There is no perfect remedy for Scottish Labour's broken record. Photo: Flickr/steve
Show Hide image

Frank Sinatra, Future Islands and Status Quo: a musical history of the SNP and Scottish Labour

Just noise?

These days you’d be hard-pressed to find any credible indie rock kids willing to admit they're Status Quo fans. There are no breakbeats, hip hop samples or underground indie kudos here. It's just the old guard cranking out the same old hits of yesteryear, pushing nostalgia tours on their ever-diminishing audience.

A once mighty commercial force, Scottish Labour, according to all the polls, are now passé. As far as the electorate is concerned, they have become the Status Quo, minus the ponytails and denim shirts (although perhaps Jim Murphy and Co are missing a trick there.)

How did these formerly psychedelic rebel rockers turn into yesterday’s news? They took their ear from the underground, hooked up with commercial producers to smooth out their sound, and now all they can do is tell the kids that the new music sucks.

Scottish Labour has failed to realise that in the current climate, trying to rubbish SNP policy on austerity or threatening the electorate with another Tory government is the equivalent of Frank Sinatra describing that new-fangled rock'n'roll music as "the most brutal, ugly, degenerate, vicious form of expression it has have been my displeasure to hear". Frank, the kids just don't care.

A vote for the SNP has become nothing less than a rejection of the current political establishment – a repudiation of the two-party system that only offers voters a choice between Status Quo and... well, Status Quo. That's not a particularly enticing DJ set, unless you like all your songs sounding the same.

Sturgeon and her nationalists are smart enough to side with the anti-austerity vibe and sing that song in the hope it brings them closer to their dream of independence. Surprising no one but establishment politicians, they have become the first viable mainstream voice of protest to have risen in the United Kingdom since the beginning of the Occupy movement.

While their stance on austerity is far removed from that of Occupy, the political reaction to their slight economic deviance loudly echoes the times we live in. To even question the prevailing austerity wisdom amounts to an act of rebellion so severe it generates horror from both Labour and the Tories. 

This time, however, the rebels may have a political mandate that has completely blindsided the prevailing powers. As far as Cameron, Miliband et al are concerned, the anti-austerity tide has found a way to successfully infiltrate the system at the highest level.

You can see why the entire political class and media are doing their best to undermine the democratic validity of an SNP surge in the House of Commons. “Call that music?” they shout at the kids in the street. “That's just noise! You can’t even play your instruments properly.”

Right now, anyone with a care in their hearts and a stake in shaking up the mainstream about the future of these islands should enjoy clicking on that metaphorical YouTube link to the latest viral music sensation. It's Future Islands on the Letterman Show, the singer beating his chest, belting out something primal and entrancing. It's the sound of a pissed off populace. It's rage at having the democratic voice of the people limited to a binary choice of Tory and Labour.

You could have heard this new song in all the villages and cities of the UK anytime over the last seven years if you were willing to listen. But when you go for that middle ground vote like the big boys of politics always do, you tend to lost touch with real life and your instinct for what really matters.

The SNP’s day at number one will come and go. All great political love affairs eventually sour. That's understood. But right now, Status Quo is wondering why it's not cool anymore. It’s because it is incapable of even countenancing the kind of songs the Scottish electorate wants to hear. Right now the freaks and outsiders have stolen their fanbase and there's not much Labour can do except crank out the old hits and remember a time when its songs used to mean something.

Kev Sherry is lead singer of Scottish indie band Attic Lights. He tweets @KevSherry1

Getty
Show Hide image

In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser