An 1890's view of the Tay Rail Bridge, which spans the Firth of Tay to Dundee. Credit: Getty Images
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“People will laugh at you if you sound like that”

When A L Kennedy was growing up in Dundee, she was taught to sound English. It was only in exile that she embraced her Scottishness

I am a Scot. The statement may not have ­become more meaningful in the past few months, but it’s certainly grown more topical, as the Kingdom debates whether it will stay United. Any identity – national or personal – is a work in progress, moulded by experience, circumstance, emotion and belief. Of those, belief may currently be the most important for Scotland, because the debate on Scottish independence is a contest between beliefs.

Against independence are those who believe Scottishness is a variation on an English theme, an alternative to the default. There are many quite convincing arguments against independence – economic, military, constitutional – but they seem always to be based on an assumption that, to many Scots, is patronising at best. For independence are those who believe Scottishness is something authentic and valuable. Scots may not trust their politicians, may worry about the future, may not care that much about in­dependence – nevertheless, they find it hard to ­believe they and their country don’t exist and will not warm to arguments (however well supported) that accept these absences as facts. 
 
I dislike the media’s tendency to pick a voice from a minority and assume it speaks for all, but I will say that I have found part of the non-default experience to be one of absences and non-existence. Although I am one of a relatively cosseted and familiar minority, during my lifetime I have still radically changed my understanding of what I am a Scot can mean, and what understanding and owning that part of my identity allows me to say. 
 
I grew up in the country of the Bay City Rollers, Jimmy Krankie and Benny Lynch. I live in that of Annie Lennox, Peter Mullan and Andy Murray. In only a few decades the self-doubt, self-immolating success and degraded tartanry have receded and Scotland has given itself permission to be somewhere more con­fident and complex. Scotland is still a small, relatively poor country with a troubled history, but it seems to believe it can be more. Not for the first time in our history, we have the gift of desperation. We can comfort ourselves with sectarian myths, new racisms, lazy political clichés and cronyism. Or we can embrace what is less known but also ours: a tradition of fierce education and enlightenment, invention and co-operation. The acknowledgement and rejection of sectarianism, the saga of SuBo, the electorate’s canny use of proportional representation, may all be little signs that Scotland is trying to make the best of itself. Absences are becoming presences.
 
I began in a place of absences – Dundee, a city still haunted by a railway disaster and the space no longer occupied by a collapsed Victorian bridge. The city had long been blighted by local government corruption, vandalism disguised as planning and a feudal division of wealth. My parents lived in the middle-class west end enclave where soup should be spooned away from you and peas balanced on the back of your fork. It was important to read the Booker Prize shortlist, attend the Art Society exhibitions and have tea at the Queens Hotel, looking out over the Tay Estuary and the stumps of the missing bridge. And it was important to sound English – sounding Scottish would define you, syllable by syllable, as a failure. 
 
My parents actually were English, but not the right sort. Like most of the adults I knew, my parents had educated themselves out of the working classes. For their generation, social mo­bility wasn’t just an X Factor pipe dream, but it did demand adjustments, sacrifices. My mother was brought up by her Welsh grandparents and had to jettison her North Walian accent during teacher training – people will laugh at you if you sound like that. My father, a lecturer, never quite shook his Brummy whine. But at least they weren’t cursed by Scottish vocabulary – dreich, scunner, bam – or still worse, regional Scottish vocabulary – plettie, cribby, pullashie. They had succeeded by being partly not themselves.
 
Beyond the west end and before Broughty Ferry, was another Dundee. It was a city of adults as short as children and children with old faces, of drunks in men-only bars, poverty and powerlessness. I was taught – by my school, my parents, my radio, my television – that nobody wise should sound as if they came from there. Get a vowel wrong and somewhere harsh might come to claim you. I learned what so many children in non-dominant cultures learn – that the inside of your head was wrong. There was one way of speaking indoors, another in school and another for the street, while well-meaning attempts to save children from the prejudices of others left me feeling inwardly deformed in a muddle of competing languages. 
 
So often, what could allow individuals to be polyglot, adaptable, as linguistically experimen­tal and joyful as Shakespeare’s many-voiced London, simply leads to silence and insecurity. Even with all the advantages I had – good schooling, a book-filled house, comfort, received pronunciation piped in anxiously from birth – I still felt my own voice wasn’t mine. When I read Stevenson, should he sound like the BBC, because he was successful, or like the people I knew from Edinburgh, because he was from Edinburgh ? When I read Oor Wullie, should I be ashamed of revelling in the cartoon’s confident presentation of landscapes I recognised, words that were from my home and only my little, ugly home?
 
And the history of my little ugly home was closed to me. Beyond a gruelling course of study in the early saints who saved Scots from themselves, I was taught no Scottish history at school and was kept from most Scottish literature and art. I didn’t really live in Dundee, because I ­didn’t understand what it was. Just before I left for university in England I spent a summer in my local library, reading and reading and feeling increasingly as if I had been robbed. Here was so much that had been kept from me: Dundee’s monolithic industries – whaling, flax processing, jute processing – the city fathers’ hatred of the poor, the revolutionary fervour in 1789, Dundee’s writers, painters and folk songs, and its gloriously bad reputation and sense of humour. Here were its sharp working women and fey housekeeping men – that in itself explained so much of me. Here was a real life.
 
I was heading south partly because Warwick University offered the course I wanted and partly because leaving home would be softened by staying relatively near my grandparents. I thought I understood England, because I understood them. In fact, I was entering a country of other customs, habits, foods, landscapes, hatreds, loves and arts. Despite what my teachers and broadcasters had led me to believe, I was entering a foreign country – pleasant but not mine.
 
For the next three years – in its absence – I studied Scotland. I became obsessed with what else I’d missed. I read John Prebble’s remarkable, groundbreaking histories. I read The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil, an explosive play by the Liverpudlian John McGrath which redefined how I looked at Scotland’s distribution of wealth, land and the complexity of its injustices. This was nothing like the weird, dead Scottishness I’d been peddled, which involved men ­being manly, women being invisible, losing at football, singing kitsch songs, asexual dancing and everything being England’s fault.
 
I adored Ray Carver’s America, I worshipped Chekhov’s Russia and Calvino’s Italy, Ribeiro’s Brazil, Orwell’s England, but I could also enjoy a new flowering of Scottish literature. Unlike Buchan, Conan Doyle, Barrie and the rest, there were now Scots authors who could be Scots. Alasdair Gray, James Kelman and Tom Leonard all transcended nationality, as good writers should, but were also clearly from somewhere that I knew, loved and missed. They were male, working class, older and yet were so committed to writing as a free, strong and inviolable expression of individual life that they allowed me to write as myself.
 
In the 1980s, I found my voice. It became my profession to make up for all that early silence, absence and confusion. Meanwhile, Thatcher­ism redefined what it was to be British: no to sex, regions, disabilities, women, industries, (non-public school) homosexuals, public services, mi­norities. The UK became a few hundred blokes in Westminster and Maggie, the Iron Maiden in an M&S frock. She gave Scotland ­despair but we took it. Like being proudly from Toxteth, or Handsworth, simply being Scottish suddenly became a transgressive joy and, yes, we did ­literally dance in the street when she went.
 
The UK faces new pressures to conform, shut up, hate ourselves if we don’t earn enough or sound as if we’re the right sort. I would be only delighted if the Union debate allowed citizens on both sides of the border to loudly, variously and happily discover how very much they can be themselves. I hope it can allow us to enjoy each other and to believe we all have a right, fully and usefully, to exist.
 
A L Kennedy is a novelist and comedian

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue

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In the heartlands

What does visiting Wallasey, Pontypridd and Islington North reveal about Labour’s future?

Islington. It’s the idea, as much as the place itself, that the right hates: an enclave of wealthy people who have the temerity to vote against right-wing interests. The real Islington, and Jeremy Corbyn’s patch of it in particular, is not all like that. Although parts of his constituency do resemble the cliché of large townhouses and overpriced flat whites, Labour’s 78-year hold on the seat is founded not on the palatial houses around Highgate Hill but on the constituency’s many council estates.

It’s a place I know well. As a child, Islington North was the place next to the edge of the known world, or, as I would come to call it later in life, Barnet. After going to church in Bow, my mum and I would take the bus through it to choir practice, where I sang until my voice broke, in both senses of the word.

Today, austerity is making Islington North look more like its past. Not the Islington of my teenage years, but of my childhood: grimy streets and growing homelessness. Outside the Archway McDonald’s an elderly woman points out the evidence of last night’s clubbers and tells me that today’s teenagers are less considerate than I was or her grandson is. She’s wrong; I once vomited in that same street. But street-sweeping, particularly at night, has been one of the first things that councils have cut back on under constraints from decreasing local authority budgets.

As for homelessness, that, too, has come full circle. Tony Blair’s government was the first to count the number of people sleeping rough, and by the time Labour left office it had been reduced by two-thirds. In the six years since David Cameron first came to office, the homeless figure in England more than doubled from 1,768 estimated rough sleepers to more than 3,569 today. This is the world that Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters want to fight against. These are the effects of Conservative rule that make Labour activists yearn for an anti-austerity champion.

***

Demolishing the stereotypical views of Islington and elsewhere is vital if we are to understand the currents flowing through ­Labour. This summer, there have been three main characters in the soap opera (or farce) that has played out in the party – the beleaguered leader, Jeremy Corbyn, of Islington North; the leading rebel, Angela Eagle, whose constituency is in Wallasey; and finally, the eventual challenger, Owen Smith of Pontypridd. I visited all their constituencies in a whirlwind week in the hope that it would illuminate the leadership race and the wider challenges for left-wing politics in Britain.

In all three places, the easy assumptions about Corbyn’s appeal were complicated by the facts on the ground, but a common thread united them. Outside the Holloway Road Odeon, I heard it first: “Jeremy is a nice guy, but he’s not a leader.” The trouble was that even those who questioned Corbyn’s leadership had little faith in those challenging him.

On 4 July, during a meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party, Neil Kinnock talked about “the supermarket test”: how people in Tesco or Lidl would say “I want to vote Labour, but I can’t vote for Ed Miliband”. He urged Labour’s representatives in the Houses of Parliament to “apply the supermarket test for Jeremy Corbyn and see what answer you get”.

In reality, they had been applying it for months. That was the spur to the attempts in late June to oust Corbyn as Labour leader. For the 172 MPs who said they had no confidence in him – and the 41 per cent of Labour members who told YouGov that they thought Corbyn was doing either “fairly badly” or “very badly” – he is an obstacle on the road to saving Britain from the Tories. Idealism didn’t create a minimum wage, set up Sure Start centres, or bring in civil partnerships: assembling a broad enough coalition to elect a Labour government did.

The minority of MPs who support him, and the thousands of members who say they will vote for him again, feel differently. For them, Corbyn’s demise would feel like a capitulation. It would feel like ­accepting that neoliberalism, capitalism and austerity have won the day, that the role of the Labour Party is to ameliorate rather than oppose them.

When I visited Islington North, Labour’s leadership election was only just starting to get under way and Angela Eagle was still in contention. Her tough performances deputising for the leader at PMQs have made her popular at Westminster but that enthusiasm has not made it as far north as Islington. “To me, I can’t see Angela Eagle as a prime minister either,” said Mike, one of the regulars at the Coronet, a Wetherspoons on the Holloway Road. “What are they running her for?”

The same sentiment prevailed in Wallasey, the Wirral constituency that Eagle has represented since 1992. There, too, were a few pockets of Corbynmania. There was also a sense that Labour is heading for defeat as long as Corbyn remains in place – but little faith in Eagle’s ability to alter that trajectory.

Wallasey is of less long-standing Labour vintage than Islington North. It remained steadfastly Conservative even between 1945 and 1966, and Eagle first won the seat in 1992. Although she is now in possession of a 16,000-vote majority, her neighbour Margaret Greenwood took Wirral West seat back from the Conservatives by a margin of only 400 votes. Tory strategists still eye the Wirral hungrily.

Wallasey is home to New Brighton, the seaside resort commemorated in Martin Parr’s 1985 series The Last Resort. A popular tourist destination for most of the first half of the 20th century, New Brighton was hurt by tidal changes in the River Mersey, which stripped most of its sand, and by the closure of its pier, but it remains a favoured destination for retirees and day trippers. In times past, Liverpool families that did well for themselves crossed the Mersey, bought a home – and promptly started to vote Tory. Wallasey, and the Wirral as a whole, is still where Scousers who have made it good set up their homes, but nowadays their politics usually survives the river crossing unscathed.

Yet there is still a vestigial sympathy for Conservatism in the leafier parts of Victoria Road and Seabank Road, one that is largely absent from Islington North. Perhaps Theresa May’s diligence in dealing with families affected by the Hillsborough disaster, which was mentioned frequently when I asked people for their opinion of the new Prime Minister, is sufficiently well regarded here that it is beginning to erode the Thatcherite taint still hanging over the Tory rosette on Merseyside.

However, it is not just Labour politics that is proving increasingly capable of weathering the journey across the Mersey. In Westminster, the chatter is that Militant – driven out of Labour in the 1980s, though most of its members continued to live and work on Merseyside – is back as a force in the city’s constituencies, and that many of its members have moved out and retired to New Brighton. Their influence is blamed for the series of damaging stories that slipped out of Wallasey in the days after Eagle declared her candidacy.

“There’s a reason why they’re so good at getting themselves on the national news and in the papers,” one MP tells me. “It’s that they’ve done all this before.”

***

The perception that Eagle “lost control” of her local party, as well as a disastrous campaign launch, led to support from fellow MPs ebbing away from her. It went instead to Owen Smith, the MP for Pontypridd, a little-known figure outside Westminster, but one who has long been talked of as a possible Labour leader inside it.

Smith’s great strength, at least according to some of his backers, is that he is a blank canvas. Certainly, as with Corbyn in Islington, there was a widespread perception in Wallasey that Eagle was not cast from the material from which leaders are made. Smith at least had the advantage of introducing himself to voters on his own terms.

His slim hopes of defeating Corbyn rest on two planks. First, the idea that a fresh face might yet convince wavering members that he could win a general election. A vote for him rather than Corbyn can therefore be seen as a vote against the Conservatives. Second, he is willing to call for a second European referendum. Among Labour Party activists, who backed staying in the European Union by 90/10 per cent, that is a compelling offer.

In Islington and Wallasey, both of which voted Remain (and both of which still have  houses flying the flag of the European Union when I visit), that message also has wider appeal. But in Smith’s own seat, a second referendum is a tougher sell. The Valleys voted to leave by a near-identical margin to the country at large. No one to whom I spoke was enthused about replaying the referendum.

Smith’s status as a “blank slate” will only be useful if he manages to write something appealing on it over the course of this summer. It is also possible he could just remain largely unknown and undefined.

Travelling around the country, I became accustomed to explaining who he is. Even at my hotel in Cardiff, which borders his constituency, the name “Owen Smith” was met with blank looks.

Unfortunately, the habit proved hard to break once I was in Pontypridd, resulting in an awkward scene in the back of a taxi. “I know who my MP is,” my driver said angrily, before launching into a lengthy diatribe about the arrogance of London-based journalists and a London-led Labour Party. The accent had changed, the setting was more confrontational, but the story remained the same as in Islington and Wallasey: he was convinced of neither Jeremy Corbyn’s nor Angela Eagle’s ability to fight and win an election. “That voice? In a room with Putin?” he said of Eagle. Then he said something unexpected. “But I’ll tell you what – they need a change from Jeremy Corbyn – and why not Owen Smith?”

“Why not Owen Smith?” As much as they might wish to deny it, that is the message with which Corbyn’s critics will try to take back control of the Labour Party. It is a message that feels unlikely to move or inspire. As I catch the train back to London, I reflect that those who want to convince Labour activists to give up Jeremy Corbyn – and what they feel he represents – need to offer them something compelling in return. No one puts “Vote for the lesser of two evils” on a banner.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics. 

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue