JK Rowling, sitting on a mountain of Children’s Pocket Money like a Dragon in a fairy story.
– Frankie Boyle
There were many stings during the referendum campaign, where people I admired or looked up to either supported or outright contributed to the No campaign. But one that particularly smarted was J.K. Rowling. In retrospect it should’ve been obvious: Edinburgher, good pals with many New Labour politicians, emblematic of the “aspirational vote” as a dramatic example of social climbing. The younger members of my family read all the Harry Potter books, watched the films, played the Lego games, even. She contributed so much to charity and did so much to promote reading and culture.
Then came the news that she contributed £1 million to keep Scotland in the United Kingdom. We reacted as if we learned she’d just given it straight to the Conservative Party.
Because that’s the end result of the referendum, isn’t it? New Labour campaigned to keep Scotland in the UK, which was, at the time, at the mercy of the Tories. And lo and behold, it ended up at the mercy of the Tories again, because New Labour’s leader was a bum steer. Scotland voted in no less than 57 MPs who would vote against a Tory government, and it wasn’t enough to stop David Cameron receiving an overall majority. And that’s just fine with them. Ask them if they’d prefer independence to Tory rule, and they’ll still say the certainties of cuts to the NHS, human rights violations by a welfare minister, continuing to host weapons of mass destruction, and gearing up for yet another invasion are preferable to the uncertainties of separation.
Westminster does something to people. It’s insidious, it’s uncanny, and it’s subtle.
Many years back, when I was just out of university, my local school invited me to work with the children on a nation-wide project. We were to make a presentation to renovate a disused or neglected part of their area, and the winning entry would have their idea made a reality. Our lovely town has a hill with a great grey gash in it: a disused quarry, useless to man and beast, save the local druggies using it as a stash. The schoolkids decided it would make a great outdoor adventure park: our town has a dreadful dearth of such places, so it seemed a good idea. A few weeks later, we were informed we were the regional winners for the whole of Scotland! We were overjoyed… only to learn that by “nation-wide” they meant the whole UK. Scotland was a region in this competition. So we were invited to the finals, which took place in Westminster. Two teachers, two students, and myself took the plane down to London.
When we got there, I got my first tangible taste of how London tends to treat the Scots. Our MP of the time, the late David Cairns, welcomed us, and took us on a tour of the palace. First stop… the steps where William Wallace was tried and sentenced for “treason.” We know because there was a little plaque on one step. The unobservant or anti-Scottish could step on William Wallace’s name. Now, Mr Cairns clearly took us there because it’s a bit of Scottish history in Westminster, and we did appreciate it, but at the same time… we were taken to a place where one of our greatest heroes was sentenced to death by a foreign king for a phoney crime. It’s one of the few pieces of Scottish culture in the whole place, and it’s one that effectively takes a national hero and reminds you he was falsely tried as a traitor.
Along with the Welsh team, we were the only non-English school represented out of some forty finalists – several from London alone. The Northern Irish team couldn’t attend, since they couldn’t afford it, and the competition didn’t pay up either. Of course we didn’t win, and of course a London school won in the end. We didn’t care: it was awesome enough we won for Scotland, though we really could’ve done with a new recreational facility in our town, which has lost so much over the past 20 years.
But what bothered me more was the reception. The Welsh and northern English school teams were all friendly and approachable enough. But there was something off about the London/South East children: they seemed vaguely anxious not to talk with us, not even the other children, and their adult company were rather cold. I didn’t immediately think “oh, it must be because we’re Scottish” until I noticed that every time one of us spoke, someone within earshot turned around and shot such a hateful, angry glare in our direction, as if they were thinking “who let the Jocks in?”
It was a strange experience, that even children would be the target of such fierce disdain. But as we walked the corridors and halls, I came to the realisation that it wasn’t just the people – it was the building itself. The cyclopean architecture is sinister enough, but there’s a sinister ambience, a miasma even, of corruption and decay permeating the walls. There were generally two types of MPs I encountered: obsequious, deferential toadies, and entitled, spoilt, smug lords. The toadies constantly chattered with nervous laughter, as if afraid they would be beaten with a newspaper if they spoke out of turn or failed to please. The Lords waltzed around with their noses upturned, every inch the arrogant, highborn gentry you’d expect. Of course I can’t speak for all the MPs I encountered, but that was the prevailing stereotype. One wonders how much that makeup has changed since 2015 (aside from the Scottish contingent, which I’m guessing is very different now!).
At the risk of waxing poetic, it’s almost as if the centuries of ghosts have imbued Westminster with a malevolent life of its own, a genius loci which suppresses any thoughts of fairness or democracy, the tenets of feudalism and decadence festering away and seducing even the freshest, most idealistic young politician. I was immediately guarded, and I didn’t feel oppressed so much as challenged. I can definitely understand people finding such a place seductive. It didn’t work on me, maybe because I had already been to the Natural History Museum: if it has a genius loci, it’s one that fosters learning and discovery over greed and avarice.
I worry about Team 56 every day, because I know that even thought they’ve steeled themselves against the machinations of Westminster, that just makes them all the more imperilled. They have a cause, they have a purpose, which cannot be sated or traded or bribed away by the spirits that dwell in those walls. And the genius loci of Westminster – the Westmonster – will stop at nothing to preserve its lair, its hoard, its very existence. The monster must be slain – cut to pieces by the knives of truth.
We tried to escape it. New Labour dragged us back in, afraid to fight the monster alone. Now we’ll just have to kill it.