Alan Massie, Fishwives and Lobsters


(republished with thanks from Thoughtland)

A pal sent me a great quote from the Scots journalist Euan Ferguson the other day: “I remember a fishwife in Aberdeen telling me why her lobsters needed no lid on the pan. ‘They’re all Scottish. One of them climbs near the top, the ithers’ll pull him right back in.’” Lucky we’re beyond all that, eh?

The rough-and-tumble of the indyref goes on, and I’m in about it myself with as much vigour and focus as I can muster. So on first sight, it was a rare pleasure to see my interview with Paul Hutcheon of the Sunday Herald generate a response from Allan Massie in the Scotsman.

Last time I met Mr Massie face to face, it was a fiercely hot day in 2007. Allan, Christophers Harvie and Small, Tom Nairn and some other constitutional bods sat in a sweltering Kirkcaldy bookshop, wondering what the next day’s Holyrood general election vote would bring.

What it brought was Professor Harvie into the Parliament as a list MSP, and the SNP as a minority government – the kickstart of the process towards the referendum. I’ll assume Allan’s re-entry into my life augurs well for Yes!

So I was pleased – until I read the piece. It seems to have been triggered by this line in the Sunday Herald interview, where Hutcheon asked me what I thought Scotland would be like after a No vote: “It will be a depressed place for quite a while. I think there will be a leak of optimism, idealism, passion and energy. The balloon will go down considerably.”

Massie then makes a series of “considerations” about the thinking behind my statement. We know he has a fine prose style. But in general his mind-reading skills leave a lot to be desired.

At least he hits the mark, a third of the way in: “[Kane] means that the No voters would come to regret their victory because things would get worse – economically, socially, culturally, politically – after the referendum.”

Correct. Post-No, we’d face a cross-party Westminster consensus on a continuing austerity. Whatever party is – or parties are – in power, UK national economic strategy will still be thirled to London dynamism, relaxed with a low-wage economy in the rest of the country, and seeking to marketise public assets till there’s effectively none left.

All of that will erode the mild social-democratic gains that devolution has brought – particularly as pressure comes from the English regions, and fundamentalists in the orbit of UKIP, to take resources and powers away from the existing Scottish Parliament.

On the basis of the UK’s economic and political performance, yes, I predict that many No voters will regret their choice over the next 12-24 months. What they think they’ll be able to do about it – having rejected the basic powers of nation-state sovereignty, and expressed themselves content with major decisions on territorial resources, revenue/taxation, defence and broadcasting being reserved to Westminster – is another question.

But Allan wants to go deeper into my psyche than this. What he thinks I “really feel” is that a Yes vote has the moral high-ground. I (and my fellow Yessers) are a new version of Calvinism’s “elect”, the “Chosen People”, frustratedly bringing indy enlightenment to the “Damned” around us. 

For such a distinguished and learned Scottish writer, this is a low (and strangely unlearned) blow. What about the other side of the Presbyterian legacy, which emphasizes democratic consultation and the empowerment of individuals, or stresses the importance of collective learning and literacy?

Doesn’t the mass Yes movement – using social media to increase the old powers of the Kirk meet in the church hall, coming together without needing any authority to validate them – exactly chime with this aspect of the Protestant legacy? (And is it odd for a Coatbridge boy to be defending Calvinists? These are, indeed, interesting times). 

Zeal motivates on all sides, of course – was a thundering dominie ever more exemplified than Alastair Darling in the first referendum debate? Having read quite a few of Allan Massie’s novels over the years (and enjoyed them), I understand his deeply conservative temperament, suspicious of all passions too stridently articulated.

But this is the agonism of politics, Mr Massie, not some old demon of Scottish intolerance rising from the past. It’s OK: Post-Yes, we’ll all be boring Nordic reformers, driving you mad with policy detail and improving notions.

I think the most preposterous assumption of my intentions Allan makes is that “deep down [Kane] has a contempt for democracy and the democratic process. Voting, elections, a referendum are good things only if they produce the right answer. Majorities are to be considered in some unspecified way as illegitimate if they are on the wrong side.”

*Blinks*, as they say on Twitter. The most obvious objection that hurtles out of my evidently-transparent mind, like a meteor in a disaster movie, is that this referendum itself has an obvious democratic deficiency.

How do you fairly decide on the “home rule” of Scotland by keeping a positive “middle” option off the ticket – compelling a binary “Yes-No” independence question, against even an SNP Scottish Government’s wishes?

If a devolved Scots Parliament could be initially voted for, with a refined second question on tax-raising powers, why couldn’t a stronger devolved Parliament also be voted for this time, given how much opinion polling demonstrates solid support for that option? Why a sophisticated poll the first time, and a crude one now?

We all know the answers to these questions, of course. If you wanted to cast doubt on democratic instincts, one could suspect the Unionist establishment of wanting a binary vote – and a No result – in order to crush the appetite and aspiration for independence for ever, or at least “for a generation”.

A second doubt might be that a clear No vote will relegitimate the awful Westminster system of democracy – with all its systemic corruption and lobbying interests, its dreadfully unrepresentative voting system, the sclerosis of its hereditary peers, its pathetic great-power diplomatic and military fantasies.

“The game is played according to agreed rules and we accept the way they work”, says Mr. Massie – and it’s a fair point about the SNP mandate at the 2011 election (only a majority of a 50% turnout). We may be vaguely proud of our proportional system in Scotland, but we probably do require the affirmative action of compulsory voting, Australia-style, if we are to jump-start the general disaffection with representative politics.

But it is so terrible for the indy movement to suggest that the great opportunity of independence, way beyond the safety-first manifesto of the SNP’s White Paper, is to change the nature of “the game” of politics, or at least to maintain a scrutiny over the rules as to their effectiveness?

Today’s COSLA report on an increase in local government units, pushing down real powers to many more areas in Scottish society, is an example of where we would go next with independence – if the civic activism and democratic experiments of the Yes movement are to find their next challenge.

He ends with the Brecht quote on (I paraphrase), “if the people fail you, you elect a new people”. I prefer another Brecht quote: “Oh we who wanted to bring about friendly times/Could not ourselves be friendly”. I could regard it as a little unfriendly to be rendered as a primal anti-democrat by one of Scotland’s finest novelists.

But I would rather remember the rays of sunshine penetrating the gloom of that Kirkcaldy bookstore, and believe that being “Massie-fied” at this stage portends great things. See you on the other side, Allan.

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  1. CW says:

    I completely disagree with your argument about compulsory voting. That IS profoundly anti-democratic. Nobody should be forced to legitimise a political process they might not agree with.

    1. kbhresq says:

      “Oh we who wanted to bring about friendly times/Could not ourselves be friendly”
      That’s a point that Jamie Maxwell and Bella Caledonia would also do well to note:

  2. Clootie says:

    Great article.

    I loved the lobster story!

    It reminded me of when we bought our first flat (£1250) . Our families were of course all dwellers in council houses and the 8 year housing wait didn’t appeal to us.

    When they came to visit the cry went out “who dae yae think yae err….buyin’ a hoose”

    Amazing impact for a room and kitchen on the 4th. floor of a tenement. No bathroom and a black lead sink with only a cold water tap.

    1. I know where you are coming from there Clootie. I was raised in a “Coal Board hoose” in a mining vilage in Ayrshire.

      When the NCB decided to sell-off their housing stock, my parents, who had been in their house for some 40-years, had the chance to buy it, for £1500. They wouldn’t do it, my father, a life-long working-class tory, who supported the old Scottish Unionist Party, told my brother and me: “Buying houses isn’t what “we” do” – overlooking the fact both his sons were home-owners.

      Five years later, my parents had to move into sheltered housing, whereupon the NCB sold their house, for £25,000.

      The identical house next door has subsequently sold for over £80,000.

      But, that’s the sort of out-dates Scottish thinking we are still trying to eradicate as we approach this referendum – “Oh no, that’s no for us – it’s aye been done this way”.

  3. Rosa Alba Macdonald says:

    In the event of the Referendum returning a No, should it come to pass, those who with staunch internalised oppression endorsed the rallying cry of Better Together, might not so much come to regret their No Vote but in the wake of inevitable wresting of powers, encroaching privatised and austerity plus may blame the Yes Voters – or the SNP more likely – for daring to put their head above the parapet and thus invoking the wrath of the Great and the Good who wear the mantle of establishment: it serves ye richt, ye brocht it oan yersels.

    Those wearing such mantles only figuratively this side of Sept 18th, may yet be wearning them literally, and will be inured (even without the ermine) from the ravages of austerity.

    The divide in the votes between Yes and No is not so much education as other demographics, aside the truly internally oppressed and some who do not read behind the headlines of the Establishment Red Tops (and the BBC, Scotland or Not, is red-top in its Webpages and Broadcasts) but blindly expect spoon feeding, the main proponents of no change are those for whom the current system serves well and remunerates. They will be lining up to buy their shares in privatised healthcare companies, and with all likelihood, house rental companies. It may not be long, in the light of the Tory MP who bought up what was previously social housing, before social housing is sold off, not individually but as going concerns.

    The impact on Education I dare not try to imagine.

  4. Big Jock says:

    The part he neatly forgets is.People are having this debate in Scotland because Scotland has been put back on the political spectrum by the SNP victory and the referendum.Take away the referendum and the prospect of indepependence and Scotland would be flatlining to the next UK election which England decides.So with a no vote Scotland doesn’t just disappear off the world it goes into a pit of depression and naval gazing as an opportunity to keep us on the global map disappears for a generation.If the Tories win the next election it will eventually take us out of Europe at England’s behest.This would be catastrophic for Scotland.We will be lost in the more of English conservatism and right wing austerity.As previously stated the days of Scotland complaining about unelected Tory governments ruling them will be over.No means we are accepting we are a region and therefore not entitled to complain about a democratic deficit as this can only apply to a nation not a region of a collective nation.No is very simple it means more of the same and that’s simply unbearable.

  5. Gordon says:

    What we Already Know about Together.
    1. The deceptions A). The suppression of the McCrone report in the 1970s which concluded that “in the event of independence, the value of North Sea oil would make Scotland obscenely rich”.
    B) Dennis Healy, the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Callaghan government of the 70’s admitted recently that his party had deliberately belittled the value of the oil reserves of the North Sea in order to choke off the growing Nationalist movement.
    2. The 1979 Scotland Act offered Scotland an Assembly with limited powers by way of a referendum in March 1979. George Cunningham, a Labour MP in an English seat proposed the 40% rule (40% of the population had to vote ‘Yes’), an impossible task, requiring an 80% turnout in a close vote – unheard of in any UK election. ‘Yes’ won (by 77,400), but 40% was not achieved. NO ASSEMBLY.
    3. Thatcher in 1989 introduced the Poll Tax uniquely in Scotland. This was a local per capita income tax which meant that a household with 3 people earning would have to pay 3 times that of a single earner in a household, regardless of house size. Poll tax protests in Scotland and subsequently riots in England got it dropped.
    4. 1979-1984, under Thatcher. Most of Scottish heavy industry was trashed with nothing to replace it. Highly skilled workers emigrated and the remainder suffered 3 generations of unemployment.
    5. 1979-1984. Thatcher ordered the sale of council houses which were sold at less than the replacement cost, leaving councils short of available rented accommodation and lowering the bargaining powers of workers fearful of job losses, mortgage arrears and repossession. In London and the Home Counties fortunes were made through resale. The rest of the country did not fare so well.
    6. 1981. The likely presence of oil on Scotland’s west coast was deliberately kept secret to prevent exploration/production platforms from inhibiting the movement of the Trident-armed nuclear fleet.
    7. The UK, unlike Norway, has failed to set up an oil fund (sovereign wealth fund) for the benefit of its citizens, and to hedge against low oil prices. In 2003, it had to import oil without the buffer of a fund.
    8. Wars.1990-91, 2003-2011, 2001-20014. UK involved in 3 wars 2 in Iraq and 1 in Afghanistan at the behest of America. April-June 1982. The Falklands were invaded by Argentina. There was talk that negotiation via a third party could have resolved the situation. It was rumoured that Thatcher needed the glory of a victory at war in order to get re-elected, and it worked (The Falklands Factor).
    9. The 1980s. Nuclear weapons were sited on the Clyde within 27 miles of Glasgow along with their Vanguard nuclear submarines. The first target in any nuclear conflict would be Faslane.
    10. From 2005, Scottish regiments and battalions have been disbanded. Proud names no longer exist.
    11. July 2014. Better Together asserted that Scottish children in an independent Scotland would not be able to get treatment at Great Ormond St Hospital in London. This has been emphatically refuted by that hospital.
    12. The democratic deficit. In 14 out of 18 UK General Elections since the end of WWII, the majority vote in Scotland has not influenced the result, the number of MPs elected being too small. Vote Labour – get something else. Just now, we are governed by a Lib-Tory coalition with only 1 Tory MP elected in Scotland.
    13. Now (2014). The UK is the most unequal state in the Western World. Executive pay in 2014 has soared to 160 times the average wage. Argument: Executives need high pay to motivate them, but workers need low pay to motivate them. ‘Four legs better than two’ (George Orwell’s Animal Farm)
    14. Poverty.1 in 5 Scottish children lives in poverty in 2014.
    15. Nutrition. From 2012 till now, food banks have sprung up in every major city in the UK. Even people in work need them to survive. When will the soup kitchens and work houses arrive?
    16. Bedroom Tax. Introduced for private rentals by Labour and extended by the Tory-Lib dems in 2012 to council and housing association rentals. This tax (removal of subsidy) was intended to save massive housing subsidy in London where rents are enormous. So the rest of the country is lumbered with the removal of a subsidy that should only apply to London. I.e. one size fits all.
    17. Mismanagement of the economy. In 2008, the economy crashed mainly through lax regulation of the banks – the fault of London and New York. Contrary to the assertion that RBS and HBOS were Scottish banks is the fact that they were British banks, regulated by London. The bankers prospered, the rest of the population suffered. (In Iceland, the bankers went to jail).
    18. Privatisation of utilities essential to life. In the 80s and 90s, many public companies were privatised, the intention being to break the power of the unions, in almost every case the values of the electricity, gas and water (in England) were undervalued and nearly doubled in price once out on the markets. The proceeds went to reduce the national debt. The privatised companies immediately introduced price rises resulting in huge profits and fuel poverty for many. In England, water was cut off, endangering health. The latest privatisation has been the profitable Royal Mail (2014). Already there has been a hike in the cost of stamps. To compete with other carriers, Royal Mail may have to introduce a price differential for outlying areas in Scotland.
    19. National Debt. The Government forecasts that the National Debt will soar to 1.3 trillion by the end of 2014, rising by 100 billion/year. How long in austerity before it comes down?
    20. Depopulation. Since statistics were begun in 1952, Scotland has seen a mean emigration of approximately 30,000 per year of our brightest and best. Since 2000, it has seen a net immigration of 15,000. This may have had something to do with the setting up of a Scottish Parliament.
    21. Land ownership. Half of Scotland is owned by fewer than 500 people. The public land of Scotland consists of scattered small areas. These very wealthy landowners get large farm subsidies and income from wind farms. There has been no land reform in the 20th century. This has put pressure on house prices and an increased work force. (See Guardian – Scotland land rights.)
    22. The Investor’s Chronicle (A Financial Times publication) this month said: ‘We think the Government has been deliberately downplaying the potential of the UK Continental Shelf ahead of next September’s referendum on Scottish independence’ What, again?

    We’ve tried TOGETHER and it’s NOT BETTER.

    No will give us more of this!

  6. Crubag says:

    ” and it’s a fair point about the SNP mandate at the 2011 election (only a majority of a 50% turnout).”

    No, the largest share of voter turnout, but less than a majority (45% in constituency, 44% in list votes). The 2011 election doesn’t convert to Yes/No though, as some SNP voters are BT, some Labour/Lib Dem/Conservative are Yes).

    The referendum is a singularity though, we can’t say what is on the far side. With the 1707 decision overturned/ratified democratically, I think we will be in a better place as a nation psychically.

    But what happens next? If a No, voters rationalising their choice (which might be based on fears, rather than hopes) by committing to a British identity?

    If a No, then I can see the unionist parties, in the short term at least, making any Holyrood coalition conditional on no further independence referendum. There the machine politics built into the list system begin to work against change.

  7. Phil Robertson says:

    “Today’s COSLA report on an increase in local government units, pushing down real powers to many more areas in Scottish society, is an example of where we would go next with independence – if the civic activism and democratic experiments of the Yes movement are to find their next challenge.”

    The problem with this is that, by its actions over the past few years, the SNP is, ironically, opposed to devolutionary approach within Scotland. We had had the council tax freeze that limits local authority autonomy. Further we have seen the police and fire services centralized with next to no local input. And, at the heart of it, we have unicameral parliament which, as constitutional experts will tell you, lacks checks and balances on its actions.

  8. A few years ago, in his Saturday rugby/cricket comment column in The Scotsman, Allan Massie railed against “Aye Beenism”, the backward thought process which has, for so long, ham-strung change and progression in Scottish rugby.

    How ironic, the same Mr Massie is now supporting “Aye Beenism” in Scottish politics, by supporting “No”.

  9. Gordon says:

    #Phil Robertson.The difficulty that many see in devolving powers from the Scottish parliament to the local level, which everyone wishes, is simply the problem of ‘empire building’, the acquisition of highly paid sinecures, graft, expenses fiddling, and general lax accounting practices that occur when ability-challenged individuals get elected. How could a central government keep tabs on all this? How would they know they were getting value for money? After all, the awarding of contracts to ‘mates’ or family has not been unknown in the past. Unfortunately, the ordinary ratepayer (council tax payer) is not expert enough to expose these practices.
    Up to now, the Scottish Government, unlike Westminster has been relatively free of corruption.

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