Last week, while on my way to the Marchmont stall, I saw a woman being harassed by another stallholder at the top of the Meadows, by the medical school. He was tall, with an aggressive style and a north of England accent – she was much shorter…and had 3 children with her in a pushchair. He was trying to tell her that voting Yes was a betrayal of the working class, she told him how he was effectively supporting the establishment elites. He did not like that – I suspect he rarely encounters that in his regular constituency. (You will see why I believe that he was not an Edinburgh resident later…it is not just the accent.) I didn’t recognize the name on the stall that he was orbiting, and moved in to comfort the woman as she left him distressed, and continued her journey towards the Meadows with pushchair. After reassuring that I was ‘with the other lot’ she declared herself as a Yes, and we talked (somewhat emotionally) of the joy of living in these times, and both gripped each other as we laughed with eyes pricking. She went on her way happy – a childcare worker, and I took position on the Marchmont stall at the bottom of the slope.
I was slightly disturbed by what appeared to be an intervention by a group that I did not recognize. Well – stylistically I recognized them – I used to know a lot of people in the Revolutionary Communists and the Socialist Workers parties when I was at the University of Edinburgh. There was a strident voice, and a very combative approach often when on stalls, and an insistence (which, understandably, comes with the territory) on seeing everything through the prism of the workers’ struggle. Surprise surprise, many of them were human beings underneath, and you could chat quite civilly with them without a problem.
I thought about it over the course of the day, and decided that I would try to engage them the following day. (I confess, I thought it might produce something interesting for this blog…) I was curious as to what this new beast was, and some of the others on the stall had told me that he was arguing for a British-wide socialism. This slightly confused me – had he not heard of the 1990s? Did he not realize that the major party hope for this to happen had sold out some time ago, and was now fairly indistinguishable from the Conservatives…determined to pander even more to the ‘Hate the Poor’ sentiments of a right wing electorate?
I found two representatives with a stall a couple of days later – they were in George Square, trying to talk to Freshers’ Week students. I made no secret of my perspective, with Yes and Wings badges prominently displayed as I approached. Initially, I waited for one student from Spain to finish with a representative on the stall, before talking to Danny from Liverpool, a relaxed and quietly spoken former seaman, with an easy style – maybe even a little hesitant. But after a few moments, another individual jumped in to release him to talk to other passing trade. He didn’t give me his name, but said he worked on the London underground as a ticketing clerk, and had taken time off work to come up and do this.
I asked him for his pitch, explaining that I was genuinely curious as to where he was coming from, and why he was arguing for a ‘No’. The Socialist Equality Party were in Edinburgh campaigning for a No vote, he explained, because all ‘nationalism’ was bad. What needed to happen was that the whole working class of Britain should unite together, not regionally factionalise. The Yes campaign was led by the right wing, and would simply create a separate version of the same unfair Westminster model, which exploited the working class – when there needed to be a pan-European movement. I started to engage with that point when (for the first time producing his stabby finger to underline his words…rather than his point) he said that he also wanted an end to the European Union, as it was run by big business. Well, that meant that no argument of ‘this way we stay in Europe, whereas a No vote means risk of being out after the EU referendum in a couple of years’ was going to work with him.
So I started to ask him about how, given that corporations were so heavily investing in a No vote, did he not think that he was actually supporting Empire and just the big business control that he professed to dislike so much?
Yeah. That didn’t go down so well. Stabby finger – with added caffeine. Edinburgh, he declared,that Empire (I’m not going to deny aspects of that…) – indeed, he started to lengthily decry the involvement of Scots in the atrocities across the world as the footsoldiers of the Empire. (In retrospect, he may not like Scots very much – despite how much he wanted us to ‘stay’ – in fact, it was a similar vibe to David Cameron, in that sense.) I accepted his point, then started to talk about reasons, including loss of land, agricultural prospects etc as to why more Scots entered the armed forces (even having family traditions of military service), as a metric of disadvantage, along with our high levels of emigration due to lack of opportunities – that perhaps this indicated that we had been treated as something less than the ‘partner’ we had understood ourselves to be, and more like a colony.
Again, he did not like that – and was not prepared to accept that Scotland had been disadvantaged at all. I raised the issues of denuclearization, foodbanks, rising poverty…no, none of that worked. And one thing that he kept coming back to – more than anything else – was how much he despised Tommy Sheridan. The mantra that he kept coming back to – more so even than hating big business – was ‘Sheridan, charlatan’…I had to admit, it was kind of catchy.
Seriously. The SEP were so virulently opposed to Tommy, they could have been the Sheridan Execution Party – a familiar reek of old-school Trotsky-related division and factionalisation suddenly filled the air, from almost twenty five years in my past. I asked him why, if this was going to be a more social democratic country, why should we not try to have a better future, for all workers in Scotland, rather than continue to be impoverished and attacked across the UK, delicately trying to raise the point that the Labour Party, as it might have been under Michael Foot or Neil Kinnock, as a group within which such ideals of working class unity might actually have flourished – was so long dead, how could he expect to effect this political change? That, under 13 years of Labour, not a single one of the pieces of Conservative’s anti-trade union legislation had been repealed – including the act that made strike action of solidarity illegal in Britain?
The workers uniting in revolution. Of course. ‘Don’t Vote Yes – Salvation is coming – for Everyone! Just hang on. It’ll be along…any minute now. Really.’
Eventually he moved away, seeming to decide that he was getting too angry or frustrated, and wanted to talk to others…not seeming to realize that the Freshers that he was engaging with would not have a vote, as they had arrived several days too late to register for the vote. Not accepting that by arguing for a No (no matter how deaf the ears) he was supporting the Empire and state that he claimed to revile, and was acting against the chance of betterment of this group of workers. That maybe we have a lifeboat – and instead of going down with everyone else, that maybe it is time for us to stop propping up the 4th most unequal society in the developed world, and try to make something better.
‘Sheridan. Charlatan.’ I walked away from the stall, thanking him for his time, somewhat saddened by his crushing naivete, that seemed to blind him to all but a utopian revolution of the working class…when the time for that had long passed. Tony Blair had taken the party far away from the point at which they could have cradled that radicalism – indeed, the failure of Neil Kinnock to be elected (some might argue because his voice was not ethnically ‘English’ enough – I have seen enough politicians arguing that Gordon Brown should not have become PM for exactly the same reason) probably signaled the rise of the right in Labour and the end of that possibility.
And now, these supposed socialists were acting for big business and supporting Empire, so blinded by their ignorance that they were willing to be imported to a campaign that they had as little understanding of (or interest in learning to understand) as London-based BBC journalists.
It seemed a sad fall for the radical left, to have come to this. England needs a Yes vote to revitalize its politics as much as Scotland needs it address social inequality.
“Hope has two beautiful daughters. Anger, at the way things are, and Courage, to try and change them.” (Saint Augustine of Hippo, 5th Century)