(Yes, it’s another “SNP are awesome” post. If you are disturbed by any of the content which appears on this post, then I’m almost certain there’s a blog that supports another party somewhere in the vastness of the internet.)
It’s still a while until the next election, but the SNP are still going strong. I thought I’d take some time to talk about some of the SNP individuals who’ve made the biggest impact on me, before and since joining the party.
Apart from my mammy, of course, who deserves an entire post of her own.
There are two plays about Willie MacRae, written around the same time, with the same title: Three Thousand Trees. Thus far, I’ve only seen the one, which was subtitled The Death of Mr William MacRae. I even took the ferry over to Dunoon especially, with my mother. Ma’s far more informed about Mr MacRae, but for some reason I shied away from the subject. I couldn’t put my finger on why; there was a strange resistance within me, like spectral arms holding me back. I rationalised it, perhaps, as being ancient history, not something worth thinking about in the context of the modern party. Like Billy Wolfe or Arthur Donaldson, Willie MacRae was someone instrumental to the SNP’s history, but I was all about the present and future.
It’s only as I watched the play that I realised I had it backwards. It wasn’t because I didn’t care – it was because I cared too much. The life and death of Mr MacRae was such an emotional, upsetting story that I couldn’t bear to think about it. Here is a man, a hero, who fought for nuclear disarmament, public safety, for Scottish and Indian independence; who journeyed from Soldier of the Empire, to fixture of the British Establishment, to one of its most vocal and powerful critics; a man who continued campaigning all the way to his death… and the UK government didn’t even give him the dignity of a fatal accident enquiry. He is easily someone who deserves to be remembered for much more than his tragic death – and someone whose death deserves true closure.
Andy Paterson’s powerful and deeply moving performance in a wee kirk in the hills of Argyll brought the humanity of Mr William MacRae home to me. I started reading up more and more about him, and my estimation of him grew and grew. It’s often said that if Mr MacRae were still alive, Scotland would be independent. I’m willing to believe there’s a universe somewhere in the cosmos where both are true.
Alex Salmond is the first politician I recall consciously connecting to the idea of Scottish independence. Back when I was a wee lad, I believed in the United Kingdom. The UK was the United Federation of Planets: a peaceful and productive organisation for the betterment of all. That all changed in the late 1990s, when the Scottish Parliament opened. I wondered: where was the English Parliament? Why is this such a big deal? Then it dawned on me. And from then on, the façade of the Union started to erode, revealing a glorious partnership built on tissue.
Inverclyde was a Labour stronghold. Every one of my school friends was eager and excited for the 1997 election. This would be the election to change things. This would see Inverclyde turn around and flourish again. This would save us from decades of Thatcherism. I watched Spitting Image, the occasional news program, though I had no ear for political language back then. They couldn’t wait for Labour to get back in, for Tony Blair to lead us back to a Britain we all knew and loved. I, too, was happy in the aftermath: people were crying with relief, the papers were exalting, the BBC were broadcasting celebratory pieces with Vangelis’ “Conquest of Paradise” as accompaniment. It truly felt like the beginning of a new age.
My appreciation for Tony Blair and New Labour transformed into disgust very quickly. I knew I would never be able to vote for them. When Charles Kennedy said he would have backed the invasion of Afghanistan, I knew I couldn’t vote for the Liberal Democrats either, even though back then that party seemed a far better choice than either of the other two mainstream parties. I didn’t have the heart to vote tactically – I had to vote SNP, because the only person I saw who seemed to be talking any sort of sense – and importantly, who didn’t seem to change – on the television was Alex Salmond.
Every time he appeared, he alone seemed to be against war and rampant neoliberalism, even when the rest of the country was artificially swept into the pro-war mania that always precedes an act of evil. I could see why he was so greatly disliked back then by many of my friends and family – what I perceived as his jocular personability, they thought was smarmy, sleazy arrogance. What I perceived as the politics of confidence and self-determination, they viewed as the politics of exceptionalism and grievance. Sure, he’s changed his tune on certain details like the Euro (though frankly given the referendum I think the pound really has proven to be “a millstone around Scotland’s neck”) and he’s adopted a more gradualist approach than his fiery early years, but the central core of his beliefs never changed.
The moment I felt most connected to him was seeing that photograph of him in the car at the airport, during the early hours of the 19th of September. It was clear we didn’t get the Yes vote. I’ve never seen a politician look so desperately sad before. No brave face, no “look on the bright side” smile, just the face of someone who’s experienced a loss. Not like he lost something that belonged to him, not like he came last in a competition or a race (or an election, for that matter) – like something had been lost to the world itself. And indeed, for us Yes voters, it did feel like Scotland had been lost forever on that day – to Yes and No voters alike. In some ways, it was: Scotland was not the same place on the 19th of September as it was on the 18th. All of us lost that day, Yes and No alike. And I knew that the First Minister of Scotland was feeling exactly what I and every other Yes campaigner was.
I can’t bear, to this day, to watch his resignation announcement. And I knew that I couldn’t bear to see that expression on Alex Salmond’s face again. But I did have the opportunity to meet him briefly. He was doing his book tour for The Dream Shall Never Die. I went along to Stirling University, listened to his wee anecdotes about Lord Forsyth, and waited in the queue to get my copy signed. When I walked up, I expected to be completely star-struck: here was Alex Salmond, one of the most notorious politicians of modern times, hero and villain, saint and sinner, depending on who you asked. But he gently asked me my name, and I actually gave my full name – Alexander. Sometimes I wondered if all this started simply because we shared the same name. We didn’t talk: I smiled awkwardly, he smiled back. I guess words weren’t necessary.
We got a photo, and as I walked away, I heard him say “thank you, Alexander.” I turned around, he had his hand extended. I didn’t shake Alex Salmond’s hand: he shook mine. In that moment I knew why I wasn’t so starstruck: Alex Salmond is no king, no lord, no mighty hero above us mere mortals. Alex Salmond is just as human, fallible, mortal, frail and imperfect as the rest of us, and he was all too aware – but he was not afraid for others to know. Can it really be called hero worship when one’s finest quality is what you have in common, not what makes you exceptional?
I’ve had four encounters with Ms Sturgeon so far. The first, as seen in the video above, was for the official opening of Yes Inverclyde. I remember we were all waiting in the dreich, ambling about. A lot of people who only seem to turn up to these big events were there, but I wouldn’t begrudge them – good of them to turn up at all, even if it was because a big celebrity was coming. We were anxious. I was bedecked in my finest Texan linen suit, behatted, with all the new friends I made at Yes Inverclyde. A small but clear voice said “hello!” in that intonation that seems unique to Scots. We turned around as one, to find the Deputy First Minister of Scotland standing on the corner of Cathcart Street, as if she transported down from the Enterprise.
Prior to the referendum, I always had a feeling Ms Sturgeon would be First Minister at some point, and meeting her even briefly as she worked the crowd proved it to me. I took the opportunity to speak with her for a bit longer after her meeting at the Gamble Hall, filled beyond capacity (though far from the biggest crowd she’d see in Inverclyde, as we’d soon find), to the point where staunch Yessers were being asked to move, to let more undecideds in. I gave up my front-row seat for that purpose.
The next time I saw her, she was the First Minister. We didn’t really cross paths – there were a couple thousand other people at the Hydro after all – but it was the point where I knew that the pro-independence movement was not done. Third time was at the anti-Trident rally earlier in the year – but I noted how amazing it was for the First Minister of a nuclear nation to turn up and speak at an anti-nuclear rally. Another one of those country/region dichotomies with Scotland: what country holds nuclear weapons against its will, whose First Minister and largest party seek their abolition?
The fourth time was all the way in Ratho, and the momentum from the Hydro event seemed in no danger of stopping. I still love that wee picture in the lift: just like with her predecessor, Nicola Sturgeon is just another Scot like the rest of us. The only difference is she gets to ride a sweet helicopter. Most recently, she returned to Greenock. The Yes Inverclyde opening had about fifty folk come to say hello; well over two hundred attended her talk at the Gamble. Less than a year later, it was a thousand. She’s doing well, I’d say.
I was one of about two dozen activists handed a yellae jaikit and sent to Battery Park, to guide the helicopter safely to earth. We were told in no uncertain terms how dangerous this was, and that even with the most favourable conditions, there is always a slim possibility of catastrophe. Mum gave the Braveheart speech like only she can (“ok everyone, now remember, you might die today…”) and I took up position. I saw dozens of people taking pictures as the helicopter came to land. As it came closer, I could see a woman in a bright jacket… taking pictures of the crowd. If this was 20 years ago, and she was tasked to guide a helicopter carrying the SNP leader, I think Ms Sturgeon would be just where we were, giving the same sort of pep talk my mam did.
Stronger for Scotland
Aye, 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 that the General Election result in Inverclyde would be replicated: a photo finish between the two largest parties. The trajectory for Inverclyde showed great movement to the SNP, but was it enough to overtake New Labour? Would the Conservative and Liberal voters lend their votes to Iain McKenzie in the interests of keeping the SNP out? I remember thinking Yes would win by a landslide. I couldn’t, daren’t, let myself hope for such a result, even as poll after poll showed Inverclyde shining gold. So with that in mind, I couldn’t afford to back anyone other than whoever I felt could win Inverclyde.
Even at the count, I couldn’t believe it. Even seeing his name on TV wasn’t enough, nor seeing him walking alongside Stewart Hosie and Angus Robertson into Westminster. Even his debut speech still feels unreal to me. I’d been watching the other debut speeches with great interest, waiting for Inverclyde’s MP to speak. And then he did, saying the same things he said in the Yes Inverclyde shop day after day… only this time, recorded for posterity in the UK Parliament itself.
When Ms Sturgeon came to the shop, Ronnie kept in the background. He didn’t go for photo-ops, private conversations, or any sort of self-promotion. Indeed, when he started his campaign for SNP candidacy, there were some who knew who he was, but didn’t know what he looked like. Ronnie put the campaign, and the cause, before himself. I’d like to think we all did that at Yes Inverclyde. This is why I supported him, and took great pride in voting for him both in the SNP and in May. Even now, Ronnie has been keeping to business.
Ronnie’s victory was not just a victory for himself, though of course he worked harder than anyone to get himself elected – it was a victory for Yes Inverclyde, Inverclyde’s SNP, and the 24,585 SNP voters in Inverclyde. We couldn’t have done it without him, and he couldn’t have done it without us.
It’s possible this blog would never have existed. It’s likely I may never have joined the SNP. I may not even have joined the Yes Campaign at all.
When the Edinburgh Agreement was signed and the referendum dated and stamped, the mood changed. Independence was no longer a vague possibility: here was an actual opportunity, a means to make it happen. All through my years watching Alex Salmond and John Swinney leading the party, even as the SNP vote grew, independence seemed an impossible dream. I had grown disillusioned by the Blair and Brown administrations, and gravely recalled my earliest childhood memories of Thatcher and Major when David Cameron scraped through. But in October 2012, hope – long absent from my political life – was rekindled.
So I read up online. I discovered Wings Over Scotland, Newsnet Scotland, Bella Caledonia, National Collective, and all the other pro-independence blogs. I started watching the news and the papers with a more critical eye. But I didn’t go much further. I was interested, but I didn’t feel informed, eloquent or experienced enough to contribute. For a while I watched from the sidelines. And it could easily have continued that way. I could’ve just read about it on the internet, been another Cybernat, maybe comment on one or two articles once in a blue moon.
Then I started talking to Stuart McMillan.
Stuart’s daughters went to the same school as my niece. On occasion, I would pick her up from school. Mum did the same, and she told me that our MSP picks up his daughters. Eventually I mustered the courage to say hello: I figured he was out of “work” mode and didn’t want to talk politics when he’s just here to pick up his children. I was heartened and a bit surprised to find him receptive and even eager to talk about the referendum – he was as excited as I was. He told me about Yes Scotland, and said that any time I wanted to talk I was just to call. I did, and he always tried his best to make time for me.
For a few weeks we talked about what was going on in the few minutes before the bell. He told me all about the legalities of the referendum, the arguments, and what to expect. It all seemed so logical, I couldn’t help but wonder why it would take a referendum for people to realise the benefits of self-determination. But not being an SNP member or Yes Scotland member, I was still just keeping informed for my own sake. Many of my friends and family were either No or undecided at that point. I didn’t feel I could convince them.
Eventually, Stuart suggested I go to a Yes meeting, to see how things go. I signed the Yes Declaration on the 14th of March 2013. I read every email Blair Jenkins sent out. And eventually, I did go to a Yes meeting. I didn’t speak, I simply listened. I felt maybe I could do this. Stuart then told me about an activism training day. I, my Mum and a few friends attended: there I met Sean Paul O’Connor, Julline Lagorio, and a few others who’d become fast and close friends throughout the campaign.
When the Yes Campaign got into gear in Inverclyde, before the shop was set up, I mostly paired up with Mum & Stuart. I didn’t contribute much, just watched and observed. Before I met Ronnie and the others who would become the mainstays of the Yes Inverclyde Shop, I still felt out of my depth. Even so, I’d come this far: they didn’t kick me out of that first Yes meeting, I wasn’t thrown out of the activism training day, and I certainly wasn’t expelled from the Yes shop. So I started going as often as I could. I started leafleting, canvassing, researching. I compiled four great big binders full of articles, clippings, graphs, charts and pictures, all to prove the case for Yes, either for Yes activists to peruse, or for undecideds/Nos to appraise. By this time last year, I’d started this blog, branching out from my other non-political blog, and I couldn’t imagine not being involved.
It all started because Stuart McMillan put me at ease. He never pressurised me to join Yes Scotland, simply to attend a meeting. He never even suggested I join the SNP, though he was understandably thrilled when I told him I would sign up two days following the referendum. But as soon as I was on board, then he put the pressure on – get out canvassing, spread the word, talk to everyone. And it worked. I worked like a Trojan for a Yes vote, for Ronnie, and I’m going to carry on for Stuart.
The trust, the appreciation, the pride I feel for Ronnie Cowan, I feel in absolute equal measure for Stuart McMillan – and Willie MacRae, Alex Salmond, and Nicola Sturgeon. I feel that pride in all the members of Inverclyde SNP, all the voters – indeed, I’m proud of the SNP as a whole, imperfect and chaotic it may feel at times. There is always a possibility Stuart will not be the MSP for Greenock & Inverclyde, even given the way things have gone: he isn’t the only nominee for the branch, and there’s no telling what could happen in the next 12 months. That will not stop him from continuing as West of Scotland regional MSP for at least one more year, until the election – and after that, he certainly will not stop working for the SNP or for independence, whether he’s an MSP or not.
Somewhat prophetically, my first election was not for the UK Parliament, but the Scottish Parliament, in 2003. I liked the experience, particularly the additional member system: I loved the idea of voting for two parties, or if you liked one party more than the others, voting for it twice. That year I voted SNP/SSP, like I suspect a number of Scots. But the next two Scottish Elections there were no SSP or Greens, so I voted SNP twice. Stuart was the Greenock & Inverclyde SNP candidate in both elections – he may not have won the constituency, but he was part of the SNP when they shook the foundations of the UK in 2007.
The voting is open for Inverclyde SNP, and we have 1,400 or so members. I hope as many of us vote as we can for whoever we choose. In my case, it would always have been Stuart – because he, alongside Willie MacRae, Alex Salmond, Nicola Sturgeon, and Ronnie Cowan, are why I joined Yes Scotland and the SNP. I am where I am, and who I am, because of them.