Two very different tales of a city and a country – Glasgow’s Commonwealth Games followed by the Glasgow Cathedral commemoration of the outbreak of World War One when the UK declared war on Germany.
The Commonwealth Games showcased Glasgow on a Scottish, UK and global stage, aided by ‘Team Scotland’s’ best ever haul of medals. The games profiled Glasgow as an international city and tourist destination – a transition which has been underway for at least the last 30 years. How big a change this is can be underlined by the British Association’s annual conference proceedings in 1958 which took place in Glasgow. In its foreword the association boldly declared:
Our visitors are likely to know little of us. Glasgow does not rank as a tourist attraction: the Glorious Twelfth takes them to the North, the Royal and Ancient to the East and the Festival to Another Place.
The Glasgow of the games was very different from this, and from the powerful hackneyed and miserablist images of the city which have crowded out other accounts. It came across as vibrant, full of stunning Victorian buildings and animated people, yet at the same time this was a carefully choreographed creation: the brand of ‘official Glasgow’ which has co-opted everything from the patter to the infamous traffic cone on the Duke of Wellington’s head outside the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA).
On a Glasgow and Scottish dimension the games challenged the overbearing dominance of football across public conversations and the media. This has acted as a kind of cultural ‘upas tree’ blocking out the light from other sports, and seeing the attention and interest they gain wither on the vine.
There is a seldom explored connection between this Scottish obsession with football and our lamentable public health record. Glasgow, the epicentre of football passion and attendances also has the lowest sports participation rates in the country; thus many people prefer to be armchair sports enthusiasts rather than directly participate in any sporting activities.
A new range of Scottish sporting heroes emerged from the games, many of them working class men and women. It produced numerous joyful moments from the opening of athletic heats at Hampden with the electronic sign ‘Haud Yer Wheesht’ to Usain Bolt dancing along with the crowd to the Proclaimers ‘I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)’.
An important strand in all of this is how Scotland is represented and portrayed in the media, public discourse and culture, and the impact this has cumulatively. Scottish people do not see the varied, diverse and contradictory nation we live in reflected back except in very carefully controlled spaces and packages.
Thus, many Scots have a disconnected, distant relationship with their own cultures. And when in rare moments such as the Glasgow games when our nation is portrayed, it is an uplifting and empowering experience – which in some ways is ultimately a political one.
The day after the games closed an equally powerful public occasion occurred in the same city when a large part of the British and Scottish political and civic establishments gathered at Glasgow Cathedral to commemorate the start of World War One. Leave aside the historical anomalies such as the fact that the state that declared war on Germany on August 4th 1914 – the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland – no longer exists (a point made in the current issue of History Today).
Modern Britain has become a place where remembering and recycling the past and using it for the needs of the present has come centrestage. This is what Ernest Renan, in his famous 1882 ‘What is a nation?’ essay, said nations continually do: they select what they choose to ‘remember’ and what they choose to ‘forget’ in what is virtually ‘a daily plebiscite’.
The problem with Britain is that as any possibility of a progressive present and future has retreated into the distance, so the rhetoric (‘greatest political union in the history of human civilisation’ etc.) and remaking of the past has dramatically accelerated.
As I explored in Caledonian Dreaming there is a powerful and direct link between the rise of inequality and the new elites of power and privilege who have so distorted and damaged British society and politics, and the rising tide of the imagined past. It is revealing that 2014 is filled with three potent anniversaries: the 70th of the D Day landings, 75th of the start of World War Two and 100th anniversary of World War One. Already marked are the 200th of the Battle of Trafalgar and 70th of the Battle of Britain; next year is the 200th of the Battle of Waterloo (which George Osborne has already promised special funds for) and 70th of the end of World War Two. And to think some people got a bit worried about Bannockburn, when the British state has a whole industry devoted to this sort of thing!
What are the political implications of both of these happenings? On the Glasgow games, Lesley Riddoch observed “Can this really be us? The folk who couldn’t build a Parliament or a tramline on budget or on time …” whereas Alex Massie asked himself what the ‘political implications’ of the games were and replied, “There aren’t any.”
Massie went on to claim that “it is a belief widely held on the pro-Yes side of the indy debate that Scotland suffers from a crisis of confidence.” This is far too simple. The early years of Labour devolution saw the McConnell administration adopt the ‘confident Scotland’ deficit and thesis, commissioning research and embracing Carol Craig’s book The Scots’ Crisis of Confidence.
Its attraction to the McConnell administration was that it offered a new mantra for explaining what was wrong in Scotland and how to change it without challenging power either domestically, in Labour, or in the UK. For the same reasons it never went very far. Therefore, it can be stated that the ‘confident Scotland’ diagnosis does not fit into the political divide as Massie presents it, and if it is more associated with pro-indy opinion today this is because of the lack of imagination and boldness on the pro-union side. Equally, there is a major challenge to the pro-indy side, to develop a confidence agenda which goes beyond the inadequacies of the McConnell approach.
On a personal note I watched Glasgow open and close the Commonwealth Games in-between going up and down to London for the funeral of my father-in-law Cyril Ilett, who died on July 18th aged 89. Cyril (pictured below) was part of Britain’s wartime generation, who, as a young man of nineteen years, sailed from Greenock to Naples in a troopship in January 1944 before landing as part of the US-UK invasion force at Anzio beachhead south of Rome.
Cyril was a member of the 1st Battalion of the London Irish Rifles: from which a piper played last week at his funeral. Cyril’s war experience was shortlived as he was seriously injured in a German counterattack: an episode which left him permanently disabled. Anzio also provided the backdrop to the death of the father of former Pink Floyd lead singer Roger Waters, Eric Fletcher Waters, who fought and fell in the same part of the battlefield as Cyril fought.
Eric Waters’s death provided the inspiration for the last Pink Floyd album with Roger Waters, ‘The Final Cut’, which was released in 1983. It links together Anzio, the Falklands War and the Thatcher government’s counter-revolution, and is appropriately subtitled ‘A Requiem for the Post-War Dream’.
This brings us to the remembrance at Glasgow Cathedral and the rising power of the past in Britain’s present. What is conspicuously missing from these World War One events and others relating to the Second World War is any official awareness or recognition of the popular political expectations which were unleashed in the UK by these experiences.
After World War One these were dashed and disappointed, and this influenced the public mood after 1945 when a whole generation of men and women like Cyril vowed that they would not be let down, and that they would change Britain for the better. Such were the scale and popularity of their achievements that many thought in the decades after the Second World War that these gains were permanent. We now know differently.
Men like Cyril were self-effacing, private and not inclined to be boastful or egotistical. Yet such people radically changed Britain and then deeply felt betrayed by the direction of the country over the last thirty years. Cyril would state it quietly most of the time but both he and his wife Joan sensed that the post-war dream which they had grown up believing in had been torn up, trashed and humiliated by Thatcher and successive governments. And they sensed in the air that there was no going back to gentler, more comfortable times.
Neither Cyril or Joan ever had much time for Scottish independence or even more so Alex Salmond, but in this deeper understanding of the state of Britain and England over post-war tines, they recognised seismic change. They knew that the yearning of some on the left to go back to more simple, certain times wasn’t on, whether it be returning to the “Spirit of ‘45” or a ‘them and us’ version of class. Similarly they instinctively grasped that any populist sloganeering around ‘taking back our country’ from the left was likely to end up in some rather unpleasant ground.
This loss of hope and collective change south of the border is one of the dynamics shaping in a negative sense British politics. It can be felt all around: in the hollowness in Labour and Ed Miliband’s leadership, and the missing edge in their counter-charge to the Westminster coalition’s policies, and the lack of popular radical alternatives to Labour in England.
That is why the Scottish debate away to enter its final home straight this week is about more than Scottish independence or whether you like or dislike Alex Salmond. It is about believing in the possibilities of hope and collective change, and having the confidence to flesh out a different kind of politics and society to that which increasingly defines and dominates the UK. In my heart, I know that such an approach, saying no to the bastardised state of British politics, challenging its direction, and embarking on a very different course, would be one that men like Cyril Ilett and Eric Waters, if they were alive today, would understand and respect.
Photo by Cameron King