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

Laura Hynd for New Statesman
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Having the last laugh

How Diane Abbott – overlooked, mocked and marginalised by her own party for three decades – ended up as the closest ally of a Labour leader

“I don’t think you’re up to it.” It is 1970, and Diane Julie Abbott, aged 17, is keen to apply to Cambridge University, but her history teacher has other ideas.

“I was an omnivorous reader,” she says now, sitting in her parliamentary office, in a prime spot overlooking the Thames, “and in all these books, particularly these novels between the wars, if you went to university, you went to Oxford or Cambridge.”

The teachers at Harrow County School for Girls, where Abbott was the only black girl in her class, were not supportive. Her memories are less happy than those of her contemporary Michael Portillo, who attended the affiliated boys’ grammar school, and who played Macduff to her Lady Macduff in a school play.

Even when Abbott succeeded, she was regarded with suspicion. She remembers getting an A-minus in an English class – a mark that disappointed her – and being asked to stay behind by the teacher. “She picked up my essay between her thumb and her forefinger and said: ‘Where did you copy this from?’ I was genuinely shocked.”

The story suggests that she acquired her ability to shrug off criticism early. It is also a reminder of how often she is underestimated. The Times journalist Matt Chorley once described a successful day for Labour as one in which “Diane Abbott was on TV a bit less”. Julie Burchill described her in the Spectator as a “preposterous creature” who “blotted the landscape of English politics, speaking power to truth in order to advance her career”. In the Guardian, Michael White dubbed her a “useful idiot”.

She has been endlessly dismissed as stupid, untalented and bad at politics – an obvious “diversity hire”. These criticisms are immune to evidence: her time at Cambridge, the only black British student from a state school in the entire university; her 12 years on the sofa with Portillo on BBC1’s This Week; her time in the shadow cabinet under Ed Miliband; her reliable ability to hold the line in television interviews; and now her status as Jeremy Corbyn’s closest political ally. She is largely ignored by lobby journalists, even as they lament their failure to secure a line into the Labour leader’s thinking. In 2017, Diane Abbott celebrates her 30th year in parliament. Should we take her seriously?

 

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Abbott’s mother, a nurse, and her father, a welder, were born in the same village in Jamaica, but met and married in London and lived in Notting Hill “before it was a fashionable place to live”. Abbott was born there in 1953, 12 years before the phrase “race relations” first made its way on to the statute books. “My father was very aspirational,” she recalls, “and so every weekend, he and my mother would drive round houses in Pinner, and every Monday they’d ring the estate agent, and the estate agent would say the house had gone. But, of course, the house wasn’t gone.”

Eventually, they did buy a house, not in Pinner but in Edgware, north London. “My brother – his best friend was Jewish,” she tells me, “and he’d attend the Jewish youth club with his friend, and one day his friend said in a really embarrassed way: ‘I’m really sorry, I’m afraid you can’t continue to attend the club, because they’re afraid it will encourage the girls to marry out.’

“The thing was,” she continues, “my brother was upset about this. We were all upset on his behalf but it was just part of life.” And in 1970, a black straight-A student being told that she wasn’t good enough to go to Cambridge was, again, part of life. It was her response that was out of the ordinary: “Well, I do think I’m up to it. And that’s what matters, isn’t it?”

At university, Abbott didn’t get involved in politics, and she found the Cambridge Union off-putting. Her hall tutor advised her to go into the civil service, and so she arrived at the Home Office in 1976, the lone black graduate trainee on what she now describes as “a quixotic quest to do good”.

In turn, that took her to the National Council for Civil Liberties, now Liberty. Believing it to be a hotbed of communist sympathisers, MI5 tapped the office phones, an action that was ruled unlawful in 1990. “One of the things that Diane still talks about,” a friend tells me, “is her experience not only of the Home Office, but of being the subject of official surveillance. She has a cynicism about the state that hasn’t gone away.”

Abbott also joined local campaigns on some of the issues that have defined her career, such as the abolition of the “sus laws”, the informal provision that allowed the police to stop and search anyone under the ­Vagrancy Act, which activists claim was used to target ethnic minorities in Britain. After joining the Labour Party, she became a councillor in Westminster in 1982.

In the 1970s and 1980s, as today, Labour took the lion’s share of the ethnic minority vote. But no one from an ethnic minority had ever sat as a Labour MP. In the 1983 election, just one person from a minority was selected as a parliamentary candidate, and in an ultra-safe Conservative seat. In response, Labour’s minority activists formed the Black Sections, a campaign to secure ethnic minority representation.

It was through these that Abbott met Linda Bellos, who was the leader of Lambeth Council, where Abbott worked as a press officer – her last job before entering parliament. “I was born here in 1950, one of 50,000 black people [living in the UK],” Bellos tells me. “We might have talked about going home but home for me was bleeding London, wasn’t it? Hence the need to make sure we were involved in all of the parts of the state. Someone like Diane had been to Cambridge, she’d been a councillor, she knew the democratic process, she was friends with a number of MPs, she knew the score. If someone like her couldn’t be selected, what was the point of any of us being here?”

The Black Sections wanted affiliated status, similar to that of the Fabians. But there were concerns that black candidates would not appeal to Labour’s presumed core white working-class vote. Some on the left saw “identity politics” as a distraction from the class struggle; and some on the right thought the Black Sections were too radical. At the 1984 conference, their plan was thrown out by a margin of ten to one.

Despite this setback, the fight had an important legacy. In the 1987 elections, four ethnic minority MPs entered the Commons for Labour: Paul Boateng in Brent South, Keith Vaz in Leicester East, Bernie Grant in Tottenham – and, in Hackney North and Stoke Newington, there was the 33-year-old Diane Abbott.

 

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She was the first black woman to be selected for a safe parliamentary seat. The Times marked the occasion with a leader denouncing her “rhetoric of class struggle and skin-colour consciousness”.

A few months later, the Sun profiled the “ten looniest Labour candidates” in Britain. “We were all there,” Abbott recalls. “Jeremy [Corbyn], the rest of us, and I was number eight.”

The local party in Stoke Newington was delighted with this firebrand reputation. “They said: ‘Stick with us, and we’ll take you right to the top!’”

The voters of north London were less welcoming. A brick was thrown through the office window of her local party. With Abbott as the candidate, some traditional Labour voters switched to the SDP-Liberal Alliance, taking the Labour vote below 50 per cent for the first time in the seat’s history (the second occasion was in 2005, just after the invasion of Iraq).

In parliament, the intake of ethnic minority MPs was regarded with caution. Abbott recalls that the then speaker of the House of Commons, Bernard Weatherill, was “very anxious”. She adds: “He thought we’d be like the Fenians and disrupt and collapse parliamentary process. So he invited Bernie [Grant], who was regarded as our leader, for port. And Bernie came for port and the speaker was very nice to him. And I imagine the speaker thought this was what stopped us being like the Fenians.”

Those Labour MPs who were disruptive – such as Corbyn the serial rebel – were in low spirits for other reasons. The marginalisation of Abbott and her allies during the late 1980s and 1990s explains why they have so little sympathy for the party’s beleaguered centrists in the current power struggle.

At the Labour conference in Liverpool this year – where she spoke as shadow health secretary – Abbott told me: “I came to party conference every year for 20 years, and we would lose and lose and lose. These people have lost twice and they’re complaining!”

Her thick skin was toughened during the New Labour years – and it reaffirmed her close friendship with Corbyn. (The two had a short sexual relationship in the early 1980s, which ended amicably. Abbott was married for two years to a Ghanaian architect from 1991 to 1993; her son, James, was born in 1992.) “She’s always had an odd hold on Jeremy,” one Labour MP tells me. “You would see them having lunch together and her bossing him about. I think people underestimate how influential she
is on his thinking.”

When David Lammy, her neighbouring MP in Tottenham, entered parliament in 2000 following the death of Bernie Grant, he found her “vilified, ostracised and exiled by the Blairites”. There were several attempts to remove her as an MP – another reason why the Corbyn camp is unconcerned by complaints from MPs such as Stella Creasy and Peter Kyle about their local parties threatening to deselect them.

Abbott retains a network of friends from her time before politics, including from her stint as a television producer. They urged her to quit in the Blair years – or to end her association with the left-wing Socialist Campaign Group. “I never thought I was willing to trade what I thought was right for some position in the party,” she says.

Some allies see it differently. “I don’t think Diane is someone who can quit [politics],” a friend told me. “I see her tweeting at all hours. She has interests, books and so forth, but she couldn’t walk away.”

Abbott says that Keith Vaz convinced her to stay, telling her, “You have forgotten what it took for us to get here.” (Some of Corbyn’s allies believe that this is what made the leader so supportive of Vaz during his latest scandal.) This sense of solidarity with other ethnic minority MPs has led to the long-standing rumour that Abbott would have nominated Chuka Umunna had Corbyn not stood for the Labour leadership.

“Diane is absolutely loyal to Jeremy,” one MP who knows them both well tells me. “She’s loyal to the project, yes, but she’s also loyal to him, in a way I don’t think you could honestly say about John McDonnell or Clive Lewis.” During the coup attempt against Corbyn last summer, Abbott spoke forcefully in favour of Corbyn remaining in place, rather than striking a deal to put Lewis or McDonnell on the ballot. “Her position,” one insider recalls, “was that we’d got a candidate we knew could win, and that candidate was Jeremy.”

Not that they always agree. Abbott advocated a less conciliatory approach after Corbyn’s first victory in 2015. “The thing that can be infuriating about Jeremy is that he likes to think the best of everyone,” she says. “I’m always perfectly straight with him as to what I think, and even if he doesn’t believe me at the time, he always does come round to my point of view.”

Abbott is one of the few people in the Parliamentary Labour Party whom Corbyn trusts completely. In their relationship, it’s hard to see who is the senior partner.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Corbyn and Abbott settled into a pattern of dissent, followed by defeat. Corbyn spent the time attending to foreign and human rights campaigns and signing thousands of early day motions. Abbott carved out a niche as a reliable critic of the Labour government under Tony Blair, with a month-long slot at the launch of the BBC’s This Week in 2003 blossoming into a regular gig alongside Michael Portillo. But away from Westminster, Abbott was making a decision that she knew could destroy her political career.

 

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The London borough of Hackney is today a national leader in schooling, but in 2002, just a third of students received five or more A*-C grades. That prompted Abbott to send her ten-year-old son, James, to City of London, a leading private school.

“I knew I could lose the seat over it,” she told me. “I was a single parent, and time after time, I had not been there for things at school, or I was too tired to take him out somewhere . . . I just thought, just this once, I should be prepared to make a sacrifice for him. If I lost the seat, then I lost the seat.”

She kept the seat. “Other things do annoy Diane – reporters saying things about her that aren’t true, people talking down to her,” one friend tells me. “But with [the schooling] I think she was very happy with that deal and to take that blow.”

Then, in 2010, Abbott’s career began a surprising second act: a bid for the party leadership. Activists and commentators felt uninspired by the choice in front of them – Ed Miliband, David Miliband, Andy Burnham and Ed Balls, four former special advisers from the New Labour era. Abbott called them “geeky men in suits”. Harriet Harman, in particular, was keen that the contest should not be an all-male field. Her support swayed Abbott. “If you had to pick one person, it was her,” she says, “because she was more mainstream.”

David Lammy set up a meeting between Abbott and David Miliband. The front-runner told her that, if she were a vote short in the nominations from MPs, he would vote for her. “But because it was David Miliband, I didn’t believe him.”

The elder Miliband had his own reasons for backing her. He believed that having her on the ballot would deprive his brother, Ed, of valuable support from the left. This was also the calculation that allies of Yvette Cooper made about Corbyn in 2015. “David’s legacy,” the Wakefield MP, Mary Creagh, wrote five years later, “made it normal – Blairite, even – to put a left-winger on the ballot to ‘have a broad debate’.’’

Of Corbyn’s campaign, Abbott says now: “I knew he’d do well, because what people missed is that had it been one person, one vote [in 2010], I’d have come third.”

Had the unions and the MPs not had a disproportionate influence on the result, she says, “I’d have beaten Andy Burnham, I’d have beaten Ed Balls. I’d been to 53 hustings – most Labour people are where Jeremy and I were. I knew there was much more left-wing sentiment in the Labour Party than the lobby thought.”

As a result of Corbyn’s victory in 2015, she is shadowing one of the great offices of state in what once looked like her final term in parliament. Her policy priorities as shadow home secretary are broad but include her favoured subjects of police reform and anti-racism. “I want to help shape the debate on migration,” she tells me. “I think we’ve had a very vacuous debate.”

That has put her at odds with the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell. Though both are long-time friends of Corbyn, their relationship is not warm. Allies believe that the division stretches back to the late 1980s, when McDonnell – then outside parliament – gloried in not going “soft” in the manner of Neil Kinnock. Abbott attracted suspicion, in part because of her early conversion to a pro-European position. Many believe that McDonnell never embraced the European project. He has ruled out opposition to Brexit and is behind the toughening of the party’s line on immigration. Abbott, privately and publicly, is determined to hold Labour to a more open and pro-immigration position. She has said that Labour cannot win as “Ukip-lite”, a coded rebuke to McDonnell.

The shadow chancellor is the only MP with a comparable influence to Abbott’s on Jeremy Corbyn and, thus far, the Labour leader has struck a middle path on migration, supporting Abbott’s line that the single market cannot be traded away for restrictions on the free movement of people but stopping short of a full-throated defence of free movement in principle.

As well as winning that internal battle, Abbott faces the task of landing more blows on Amber Rudd than her predecessors – Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Ed Balls – managed against Theresa May when she was the longest-serving home secretary in a century, transforming the reputation of a department once regarded as a political graveyard. Not many give Abbott much chance of success but, as always, she believes in herself and thinks that she’s up to it.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent of the New Statesman

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge