On May 1st 1979 I submitted my final year dissertation for my LL.B. at Aberdeen University.
It ran to thirty-one double spaced typewritten pages and was bound with a single staple top left. And yes, I do still have a copy. It is titled ‘The Judicial Committee Of The Privy Council And Judicial Review: Canada And Scotland’ and until only last May remained the single longest piece of prose writing that I had ever completed.
Of course it was hardly a page turner, even then, I know. But stay with me a moment please. The title at least was a little shorter and crisper than the question that had been posed on the ballot paper of the referendum that had taken place in a Scotland just eight weeks beforehand.
The referendum that I was then still quietly confident would establish my dissertation as a fresh new source of authority on our fresh new constitution. And its author as a respected writer and thinker. Or maybe furnish the offer of a couple of years at least broadening my provincial horizons in Canada.
A masters at McGill? Today I’d bite both your arms off.
“Parliament has decided” it asked “to consult the electorate in Scotland on the question whether the Scotland Act 1978 should be put into effect. Do you want the provisions of the Scotland Act 1978 to be put into effect”.
Scotland said yes. Albeit narrowly. But, since more than two thirds of the electorate decided to stay at home and remain silent that March 1st, The Scotland Act 1978 fell. The SNP withdrew its support for the minority Labour Government which then lost a motion of no confidence.
On May 3rd Margret Thatcher led her Conservative And Unionist Party into government with a parliamentary majority of fourth-four. Scotland returned twenty-two Conservative MPs. The SNP lost nine of its eleven seats. The rest, as they say, is geography.
I graduated with what my Public Law Professor, Francis Lyall, was kind enough to describe as “a tactical 2.1, what information you had, you marshalled skilfully”, He mentioned McGill again briefly and I slithered down the brain drain as quickly and elegantly as my extravagant hair and white clogs allowed.To work briefly, and appropriately, in PR. And then in advertising. In what was then still known among Scotland’s youth as ‘the smoke’.
By the time of Thatcher’s1983 post Falkland’s landslide I was an an Account Director at Saatchi & Saatchi in Charlotte Street and earning as much as my father, a principal teacher of ‘Commercial Subjects’ in what still remained The Stewartry of Kirkcudbright. I bought myself a one bedroom mansion flat in Chiswick for £25,500. I was twenty-six. As the Iron Lady herself had said on the occasion of the liberation of South Georgia (where? exactly): “rejoice”.
I may have taken my degree at Aberdeen but it was in Charlotte Street that I received my education. As a ‘suit’ on the Mail On Sunday (I know and I know that nothing I can ever do will ever erase that stain) and The Argyll Group’s bid for The Distillers Company and then as a copywriter on The Independent, I lived Maggie’s dream. And Scotland her nightmare.
It was at Saatchi too that I first met the kind of man, and yes, it is invariably a man, who even after thirty years would still never grow up in order to be able to write a piece so toe curlingly not of its time as ‘The Woman Who Made Up Her Mind’. The sly misogyny of its title says all you really need know but I share it here none the less as Exhibit A for those London commentators still baffled by the evaporation of a twenty-two point poll lead for ‘No’ in the month it was aired.
Saatchi isn’t working, Alistair, but I guess you know that by now.
First the dutiful son and then the proud father I visited Tom and Jean in Kirkcudbright regularly if not frequently. My father made it plain enough that he disapproved of my occupation. Only taching, medicine and the law were professions. I think he was genuinely shocked that any son of his who could have pursued any of them had chosen instead the life of a snake oil salesman.
But while he was not an easy man to love his mind was consistent and his heart was constant. At my graduation party fifteen years before, after all, I had overheard him tell Professor Lyall that while of course he was happy at my achievements:”pride is a sin”.
By the time of his death in 1994 and Jean’s seven years later both the socialist from Troon and the Watford born Tory were now SNP voters. And I was now, in the words of the popular song, ‘nobody’s child’.
I visited Scotland less regularly. But I read her writers more often. There seemed to be so many more of them now. The likes of Irvine Welsh and James Kelman and Iain Banks, then James Robertson and Andrew O’Hagen. A man who grew up, as I did, on the Ayrshire coast. And whose ‘Our Fathers’ had me sobbing.
Her songwriters, Roddy Frame and Edwin Collins among the best of them, spoke to me like Bob Dylan or Neil Young or Van Morrison or Elvis Costello.
Maggie was gone now too but not forgotten. Depending on your point of view her son and heir either beckoned or loomed to banish both dream and nightmare from a Britain where ‘Things Can Only Get Better’.
Our consciousnesses if not our consciences now regained we all of us woke to face our realities: privatised, downsized, patronised, deregulated and desensitised, a light touch for pretty much anyone as it turned out.
We had slept a long time. And somewhere we had stumbled down a rabbit hole. The world is smaller now and somehow simpler too. Debt is called credit and all commerce is simply finance; curiously money only works now to incentivise the rich and the loan sharks of old are now the payday lenders of Alice in Wongaland. Growth is stability. War is surgical. And the occupied territories are just disputed. Red is blue now and green is red.
There is a war on drugs that only spawns more addicts. And a war on terror that only creates more terrorists. It’s just a shame that whoever gets to pick the nouns we fight can’t seem to think of jobs or money. Or happiness or laughter. Basically we’re fracked.
And as our leaders become managers, content not to do the right thing but only to do nothing wrong, our politicians and out politics are shrunken too. Like a set of those identical wooden dolls: Blair came out of Thatcher and Cameron out of Blair. What’s rattling inside Cameron I wonder? Boris or Farage?
So, as you’ve no doubt heard by now, one week tomorrow Scotland will be asked to speak again. For twelve hours it will be asked to answer just one of two words in answer to the question:
“Should Scotland Be An Independent Country?”
Not “Do You Really Trust Alec Salmond?”, “Would You Rather Not Just Forget About It And Let Gordon Brown Scribble Down Something On The Back Of A Fag Packet Between Now And New Years?”, “Can You Really Believe that He Once Threw A Stapler At Alistair Darling?, “Do You Think David Cameron Is A Lizard” or even “Is There Anything Worn Under Your Kilt.”
“Do You Really Mind Having Unionist Governments In Perpetuity Who Lead You Into Illegal Wars And Park Nuclear Missiles Thirty Miles From Your Most Populous City?”, “Do You Think That People In Employment Should Have To Rely On Food Banks In One Of The Richest Countries On The Planet? or indeed “Do You Agree That A Hedge Fund Manager Should Pay Tax At A Lower Marginal Rate Than A Cleaner?
Good questions all. But not ones that appear on the ballot paper. Which just like an exam paper demands only that you first read the question.
And then answer it.