We have a local election. Tavish has abandoned Shetland for Embra and, of all things, rugby. Stuff much hoped for locally, notably the end of life care at home policies Tav was championing, are now in limbo. And a bizarre clutch of candidates, 10, including four independents, has emerged to fight what has traditionally been a Liberal and Lib Dem stronghold.
That disruptive outpouring of candidature could work in favour of Beatrice Wishart, the Lib Dem councillor who can depend on a solid core vote and a weel-kent island name. The independents, Tory, Green, Labour and UKIP could diminish a forceful and credible SNP challenge, seen as a real threat this time around and with all kinds of big names and resources being flown north in support of young, articulate local boy Tom Wills.
Who is the son of my old pal and sometime editor Dr Jonathan Wills, unsuccessful Labour candidate back in the day and among much else, first student rector of Edinburgh University. Before acting as agent for his friend Gordon Brown. No longer Labour. But then, who is?
How to vote? Another old friend, until recently a lifetime Labour activist, told Tom he was minded to support him ‘as long as you don’t paint your face blue, wave flags and use the word yoons.’
Ah yes, flags. There’s one of my problems with Caledonian nationalism. I hate flags. My heart does not swell with pride at the sight of a billowing banner, no matter how fetching its combination of colours and shapes.
I sometimes think this is down to my pennant-deprived childhood. In 1960s Troon there was a busy shipbreakers yard at the harbour, and several of my classmates had dads who worked there. They were forever parading the nautical paraphernalia salvaged from these rusting hulks - glorious brass compasses, and dozens of flags: triangular signalling burgees, gigantic Red Ensigns. Houses were festooned. I begged for something, anything to display in our own front garden, but was forbidden by my parents. Besides, there was only one flag we flew, I was reminded, and that was a metaphor. Whatever a metaphor was:
There’s a flag flying high, o’er the castle of my heart
O’er the castle of my heart, o’er the castle of my heart
There’s a flag flying high o’er the castle of my heart
For the King is in residence there
That would be God, in case you were wondering. In the fundamentalist world of Bethany Gospel Hall, literal flags of political or military belonging were a kind of blasphemy. Besides, the Lord was arriving soon to take all the believers to heaven and nothing mattered but converting the heathen. And that meant Everyone But Us.
The rapture, however, did not materialise.
Exclusivity. Flags. That sense of superiority and specialness. Fantasy theology. Starry-eyed, belligerent certainty. All things I learned, eventually and painfully, to regard with intense dislike. All fuelling my opposition to what seemed like the aggressive romanticism of the 2012-14 Yes campaign in Scotland. You could, I argued, take that blue face paint and all those nylon saltires and, with whatever Flowers of Scotland you care to choose, shove them up your bared Braveheartian arses.
(And another thing: Flower of Scotland - could there be a less inclusive, more ethnically divisive anthem? A song promoted way beyond its meagre abilities.)
Anyway. Fast forward two years from the exhausting, horribly painful Scottish Independence Referendum, and along comes the Brexit vote. More flags. This time Union banners proclaiming a toxic broth of anti-immigration, mad nostalgia and right-wing-nurtured fear of the foreign. Plus rampant dark money and Russian mischief. Sheer illegality. Didn’t matter. The UK electorate wouldn’t be that stupid…
(And was some of that sense of Alf Ramsay/Dunkirk/Rourke’s Drift English specialness fuelled by the spectacle of Scottish nationhood emerging as a power in the lands? Did it matter if leaving Europe meant jettisoning the Jocks? I began to lose count of the folk from Tunbridge Wells, Newcastle and Luton I knew who shrugged and said. “Leave if you want to, if you think you can make a go of it. We’ll miss you, but not that much.”)
And then things got worse. I had always argued that social justice was a universal right, that values of equality and alleviation of poverty, of good health care and free education for all should be distributed no matter one’s geographical location or ethnic origin. That, as one psychologist put, I have more in common with the workers of Wapping than the lairds of Largs (whoever they may be). But the traditional repository of those values, the Labour Party, fell into the hands of bourgeois nostalgists for the kind of dumb Stalinism we all thought had been flushed down the toilet of history. As the worst Conservative government in centuries floundered from incompetence to embarrassed idiocy, the Corbynistas raced to make themselves appear worse: irrelevant, viciously racist and eventually deranged. Unelectable and proud of it. Good grief.
My reaction, and it was widely shared, was to look at the SNP’s independence-in-Europe arguments and say, well, why not? After all, this so-called civic nationalism, with its promises of left wing policies, a welcome to immigrants, a Scandinavian high-tax economy providing great social care and a stable (eventually) economy replete with Euro subsidies...isn’t that what being Scottish is, or at least should be, about? We love the English. Let’s set them an example.
I said so, publicly.
Suddenly, the wearers of woad and the wavers of flags were congratulating me, offering their tubs of face paint and their Willie Johnston replica shirts. The ones who felt forgiving, that is. Others spat venom and suspicion. Fair enough.
Time passed. Things got worse. Salmond? We can’t talk about Salmond. May failed. Boris (no relation to Willie) Johnston/Johnson/Johnstone switched rhetoric, women, drinks and hairstyle. Gove swivelled like a halibut on a hook. And Sturgeon, while assuming the stature of Easily the Most Convincing Politician in the UK And the Only One Who Reads Books, was faced with a Battle of the Flags.
By the way, speaking of flags, I was fascinated by the ‘technical fault’ which meant the Duke of Rothesay couldn’t visit Shetland the other Saturday. Nothing whatsoever to do with the unexpected presence in the isles at the same time of Scotland’s first minister, campaigning in the by-election. Nothing to do with the preponderance of Saltires as Irvine’s erstwhile Marymass Queen arrived, bursting with wit, bonhomie and popularity…
It’s not really a battle of the flags, of course. It’s a war of attrition between the standard-flourishing Rob Wallace, Roy Bruce, Willie Macrae chanters and marchers, those forever seeing St Andrews crosses in vapour trails as they demand Indyref 2 Right This Minute or even, madly, UDI (cue civil unrest in West Central Scotland) and the moderate minds of Tendence Sturgeone, who know that now is not the time. As they finger their discreet silver lion rampant-lapel badges. Och, just when I was starting to like you..
Even the ‘soft’ nationalists, those driven to thoughts of secession by the desperate state of the Westminster pantomime and the Brexit disaster cannot face the ravages of another brutal referendum. Not that a binding poll would be signed off by either the Johnson or (in some alternative universe) Corbyn bunkers.
Psychologically, emotionally, in the end psephologically, an Indyref 2 anytime soon won’t deliver a majority for independence. Dulled punch drunk stasis will rule if it’s attempted. Everyone but the raging partisans is sick of the binary bullshit. As for a general election, called by a bouncing Johnson in an effort to bury Labour once and for all, even winning every seat in Scotland would probably not give the SNP an overall win in votes cast.
We are not activists, we feel no real nationalist stirrings, we reluctant secessionists. What we see is an inevitability. What we feel is despair, and the sadness as a long marriage winds to an end. As the ties that bound slowly wither and die.
And then what? Confusion, loneliness, economic uncertainty. All the classic divorce issues, no doubt. Regrets. Arguments. Anger. Call it freedom if you insist.
But the thing is, we’ve been learning to live separate lives for so long. And if we think it through, there’s really no way back now. The genie is out of the bottle.
So in this inevitability, what do we do? Talk up mysterious oilfields in the Atlantic? When carbon-energised Climate Change threatens the planet? Put our trust in the mercy of multinational offshore frackers and ruthless big time fishing companies? Rejoice in Trumpian golf courses and more megalithic companies selling stupid whiskies to daft collectors?
I don’t know. I hope the Scottish Government is quietly talking to Brussels. I hope all parties are thinking things through. That detailed plans are being made which transcend party boundaries. Scenarios gamed, outcomes valued. Work done. Balance and compromise struck.
Furl the flags. Cut out the trash talking. It’s coming yet, for a’ that.
● I think I’ll vote for Tom.