Michael Marra and the Search for the Soul of Scotland
The Scotsman, October 27th 2012
Scotland has had its moments in the last week: the drama of the SNP NATO vote, the revelations of the EU legal advice, and the tragic death of singer-songwriter Michael Marra.
What if anything do politics, legal manoeuvrings and matters of life and death have in common? To take the last first, Michael Marra was a unique talent and voice, a gentle, unassuming man who spoke of his native Dundee, of Scotland and of the world in a quiet yet uncompromising manner which is a lesson to all of us.
The big issues of the week, NATO and Europe, showed that the various political Scotlands don’t really understand each other. We all know that Johann doesn’t like Alex and Alex doesn’t rate Johann, that much is clear. But it is a bit more serious than that.
Labour Scotland has still not understood the dynamic and rationale of nationalist Scotland. It sees it as petty, puerile and a diversion from the real issues which are centred on opposing the Tories and a diluted version of class (protecting ‘our people’).
Nat Scotland lives in the past, so it goes, sustained on memories of battles, flags and invented grievances. It is all a bit sentimental and romantic and about a ‘separatism’ from the real world.
Nationalist Scotland doesn’t understand the motivations of Labour Scotland. It presents a vision of it as ‘London Labour’, of the Tory-Labour coalition, and even of Labour, after Johann Lamont’s recent speech as ‘the new Tories’.
Underpinning this is a strategic muddle that Jim Sillars spotted years ago when he heard Winnie Ewing, post-Hamilton, attack Labour. Ewing in a scattergun way, to Sillars’s ears, attacked the idea of Labour and both Labour politicians and members.
For years the SNP, post-Govan, learned from this and differentiated between Labour politicians and members. Yet now in the frantic heat of battle, some nationalists seem to be throwing everything they can at Labour – including the idea of Labour, and making the mistake Sillars pointed out all those years ago.
Behind both of these is the contest for the soul of anti-Tory Scotland. Both Labour and the SNP are vying for this precious mantle. Labour fought its 2010 campaign on this and won, and famously in 2011 pitched the same theme and lost. At the same time, one of the drivers of the independence campaign seems to be to create an anti-Tory popular front against London-emanating austerity, which is as flawed as Labour thinking last year.
This has to be contextualised. Scotland is more than this. Similarly, to reduce us from the above to the cliché of a divided, enfeebled community who cannot behave themselves in polite society is patronising and an insult. Moreover, pointing out the limits of our political life isn’t a call for love, peace and understanding to conquer all – what is sometimes called the ‘Kumbaya Scotland’ perspective – meaning that if only we all just held hands and sung a nice song everything would work out and we would all get along better!
The above characteristics are reinforced by how we debate politics and ideas most of the time, concentrating on abstracts and process. Taking about social justice, or even NATO and the EU without much detail doesn’t mean much to most voters. And it aids the incomprehension of the tribes for each other as they refuse to engage in the messy matter of facts.
This brings me back to Michael Marra. He represented the best traditions of the old Scotland, humility, sincerity and idealism from our past, and the best of the new Scotland, hope, a belief in the capacity of people to do good, and about the possibilities of a future Scotland.
Michael came from the Labour tradition and the left, and was also comfortable with contemporary nationalism. More importantly, he was an emotionally rich and literate man, and one who used play, humour and irreverence to make serious points and tell stories. He stood up to power, an example being his song ‘I am Shirley McKie’ and played with Scottish archetypes, as in his unofficial Scots and universal anthem, ‘Hermless’.
It also isn’t an accident that the most imaginative book I have read since devolution hasn’t been on politics or history. Instead, it was the iconoclastic writer and musician called Momus and his ‘The Book of Scotlands’ which imagines 150 or so parallel Scotlands, of past, present and future. It is a work of brilliance and ingenuity, filled with serious observations, satire and the ridiculous.
It is telling that in the last year on the two issues which have dominated public life, the constitutional question and Rangers FC, it has been near-nigh impossible to give voice or form to these qualities for fear of offending someone or worse still being threatened with intimidation.
Martin Kettle wrote this week that whether Scotland votes Yes or No in 2014 momentous change is coming to Scotland and the UK. He is right; major constitutional change is coming but it has to be linked to economic, social and cultural change for all our endeavours to have a wider impact.
We could do with a few signposts to aid the next two years. One would be that Labour and Nationalist Scotland are both valid but are partial Scotlands while anti-Tory Scotland on its own isn’t enough whether in the hands of Labour or SNP.
The limits of abstracts, totems and shibboleths need to be noted and the cul-de-sac of going on about process or who said what to who in what order of emails; it is politics and public life as spectator sport for most of us.
To avoid this means getting into detail and more critically deeper questions about values, the future and society. How sustainable is our economy, how fair and compassionate is our society, and how empowering our democratic practices?
And recognising that this isn’t all about being rational and voters being economic calculating machines, but about embracing the emotional, humour, play and fun.
In short, this is about a culture of real self-determination, of how Scotland becomes the nation and society it wants to be. ‘Be the change you want to see’ said Gandhi. No Scot whatever their opinions or differences is our enemy; we are part of the same fabric but we have to undertake a careful balancing act, being infused with empathy while articulating meaningful difference.
I have a feeling that the words, spirit and grace of Michael Marra, Scotland’s original quiet man of steel, would help us here. Trying at least would be a fitting epitaph to that wonderful man.