Today I want to admit to a bitter and long-running feud with Gordon Brown. This will come as a surprise to many, including Mr Brown, who is, I expect, entirely unaware of my existence.
When our conflict was at its frosty height he was Chancellor of the Exchequer and then Prime Minister. I was, well, me. But as a cat may look at a king, I didn’t let this petite gap in status deter me. Whenever his big granite head appeared on the TV screen I would scowl and huff. His every pronouncement was met with a snort and a withering put down — I had some great lines. And as his career went from triumph to catastrophe my spirits rose in inverse proportion.
What had Gordon ever done to me? Nothing at all. But I was a Tony Blair guy. Still am, in fact. Tony had character traits that I value in people (and especially leaders): he was emotionally intelligent, courageous, wore the burden of office lightly, didn’t seem to be much of a hater or grudge-holder. I really liked his policy agenda, especially the more out-there bits on education, healthcare and welfare. I appreciated his modernity: as was said of Bill Clinton, he was a ‘bridge’, taking British society from one era into another. I got Tony.
But Gordon wanted to take all that away from me — and in time, of course, he did. He didn’t like the radical policies; he didn’t like Tony being Prime Minister; he didn’t much like Tony. I found the naked desire to unseat a man who kept winning elections with big majorities almost obscene. I didn’t get Gordon at all – I saw only power-lust, squat henchmen and a brutal, binary, with-me-or-against-me politics.
A few weeks ago I heard a story that made me think about my nemesis for the first time in a while. In fact, it made me think about the way I think about him. I wonder if, in the feverish last few weeks of the referendum campaign, it’s a tale that might contain a small lesson for us all.
It’s well known that Mr Brown lost the sight in his left eye in a boyhood rugby accident. For days afterwards it was feared he had been completely blinded. Young Gordon lay in a hospital bed for hour upon hour, sightless, contemplating the possibility that this condition was now permanent. Eventually the vision in his right eye returned, but badly impaired and forever at risk.
Here’s the story I was told. While Mr Brown was Prime Minister, fate’s cruel hand knocked: his remaining vision suddenly failed and he found himself blind for two days. He may have been living in the most famous address in Britain, but it must have felt like he was back in that hospital bed.
After 48 long, uncertain and presumably frightening hours, his sight returned – thankfully, it had only been an infection. But I was intrigued as to how he coped through such a challenging situation — I imagined his famous irascibility exponentially worsening into titanic rages, scatter-gun stapler throwing, dark incidents with sharpened pencils. Not so; a rare serenity descended, I’m told. He was instantly, uncharacteristically, calm and pragmatic.
Friends say the teenage trauma of almost losing his sight, and of knowing it could go at any moment, shaped Mr Brown’s character – he believed he was operating on borrowed time and was impatient to do his best while he could, to put into practice the conclusions drawn from a lifetime of deep thought about the Labour movement and social justice.
Yet in No 10, when darkness suddenly fell, he exuded a sense of peace — almost as if a burden had, at last, been lifted. I take that in the only way one can, as an insight into the man’s deeper nobility.
In politics, it’s easy to dehumanise the people we disagree with, to view the other side as somehow lesser moral beings. We ascribe to our opponents the lowest of motivations and qualities – they are vain mountebanks in it only for themselves; they are heartless, stupid, even evil.
If we’re honest, most of us think the worst of others too often and too quickly. And when we make the wrong call about someone, we stick with it. Yet all this jars with a lesson we relearn every day — most people are fundamentally decent and generous, and doing their best in the face of the challenges and burdens that life presents. That’s certainly how we’d like to be seen ourselves.
The referendum campaign has led to an extraordinary flowering of democratic spirit. It is often said — usually by the pro-independence side — that it has been an extraordinarily civilised debate, given the nature of the matter at hand and how these things have played out elsewhere in the world.
But this is to judge us beside the genuinely troubled, the ethnically fraught, the militarised — the oppressed and their oppressor. This is not who we are or the company we keep: it is a ludicrous comparison. We should instead weigh ourselves against ourselves — against the peace, prosperity and stability that have largely defined us. Against the solidarity and empathy that have knitted us together.
I’d say the referendum has split our little nation quite savagely. It has built walls around us and between us. As the Yes campaign has wielded its chisel and crowbar – the tools of separation – and the No blowtorch has soldered and welded in response, structural cracks have appeared. Failures of empathy and solidarity are visible all over.
Most people who have met the Labour MP Jim Murphy will tell you the same thing: he is a friendly, down-to-earth and enthusiastic sort, a good guy. In recent weeks he has been on a ‘100 streets in 100 days’ dash around Scotland where, in the old-fashioned style, he stands on an Irn-Bru crate making the case for the Union and taking questions from all-comers.
Last week he suspended the tour, saying that Yes supporters were deliberately creating a ‘mob atmosphere’ at every event. ‘What started as individual passionate nationalists having their say has changed into angry mobs of nationalists coming along and making sure that no one else has their say,’ he said.
Murphy showed video footage of recent meetings in Wishaw, Dundee and Motherwell in which he is called a ‘Quisling’, a ‘traitor’ and a ‘war criminal’. On Wednesday, he was forced to intervene to stop a Yes supporter shouting in the face of an elderly woman. On Thursday he was pelted with eggs in Kirkcaldy town centre. At a Better Together rally in Dundee on the same day a man was ejected for screaming abuse at Gordon Brown.
On Friday, the Times ran an image on its front page of a man in a Yes-branded beanie hat raising his middle finger to the photographer. Thus ended a week that had begun with a foul-tempered and abrasive TV debate between Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling.
These incidents show aspects of the pro-independence campaign in a poor light. It’s not my intention to be partial – leaders and footsoldiers of the Yes campaign have tales of abuse too.
My point is this — what, consciously or unconsciously, are we letting happen to us? What’s with the venom? Who scrawled the word ‘SCUM’ across the ‘No Thanks’ posters in my hometown of Stirling? From which dark hole have these deep hatreds sprung? And a big one — how does this end?
It was always inevitable, given the nature of the decision we are taking on September 18, that there would be passion and niggle. The vote is not simply an issue of governance, as it suits the SNP to have us believe. It asks the deepest personal questions – about identity, nationality, loyalty, history and family. And we are all human: complex but jerry-built psychological constructs, tribal, defensive.
It should be obvious that Jim Murphy isn’t a Quisling or a traitor because he supports the Union and you don’t – he’s a fellow Scot who has devoted his adult life to public service. Nicola Sturgeon believes independence would make it easier to address issues of poverty and need – I don’t agree that it would, but I can’t say hers is an ignoble position.
If there’s a Yes vote I’ll be truly gutted – I’ll have lost not just the argument, but my country; I know those on the other side will feel the same if it’s a No. But either way we’ll all still be Scots and we’ll all still be democrats. In the event of independence, like everyone else, I’ll get behind the national effort to build a successful new state.
Now is not the time to deny each other the benefit of the doubt – in fact, it’s never been more important precisely because it’s never been harder. So, empathy and solidarity, the effort to see your opponent’s inner nobility: we’re going to need a great deal of it all in the months ahead.
(This article appeared in the Scottish Daily Mail on September 1, 2014)