No man: Jim Murphy and his Irn Bru crates hit Edinburgh's Grassmarket. Photo: Getty
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Jim Murphy: on the road in Scotland for the No campaign

Barked at by a dog, watched by a Pet Shop Boy and heckled by a Yes-supporting horse.

Thursday

In the course of our tour of Scotland in the referendum campaign, we’ve changed the way we organise the meetings. We don’t invite an audience beyond a few supporters. Increasingly the meetings are about trying to persuade “yet to make my mind up” Scots. Many are now organised by word of mouth or are entirely impromptu. Fortunately for those of us campaigning for a No, Thanks vote, Scots have a very British attitude to queues. Often when they see a crowd forming they simply join in. So the meetings have sometimes started small and grown to a few hundred within minutes.

I did one such meeting tonight outside the Glasgow Gallery of Modern Art with the Scots comedian Andy Cameron as my warm-up act. Hundreds of Glaswegians rushing home decided to miss their bus or train to join in the conversation. In the distance, at the back of the crowd, I saw Neil Tennant from the Pet Shop Boys, who are in the city to perform for an admittedly bigger audience. No idea if I convinced him.

 

Friday

A day off from the tour to head back to the Commons and a vote on the bedroom tax. This unfair policy applied across the whole of the UK is another reminder that poverty and injustice are blind to nationality and don’t ask about passports before being visited upon families. But to listen to SNP activists during the campaign, you would think hardship is inflicted upon Scots because we are also British. In truth, it’s because we have a Tory government, not a “British” one, that so many families still suffer. The SNP cares nothing for the Labour Party and does little for the poor. Despite its social-democratic rhetoric, its only redistribution is from the poor to the more prosperous. They talk left and act right. As if to prove it, only a third of the SNP’s MPs bothered to vote today.

 

Saturday

Another impromptu meeting in Glasgow, this time in Argyle Street, with ten campaigners and hundreds of shoppers. The events in the Commons are already big news on Scotland’s streets. Halfway through my speech, I’m interrupted by a heckle featuring too many swear words for it to bear reprinting in the New Statesman. But it’s another reminder that not all of Scotland’s best comedians are on stage. Even though my tour had me making my debut at the Edinburgh Fringe, there’s more genuine humour in street politics than in parliamentary politics. In Bathgate, a man came out of a Poundland and placed a six-pack of toilet rolls on my crates, with a put-down of: “Big Man, yu’ve been talking shite for an hour, so here – that’s to clean yer mooth oot!” I’ve been barked at by a dog with the word “Freedom” scribbled on it in Biro and heckled by a horse wearing a Yes Scotland blanket. My favourite so far was a man claiming to be “the Oban Seagull Whisperer”. He turned up in the West Highland capital with the sole aim of persuading said seagulls to disrupt our session with the call of nature. I think the bag of chips in his hand was a bigger calling signal than any of his silent sounds.

 

Sunday

I’d always thought that the main risk of having so many public meetings would be Scotland’s unpredictable summer and now autumn weather. But only one meeting has been rained off. A few others have been disrupted in different ways. And while some focus settled on an egg thrower now carrying out community service, I couldn’t care less about how many eggs are aimed at me.

This was about something much more sinister and I’m glad that whoever turned on the tap of that type of aggressive nationalism then quietly turned it off again after I suspended my tour and took police advice. Today, the Daily Telegraph reported that an anti-English group, Siol nan Gaidheal, or “Seed of the Gaels”, was behind some of the disruption. They’d boasted “we have been following Murphy” for “in-your-face confrontations”. A bit like Johnny Cash, they seem always to dress in black. And while he did it for “the poor and beaten down/Livin’ in the hopeless, hungry side of town”, their sartorialism is about our nation’s supposed oppression by our neighbours in the south.

 

Monday

The day starts with a hangover feeling – even though I’m teetotal. Scotland went toe to toe with the world champions last night and, for a while, we looked like we might win. A 2-1 defeat in Germany was the type of performance that feels like a giant step towards Euro 2016 qualification.

 

Tuesday

Early this morning, I used what’s left of my voice on Radio 4’s Today programme to talk about Labour’s plans for accelerated devolution. Gordon Brown announced an accelerated timetable for the Scottish Parliament. It’s the right thing to do and Gordon’s speech setting out the detail has thrown the SNP off its stride. On the radio, I asked Angus Robertson, the often assured SNP leader in Westminster, whether his party would join in the devolution consensus after a No vote. Instead of answering, he reverted to nationalist type by lashing out at John Humphrys and the BBC.

I’m finishing this diary while travelling between Falkirk and Stirling – stops 94 and 95 on my #100Streets tour of Scotland. It’s old-fashioned politics in 100 open-air meetings across the country. It’s just me, my two Irn-Bru crates, a microphone, and whoever turns up. Falkirk was busy and passionate. One of the few hecklers arrived with a violin and played “Scotland the Brave”. It has come to something when the playing of one of Scotland’s great anthems is considered a way of making a political point.

The truth is that the song, the St Andrew’s flag and the country belong to all of us, patriot or nationalist. So, rather than reacting in the way my polite and talented heckler had wanted, I challenged him to strike up our nation’s actual anthem. He and I did a duet – him playing and me singing – from my Irn-Bru crates. 

Jim Murphy is shadow defence secretary and  Labour MP for East Renfrewshire

This article first appeared in the 10 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Britain in meltdown

Flickr/Zappys Technology Solutions
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Is "successful" sperm really the measure of a man's masculinity?

An advertising campaign challenging men to "prove your worth" is being proposed to increase dwindling numbers of sperm donors – will the myth that only "real" men have potent sperm ever die?

Are you a superman? By which I mean, do you have the kind of sperm that would be accepted by the UK Sperm Bank, currently stuck with only nine donors on the books? Laura Witjens, chief executive, is currently launching a drive to recruit more donors. Her secret weapon? An appeal to male vanity.

Speaking to the Guardian, Witjens claims that if she advertised saying, “Men, prove your worth, show me how good you are”, it would be a route to gaining “hundreds of donors”. The implication is that beta males need not apply; this is for “real” men only. And what better way to demonstrate one’s manly credentials than through the spreading of one’s super-strength, 100 per cent proof, ultra-potent seed?

The proposed campaign approach serves to remind us of two things: first, the male ego is ridiculous, and second, reproductive ability is still treated as an indicator of whether or not one is a “successful” representative of one’s sex. However much we claim that biology is no longer destiny, certain expectations linger. “Real men” have high-quality sperm and want to see it distributed as widely as possible. “Real women,” on the other hand, only end up unable to reproduce if they have “left it too late” (that is, spent too much time in what is still seen as the world of men).

That fertility is primarily linked to luck rather than sexist morality tales is something we’d rather not admit. After all, far too many cultural edifices have been built around the idea that the opposite is true.

For something that resembles runny PVA glue, sperm has done well for itself. Throughout history, men have been obsessed with their precious seed and what it means for their status as the dominant sex. Since it is women who get pregnant – women who perform the actual task of gestating and birthing new human beings – there has always been a need to inflate the importance of semen, lest men should be sidelined completely. Whereas for women reproduction is a continuous process, for men it is more disjointed and conceptual. Hence it is important to have something to rely on. In sperm we trust.  

Otherwise can a man ever be sure – really, really sure – that a baby is his? For biological mothers, maternity is never in question. For biological fathers, paternity needs to be established. There are various ways of achieving this: heterosexual marriage, compulsory monogamy, the policing of women’s sexual choices, the withholding of material resources from women in return for sexual exclusivity, the threat of an appearance on Jeremy Kyle.

And then there are the various myths regarding how magical and special your own sperm is. It had to be you, didn’t it? He shoots, he scores. How else would the phrase “Who’s the Daddy?” have come into its current usage? The “skill” of impregnation is linked to manliness. If you’re a real man, the implication is, then you’ve nothing to fear.

The “superman” theme proposed by Witjens harks back to the various ways in which men have sought to position themselves and their sperm right at the centre of human reproduction, believing, for instance, that it already contained human beings in miniature, or that women merely provided the passive matter that would bring their active principle to life.

The biology I learned at school still played on the narrative of the hardy, valiant sperm battling against all odds to reach the passive, if somewhat capricious, egg. Sex education met gender indoctrination; it even seemed to be implied that the egg, in closing off entry to all other sperm once the “victor” had penetrated her boundaries, was being a bit of a tease (she’d already set off down the fallopian tube, what did she expect?). Pregnancy itself, we were led to believe, could never match the creativity, risk and drama of that one initial shag.

To respond to such myth-making with “but it’s only sperm and actually it could be anyone’s” seems positively mean. Women are supposed to worship it. Our effluvia – vaginal discharge, menstrual blood, breast milk – might be seen as disgusting, but when it comes to a man’s cum, it’s considered rude not to want to swallow it. People who respond with outrage when a woman suckles her baby in a crowded café think nothing of the idea that a real woman should want to gulp down semen with gusto. Patriarchal semiotics tell us that what comes out of men is life-giving and hygienic; women, on the other hand – popping out babies and sustenance – merely leak. It takes a brave woman to say, “hang on, is semen really all that?”

In the UK at least, it would seem that it isn’t. According to Witjens, getting one’s sperm approved for the UK Sperm Bank is exceptionally difficult because of how strong the product needs to be to survive the freezing and thawing process: “If 100 guys enquire, ten will come through for screenings and maybe one becomes a donor. It takes hundreds of guys.” Meaning most men don’t actually measure up to “superman” standards (without even considering what this approach says to men with a low sperm count, of whom it is suggested that the manhood test has been well and truly failed).

Her advertising strategy may be one that works. But it would be nice if, in a society that increasingly favours a politics of acquisition over one of care, we could be a little less focused on the potency of the mighty seed, looking instead at this particular form of donation as part of a broader process of creating and caring for others. Perhaps appeals to male vanity just work better than appeals to altruism. Even so, it’s a pity that it has to be so.

The aftermath of sperm donation can be complicated. Once one gets beyond the cash and the ego trips, the process can lead to real children with a real need to know the identity of the donor. Whereas in the past social convention allowed men to define ownership of children on their terms, nowadays globalisation and reproductive technology have led to a splintering of roles. Is it care or biology that makes a parent? What is it that shapes an identity and makes a person?

For most of us, the humane position is that nurture – the act of being there – must trump any biological contribution. To think otherwise is unfair on those who devote years of their lives to the raising of children. But for many donor-conceived adults, the donor is still needed to complete the picture of who one really is. And he will not be a superman. He will be a person who gave something small that nevertheless contributed to the creation of something miraculous: a life. And shouldn’t that be enough?

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of two who works in publishing.