by Kevin Williamson
On the night of the 1997 British general election, along with my friend Paul Reekie, I took part in an election night cabaret in West Pilton at the Triangle club. We were two poets supporting a local guy; a freaky guy, whose act included picking up heavy weights with his cock. Aye. It was a memorable night and not just for the bizarre muscle man.
After the cabaret I went back to my Pilton flat with Paul to watch the election results come through on the telly. Naturally, we partied all night, Leith style, cheering every Labour gain, then dancing with joy when it became clear that the Tories had finally been ousted after eighteen long and painful years. It was a magical night.
In the morning, sleepless but still energetic, we headed up to a Broughton Street establishment to bask in the glorious sunshine of a brand new day. Neither of us were New Labour supporters but like most Scots just relieved and happy the nightmare had finally ended.
Fast forward fourteen years. Scotland looks pretty much the same as it did yesterday. The same streets, the same people, the same wonderfully exuberant and contradictory place to live. It’s the same government in London. And the same government taking up the reins once more in Holyrood. But something has changed. Something important.
Yesterday Scotland voted in an SNP government with an absolute majority. I can still hardly believe I’ve typed that! But it’s true. Scotland now has a government with the majority to drive through the sort of policies that the unionist parties blocked last time around. Good progressive polices like minimum alcohol pricing. Or the so-called Tesco Tax.
But that’s not what’s on everyone’s lips this morning. There’s a bigger fish swimming in the political pond today. Its mouth is wide open and it’s ready to be reeled in. The SNP government now have the majority necessary to pass an Independence Referendum Bill. This is the game changer. Today is our 1997 moment. Except this time with teeth.
Newspapers and columnists will jostle to tell us that Scots will always reject Independence. Of course, they will. It’s their job to talk Scotland down. Just as they told us that it was impossible for the SNP to secure a majority. Just as they told us that Scots would never break with Labour in its working class heartlands. But its all happened. The majority of Glasgow seats are now held by the SNP. Labour’s stranglehold on our biggest city is over. The entire north-east of Scotland has been won by the SNP, all ten seats. Dunfermline, Falkirk, Dundee, all SNP.
Here in Edinburgh only one Labour MSP, the redoubtable and principled socialist, Malcolm Chisholm, has survived the carnage. The rest are toast. The SNP even torpedoed a former Tory leader in the supposedly unsinkable seat of Edinburgh Pentlands. Taxi for David McLetchie!
The soul-searching and troubles of Labour, who were blitzed, and the depression of the Lib Dems – who have been wiped out in every mainland constituency seat (deservedly so for their double-crossing at Westminster) – is not my concern. For the Greens and the socialist left this wasn’t their day either. But both could still have an important part to play in events that will soon unfold.
Soon, here on Bella and elsewhere, I’ll be joining the debate on our constitutional future. There’s a lot of patient explaining to be done over the next few years. There’s no room for complacency, polemics or triumphalism. We have to raise our game now and encourage the people to join us in the great adventure ahead.
But today is a day for relaxing, celebrating, and basking in the warm glow of beautiful necessary change, knowing that Scotland is now on a very different road from yesterday. Where this road will go is anyone’s guess. As one of my great inspirations, Joe Strummer, famously said, ‘The future is unwritten.’
Like the rest of the political junkies I’m a bit tired as I write this and haven’t had much sleep. Nor can I party the way I used to do back in 1997. But I’ll certainly be having a wee celebratory dram later.
Thinking back to that memorable night in 1997 I dearly wish Paul could be joining me in Robbies tonight to talk over today’s events. Sadly he’s no longer with us. Although Paul didn’t take much interest in party politics he was an irascible and contrary Scottish radical at heart. A great Burns scholar too, who loved our national Bard’s verse and could quote it extensively.
I’d have loved it if I could have sat down in Robbie’s this evening with Paul to clink our glasses together. Over the years we had our disagreements, as you do, but there’s one thing I think we’d both drink to, on this most historic of days. It’s coming yet for a that.