facilities and the coaching are among the best ever.  Aye, who’d a thunk it?  Kinda dispels the suggestion that if Scotland was independent, all our world class athletes would have to leave to train elsewhere.  Listening to the bronze medal winner, Andrew Burns, say all this fairly puffed oot my chest.

And they matter, simply because we didnae make an erse of it.  In fact, we appear to have managed to put on the “best Games ever”.  Well done Glasgow and everyone involved in making it so.

Glasgow was totally buzzing for the whole 11 days: everything planned for, worked and then some.  The logistics of putting on these Games must have been terrifying but there were few hitches or glitches, despite BBC Radio Scotland’s efforts to find fault and queues in everything. The cultural festival, most of it free, which accompanied the sport, was outstanding in its own right.  (Kenneth Roy might have been more enamoured of some of that, had he bothered to leave his dookit in Ayrshire).  We brought the world to Glasgow and to Scotland and everyone had a good time.  Wee country that we are, we put on a show to rival the best of them.  Kinda gives us confidence that we can do other things too, huh?

Glasgow 2014 had something for everyone and had everyone watching, talking, visiting and participating.  The sense of achievement in every aspect was – is – palpable.  That matters too.

Every day, my neighbour and I had a Commonwealth Games chat, rounding up our favourite bits, beaming broadly at each other as we did so.

We’ve won another medal, Katie“, he said, catching me before I headed for the bus. “In the gymnastics, a gold for that boy Keatings” (that’ll be the pommel horse specialist, Mr Roy). “Aye, he was great, deserves it too, after they left him oot o’ the Olympics, don’t know what all that was about.  Still, he’s got his reward noo.  It’s been a great competition that, the men’s gymnastics.  Thought I’d only be watching it for the bowling but there you go.  And isn’t it great to see it all going so well?  Aye, look at what we can do when we get the chance tae.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself, and neither could Nicola Sturgeon.




How would you build a nation?

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.

All that pooling and sharing and little to show for it

Having just read the speech Gordon Brown gave on Monday, it’s now clear why Scottish Labour took a while to post it.  Let’s just say it’s not one of his finest. And that’s being charitable.

Indeed, you wonder if the Scottish media which collectively wets its pants every time this big political beast shares his thoughts with us on the domestic political stage, wasn’t left feeling a little foolish once they heard it. Having touted and trailed the speech frenziedly, it rather disappeared from view on the news agenda and few have bothered to critique it.

While the historical revisionism visited upon the poor pupils of Govan High School was breathtaking, we won’t bother taking him to task in a line by line deconstruction of his assertions about what Labour MPs delivered and who and what is responsible for the growth of the British welfare state.  A history degree has its uses but would only get in the way of this blogpost. But two points.

First, there is truth in the aspiration and ideals of those early pioneers of the Labour movement, and Gordon Brown rightly suggests that they are just as pertinent today as they were then. The bit he misses out is how Labour – and the New Labour experiment which he expounded, followed and belonged to – rather disrespected all that its forefathers stood for. If you want to rule in UK, OK that means appealing to white van man in a handful of marginal seats and he and his ilk are much more Thatcher’s children, who politically have little desire to pool and share in the way Brown extols elsewhere in the speech.

The second point is that Brown’s revisionism obliterates from view the role that Scotland played in setting the scene for the emergence of a welfare state, a role from which the Labour party was born. Scotland had a public, free education system before England did:  it might have been rudimentary but the principle was there nonetheless. The poor law might have been inadequate but the idea of a common weal, of there being a need for institutions to take care of the most vulnerable members of our society was evident, even if it lost its principles somewhat in execution.

And while the postwar Labour government was pivotal in the creation of the National Health Service, the reasons for its ready adoption as an idea whose time had come was as influenced by pragmatism as by ideals:  two successive large-scale wars had shown the pitiful state of men’s health in particular, and if we wanted a fitter and more robust fighting machine, something had to be done.

Moreover, the concept of a welfare state was not an exclusively Labour ideal, nor was it a particularly British one;  it was informed by thinkers and reformers from a range of backgrounds and its elements had its origins in different parts of these islands and indeed, elsewhere.

What Brown espouses as a “positive, principled and forward-looking case for the union” is in fact mired in the past and constructed on myths. His political theory relies wholly on the last century for solutions; worse, it ignores the present day reality that the pooling and sharing of resources has not resulted in equality nor economic security for many Scots or indeed, English, Welsh or Irish either.

Somewhat ironically, it was also revealed this week that Glasgow – a city which until very recently has been red through and through, with Labour running the council, holding all the UK seats and most of the Scottish ones too – has more work-less households than any other city in the UK.  It also has appalling health indicators – low life expectancy, higher than average hospitalisation due to alcohol-related conditions and rates of coronary heart disease. Over the last fifty years, Labour, more than any other political party, has held all of the cards which count and it has failed to find in them a flush which might fix the problem that is Glasgow.

Gordon Brown suggests that if we just hold fast to old thinking, we can find a better future. His speech offered nothing of value nor innovation. Worst of all, in the skip of a sentence, he suggests that the only way to counter the current Tory regime is by voting for Labour. This is rose-tinted and near-sighted politicking at its worst.

And there’s nothing hopeful about it: indeed, intrinsic to the concept of pooling and sharing resources is the belief that Scotland is too wee and too poor to achieve anything without the help of its neighbours. He quotes statistics: I could counter with my own. He refers selectively to current SNP policies and positions: I could volley back another set more in keeping with founding Labour principles than his party’s current incarnation espouses.

He said nothing – other than vote Labour – about how we might pool and share resources on these key social policy areas more effectively. He offered no new ideas. He provided little food for thought for his ostensible audience of young Scots on their futures. He missed an opportunity to offer something relevant to this debate.

For all the pooling and sharing that has gone on over the lifetime of the UK and especially in recent years, the impact on poverty in Scotland has been marginal and transitory, the gap in inequality has grown to a chasm, and the prospects for the next generation of pensioners are pitiful. All that pooling and sharing, and we’ve actually got very little to show for it.