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Thursday, 4 August 2011

Scottish Independence – it’s up to the Working Class.

(this is my first blogpost for the Huffington Post UK )

When I first came to Scotland from Northern Ireland, I was struck by the political engagement here.
Where I was used to Republicans and Nationalists, and as an addendum, lefties (including the Labour Party) being castigated as nothing more than filthy, murdering, dirt, the political engagement here and honesty around independence and working class politics was refreshing.
Now, there will be some of you thinking, "of course if you have come from a divided place like Northern Ireland, anything else will seem normal." Well, perhaps, but what I noticed was that almosteveryone was engaged in class politics. When I lived in Northern Ireland, the middle classes were the only people represented by the political parties, from the Conservative Unionist Party to the centre left SDLP. Few people talked of "the Working Class," or indeed, "class" at all. Politics in Northern Ireland is changing, what with two predominantly working class parties in power, but still with problems of sectarian identity.
People in Scotland have the same identity markers as Northern Irish people, that is, lots of them know their religious tribe. I have had rabid Orange neighbours here in Scotland, as well as grim faced, "Our day will come," Scottish accented Irish Republicans. The thing is though, even though Irish sectarian politics pervade Scotland, from its football teams through to its straggly Orange and Republican marches - the "politics" change when you talk to people about Scottish politics.
Two aspects of Scottish politics struck me having come from a very middle class mid-Ulster town. One was the predominant self identification of a huge proportion of people as "working class," and secondly a real sense of engagement with their working class history.
Two examples. A couple of years back, I was sitting in an A&E department in Glasgow's Southern General Hospital after an accident with a screwdriver. The Southern General is in one of the most deprived areas in the UK, a place where the Thatcher Government ensured became a place of desperation as they destroyed the UK manufacturing base. Having worked in Govan, I knew it as a place with real cultural depth, but also a place where all of the social "problems" came together in one large town.
A drive through Govan, 14 years after the manufacturing hating Tories were driven from power (to be replaced by the genetically corrupted New Labour Party), the scars are all too clear to see. In the afternoon on any given week day, young men and women can be seen ducking and diving their way through survival. Govan is a place devoid of work, and today's teenagers and twenty-something's are two or three generations down the line in a world of survival in a community without work. Govan was once a proud, thriving community where families were raised on incomes from the Shipyards of the Clyde and where young people followed in their parent's footsteps into apprenticeships and lifelong work.
Young people in Govan are some of the cleverest I have ever met. This is not shown in school results - but in survival skills. When I worked there nearly ten years ago, one of six year old girl I knew, who lived with her drug addict mother and older brother, used to manage to get herself and her brother to the school breakfast club every morning. This was in despite of the fact her mother may at times have been completely out of it for days. What middle-class child of six walks to school, never mind gets themselves ready and in school for 8am?
The shame of the present Government is that the programmes that were making a difference to this young girl and her family are being eroded or stopped. Breakfast clubs are no longer free and the universal free school meals (probably the only hot, nutritious meal she and her brother got in a week) have been stopped. I have many stories of young people "pulling themselves up by their bootstraps" despite the decimation the right wing Tories and their off-spring, Neo-Liberal New Labour have meted out upon their communities.
Back to the Southern General. As I waited for a doctor to see me, two guys dressed in the colours of one of Glasgow's teams that have, let's say, "problems with Irish sectarianism" and smelling as if they had been on the Chablis until the early hours of the morning, sat down beside me. One of them had what looked like a white sock, soaked in blood, wrapped around his hand. Their accents were pure mad Weegie. The derisive word for working class, young, poor and casually dressed in Scotland is Ned - a title not unlike "Chav" or "Poor white trash" or "trailer park," all terms used to denigrate the poor. Most Glaswegians are proud "Weegies."
These guys, chewing their chewing gum and speaking to each other loudly, slurred and unselfconsciously will be the types the Tories and BUPA will price out of medicine. One of them looked at me. I was wearing a teeshirt with a picture on it of a working class Glaswegian political figure from the early twentieth century.
The potential patient smiled a gappy smile and said, "John Maclean, man. He gave an immigrant his last coat and then died of pneumonia. He wiz a good guy, man."
As we waited, we had a superb conversation about Maclean and socialism. These guys knew the problems they were immersed in and they knew what had led them and their community to destruction.
My second example was just recently. In the past few months we moved house to a place where teachers, doctors, Scottish Daily Mail reporters and engineers live side by side in streets of red sandstone houses. A place where when I lived in a similar area in England, people called themselves "middle class." A place that would have no identity problem in Belfast. It would be a Unionist area, a place voting for a Conservative candidate. It would be a safe place to openly identify as Tory in either of those other contexts. When we first arrived here, we felt like imposters. My dinged, scraped 10 year old car sat (sits) on the driveway in silent or broken exhaust roaring competition with huge 4x4's and large German company cars.
During the Christmas break, one of the neighbours invited us to a party where we met the rest of our neighbours. We spent most of the evening chatting to a group of people who had lived here for times ranging between 20 years through to a few months. As the conversation developed, as always with my wife and me, it turned to politics and the upcoming Scottish Election. Thinking I was going to be the only lefty in the room, I made a few general "controversial" statements about what should happen in Scotland (Independence, socialism etc). No-one batted an eyelid. One Engineer said, "I always vote left. I'm working class." Another small business owner agreed. And what was universally agreed was that the Scottish New Labour Party had let the Scottish working class down.
My point in my first blog-post for the HuffPost, is that Scottish Independence and consequently a left wing Holyrood Government is inevitable - but only if it is an independence fit for the working class.
The Scots are very canny political animals. They vote for what makes life best for the majority, rather than the politics of the individual. And this has a long lineage. People here remember their working class history from the women led Rent strikes in the early 20th Century, through to the legacy of Margaret Thatcher. They remember the fact that they haven't voted for a Tory Government in generations, yet have Tory policies imposed by their English neighbours over and over again, or at the very least have the party they DO vote for diluted by so called "middle England." Some things are unforgivable.
Presently, the party that reflects the aspirations of the working class is the SNP. The SNP, the nationalist party, have in the past few years, taken a veneer of working class values and policy and were rewarded at the Scottish Elections in May with the whole of Scotland. The SNP are not a natural lefty party - in fact their old nick-name was the "Tartan Tories" - they are a coalition of people who want Independence, and the leaders of the Party have realised that in Scotland, the only way to take the Scottish Working class with them is to cloak themselves in that identity.
As soon as the SNP give too much to neo-liberalism and the rich, they will crash and there are signs that the Scottish people are noticing cracks in the party with their corporation-tax policies and their love-in of the billionaire Donald Trump.
But what they have to know is the working class in Govan and Bearsden are paying attention.

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