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Scotland's Election, History's Tides (April 2007)

This article was first published on openDemocracy

Interesting times in Kirkcaldy and Scotland. As far as one can judge (and participants are always blinkered) the Labour campaign in the chancellor's own constituency is falling apart, and with it the career of Gordon Brown and maybe the future of the United Kingdom.

All of this is a strange blend of the personal, the comic, and the cosmic. It's happening to people from one's own past - I was close to Gordon a quarter-century ago when he was Scottish Labour's coming man, and we wrote a pamphlet together: The Scottish Assembly and why you must vote for it. Scotland was neither shaken nor stirred. But Scottish elections score high in black farce, from John Galt's pioneering The Provost of 1821 to Eric Linklater, as a callow nationalist pratfalling over Fife East in the 1930s, in his Magnus Merriman (1933), and Scotland's renaissance man Hugh MacDiarmid, whose bold slogan in the 1964 by-election he contested was "Honour yourself: Vote Communist!"

MacDiarmid would have loved the current clamjamfrie. There are communist councillors yet in the "Little Moscows" of next-door central Fife, where coal is still won from opencast.

This is a literary kingdom, as its best-known author Ian Rankin, creator of Inspector Rebus, always reminds us. Iain Banks is chancellor Brown's North Queensferry neighbour; Ian Jack , departing editor of Granta, was born in Inverkeithing, Tom Nairn at Freuchie. The poets Douglas Dunn , John Burnside and Robert Crawford teach at St Andrews. Chris Smout, doyen of Scots historians, lives at Anstruther, birthplace of the journalist John Lloyd. With two writer-filmmakers, Christopher Hope and Tim Neat; the poet, publisher and MacDiarmid biographer Duncan Glen; Tom Hubbard, co-founder and first librarian of the Scottish Poetry Library and wandering scholar (last year Hungary, this year Ireland); and a good bookshop with anarchist leanings - Midnight Oil - at Kirkcaldy, we are well served for literary polymaths.

When I was adopted for the "Lang Toun", the local party's convenor, George Kay, said I was the first professor the Scottish National Party had fielded. "No he's not!" came from the back of the room. 94-year old Douglas Kerr had supported the Greek scholar Douglas Young, who nearly won in 1944, and went on to translate Aristophanes' The Frogs into broad Scots as The Puddocks, in a memorably messy and anarchic Edinburgh Fringe production, involving boats, dams and lakes, and an ancient royal theatre.

The Brown tragedy - and for all his mistakes and arrogance, it is a tragedy - is equally literary; he could be the diligent Henry Durie in Robert Louis Stevenson's The Master of Ballantrae. Some Westminster accounts by aggrieved parties suggest a more brutal local anti-hero in George Douglas Brown's The House with the Green Shutters. John Gourlay, carter of "Barbie" in Ayrshire, ruled the roost until the railways came, whereupon his helots rose up and destroyed him. The parallel here is the chorus of "the bodies" - the local worthies: schoolteacher, town clerk, church minister - who first squirm and defer, and then crow over his fall. Scotland remains richer in "commentators" than in political actors.


The Fife coast is dramatic, soaked in history and in the wonderful spring weather everything grabs significance to itself. The Wemyss villages twinkle their way out to the East Neuk, looking almost Mediterranean at a distance (and with recent restoration, equally good close up). Out on the Forth lie the Bass Rock and the distant Lammermuirs - "Ding doon Tantallon, build a brig to the Bass!" was medieval Scots for mission impossible. From the cliffs and steep fields above Kinghorn you can see the daily procession of ships up and down the Forth, like the Breughel picture in Auden's Musée des Beaux Arts where Icarus slips, near-unnoticed by ploughman and captain, to join Sir Patrick Spens:

"Half-ower, half-ower from Aberdour
'Tis fifty fathoms deep,
And there lies bold Sir Patrick Spens,
Wi' the Scots lords at his feet."

There is a link here to the tides of Anglo-Scots relations. Spens was sent to Norway to bring back the heiress to the Scots throne, an echo of the dynastic crisis of 1286, after King Alexander III was killed in a fall from his horse in a night storm at Kinghorn - unleashing the decades-long "wars of independence". Until then there had been, not Mel Gibson's fictional oppression in Braveheart, but a union of sorts, with peace and some affluence: Scottish kings swearing fealty to the Plantagenets, and Scottish nobles holding English estates. On the monument to Alexander on the Kinghorn cliffs is the first poem in Lallans (Lowland Scots):

"When Alexander our king was deid,
Who Scotland led in laugh an' lie,
Away was sonst of yill an' breid,
Of wine and wax, of gamyn and of glee.
Our gold was turnèd into lead.
O Christ conceivit in virginitie,
Succour Scotland and remeid,
That is steyed in perplexitie."

Edward I used the chance to subjugate the Scots as he had the Welsh, and started the series of invasions (countered by national rebellions and threats to his own finances) which provoked the Auld Alliance between Scotland and France and dire relations with England until the reformation in 1560. Its master work, the King James Bible, was commissioned in 1601 in Burntisland's new Calvinist kirk.

Such tendencies - drifts towards union, followed by recoil from it - have marked subsequent centuries. The parliamentary union of 1707 was a tactful compromise, not a takeover. Aristos, kirk, law, burghs and universities patrolled the place and oiled the engine of patronage. After the Kirk (Church of Scotland) split in the "great disruption" of 1843 - the author of this, Thomas Chalmers, was another son of Anstruther - much authority went south, some of it recouped by administrative devolution in the 1880s and the expansion of the Scottish Office under Walter Elliot and Tom Johnston, two brilliant "administrative patriots" between 1935 and 1945. The Scots are rather good, in fact, at unions: the Romans called them the Foederati, or "treaty people". James Lorimer, laird of Kellie Castle, inland from St Monans, drafted the one of the first modern schemes for a federal Europe - The Institutes of the Law of Nations: A treatise of the jural relations of separate political communities - in 1884.

In 1997-98 legislative devolution formally reserved macroeconomics, defence, foreign affairs and media to London, only for New Labour to go for broke on most of them. This exaggerated Westminster's capacity to influence things really reserved to the City, the Pentagon, Brussels, and Rupert Murdoch, and these have whipped the unfortunate Brown into line.


I am doing an old-fashioned doorstep canvass and being well-received in neat well-kept streets. The Langtonians are never less than courteous, and often stimulating, like the 96-year-old lady who suggested that her engineer grandfather's plan for the town's desolate seafront - "build a breakwater out from either side of the bay, with promenades and pleasure domes on it" - might still work. Indeed it might. The local imam, scunnered with Labour over Iraq, says he might put a word in for us in Dubai.

The view from Kirkcaldy's railway station is pastoral. Thirty years ago it was of cliff-like factory walls. But all of the linoleum works and maltings which once marked the place (except one of each) have closed, leaving spectacular ruins or holes in the ground; and much human wreckage. Growth is only a third that of Edinburgh, only five miles away. With Scotland's drug problem three times that of Germany, wraiths haunt run-down cul-de-sacs, with rubbish heaped on the gardens, doors are edged open by tattooed young musclemen with big dogs, big cars and dead eyes: "Ah want naethin' tae dae wi' youse." Drifting knots of 14- or 15-year-olds, in tatty street-gear, make pests of themselves, hanging round fast food joints, drinking Buckfast ("Buckie") - a sickly, high-alcohol tonic wine - laying waste bus-shelters and fences. Sure, annoying adults is a teenage speciality, but the problem of the Kirkcaldy kids is that their legal, responsible future is one of dead-end, unskilled, badly-paid jobs in supermarkets or call-centres.

Methil, just to the east of the constituency, has a dead coal-port, dead rig-building yard, dead power-station. Saddest of all are its massive dead Co-operative stores, once the measure of the miners' gains.

But they are starting to build wind-turbines. Whatever happens nationally on 3 May, proportional representation will end the era of the "people's republics" among the local authorities, and I hope start a devolution of power to the communities. I have had some success with a call to "turn the Forth inside out" and think of it as a highway not a barrier. And in Fife, where the great Patrick Geddes undertook his first town-planning schemes in the 1890s, there's plenty of scope for a linear city - a necklace of villages, burghs, industrial estates and ports, strung along rail, road and water links - running from Stirling to Levenmouth.

The Forth - the "Scottish Sea" as early cartographers sometimes rendered it - is in itself problematic. Classical Edinburgh was no ornament to it: until the 1960s it pumped its untreated sewage offshore, and that was that. "What Edinburgh saves on wiping its bottom, it spends on powdering its nose", a snide Glaswegian remarked sixty years ago when the capital city's festival first opened. On 20 April 2007 a mass of semi-treated effluent accidentally splurged into it from a sewage-treatment plant near Leith. This dramatised a problem which is in the pipeline, quite literally: a scheme, backed by Forth Ports, to transfer oil between tankers at anchor in the Firth. This is a risky transaction, often involving oil spillage, and is benefiting the company - a property outfit rather embarrassed by owning a few docks - and not the onshore communities who could see their tourist beaches plastered by black gloop.

But from June there will be an experimental hovercraft service across the Forth to and from Edinburgh. In the Lang Toun we have from Wednesday 18 a week of the Links Fair, Europe's biggest street-fest, they say. Let joy be unconfined! Let there be drinking in the bars, necking in the parlours, and dancing in the streets!

All of this is being observed, goggle-eyed, by our local symbols, the daft china cats and pigs of Wemyss Ware. These were invented by the Czech immigrant Karel Nekola in the 1880s. Welcome to Fife's embrace!

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