Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Here's Maggie Thatcher - Politiciser of the Playground

“Here’s Maggie Thatcher, throw her up and catch her. Squish her, squash her, squish her, squash her, here’s Maggie Thatcher” was a ditty which formed part of the soundtrack to my playground experiences of the mid-eighties. It was accompanied by some creative pen work and hand movements. The children of the eighties, the playgrounds of the eighties, were political in a way I am not sure we shall ever see again.

I met someone recently who was also a child of the eighties – in a completely different area of the country – who also knew the ditty.  It was a shared remembrance of invention, of ingenuity, but also a sad indictment of the despair in many Scottish households which imbued children with political hue and awareness which is unparalleled today. Where the ditty originated, I don’t know and I am not sure I want to.  It is a childhood memory which needs no clarification of retrospect, but it is a telling one.

The myth, the legacy, the damning toll of Thatcherism will live on. That the children of the nineties, who were born with Major, and grew up with Blair, are still shaped by their attitude to Margaret Thatcher – especially in Scotland - says much about the attitudes of their parents and their peers, but also indicates that, love her or loathe her, she created herself a legend. And those who protested against her lionised her.  They gave her a status which no other prime-minister of the twentieth century – with the exception of Churchill – could claim. Demonised by some, idolised by others.

I am a child of the eighties. I remember Thatcher.  I distinctly remember Thatcher.  Thatcher helped shape my childhood and the ideology I have as an adult. Of course, my attitude to Thatcher was a reflection of my parents’ attitudes at that point in time, but I have encountered no other considerations since to inform a change of opinion. 

My parents were political.  They became political as a reaction to societal and political events.  My mum joined the SNP in 1966 at the age of 14 with her sister Maureen who was a year older. Their father – my grandfather – was an Irish miner. They grew up in relative poverty in Fife. My grandfather, John was an Irish immigrant whose father was a Labour councillor in the south of Ireland. He was a member of the Scottish wing of the Labour Party and he campaigned for them. He once presented me with a Parker pen which had been given to him by Gordon Brown.  It was a treasured item of his. 

My mother and Maureen became aware, through their voracious appetite for knowledge and books, of the history of Scotland, of the potential of Scotland, and of the relative imbalance of being governed by a Westminster which was not Scotland focussed. It was a love affair which was to last a lifetime for my Aunty Maureen and a vision which my mother still works toward as an SNP councillor of 27 years standing. 

In the sixties, however, becoming members of the SNP was more than frowned upon.  My grandfather wouldn’t even display a poster for my mother when she stood against Gordon Brown during the eighties.  Miners’ daughters from Cowdenbeath did not join a nationalist party. They withstood that familial disapprobation and their legacy is a family of younger sisters – like my aunt Tricia Marwick - and their brother, and all their many kids and nieces and nephews, and now grandkids, who share their vision of a Scotland governed by the people of Scotland with social justice, fairness and equality at its heart.

My father was less of an emotional nationalist. He is a pragmatist. From Fairhill in Hamilton, he met and married my mother in 1974 but remained a Labour voter until 1979.  He was a devolutionist and was blindly confident that the Labour Party would deliver on a devolution settlement in the referendum in 1979.  To watch it drafted to fail and torpedoed by elected members of the party he had respected and voted for, and which his gradfather had represented as an elected member, hardened his attitude toward a different constitutional settlement.  Clearly, neither the Labour Party nor the Conservatives could be relied upon to bring democracy closer to the people of Scotland. When my father embraced independence and the SNP he did not look back, only forward to the future potential of an independent Scotland. There is no-one as passionate as a convert.

He was wrong, Labour did deliver devolution 20 years later, but in the meantime Thatcher changed the landscape of Scotland irrevocably both physically and politically and forever designating large industry and traditional employment to the scrap heap and she privatised national industries allowing public wealth to flow freely in to the hands of the few. This entire she achieved without a mandate from Scotland which confirmed the correctness of his decision to back independence and the SNP. 

Thatcher the anti-devolutionist would have little idea in 1979 that the actions which she took in office would so harden Scottish attitudes against the Conservatives so that from a high of 22 MPs when she was elected in 1979 they led to the complete eradication of all Tories in Scotland a few months after she was forced from office. She would have no idea that she set in motion the rise of the SNP. Or that less than a year and a half after her death there would be a referendum on Scottish independence. She also, probably, didn’t foresee she would be stabbed in the back by her Tory peers and humiliatingly be driven from office, but that is by-the-by. 

And who would have thought during the eighties that the SNP would be here, holding a referendum on Scotland’s political future? The eighties were not a pleasant time to be in the SNP.  Still blamed for their actions in helping to bring down the Callaghan Government and prematurely calling the general election in which Margaret Thatcher’s Tories swept to victory in the subsequent general election, they faced much derision and abuse on the doorsteps. That the SNP were on the right side of the debate in the eighties on the Poll-Tax, in support of the miners and against the desecration of traditional industry did not matter a jot, their decision in 1979 was a cross to be borne.  

It was inevitable that Callaghan’s government would fail anyway. It had failed to deliver its own policy on devolution and it was incompatible to dealing with the many problems of the seventies – the three day working week and the knock-on effects of that, and strikes which left the streets filed with rubbish had already hardened middle-England voters against the Labour Party. They would vote Tory in swathes at the next election, but in supporting the vote of no confidence which brought down the government the SNP sealed their own fate; losing 9 of their MPs at the general election and consigning the party to an electoral funk which would last well over a decade.

I remember during the 1989 Euro elections Kenny McAskill stood as an SNP candidate. He set off to campaign in Leven with my mum and Charlie and Craig Reid of the Proclaimers on the “Snappy bus” -which was a van with no sides and a loud hailer. They returned hours later caked from head to toe in egg. Leven, it seems, had not forgiven the SNP even then.

Another chant which formed the soundtrack of my childhood was “Maggie, Maggie, Maggie. Out, out, out” as my brother, sister and I accompanied our parents from Bannockburn marches to anti-Poll Tax rallies. There was no disputing the passion and sentiment of the people who were involved and marched.  Ordinary people marching in defiance of a discriminatory and unfair system of taxation, imposed on Scotland a year earlier than the rest of the UK. The despair of people on those marches was palpable. These were not only marches against the Poll Tax, but about the annihilation of industry and mining which underpinned the very fabric of Scottish urban and rural society and way of life. They were marches against forced unemployment, against visceral attacks on Scottish society.

Margaret Thatcher traduced the working classes; the blue collar workers who were the engine power house of Scottish traditional heavy industry. She maligned the workers, privatised their industries and went to war on the unions to sate an ego which insisted she was correct and brooked no argument from those who dissented. She was the ultimate political narcissist in action.

Margaret Thatcher metaphorically took a sledge hammer to mining communities, to close knit communities of proud working men and their families. She criminalised miners and forced food from their families’ tables to impose her arrogant scorched earth political will and policies. That Arthur Scargill did a disservice to miners does not exculpate Margaret Thatcher, it just highlights that they were both driven by ego to the exclusion sense and compassion.

Her premiership is categorised by infringements and attacks and erosion of civil liberties. She employed draconian and subversive methods of undermining political opposition.  She politicised the police and she used covert operatives to spy on protesters. That my parent’s phone was tapped during the miners’ strike is merely an indication of this, not the sum total. Their particular brand subversive actions? They were feeding the miners who were on strike.

That Thatcher came to power in a very difficult period cannot be disputed. Something did need to be done.  That something was definitely not to act with reckless abandonment and callousness creating social divisions and ramping up class barriers. The rich got richer, and the workers lost their jobs.
Margaret Thatcher’s governance is categorised by her kowtowing to the City of London. She was much trumpeted for creating the opportunity for social mobility, but this was built upon the shaky foundations of credit, and the whole house of cards – banking deregulation, reckless spending and spiralling borrowing – culminated in the crash of 2008.  The crash of 2008 was inevitable, built as it was on credit. It was one lasting legacy of Thatcher, like finding someone has dropped a fish behind your chest of drawers and left it to rot.

She is credited by her admirers for giving working people the “Right to Buy” social housing which allowed people to get on the property ladder.  And loathe Thatcher as they came to do, many people in Scotland did take the opportunity to do just that.  However, this was another of Thatcher’s ticking time bombs. So many houses were sold off without much attempt to replace them that queues for adequate social housing are huge and people are forced in to private rented accommodation which is more expensive and benefits neither the welfare system nor the householder.  The only one benefitting in that situation is the landlord. Some of whom bought their properties from the state at knock down prices in the first place. Margaret Thatcher probably thinks that is a good thing though.  Capitalism, eh? 

And so now, when her successor in Cameron applies his unfair and disgusting bedroom tax, there are hugely insufficient numbers of size appropriate social housing for those affected to move to, even if they wanted to.

Privatising public industry, annihilating heavy industries like shipbuilding and steel-working, and attacking the public sector does not come without its cost. Four million people in the UK were unemployed, many of whom did not have the skill sets or education to smoothly transition from one industry to another. Many of whom in despair as their whole communities were blighted by worklessness and their pride stripped away as they were forced on to the scrapheap.  Thatcher robbed these people of their self-worth, forcing them on to benefits and parking them there, creating new categories of benefits where people were abandoned, forgotten, but which allowed Thatcher to massage the unemployment figures to her advantage. What cost to these people as the eighties carried on regardless of their plight with its shoulder pads, cigars, champagne and ostentatious behaviours and superficial wealth? They were collateral damage to Thatcher’s autocratic pursuit of self-interest.

Scotland hasn’t forgiven the Conservatives – or indeed Thatcher – because Scotland has not recovered from the Conservatives or Thatcher. The Tories are so synonymous with Thatcher that their vote is in perpetual decline. Margaret Thatcher has cast them adrift and only some seismic shift can change their electoral fortunes.

When Thatcher came to power in 1979, Scotland did lag significantly behind the rest of the UK in terms of unemployment and other figures, and this is no longer the case. Proponents of Thatcher point to her economic policies as being responsible for this. Thre may be elements of truth in that, but that is based only on a superficial examination of the employment which people are consigned to., It isn’t as simple as job creation. 

The jobs which were lost during the Thatcher era were jobs for life; skilled jobs, trade jobs. Replacing these with transient service industries and call centres might make for good reading of unemployment figures, but they certainly don’t tell the story about life quality and opportunity. Thatcher’s policies ripped the heart out of communities, and you cannot patch that rent with part-time jobs in the service industry.

Worse than destroying industries she destroyed communities, aspirations and people and that is not a legacy to be proud of.

So, when Thatcher died yesterday, I confess – to my shame – that there was a brief moment of satisfaction that we could now move on to dissecting the legacy of Thatcher; of Blairism and Cameronism. Both are pale imitations, but shaped by her vision nonetheless. In the case of Cameron, her legacy of pandering to the wealthy to the exclusion of the most vulnerable is interpreted, possibly, even more perniciously than she enacted when in power. 

Thatcher created the conditions which eradicated heavy industry and mining in Scotland. You can’t destroy an industry twice when it is already obliterated, but Cameron is trying his best to continue Thatcher’s legacy by destroying the only industries left to him; the English NHS and the public sector.

I wasn’t dancing the “Day that Thatcher Died”, even if that song by Hefner has a very catchy tune. She was a wife, a mother, and a grandmother and divisive she may have been; arrogant and callous she undoubtedly was, she was a person and our humanity should dictate we don’t dance on her grave. 

However, I will not stand idly by and watch her eulogised out of culpability for the many crimes committed against the social fabric of Scotland.
Margaret Thatcher politicised the playgrounds. That should serve as due indication of the strength of feeling of people in Scotland have about her actions in office.

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Public Speaking and the Fear That Lurks Inside

The first time I remember feeling real terror as a child I was alone in my room with a burst balloon trying to suck the rubber until it popped like Clingfilm. Rubber, however, isn’t as easily popped as Clingfilm and it resisted my herculean efforts to make it.  Instead the balloon shot to the back of my throat and lodged there, blocking my airway. I was terrified.  I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t shout for help.  I choked, I coughed, I turned red and I panicked. I am here now, so it all turned out fine in the end, but for those few seconds I was truly frightened and clawing at my throat in abject terror as I couldn’t get any air in to my lungs, marvelling all the while at the tenuous hold we have on our own mortality.

This was the first time I remember experiencing the sensation of being unable to breathe. It certainly wasn’t the last.

Meet me and you will quickly realise that there are some things I do well, or more accurately, often and incessantly. Talking is one such thing.  I could talk until the cows come home; talk the rear (and front legs) off a donkey and any other ridiculous simile you’d care to toss my way. Give me a topic and - I might not know anything about it - but I’ll unadvisedly have a clumsy bash at conversing on it. Your main problem is stopping me full flow. I remember a school report from a high school geography class which rather wittily sniped, “work sometimes interferes with her chatting”. Meet me and you’d probably make the mistake of thinking that I always enjoy an audience.

The second time I felt the same discomfort and terror I was in high school. I had prepared a solo talk. It was pretty funny, or at least I thought so.  My chosen topic was an irreverent report about the motivations behind Jarvis Cocker interrupting the pomposity of Michael Jackson’s Brits performance of Earth Song. I felt confident I could make the audience laugh. My friends had laughed when we practised our talks in the lunch break before.

The first 30 seconds were fine – if somewhat quick. Then I looked up. I looked up and realised where I was. I was standing in front of a group of my peers, their attention was on me, and I panicked. I stopped breathing.  I tried to speak, but I couldn’t. I stuttered.  I tried again, nothing.  I fled that room in tears.

A few years later, again in high school, I was in sixth year and Head Girl. A concert was given to honour the retirement of my primary school head teacher and I was asked to write a tribute.  Given her many attributes, it wasn’t a difficult task to pay homage to a dedicated and supportive teacher such as Mrs Gilfillan. It is a shame that my considered written words, when I attempted to read them from stage, failed to do her justice.  Mid-way through my voice just stopped.  Again I fled in tears. I think some people thought I was overcome with emotion at paying tribute to Mrs Gilfillan, but I wasn’t; I was in tears because I couldn’t articulate myself, breathe or find the courage to read what I had so painstakingly written.

Mark Twain said that there are only two types of public speakers in the world; the nervous, and the liars. I don’t necessarily agree, but I take his point.

Hyperventilation is a construct of the mind.  It isn’t any less real for being so. It feels real and it provokes a real physical response as the brain tells the body that it can’t breathe. For people who suffer from panic attacks it can be terribly debilitating. I am lucky that my panic attacks were limited to public speaking. Some people have their lives severely restricted by other situation-based experiences even more frequent; like crowded spaces, small spaces or even empty rooms. I feel a kinship with anyone who has experienced panic attacks. It isn’t rational, but it is very real to the person experiencing that sensation. It certainly isn’t as simple as mind over matter; not when it is the mind that is the matter.

When I went to the University of Aberdeen to study law, I decided to take part in mooting.  Perhaps in the swanky new law library there still resides a dusty trophy bearing the names of the winners of the 2001 mooting competition; myself and the lovely Miss Joanne Powrie.

Poor Joanne, unfortunately for her, was probably the person most familiar with the limitations of my public speaking.  She chose ill for a partner as I had to be cajoled along at every stage.  Oh the jokes about paper bags we made and laughed at. It was funny, to an extent, but I am aware that I used humour as a defence mechanism to cover up my discomfort. That we won is tribute to Joanne’s wonderful legal reasoning rather than any conquering of my incapacitating fear of speaking in public.

Undeterred, I decided a less formal form of public speaking might conquer my affliction and off to Cyprus I toddled in 2003 to work as a holiday rep. What I took away from Cyprus is affection for the country, an intellectual curiosity about the political situation, a love for karaoke and some wonderful memories. I didn’t conquer my fear of public speaking even if I was happily disinterested enough to wax lyrical confidently to a group of holiday makers about the virtues of Cyprus.

It did, however, teach me a lesson: that where I am imparting knowledge to people eager to hear it - such as holiday makers, or in a training environment - I am confident to speak in front of people. I had already learned as a sixth year at high school, when I crashed higher drama at the school across the road, that I was confident when I was performing someone else’s words. I just lacked the confidence to articulate my own.

I have been a trainer, I have presented information to groups over the years since university, and even then still got a small flutter of panic as I step in front of a group, but it was manageable, a managed discomfort.

This year I made a decision. I decided that it lacks integrity to snipe on the sidelines about people who have the ability to deliver their own words to an audience whilst lacking the courage to get up and articulate my own alternative. I have opinions and if I have any conviction in them, I should be able to stand in front of a group of people and substantiate them. Else how can I critique with any credibility others who put themselves out to public scrutiny?

And so I have embarked on a journey which is perhaps the most difficult thing I have undertaken in my life.  I consider the fear I have past felt every time I stand in front of an audience.  My mouth goes dry and I feel the back of my throat begin to close. Then I remember that I am there to speak because I believe in the topic I am addressing, and that is a powerful motivator.

How proud was I, and privileged, to be one of those to speak in the NATO debate at SNP conference in 2012? I waited in the huge audience half terrified, half desirous of hearing my name being read out to speak on a matter of fundamental importance that I am absolutely passionate about.

My name was read out and I wandered up there in a dwam, conscious of the thousands of faces riveted on the stage. Nonetheless, I got up there and I spoke. It might not have been the performance that I’d like to have given, but that I was there at all was remarkable to me.

Dale Carnegie, the author of How to Make Friends and Influence People wrote, “There are always three speeches for every one you actually give: the one you practiced, the one you gave, and the one you wished you’d given.”

Afterward, as I took my seat I was shaking so much I spilled my bottled water down me, but that was a lesson to me.  That was progress, and it gets easier every time I undertake to speak in public.
Since then, I’ve been fortunate and flattered to be asked to speak at various events in support of independence.  I’ve addressed an audience at Glasgow University, talking about gender and the referendum; kicked off proceedings in front of 600+ at the launch of Yes Glasgow; and began my campaign to be selected as an MEP candidate for 2014 by being involved in hustings meetings, making my case directly to meetings of party members and activists across the country.

Every time I make my way to the final full stop of my speech I feel a small personal victory. Perhaps practice won’t entirely conquer the fear, but passion is a powerful motivator and I am passionate about the direction which Scotland moves in. And if I sometimes feel the flutter of fear, so what?

**Since I wrote this, I today failed to be selected as one of the SNP's candidates for Europe. I don't see this as a failure though.  I got up in front of a big audience to try to sell myself - which is a whole other shade of fear. I evidently didn't do the best job in the world, but just being up there on that stage is a personal victory for me, so I am a winner too!

And thanks to everyone who supported and voted for me. I owe you all a debt of gratitude.