Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Another Country

The first time I heard James Naughtie’s dulcet tones on Good Morning Scotland, I lay there in utter befuddlement. Had my radio alarm unilaterally re-tuned itself, in a fit of homesickness, from Radio Scotland to Radio 4? Was our move north entirely a dream, and should I be pulling a shirt out of the laundry basket and launching myself in vain pursuit of the number 7 to Maidenhead Station?

As it turned out, there was a perfectly rational explanation. Jim, the personification of the idea that God’s in his Heaven and all’s right with the Union, had simply been dispatched to Glasgow by Auntie Beeb one day a week to help Radio Scotland out with its referendum coverage. Presumably the natives were regarded as too wee and stupid to be trusted without an occasional high-profile assist.

Now and then it just takes something minor - a sound half-caught on the breeze, a momentary blur of images, a teensy-weensy whiff of bullshit - for me to be enveloped in wavy lines out of 70s sitcoms and extraordinarily rendered to my past. The same thing happened two weeks ago, as the whole of Scotland gingerly got to its feet, checking soft parts for bruising, after being knocked skelly by the first big storm of the winter. Halfway through the morning, with a blood-curdling crunch of gears, Radio Scotland abandoned its litany of blackouts, travel chaos and jack-knifed lorries and took us straight to the Palace of Westminster for the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement.

On this occasion, unusually, what troubled me wasn’t the triumphalist embrace of unending austerity by a sneering, wretched, toffee-nosed bawbag. It was the cacophony of braying, harrumphing and honking from “our” elected representatives that afflicted my ears from the first nanosecond of the broadcast. It sounded like a truly hardball episode of The Archers, with a runaway herd of cattle, off their faces on steroids, going on the rampage through Lower Loxley. It bellowed entitlement, self-importance and fundamental contempt for any little people who had chosen a different option at the ballot box.

Jarring though this smack in the puss from reality may have been, it was also salutary. I’ve only been here for six months, but already my world-view is beginning to shift. It may be a different kettle of smoked salmon in the oak-panelled corridors of professional Edinburgh, but in this part of Scotland the UK Establishment seems a long way away, and very easy to forget. Or, if you can still afford jam on your scones and logs in your wood-burner, underestimate.

Certain sections of the Establishment encourage this by tickling the public funnybone with zany comedy turns. Take Lord Hanningfield, currently making a living from turning up at the House of Lords, pocketing £300, and buggering off again. No doubt each visit through the revolving door lasts just long enough for him to ask the clerks of the House if they’ve found any earthly use for him, and for them sorrowfully to shake their heads.

Lord H has the excuse of being somewhat stretched in the wallet department at the mo, having been stuck last year with a £37,000 bill to repay unlawfully claimed expenses. But don’t worry, this ex-jailbird’s still got a couple of side-splitters for us. Apparently we should be thanking him for his 40 years in public service. (No problem, I’ll drop him a line after I finish writing to all the doctors, nurses, teachers, bus drivers and bin men I know.) And what about the other 50 peers who are doing just the same thing? (“Awww miss! They wur daein’ it tae!”)

In a culture where celebrity criminals are idolised, it would seem a few of our ermine-clad élite only need to work on the “celebrity” part. Sorry, that’s unfair. Many have made huge sacrifices, typically financial ones in favour of the party of their choice, and it would be iniquitous to expect them to forego payback, or indeed suffer the ordeal of an election.

Sacrifices are also made in the lower House - the one where at least we get tickets in the lottery to elect governments, even if in Scotland, Wales and the north of England they go straight in the bin. Not financial sacrifices: £66,000 a year doesn’t buy you much influence, and no amount of free duck-houses, bath plugs and porn to keep your spouse occupied is going to change that. No, if you’re a hard-working MP who wants to get on, it’s principles, ideals and, in the case of the Liberal Democrats in 2010, your spinal column that go up in flames on the altar of Beelzebub.

Party lines, once clearly delineated, have now merged into an ugly splurge slapped across the landscape with a £3.99 paintbrush from Homebase. Yesterday’s map identifying 60% of the British mainland as “frackable” includes a whacking great symbol of this: there’s a band of potential desecration across the Central Belt of Scotland, including, if I’m not mistaken, a fairly significant fault line and the nukes at Faslane. The movers and shakers, whatever rosette they pin on, are all agreed about the general direction of travel, and if you’re in the path of the juggernaut that won’t mean a tin of beans to them.

In Scotland, thanks to devolution, we can ignore some of the faces that pop up. We can ignore Michael Gove, except for thanking our respective deities that Scotland was able to export him, because he can’t stick his beak into how we teach kids. We can ignore Jeremy Hunt, which will be a blessing to the aforementioned Mr Naughtie, because he can’t bollox up our health service by hiving it off to spivs. We can ignore Nick Clegg because, well, doesn’t everybody?

But we can’t ignore David Cameron, blustering belligerently through Prime Minister’s Questions. We can’t ignore George Osborne, hacking enthusiastically at the economy’s jugular. We can’t ignore Ed Miliband, bleating emptily about the bedroom tax when his own MPs won’t even turn up to vote against it. These guys are damaging us now. We need to understand that and be prepared to fight our corner.

Turning rapidly to the elephant in the room, there are those in Scotland who put forward a particular solution to the problem of being constantly gubbed by the UK establishment. Do I agree with them? Ooh, I’d like to keep the suspense going a bit longer, so for now let me simply concede that their position has some merit.

Sorry, Jim, you may have to stick that in your BBC mug and drink it. But thanks for the wake-up call.

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