It has not been a good year. I suppose it is an inevitability of age that you come to lose more and more of your pals each year. But not surely so many in one calendar period.
I am not a Roman Catholic but by accident of history a disproportionate number of my friends and in-laws are and in the last twelve months I have found myself muttering the words too often “Eternal rest grant to him O Lord and may perpetual light shine upon him, may he rest in peace.”
And yet at the same time I wish I could have that consolation of faith. For, too often, I have struggled to understand why those who have gone have gone. At least so soon.
And, in one grim way, I know next year is unlikely to be much better. But at least it will be next year and a chance for a fresh start.
The “Festive” period is a strange thing. Somebody will undoubtedly joke at some point shortly that the nights are now drawing “oot” and, technically they are right. Although when Keats observed that “If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?” he revealed chiefly that he had clearly never lived in the west of Scotland.
But in an equally Scottish sense the turn of the year is a chance to take stock. Within my own business, I’ve already resolved on a staff meeting on 3rd January to discuss not only what we might achieve in 2014 but also what and why we failed to achieve in the year (by then) gone past. No point in the former without also understanding the latter. That is something that those on the wilder Nationalist fringe who responded to Euan MColm’s column last Sunday, critical of the performance of Yes Scotland to date, with the claim that it has all gone entirely to plan might want to reflect upon.
For those of us in the Labour Party obviously this year’s turn won’t be as important as next year’s, when we will be close to a rare opportunity to directly engage the enemy. But, this year, for those committed to Scottish Nationalism there is more than an eve before battle feel about events. For many in that camp, this is the most anticipated New Year there will be in their lifetime.
I can write the narrative about how September 2014 is the culmination of a process that began near Stirling in 1314 or, perhaps more credibly, at Hamilton in 1967 . I can knock it down just as easily but, as a narrative, I can still empathise with the personal journey involved. For, for activists of any Party, it is not so much that the personal is political but rather that the political is personal. When Mandela died, I couldn't separate my grief at his passing for my grief at the broken connection with those: Brian Filling, “wee” John Nelson and others who had shamed me in the past with my insufficient time devoted to the cause of his release.
So there will be many of my age or just a little bit older on the “other” side who will look forward to September 18th as potentially the greatest day of their lives but with the increasing inner terror that it might be equally be the worst.
Only it won’t be their worst. For they will still have their partners, their kids and, indeed, if they’ve been at it since Hamilton, probably by now their grandkids as well. And they’ll have much more, I suspect, in their personal lives to look back on, and look forward to, with pride and enthusiasm. Nicola might want to reflect on some of her more apocalyptic “Nothing” rhetoric in that regard. It just makes her look silly.
And, even politically, the Nationalists should be proud of what they have significantly assisted in achieving; a devolved Scottish Parliament. For, I readily admit, without their leverage we’d have had a much harder struggle to get the Labour Party to deliver it. For Labour, internally, the crucial constituency was never the “fors” or “againsts” but rather the “what if we don’ts?”
But Labour did deliver and the problem for the Nationalists is that the very Parliament that is enabling them to hold their referendum is the reason they have no chance of winning it. To that extent the “fundies” in the SNP who argued against any support for a devolved parliament have been vindicated by events. The choice on 18th September is not between Independence and direct rule from Westminster. The Holyrood Parliament will still be there on 19th September and with indeed, at the very least, the “Calman” additional powers already on the way.
No amount of “scaremongering” about the Parliament’s powers being reduced or its relative funding being cut, proposals being made nowhere but in Nationalist propaganda, is going to change that.
On 19th September nobody will require to flee the Country in despair. Anyway, where would they go?
It is already clear however that handling the aftermath of defeat will be difficult for the Nationalists. For all Eck’s (and Nicola’s) assertions that the Referendum would be a once in a generation event, if you read the runes it is clear that is not a universal view. Most recently, in a recent piece for the Herald, Harry Reid was already asserting that the SNP “shouldn’t accept” the outcome of a narrow No vote.
Now, on one view, nothing would suit the interests of the Labour Party better than for the SNP to go down this road, for it would surely result in Nationalist immolation at the 2016 election. But what is in the narrow electoral interests of the Labour Party is not necessarily in the interests of Scotland. We need to move on from politics polarised around the national question for it is undoubtedly providing cover, on both sides, for inadequate domestic politics. We saw that clearly in the dog days of 2013 when the historical unwillingness to take hard but necessary decisions over hospital provision in Lanarkshire was exposed by the publication of the resultant mortality figures. We've been seeing it, for years, in the appalling statistics for working class participation in higher education. And, just in case you think I place all of the fault at the door of the SNP, you see it equally clearly in my own Party’s failure to properly engage with the reform of local government finance.
But the key not to so much unlocking this conundrum but rather to properly locking it away is in Mr Reid’s own article when he talks about “a narrow defeat”. The polls currently point to something much less but in the interests not just of our side but of Scotland it is important that by September 18th that this gap has widened further. There are, of course, those who think that the triumph of nationalism would be the solution to all our problems. There always are, in every Country, since the beginning of the modern political era. But those of us on the left also know where that mindset inevitably ends. When external enemies can no longer be blamed then internal ones come to be remorselessly sought out. Time for Scotland to truly mark itself out in the world by decisively rejecting that mindset. Anything but a comprehensive No vote would be an indictment of the Country I believe us to be. To gain that margin of victory there is truly no room for complacency. For the fanatics on the other side remain just that. Fanatics. No matter how hopeless it appears they will still vote. So, no matter how inevitable victory appears, so must we. This needs put to bed forever.
And yet think. If, looking back, twelve months hence, our Country has decisively rejected, democratically and consideredly, the narrow wee politics of ethnic difference inevitably being equated with a need for fear and isolation, wouldn't that make you genuinely proud to be a citizen of Scotland?
A Happy 2014 when it comes. It might yet be one of the greatest years in our history.