To Glasgow, to do a Sunday show after the Scottish elections. It’s the city I was born in and I love its smell – slightly smoky, yet fresh with a strong tang of the Atlantic – and I love its colours, especially the distinctive tawny-orange Giffnock sandstone out of which so much of Victorian Glasgow was built. In the 1840s, one of my more ferocious ancestors, William Stevenson, rose like a rocket in the quarry business, from shop boy to buying out the company owner in his early twenties. He retired at 40, owning almost all the famous Giffnock quarries and with seven sons.
According to photographs and family stories he was a terrifying man. Every Christmas, he clattered around Glasgow with horse and gig to visit his sons’ families and present them with the gift – of a single orange. He cut off my great-great-grandfather. Today, I skulk guiltily around the same Glasgow streets, relics of the days when it was an industrial powerhouse, wondering what the white-bearded old patriarch would have made of a descendant earning his living here by asking impertinent questions.
Whatever happens with the independence referendum argument, Scotland already feels different. One of the buildings carved out of Giffnock stone is the Kelvingrove Art Gallery. From Rembrandt, Dalí and Van Gogh to the best of Scottish painting, it has one of the most remarkable collections outside London. But unlike in London, the public galleries are open. We went, and then, escaping driving rain, ate inside – as, again, you can do in Glasgow (but not London). Little things. But I make no political point when I say Glasgow feels as distinct from an English city as, for instance, Dublin.
Labour’s deafening silence
I never sleep well before a big programme. I was up by 4.30am deploying a skill I have had to learn since Covid – doing my TV make-up. Emerging into the dawn like a poorly crafted gargoyle dipped in toffee, I found myself at the BBC with the entire team already present. They, too, had had sleepless nights. After the terrible drubbing Labour had taken in the north of England, we’d heard Angela Rayner, the deputy leader, was ready to come on the show to defend Keir Starmer.
Then, as reports began to circulate that he had sacked her as campaign manager, she – perhaps unsurprisingly – went quiet. Panic! Nicola Sturgeon was coming on and so was Michael Gove – a pair I particularly enjoy interviewing. But who would talk for Labour? We rang and texted everyone we could think of. Mostly, silence. Sometimes in politics, there’s no more eloquent evidence of real trouble than silence.
Scotland’s shared destiny
In tone, the Scottish campaign had been quite classy. Politicians disagreed if not cordially, then at least mostly seriously and politely. Also, they had a big subject: the destiny of their country.
Beyond the referendum, campaigners across quite a wide range of the political spectrum seemed to share a general idea about what Scotland needs to be – a social democratic, environmentally focused, small European country, looking after its own little green patch for future generations. How it’s actually going to earn its way in the world, William Stevenson might have pointed out, isn’t much discussed, but the “what for?” bit gets surprising agreement, from the SNP and Anas Sarwar’s Labour, across to liberal Tories.
In search of a philosophy
I mention this to raise another conundrum I’ve been thinking about since rereading JB Priestley’s English Journey of 1934, in which he tours what later became Brexit England, looking at how people made their living, where their sense of local and national pride came from, and much more.
The conundrum is this: who do the English now want to be? After Brexit, what’s the plan, Sam? Free market Thatcherite radicals and high spending believers in the state, led by the Prime Minister, are currently under the duvet together. But the question, after these elections, is more urgent still for Labour.
Starmer doesn’t need a better spin doctor or speechwriter. He needs a political philosopher – a patriotic English thinker with a decent sense of history and a certain moral anger, a Priestley or Orwell for our times. Given its history, perhaps the New Statesman can find someone to help?
DH Lawrence in an age of crisis
A tough gig, no doubt. I’ve been reading about 1922 and its volcanic literary eruption when Joyce, TS Eliot, Proust for English readers, and DH Lawrence, to name a few, broke upon the consciousness of the Western reading public. The crisis we have been through doesn’t match up to the First World War, but is it wrong to feel there has been a certain literary falling off?
This is provoked by a new biography of DH Lawrence, by Frances Wilson, Burning Man. Like many, I fell in love with Lawrence when I was a teenager. Like many, I then realised, with the vast experience of a 20-year-old, that he was useless. Joyce was the boy. But I’ve been back to read DHL again, and fallen in love again with his big books.
Among the many revelatory stories Wilson tells is one concerning the 1915 banning of The Rainbow. The 1,011 copies available were collected outside the Royal Exchange in London, where there is now a war memorial, and publicly burned by a hangman. Isn’t that extraordinary?
But it’s the words of another novelist that have been rattling around my head. Ulster’s Joyce Cary, now almost forgotten but part of the same literary world as Lawrence, said the “only good government is a bad one in a hell of a fright”. Across most of our country, those in power now face almost no medium-term electoral threat. They aren’t frightened. How good is that for the rest of us?
[see also: Britain’s search for a national story]
This article appears in the 12 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Without total change Labour will die