Kevin McKenna is from a staunch Scottish Labour family with no trace of nationalism. But his Observer column on the attraction of independence astounded Holyrood, social media – and even Alex Salmond
‘How does it feel to be the poster boy for the SNP,” Nicola Sturgeon asked and the impish gleam in her eye was unmistakable. Scotland’s deputy first minister had espied me on Thursday in the cafe of the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood where I was waiting for my lunch companion, Joan McAlpine, the nationalist MSP for Dumfries and Galloway and an old friend from the time when we had worked on Glasgow’s Herald newspaper.
Four days earlier my latest column had been published in the Scottish edition of the Observer. In it, I had suggested that Scottish independence was fast becoming an attractive option for those, like me, who had previously held strong unionist views. The Scotsman‘s esteemed arts critic and political commentator, Joyce McMillan, had espoused similar sentiments a few days before. On my own column’s completion and having given it the usual legal once-over to ensure that no people or animals had been hurt in its creation, I hit “send” and permitted myself the thought that it might elicit a wee frisson among one or two of my nationalist acquaintances. I also braced myself for some abuse from a couple of Labour-leaning friends. No more, no less. I thought little more of it beyond the mild panic, common to most columnists immediately prior to publication that, in retrospect, perhaps I could have chosen to deploy some phrases more artfully.
The first indication that it may have struck a chord beyond its normal constituency came two days later when my son Brendan phoned and began to speak Klingon. “Your column is provoking a firestorm in cyberspace,” he said. “The online comments are well over a thousand, it’s being re-tweeted everywhere, it’s sharing on Facebook at a rate of knots and it’s beginning to trend.” This, roughly translated, suggested that an interesting week lay ahead.
Having now had time to re-read last week’s column, I suppose it looks like I’m experiencing a dark night of the soul, politically speaking. Faced with the most reactionary Westminster government in living memory, I feel Labour’s response has been tepid and careful when what is required is some old-fashioned, tup-thumping street radicalism. And, yes, a bit of class warfare. The depth and extent of the benefit cuts, their indiscriminate discrimination, if you like, looks very much like class warfare to me. The SNP, meanwhile, are positioning themselves as the go-to party for enterprising social justice on these islands. They’re moving to a place with which I feel very comfortable.
The following day I took a call from a senior Labour figure who politely and sincerely asked what was going on and what, specifically, were my problems with the Labour party. This chap is a fluent communicator and a lucid thinker and I always feel like one of the Wurzels when discussing politics with him but I managed to keep him engaged for half an hour or so. By then I was receiving emails with links to assorted nationalist blogging sites hailing my apparent volte-face as an event akin to Jeremy Clarkson becoming the champion of cycle lanes.
I ought to point out here that my relationship with the Cybernats, as they are sometimes dismissively described, has been, well … a thorny one. Most professional journalists will tell you loftily that they pay no attention to the bloggers. “They are amateurs and bampots,” is the common refrain, but they are lying. The best of them have very healthy readership figures and the writing is often of a high standard, if a little rebarbative here and there and sometimes obsessive. Following one article I wrote a year or so back, in which I had been unkind once more to the SNP, one of them elegantly slaughtered me in a piece entitled “We Need to Talk About Kevin”.
I can’t really complain, though. In another piece I described the Cybernats as gargoyles and social misfits. After all, we’re talking about the future of Scotland here and we Caledonians are nothing if not disputatious. “If you see a fight,” an old black human rights activist once declared, “get in it.” The same ought to apply to the debate on Scottish independence. Some people will get hurt and there may be casualties but best not to take things personally.
I’m not entirely comfortable with the idea that a newspaper columnist should seek primarily to influence one side of a debate and, in any case, I’m not sure that we journalists don’t occasionally overstate our importance in the scheme of things. But I suppose it’s good for our flagging self-esteem when, occasionally, people attach some weight to our opinions. Or, as one Twitter-user tweeted in response to another who had been kind about my article: “I wouldn’t go that far; it’s not as if there was much competition.”
It would be premature to say that I will come out for an independent Scotland when the referendum is held at the end of next year. But if it were to occur tomorrow I would be far more likely to vote Yes than if it had been held 12 months ago. The Labour and socialist roots in my family run deep and there has been no discernible trace of Scottish nationalism. My father was a trade union activist in Glasgow and my grandfather was a prospective Labour parliamentary candidate in the north of the city before his untimely death. Nationalism was never a consideration for them simply because there was never a realistic prospect of an independent Scotland in either of their lifetimes. Although I have supported the existing UK constitutional arrangements, my unionism had similarly never been tested by the prospect of Scottish independence.
That all changed when the SNP gained a working majority at the Scottish election in 2011. A referendum on independence inevitably had to follow and so it was time for all Scottish unionists to consider and evaluate Scotland’s future anew.
No previous generation of Scots since the 1707 Treaty of Union has been tasked with that which has fallen to my generation: to decide the future of Scotland and the United Kingdom in a single Yes/No ballot. It is a privileged responsibility and, as such, one that calls for all Scots to reconsider where their existing loyalties lie. It’s simply not acceptable for any Scot to close his mind to the idea of life in an independent Scotland and to declare the contest over 22 months before the referendum takes place. And it is time too for English people seriously to consider if their royal throne of kings and their scepter’d isle will be diminished in any way without Scotland.
It is difficult too to understand how any person living in Scotland can express fear about the prospect of independence when around one million of our fellow citizens are wondering how they will live when the Westminster government’s benefit cuts truly begin to bite. And how long will it take the SNP to accept and deploy David Cameron’s gift to them contained in his proposed EU referendum: that if sufficient numbers of English people exercise their vote in 2017 then every Scottish vote will be rendered meaningless?
Holyrood’s wood-panelled restaurant is unostentatious rather than opulent but the lunchtime menu showcases the best, and simplest, of Scotland’s larder. Many of the dishes also appeared at the Burns Supper held the previous night for representatives of the 90 or so foreign consulates resident in Edinburgh. My former colleague tells me about Sergei from the Russian consulate whom she met at the event and who told her how he had been taught the poetry of the Alloway ploughman at his mother’s knee. Perhaps he may also have known that Scots helped establish his great nation’s army and featured in Napoleon’s inner sanctum. He wouldn’t be expected to know that we founded the American navy … and the Argentinian one. In every corner of the globe Scots have helped others to determine their own future. It would be absurd to scorn us simply for seeking to determine our own.
Scottish nationalism and me, can we last the distance? If I were them I wouldn’t place too much stock in my musings. As soon as I had announced my (partial) epiphany, the results of a Scottish social attitudes survey revealed that only 23% wanted outright independence.
Later still, Alex Salmond, our first minister, stops for a chat. “I was interested in what you had to say last week,” he said. “Och, I’m just having a debate with myself,” I reply, affecting bashfulness. “Well, let us know who wins,” he says. My SNP politician count now stands at four in one day; at this rate I’ll be donning a kilt before the weekend and calling my children “bairns”.
And did I mention that the social attitude survey also reveals that a majority want the Scottish Parliament to make all decisions affecting Scotland? This game still has a long way to go.