An Open Letter To Inverclyde

Wednesday the 4th of February isn’t my birthday, but by gum it feels like it! Today, I learned that…

  • … the Conservatives are putting forward a candidate to contest the 2015 General Election, threatening to dilute the unionist vote who would otherwise have backed Ian McKenzie, even if they’d only take away a few hundred going by the last election
  • … hot on the heels on UKIP candidate throwing his hat in the ring, who also risks diluting the unionist vote – though to be fair, I can’t imagine them doing worse than 288 votes
  • … the devastating Lord Ashcroft poll shows the SNP ahead in 15 out of 16 New Labour and Neoliberal Democrat constituencies, and Inverclyde wasn’t even among those seats studied – presumably because it was no longer one with a “colossal majority” for New Labour
  • … New Labour have released one of the stupidest videos they’ve ever cut together
  • … Lego have announced a Jurassic World video game (wait, that’s not politics!)

… And to top it all off, the SNP have their candidate.

As readers of the site will know, I backed Ronnie to the hilt. This was, of course, with absolutely no intent of denigrating or undermining the other three candidates: I believed, then and now, that they will work hard and well for Inverclyde, and I look forward to working with them up to May and beyond. I said as much in a video endorsement:

I don’t doubt that not everyone will be happy at Ronnie’s selection, and I realise it might be easy for me to say since “my man” won, but the fact remains: Ronnie Cowan is the SNP candidate for Inverclyde. He will contest the constituency with the incumbent Ian McKenzie for New Labour, Michael Burrows for UKIP, and George Jabbour for the Conservatives: as of right now, these four people will be fighting for the people of Inverclyde’s vote. It is no longer a choice between four SNP members, but a choice between – as of now – four parties. Only one of those parties is Scottish; only one of those parties will fight for more powers for Scotland; only one of those parties could change the course of politics not just in Scotland, but the United Kingdom itself.

I realise that despite the polls showing massive SNP gains, not everyone is convinced of the case for voting SNP MPs to Westminster. Some might see fit to write Inverclyde off as an easy SNP win: it had the fifth highest percentage of Yes votes and was the proverbial fag paper away from being a Yes; the New Labour majority collapsed from 38.4% (14,416) to 20.8% (5,838) within the space of a single year, and that’s after the Tories were in government for a year; the Conservative, Neoliberal Democrat and UKIP voters – such as they were – seemed to have all but evaporated. Well, during the referendum, every single canvass we went on returned a Yes majority. Sometimes a massive Yes majority. And we know how that turned out.

So I’m writing an open letter to the people of my home.

Inverclyde_Esplanade

The Esplanade at Greenock.

Inverclyde is my home. I was born here, at Rankin Memorial Hospital, like hundreds of thousands of others who live here. Born and bred, as the saying goes. I lived in Greenock for a small chunk of my childhood, before I moved to Gourock. I attended St. Ninian’s Primary School, then Notre Dame High School. I’m still living in Gourock. It’s amazing to think that such an upbringing cannot happen any more – that things can be so different in a mere 30 years.

Rankin Memorial Hospital was closed in 1994: no more babies born in Rankin. In 2003, the last maternity unit was withdrawn from Inverclyde, which meant that the only facilities available for births was at the Royal Alexandra Hospital – in Paisley. This means that practically every resident in Inverclyde who was born after 2003 up to a few years ago was not born in Inverclyde. An entire generation who cannot say they were “born and bred in Inverclyde.” Think about that.

As of now, both St. Ninian’s and Notre Dame still exist – but they are very different from when I attended. St. Ninian’s has had multiple extensions and alterations, while Notre Dame was demolished and rebuilt entirely, but the schools themselves remain. The same cannot be said for those who attended Greenock Academy (closed in 2011 after 156 years), Gourock High (closed in 2011 after 102 years), and Wellington Academy (closed 2007 after 17 years).

Inverclyde’s population is haemorrhaging. In 1981, three years before I was born, Inverclyde had a population of 99,551. In 2013, that number was 81,000. Scotland’s population over the same period grew from 5,032,851 to 5,327,700. Inverclyde’s highest population since records began was 142,571 in 1921: by 1931, it had plummeted to 130,328 – one can only wonder why – and it steadily declined from 1951 onwards.

Lunderston Bay. The Inverkip Tower Stack is no more.

Lunderston Bay. The Inverkip Tower Stack is no more.

Labour reigned in Inverclyde practically uninterrupted until 1997: since then, its dessicated husk has been paraded about in the guise of life as supposed socialists vote for austerity, as supposed human beings vote for weapons of mass destruction, as supposed anti-Tories vote alongside Tories. New Labour may wear the red rosette, it may speak the pleasantries of socialism, it may profess to be the party of Nye Bevan and Kier Hardie – but it is no more the Labour Party of old than the proverbial wolf wrapped in a fleece is a sheep.

“Vote SNP, get Tories: only Labour can stop the Conservatives.”

See, we tried that in 2010. Scotland elected 40 MPs to Westminster, specifically because despite our dislike of Gordon Brown and the Blairites, at least they weren’t the Tories. Scots managed to get the governments they voted for in 1945, 1955, 1964, 1966, 1974, 1997, 2001, and 2005. Never mind that Labour’s majorities in 1945, 1966, 1997, 2001 and 2005 were large enough that they could have won even if every Labour voter voted for SNP (in fact 1945, 1966, 1997 and 2001 would likely still have been Labour governments even if everyone in Scotland voted SNP): since the SNP were just marginal back then, we didn’t want to throw our votes away.

So we listened, and dutifully voted in 40 New Labour MPs in 2010. It didn’t work.

It wasn’t the only time.

In 1951, Scotland sent 35 Labour MPs to Westminster, barely more the Unionists, and equal to the Unionist and National Liberal & Conservatives combined vote. It didn’t work.

In 1959, Scotland sent 38 Labour MPs to Westminster. It didn’t work then either.

We sent even more – 44 – in 1970. That didn’t work either.

We sent 44 again in 1979. Guess what – it didn’t work.

We sent 41 Labour MPs to Westminster in 1983, after four years of Thatcher. Yet somehow, it didn’t work.

We sent a whopping 50 Labour MPs in 1987, after Thatcher devastated the country. It. Didn’t. WORK.

We sent 49 down in 1992. TAKE A WILD GUESS.

So tell me: why would sending 40, 50, even 59 New Labour MPs do a damned thing when historically it has proven not to work? The only times Scotland did get a Labour government, the rest of the UK happened to agree. In the grand scale of things, we don’t matter to Labour nearly as much as the South-East of England.

The waterfront, just outside the Beacon Arts Centre.

The waterfront, just outside the Beacon Arts Centre.

Of course, why would we assume those 40 to 50 MPs would even vote in our interests? In a damning snapshot of the current state of the Husk of Labour, Scottish New Labour MPs made their beds. On a vote for the budget, which was reliant on the Coalition’s austerity ideology, only one Scottish New Labour MP voted against it. On a vote for a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing, only 3 Scottish New Labour MPs voted for a moratorium. On a vote on the renewal of Trident, only 6 Scottish New Labour MPs voted against the renewal of the grotesque, costly monstrosity. These three votes happened within a single week.

So far, it sounds like “vote for SNP, because they’re not New Labour/The Tories/The NeoLibDems.” Well, on each one of those votes, every SNP MP voted differently. They voted against the Coalition’s austerity. They voted for a moratorium on fracking. They voted against the renewal of Trident. They did this with only 6 MPs – imagine if they did it with 10, 20, or more. That’s got to be better than New Labour abstaining or voting against the interests of the Scottish people, surely?

No, they can’t form a government themselves – but at this rate, Scottish New Labour MPs are at best useless, and at worst actively acting against the people of Scotland. We can’t rely on them to act in Scotland’s interests, not when they chose to align with the Conservatives for the sake of Britain.

I am certain we are living through a paradigm shift in the history of Scotland. The referendum was a defeat in the same way Thermopylae was a defeat – only part of the story. How can you call a party of over 92,000 defeated? How can you call a party set to lose 90% of their seats victorious? How can you call it the status quo when everything has been turned upside down?

"Yes in the Park," where a thousand Yes supporters made a wonky Yes in a coogly circle, in one of the most wonderful grassroots memories of the referendum.

“Yes in the Park,” where a thousand Yes supporters made a wonky Yes in a coogly circle, in one of my most treasured memories of the referendum.

I don’t want to guess how many seats the SNP will have in May. I don’t want to think about it. I’m only concentrating on a single seat. Dinnae fash yersiel about the big picture, about sending 40 or 50 SNP MPs to Westminster. We will win some and we will lose some. But this isn’t the referendum, where the entire result is won or lost on the collective votes of the nation – this is 59 separate battles throughout the country. All part of the same campaign, but sheer vote volume doesn’t matter as much as the tipping point. And when even Glasgow North East looks like it could be a close call for New Labour…

I saw Inverclyde crumble before my eyes. I saw the demolition of Goliath, Hector MacNeil’s, the Gantock, Cragburn, the old Ardgowan Primary School, the Ashton Cafe with the Sooty Show that I attended every week, Greenock High School, even the scrapping of the Yellow Kettle. I saw the very streets and walls start to buckle and crack with neglect, and community fixtures like the Greenock Arts Guild decline. I saw people I knew move away out of necessity. There was nothing for them here.

Yet I also saw Inverclyde flourish. I saw the building of new homes, new facilities: the Ardgowan Hospice, the Waterfront Leisure Centre, the Cinema, the James Watt campus accommodation, the Beacon Arts Guild, the statues of Egeria and Ginger the Horse and wee “Annie Kempock” beloved of the people. I’ve seen new groups and initiatives: Rig Arts, R.E.A.C.H. for Autism, Gie’s Peace, other social enterprises, the many political organisations.

Everywhere I go, I see people aching for a past Inverclyde. They think back to the time when ships thronged the Clyde, tens of thousands of men marched to the yards to build. Inverclyde does not need to repeat the past to succeed in the future.

Egeria, Greenock mascot and Women for Independence icon.

Egeria, Greenock mascot and Women for Independence icon.

Inverclydian Martyn McLaughlin has an interesting piece:

Growing up in Inverclyde in the 1980s and 1990s was to bear witness to the dismantlement of the fabric that gave the area its identity. Jimmy would take me fishing for flounders on the banks of Custom House Quay, where his Golden Virginia would mix with the acrid stench of glue blowing downwind from Poynters bone factory on Dellingburn Street. Along the shore, the JCBs moved in.

After he died, I remember wishing he was beside me as I watched the demolition of Lithgow’s Goliath crane, a 267 foot high leviathan which made the high-rise flats look like dominoes. It took 50 kilos of explosives and two attempts before its vast structure would yield, leaving a snarl of steel and memories. I grieved for a life I never knew, but the emotion was fleeting. I grew to resent the place and the changes enforced upon it.

It was 1997, the year I left for university, heeding the advice of elders. “You’re best out of this place, son,” came the refrain. “There’s nothing for you here.” Most of my generation concurred. In 1975, nearly 106,000 people called Inverclyde home. Today the figure stands at 81,000. The General Register Office for Scotland estimates that, by 2035, the population will slump to 66,000.

It is an outflow with many factors, not least an unemployment rate that soars above the national average and the aftershocks of a post-industrial hangover which continues to inflict a ruinous legacy; even now, the average life expectancy of a boy born on the lower Clyde is 73, an ignominious statistic only Glasgow can eclipse. Whatever the causes, it seems they stem from one source – that sense of place that has been lost in the journey to renewal.

A Hollywood sign will not restore that, nor will it summon an upsurge in civic pride. Among the ghosts, there are better monuments to speak up, such as the handsome Titan cantilever crane which bestrides the red-bricked row of Sugar Sheds. Maybe, though, the only way to forge a future is to stop yearning for what has gone and accept the ebb and flow that both preserves the place you are from and alters it. The waterfront is now home to a thriving arts scene and a college campus that should be the envy of every student in Scotland.

Where once I begrudged the metamorphosis that has taken grip of my hometown, there is now an awkward and abiding love. I still anchor myself in memories, although I have come to appreciate I was remembering not my own past, but the echoes of Jimmy and others who went before. Greenock’s compass can cause you to lose yourself in a land of myth and romance. Look up every now and again and you see that while the subject changes, the picture remains the same.

I have stories like Martyn’s. My paternal grandfather, Big Bill Harron, used to drive the cranes – about the time Goliath reigned, as it happens. He used to feed the cats down at the docks where the yard used to be, long after their closure. It was empty, dead – not creepy or haunted, just still. A ghost of a place. There were still huge buildings that housed dozens of rats, mice, and other beasties. Cats kept them down – scores of them – and so they were encouraged. Take a few large tins, already opened, spill them out onto large trays: within seconds, the dozens of cats would descend upon the food. Wonder what happened to all those cats? Neither tame nor wholly feral, they had a place and a purpose within the community of Inverclyde as surely as any docker.

Another story. There was a man, an artist, who drew the most fantastic and accurate portraits. They showed the characters and the humour of the people. One such portrait was of Gerry McGoogan, a manager, who happened to be my sister’s godmother’s father. There was a lot of spare time: no one was idle, really, but sometimes a job was held up as other parts of the job were to arrive, and this was when the talents, the enormous artistic, creative presence of our people unfolded. A mouthie, or a jew’s harp, bit of stick hit against a barrel, some metal fillings shaken in a can, someone singing. There was a man who bent coathanger-sized wire into popular characters and shapes. These were offcuts that would have ended up melted down or thrown away – instead, transformed into art. I have a Batman & Robin, which are even coloured. I have no idea the name of the man who formed them, but they are very precious – a part of our history. There were comedians who told stories in the humour of Chic Murray. Literally hundreds of actors, singers, dancers – everyone could dance! – writers, artists, musicians, poets. George Wyllie worked at the yards prior to his days at the Custom House – just along the river – before he became one of Scotland’s most famous artists. Who knows how many other George Wyllies still worked away in obscurity, their creativity, their talent, only emerging when the work was stalled?

I’ve seen Inverclyde crumble – all during the years when the Conservatives and New Labour reigned. I’ve seen Inverclyde flourish, when Scotland’s parliament reconvened for the first time in centuries; when Scotland’s real party took control; when Scotland’s political identity reasserted itself. Decades of Labour, New and Old, at Westminster and Holyrood and Council alike, has only seen Inverclyde’s population decline, its industries fade away, its icons destroyed or neglected. It’s only recently that Inverclyde has started to come back to life. I should know. I’ve lived here for thirty years.

Inverclyde has thrived in the past. Inverclyde is starting to thrive now.

But in the future, Inverclyde could soar.

Inverclyde_Saltire in the Sky

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6 thoughts on “An Open Letter To Inverclyde

  1. junemax says:

    Well written as usual.

  2. Wonderful elegy for the past and the people who made it, but an even more wonderful statement of faith in an equally illustrious future. Thank you for this.

  3. Jacob Benjamin says:

    Engaging read, Al! Keep up the good work.

    Would love to see Inverclyde flourish. I was wondering if the local council has put sufficient thought into all that the town can do to offer the Cruise tourists a memorable experience, and in turn benefit from the commercial spin off from it. Furthermore, there must be room, surely, to be more imaginative in offering more to local day and weekend tourists in a modern reprise of the old ‘doon the water’ experience. Inverclyde is blessed with such wonderful road access to Glasgow, not to mention the Clyde waterway itself.

  4. […] already talked about why I back Ronnie Cowan on the blog before, and nothing has changed. He has consistently […]

  5. […] I still can’t quite believe it. I announced my support for Ronnie over the other three nominees because, back in the weeks following the referendum, I was convinced […]

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