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Fateful Days in Fife (April 2007)

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

The Labour election campaign in Scotland is falling apart, and with it the career of the chancellor and the future of the UK.


Interesting times in Kirkcaldy and Scotland. Insofar as one can judge, and participants are always blinkered, the Labour election campaign is falling apart, and with it the career of the chancellor and the future of the UK. A strange blend of the personal - all this is happening to people from one's own past - the comic (Scottish elections score high in farce, from John Galt's The Provost to Eric Linklater, in Fife East in the 1930s, in Magnus Merriman), and the cosmic. John Buchan was son of the minister of Dysart, and Hugh MacDiarmid, whose slogan was so bold no one could use it: "Honour yourself: Vote Communist!", appears in Merriman. He would have loved the current clamjamfrae. There are communist councillors yet in central Fife, where coal is still won from opencast.

This is a literary kingdom, as its best-known author Ian Rankin always reminds us. Ian Banks is Chancellor Brown's North Queensferry neighbour, Ian Jack was born in Inverkeithing, Tom Nairn at Freuchie. Douglas Dunn, John Burnside and Robert Crawford teach at St Andrews. Chris Smout, doyen of Scots historians, lives at Anstruther. With two writer-filmmakers, Christopher Hope and Tim Neat, the poet, publisher and MacDiarmid biographer Duncan Glen, Tom Hubbard, founder-librarian of the Scots Poetry Library and wandering scholar (last year Hungary, this year Ireland) 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 party had fielded. "No he's not!" came from the back of the room. Douglas Kerr, 94, 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 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; out of Stevenson or Hardy. He could be the diligent Henry Durie in The Master of Ballantrae, the Job-like Michael Henchard in The Mayor of Casterbridge. 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, who ruled the roost until the railways came, whereupon his helots rose up and destroyed him. The parallel here is the chorus of "bodies" - local worthies: schoolteacher, town clerk and minister, who first squirm and defer, and then crow over his fall. Scotland remains richer in "commentators" than in political actors or creative writers.

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 under, 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 the heiress to the Scots throne back, an echo of the dynastic crisis of 1286, after King Alexander III was killed in a fall at Kinghorn. 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 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 begun in 1601 in Burntisland's new Calvinist kirk.

Such tendencies - drifts towards, recoil from - have marked subsequent centuries. The union of 1707 was a tactful compromise between elites rather than a takeover. Aristos, kirk, law, burghs and universities patrolled the place and oiled the engine of patronage. After the kirk split in 1843 - the author of this, Thomas Chalmers, was a Fifer - 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. We are rather good, in fact, at unions: the Romans called the Scots the Foederati, or "treaty people". Professor James Lorimer, laird of Kellie Castle, inland from St Monans, drafted the first scheme for a federal Europe, in 1884.

In 1997-8 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 they have whipped the unfortunate Brown into line.

I am doing an old-fashioned doorstep canvass and being well-received. 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 front - "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, might put a word in for us in Dubai.

Though there are, too, the wraiths who haunt run-down streets, with rubbish heaped on the garden, or tattooed young musclemen with big dogs, big cars and dead eyes: "Ah want naethin' tae dae wi' youse." Methil, just out of the constituency, has a dead coal-port, dead rig-building yard, dead power-station. Saddest of all are its massive dead Co-op stores, once the measure of the miners' gains.

But they are starting to build wind-turbines. In the Lang Toun we have from Wednesday the Links Fair, Europe's biggest street-fest, they say. Whatever happens nationally on May 3, proportional representation will end the era of the "People's Republics" among the local authorities. From June there will be an experimental hovercraft service over the Forth. Let joy be unconfined! Let there be drinking in the bars, necking in the parlours, and dancing in the streets! Thank you Groucho Marx.

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 Karel Nekola, a Pole, in the 1880s. His kinsfolk are now electors. Never forget that.

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