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A New Song for Scotland? (May 2007)

This article was first published on The Guardian's Comment is Free

Clocks are ticking towards the opening of the polls. We guess - and hope.


Today is the 300th anniversary of the day the old Scots parliament died. "There's ane end of an auld sang," as the Scots Lord Chancellor put it. Maybe not, if one reads the polls. Takes you back, though.

In fact, my present life has reverted to the 1960s, when I spent my summers on a Labour party canvassing team, along with my old friend-and-foe Robin Cook, whom I'm writing up for the Dictionary of National Biography. This is the best political training of all because you get an idea of what really concerns the voters, and you have to listen.

Only a few of the voters moan. Often they're very kind even when they don't agree with you. Sometimes they offer insights which would be difficult for you otherwise to grasp, like the boy in Birnam Road who said bluntly that I couldn't do anything for him. He couldn't get an apprenticeship, though his grades were good. His job in a call centre was stressful, dull, and poorly paid. There was nothing for it but to join the army, which he'd done, though this would part him from a disabled relative whom he helped. He was able and articulate, and he was bitter.

There were folk in a lot of housing schemes angry at kids getting drunk and vandalising their street. "If you try to check them, they'll make your life a misery." But they said there was little else for the kids to do, and even less for them to look forward to.

There were the shopkeepers faced with giant malls swallowing their customers - and dangerously dependent on "food miles" and car-based shopping. See Joanna Blythman's Shopped for this essential sort of economics, patently absent from Nobel Prize lists. I've lived in Europe for 25 years - in Tübingen we have four markets a week and nothing bigger than your average Lidl or Aldi - and I've seen nothing like Tescotland. It can't be sustained.

There have been - in my own experience on the fringes of Scottish government - endless initiatives and task forces and Tsars for this that and the other. We have loads of what Kirkcaldy's Adam Smith called "rental occupations": exemplified by Scottish Enterprise and its GlobalScots and Friends of Scotland - collectively as useful as a chocolate teapot. Even so, few have clapped the rhetoric of First Minister McConnell. "Education not separation" has persistently been upstaged by the spectral duo of Blair and Brown. This exhibition of the ineducable has shortened the odds on an SNP victory.

Though the theme is important: a joined-up education, which has to reach across classes and ages. This goes back to the 11 years I worked at the Open University, founded by Jennie Lee from nearby Lochgelly, and my own approach has owed a lot to another Fifer, R F MacKenzie at Templehall School, Kirkcaldy in the 1950s, who criticised mechanistic comprehensives because they failed kids whose gifts were practical, not intellectual. I've had to use distance-learning techniques to cope with far too many students in Germany: and these can be developed back in Scotland, where Fife education stretches from proud St Andrews to underfunded Adam Smith.

Education ought to be interchange as well as instruction - like the teenage girls on a local bus who did first aid by the book on an old lady who collapsed - or in my Tübingen life the 19-year-old computer wizards who bail me out every week. We need to start with the practical and develop it: in first aid, in cooking, in computer competence. But this means an industry generating jobs that we, and not faceless speculators, control.

Gordon Brown has been bombarding the media with celebs of varying credibility backing the Union. What I hadn't expected occurred at a chat session at a local bookshop (Waterstone's? You must be joking: "Midnight Oil" in Kirkcaldy's Commercial Street) at which political savant Tom Nairn, historian Christopher Smout, vocalist-social-theorist Pat Kane, journalist Rob Brown and novelist Allan Massie turned up to dissect the Union.

Allan as Unionist scribe and I have been a feature of the Scottish discussion programme circuit long enough to be the Waldorf and Stadtler of this particular Muppet Show. What I hadn't expected was that he had written the editorial in the Scottish edition of the Sunday Times urging electors to vote for the SNP, on a day when the two main Scottish Sundays also came out in favour of the party. NewsInt is split on Scotland. Has the Prince of Darkness been told?

If Langtonians use a telescope they can almost see people in Leith, but their economy, and life-chances, are growing three times as fast as ours. This means more than simply improving the Forth crossings. This issue has in fact gone from a new road bridge to a multi-modal submerged-tube tunnel, something which came out of an initiative from the village of South Queensferry. This motivated the retired maintenance director of Railtrack, John Carson, to promote the tunnel scheme as the hub of a high-speed rail network connecting Aberdeen and Dundee with the central belt. It convinced me. It should go ahead, and will be a positive legacy of the contest.

So there we are. And here I am, waiting rather impatiently for Catalan TV, as I have to canvas East Wemyss. Other clocks are ticking towards the opening of the polls in rather more than a day from now. Where do I go from here? I don't know. Kirkcaldy's at the edge of the SNP's possibilities, and in a four-party (at least) system, outcomes are difficult to predict. We guess and hope.

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