subsequent article in the London Review of Books started with an evocative description of the social changes there and the developed some useful insights into the country's politics -
In my first spell there, the great estuary of the Clyde was lined for mile after mile with clanging, sparking shipyards, and every shop-sign in West Blackhall Street read ‘SCWS’ – Scottish Co-Operative Wholesale Society. When I returned nearly 50 years later, the yards had vanished. There were a few charity shops, an Asda; in grey housing schemes up the hillside, a shrunken population waited quietly for the council to repair broken doors and fences. The young, it was said, traded heroin if they needed cash for clothes and clubbing. The young with the energy to get out of their beds, that is.The photograph is taken from Customshouse Quay and looks toward what used to be the site of the shipyards.
Greenockis struggling into recovery now. It is a place built for outward vision and hope, a big theatre in which tier on tier of streets look out across the estuary to the mountains. Not only James Watt, but many painters, novelists and poets began here. After utter collapse, small citizens’ groups are trying to rub the old town back to life, to restore hope: a new theatre, the restoration of the huge ropeworks factory, a protest (why use cobbles imported from , in a landscape of good Scottish stone?). China
Apart from independence, the Scottish nationalists and the Labour party whom they have supplanted want much the same things. After all, one way to describe what’s going on in Scotland is that a fortress is being thrown up to keep out the worst of the privatising, state-slashing, neoliberal tide: a northern redoubt to preserve and modernise what’s left of British social democracy and the postwar consensus. But coalition would have been unthinkable. Too long spent in tribal hatred. And real differences. Labour in
has a hundred-year history of sacrifice, comradeship and struggle. The SNP has never been socialist, and came late to social democracy. The paint on its social credentials is still drying. Salmond was a banker, but his minority government sat helplessly as Scotland ’s banks and its main building society went the way of Scotland and Iceland . (It’s an unwelcome truth that Ireland escaped the same devastation only because it was inside the Scotland , and Gordon Brown rescued its finances.)The fundamental perception of British socialism, and Scottish socialism especially, is about wasted lives, the strangled destinies of ordinary people. Last summer, I went to Jimmy Reid’s funeral in Govan. Billy Connolly, once an apprentice in the same shipyard, told a story about going for walks with Reid in United Kingdom . ‘He’d point to a tower block and say: “Behind that window is a guy who could win Formula One. And behind that one there’s a winner of the round-the-world yacht race. And behind the next one … And none of them will ever get the chance to sit at the wheel of a racing car or in the cockpit of a yacht.”’ Does the SNP see its fellow human beings that way? It certainly sees the nation clearly: it has all the angry confidence, the impatience to get down to the heavy lifting, the bright-morning optimism Labour has lost. But how about the compassion? Glasgow
Jimmy Reid began in the Communist Party, moved to Labour but ended up in the SNP. Latterly, whichever party he was in, he was fond of saying that ‘the rat race is for rats.’ Alex Salmond might prefer
to win the race first and waste the rats afterwards. But at the funeral he announced that Reid’s words, and the speech that contained them, would be reprinted and distributed to every schoolchild in Scotland . After he said this, Salmond looked up from his text and added, almost to himself: ‘What’s the point of being first minister if you can’t do things?’ And Scotland slowly began to rumble with applause, hands beaten by shipyard workers, bankers, ministers of the kirk, women and men of all the parties including Tories, soldiers on leave, families in black who had come from the isles. On this they agreed: in Jimmy Reid’s name, they wanted this man to do things. Now he can. Govan Old Church