Had Yer’ Gob, Bonny Lad

newcastle1947Iain Robson interviews Keith Armstrong and Paul Salveson about independence and democracy ‘both sides the Tweed’ (Iain Robson is founder of The Scotland Pages).

When Scots go on about ‘the English’ – those that do, anyhow – they don’t often mean people from the North-east.

When Alex Salmond mocks those “Lord Snooties down in London”, my lower middle class mum in Newcastle cheers like she’s a nationalist in Perth.

But climb aboard the inter-city service, calling at Dunbar, Alnmouth and Newcastle Central Station, and you’ll see that, though the North Sea keeps over on the left hand side, after a while, there’s no Scotland there to offer you safe harbour.

And having made the modest journey, a massive change is made for me – I’m in England. Writing about Scotland. Getting off the train put me into the wrong compartment. I’ve a feeling that my ticket’s no longer valid.

Should I say anything at all, now I’ve gone down south to the North? Does one person’s self-determination require a Sassenach’s self-censorship?

Maybe talking politics will always cause you trouble?

“I remember getting into an argument with some members of the Scottish Labour Party once – in the Café Royal in Edinburgh. I was just taking the SNP stance and it nearly ended in blows.

“I’ve got border blood in me, I feel that. I come from a long line of cattle thieves. I much more look forward to travelling up to Edinburgh than I do down to London.

“I would like to see the demise of the Labour Party, but what comes in its place is a different matter. The campaign against independence comes across as negative to me.

“I don’t really believe in centralised politics”

Keith Armstrong, author of “Common Words and the Wandering Star … ”, is a poet and publisher from Heaton – the suburb of Newcastle that also brought us Rington’s Tea and Cheryl Cole (not everyone’s cup of tea, admittedly). And it’s a place that sits right on the rails which take the East Coast trains ‘down’ to Scotland.

Dr Armstrong’s a proper Geordie, too – not a private school softie like me.

These days, though still on Tyneside, he lives out on the sea-fretting coast – a few miles from where the ferries start their overnight crossings to Holland.

And that trip to the Café Royal wasn’t his first time in Edinburgh, either.

“Back in 1977, I was involved in a show – we did it for five days at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, at what was then Nicky Tam’s Tavern.

“I kind-of scripted it, along with others, and we called it ‘Bordering on the Ridiculous’. I was pushing a stronger class line then. I was, I suppose, against nationalism.

“But recently – oddly enough, for a Geordie – I joined the SNP.”

Dr Armstrong has been a professional writer since 1986. As a child, I once heard him read a poem on the radio late at night; the piece in question, “Monuments”, impressed me because it has a swear word in it.

These days, foul language no longer excites me – it’s just a means of introducing basic ethical principles to commuters on the London Underground. But, in preparing for this interview, another of his poems – “Wallace’s Right Arm” – caught my eye. So I asked him for some  background.

“When they cut William Wallace’s body up, they distributed it around the country. They displayed his right arm on the old Tyne Bridge in Newcastle as a sort of warning, I suppose. Other parts of his body were scattered – starting in London, up to the north of Scotland.

“If you ever do get round to discussing politics in bars in Newcastle, there’s quite a few people I’ve been talking to recently who are quite against Scots getting their independence. I think it makes them nervous, somehow.

“I think they might fear for the North-east of England if Scotland goes independent – that we might become more of a backwater than we already are.

“’Wallace’s Right Arm’ is built on a kind of ballad tradition which also brings Northumbrian and Scottish culture together. I wrote it at a time when we had all these – still have, to some extent – ‘cultural’ shenanigans going on.

“I resent it when centralising arts bureaucrats announce that we’re gonna have a North-east festival. Because it’s laid on to people, it doesn’t come from the neighbourhoods, it doesn’t come from the communities, they’re not really consulted.”

I’ve heard at least one Scottish author lament the shenanigans of English academics – the shenanigans being their ignorance of Hugh MacDiarmid. The noted poet and Scottish nationalist from Langholm remains clear in Dr Armstrong’s memory, however:

“I did once encounter Hugh MacDiarmid at a poetry event in Ashington – it would probably be in the early seventies. From the way his wife kept topping-up his glass, it was obvious that he’d had a few whiskies just to set him up.

Sid Chaplin was given the job of introducing Hugh MacDiarmid, and it left an impression on me because I could tell Sid Chaplin was greatly nervous at being entrusted with this task.

“MacDiarmid got up, and he was quite scathing – the phrase was something like, ‘that’s pretty rich coming from an ex-Coal Board official’. I think he used to edit this Coal Board magazine, Chaplin, at one point.

“MacDiarmid obviously thought he was kind-of the enemy, really. I liked that, because most literary events I’d been to, there wasn’t much challenge in the air. That altered my thinking.”

The subject of Dr Armstrong’s book,  “Common Words and the Wandering Star …”, is Newcastle poet  Jack Common – author of “Kiddar’s Luck”.

According to Dr Armstrong, Common’s father worked on the Flying Scotsman; and, funnily enough, my Great Grandfather also drove trains on the London to Edinburgh route. Family rumours even suggest the official top speed of Mallard – to this day, a world record for a steam train – could be exceeded when they were heading ‘up’ to London.

But I didn’t tell you that.

What I can say is that, many times, I’ve fallen head over heels with the hissing iron machinery and smell of spent fireworks you get when a museum piece is fired-up in York station. Those elderly locomotives have a grace and romance that makes you hanker for days you never lived through.

But, rather than listening to people swear on the radio, Paul Salveson – now visiting Professor of Transport and Logistics at the University of Huddersfield – “spent”, according to his website, “all-night footplate trips with some of the more tolerant drivers”, as a child.

Like Dr Armstrong and myself (and Jack Common, for that matter), Prof Salveson grew-up within walking distance of a train maintenance shed. And, when I asked him about politics and the railways, he put my ‘grace and romance’ of yesteryear into perspective:

“There’s this nostalgic idea of how wonderful the railways were in the late nineteenth century. The reality was that there was profiteering – there were thousands of directors who drew stipends for doing very little indeed.

“At the same time, there was a massive accident rate for employees.

“They way railways developed here was quite different, really, from other countries where the state had a more direct input. In Britain, the state has always meddled – from the 1844 Act which was Gladstone’s attempt to bring a greater degree of accountability to the railway, a greater structure to it.

“Ever since then, people have been arguing, throughout the nineteenth century in fact, about whether nationalisation would be desirable or not. Railways, in some ways, have tended to reflect the politics of the time.

“And, obviously, in the mid nineteenth century, the prevailing ideology was very much a sort of free market laissez-faire. But also with a sense that there was a public interest that needed some state protection.

“Towards the end of the nineteenth century, rail nationalisation was one of the key demands of the early Socialist movement – as well as the more radical end of the Liberal Party.

“There was a Railway Nationalisation League which had socialist and liberal involvement. And into the twentieth century, railways continued to be highly politically controversial.”

“I think that more and more people were saying there needed to be greater state intervention – and that came with WWI. And there were promises by Lloyd George and Winston Churchill that, after the war, the railways would remain in state ownership.

“But that didn’t happen.

“Winston Churchill was, interestingly, the only mainstream politician who was arguing publicly for regional devolution within England.

Prof Salveson is also General Secretary of the Hannah Mitchell Foundation, which he describes on his website as, “an ethical socialist campaign for regional government for the North”. And members of the Hannah Mitchell Foundation are seeking to build support for a North of England Assembly.

“When we talk about being opposed to ‘London government’ – that sort of government, it’s equally remote from the interests of working class people in places in like Tower Hamlets as it is to working class people in Ashington or Moss Side in Manchester.

“The Scots have enjoyed a significant measure of devolution, which I think most people would say has been a success.

“So I think people in the North of England would say, ‘Good on the Scots. We understand where you’re coming from and we would quite welcome some of the devolution that you’ve got’.

“I’m not saying everyone says that! But it’s certainly my view and the view of the Hannah Mitchell Foundation.

“But when you get to independence, the issues become more complex.

“Whilst, on the one hand, I think there’s some sympathy and understanding for why some people in Scotland want to go for full independence, you could say that there’s partly a selfish thing – we don’t actually want to lose Scotland.

“So, if Scotland does go completely independent, and that’s for the Scots themselves to determine, I’m sure there would still be lots of scope for co-operation. I would prefer to have Scotland within a federal Britain, with probably not as strong a devolution for the North of England as what Scotland gets. But certainly significant devolution for the North.

“The other big issue in all of this is obviously is Europe and what would happen to an independent Scotland.

“The assumption is that Scotland would very much want to stay within Europe.

“Now if Scotland went independent, that could actually accelerate the clamour from the Tory right to go for a withdrawal from the EU for what remains of the UK – which I think would be a disaster.

In “Borders, Flags and Monuments”, Noam Chomsky remarked that, “there’s been a tendency [ … in Europe … ] towards unification, and centralisation, but that’s led to a counter-tendency towards regionalisation”, going on to say, “if you’re in Wales, you like Wales; if you’re in Catalonia, you like Catalonia”.

In this context, Prof Chomsky asked, “What form of integration with England – and, beyond that, with the European community – will the people of Scotland find to be their preference?”.

In “A Night Sky in the Coffee Cup”, discussing Greenlandic self-government and independence, Prof Mark Nuttall said, “One of the biggest challenges for Greenland is that, having achieved a fair degree of autonomy within the Danish Realm, there is a very real danger of the development of dependency relations because powerful multinational corporations are moving in and influencing the decision-making process.”

Back on the British Isles, south of the Cheviots, Prof Salveson imagines a way forward for the North of England as a region within the EU.

“Most of the sort-of semi-autonomous regions across Europe are part of the Europe of the Regions Network.

“Many of them will have offices in Brussels and there’s a lot of networking across Europe between the regions, which is something that we miss out on. Because we don’t have the institutions there to do it.

“But I think the North of England could be an incredibly strong player on the European stage. It has a population of 15 million people – much bigger than many nation states in Europe.

“Certainly much bigger than Scotland.”

Travelling from Edinburgh to Newcastle aboard modern electric rolling stock, I felt like I was flitting between two very different cities with two very similar perceptions of London.

But, when discussing railway history, Prof Salveson referred to  “the prevailing ideology” of the mid nineteenth century. One wonders what constraints the prevailing ideologies of today bring to bear in England, Scotland and elsewhere.

How might our fashions thought and language, in 2013, limit the things activists and party politicians dare propose?

And the things voters dare support?

In political conversation, sometimes any improvised tangle of hopelessness and ‘we-weren’t-bloody-born-yesterday’ cockiness seems to pass for ‘wisdom’ in Newcastle. But one senses this has more to do with feeling defeated and ignored than it does with just being daft. People cast their votes hoping for improvement, but get PR-friendly slogans and ‘aspirations’, regardless of what happens.

Only a select few seem to understand the ‘successes’. As for the rest of us, we keep wondering what they’re on about.

When Dr Armstrong talked to me about “centralising arts bureaucrats announcing that we’re gonna have a North-east festival”, he also said something else:

“With me father being a shipyard worker, I come from a tradition, and I still haven’t made the readjustment – the pits going so quickly, and the shipyards. And what do you replace it with?

“I’ve always been sceptical about replacing it with ‘culture’, ’cause I’m just about sick and tired of that word now.

“It’s just become meaningless, really”.

Well, never mind ‘culture’ – what about ‘Better Together’? Whatever the merits or shortcomings of the unionist case, those words alone sound as hollow as the Millennium Dome. No, we weren’t bloody born yesterday. And, yes, both words together sound completely hopeless.

Perhaps it would be preferable to take a chance on a bit of SNP optimism spreading south, rather than risk further nervousness and dismissiveness going  north?


In his 2011 article “The ‘Forward March’ of Scottish Nationalism and the End of Britain As We Know It”, Gerry Hassan remarked that, “Scots have consistently voted for the social democratic politics which had begun to unravel … before Thatcher or Blair. Some observers have long argued that Scottish nationalism is an expression of wanting things to stay the same: the managed British society of the immediate post-war era”.

The old arrogant cliché used to be, ‘if you’re a socialist when you’re young, your heart’s in the right place’. Maybe some Scots now feel that if you’re a nationalist when you’re old, it means you’re still a socialist?

But as Prof Salveson also said:

“The North of England really does need to think ‘what is our interest in all this?’. And I think part of that should be really building-up strong, friendly links with both the ‘Devo Max’ lobbies in Scotland, and also the SNP and people who want to go down a more independent road.”

Living and working in Edinburgh last year, I got the feeling that a lot of people would be instinctively drawn to something like ‘Devo Max’. That was just my impression, nothing more.

But in his March 2012 Holyrood magazine article “Dancing Around Devolution”, former Labour and SNP Parliamentarian Jim Sillars stated that it was “disingenuous” for current SNP members “to claim that if the Scots vote for devo-something-extra then they will be entitled to have it”.

Mr Sillars went on to say that, “The effect of additional devolution powers for Holyrood will have to be judged by their effects upon other areas of the UK, especially those in the North of England who already feel disadvantaged by the powers we have”.

In “Both Sides The Tweed”, I asked Dick Gaughan if he believed, “that those participating in the 2014 referendum should think about the consequences a breakaway might have for citizens living and voting South of the border?”.

Mr Gaughan’s answer was no; in his opinion, “to do so is as fundamentally patronising to English people as Scots complain about the other way round”. Before stressing the “huge affection” he has for most of England, Mr Gaughan also asserted that, “The future of England is for English people to decide, not Scots”.

So, what will the future hold? And what are we going to do about it?

As my run of articles reaches the end of the line, long journeys for Scotland, England, Ireland North and South, and Wales obviously lie ahead. (Should that be England North and South, as well?)

In “Dancing Around Devolution”, Jim Sillars also remarked that, “Taking into account others as well as the Scots is the fundamental price of membership of the Union”. And union is what we have – for now, at least.

As for my two interviewees, Dr Armstrong openly favours Scottish independence, whereas Prof Salveson views the prospect with an accommodating reserve.

What’s obviously accepted by both, however, is a pressing need for change.

And although Dr Armstrong supports independence, he admitted that he does so with a heavy heart.

So, given the nervousness in the bars, and those fears about becoming “more of a backwater than we already are”, I wondered if Dr Armstrong felt that it might be appropriate for those voting on a breakaway to count the costs that others may, somehow, have to pay.

“I tend to go along with what Dick Gaughan’s saying. I think we’ve got to just take the chance, really. The biggest thing, for me, is to break the grip of London and Westminster.

“The only way forward to me is a devolution of power, and if it has to be kick-started by Scotland, I think that’s the best way. Otherwise you can just feel that nothing is going to happen.

“I think the North-east is going to go through worse times before it ever gets better.”.

And this series terminates here.​

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