One of the frequent criticisms of those of us who seek Scottish independence is that we are causing division and conflict among friends and families. My friends and family are usually quite happy to start conflicts about many other issues than independence; however, in general, my experience has been that, apart from a few hotheads who are all for manning the barricades as in the Paris 'evenements' of the 1960s, most of my indy colleagues are keen to avoid unnecessary conflict with those of a different view. In fact, when expecting a recent visit from a unionist friend, I thoughtfully removed my cushions with the Declaration of Arbroath on them (won in an SNP branch raffle).
But my recent experience at a family funeral was rather different. I was in a small town much further south of Aberdeenshire where the main industry is tourism. The inhabitants are generally successful hoteliers or with attendant jobs such as building, plumbing or electrical work. Despite the pandemic, most people appear prosperous and there is little apparent poverty. At the reception in the local hotel, I was determined to keep my nationalist credentials to myself on the basis that wakes are not a good time to start discussing politics. But this was not easy...
First, a sweet little white-haired old lady (I also fit that description except for the 'sweet' and 'little' bit!) à propos
of nothing, unless I had an independent look about me, looked me in the eye and said: 'I hope today we aren't going to hear of that stupid
stuff about independence as we can't afford it!' As politely as possible, I suggested that small European countries like Estonia managed very well and it might be argued that it would be England rather than Scotland that suffered economically from our independence. I offered to lend her a short book on the subject but she rather huffily declined and sought more congenial company, like the Irish woman who claimed that Scotland was after all 'a part of England'.
At the other end of the bar, a gaggle of local tradesmen was busy destroying the reputation of Nicola Sturgeon. I will refrain from quoting them as SR is a family publication, but suffice it to say that the language became more colourful the more alcohol that was consumed. It appeared our First Minister was intent on taking over the world, stealing money from respectable small businesses and prolonging the pandemic by stupid rules such as the wearing of face coverings.
Now I have often wondered why Nicola Sturgeon is such a controversial figure. I don't speak from any personal knowledge of the woman except two brief encounters when she was polite, welcoming and a good listener – the last unusual among professional politicians. I have also been struck by her keenness actually to answer journalists' questions as opposed to not doing, again, a prerogative of the political class. As I indicated in a previous column, I have never been keen on the 'great leader' myth, so have no problem with the idea advanced by some that Nicola is 'just' a good manager (one day I intend to write a paper entitled Let's Hear it for the Good Manager
, as a counter to all the leadership twaddle I read).
But why do so many men – and women, and even SNP members – have a problem with Nicola Sturgeon, when down at Westminster they have the worst Westminster Government ever, under a 'leader' who partied while Covid victims died alone? I wonder if it goes right back to John Knox and the idea that female heads of state were a monstrous regiment? For some men, it's the apparent insult of having a female boss, and for some women, envy of the fact that a woman has shown what women are capable of, so they have no excuse.
My trip south was not without incident, either. Re-routed to Dundee as the train driver had phoned in sick ('It's not Covid!' the chap at Montrose thoughtfully informed us), I had an hour wait and thankfully did not require the services of the station's lavatories, as a large sign informed passengers 'There are no toilets working anywhere in the station – sorry for the inconvenience'. Bad as this might be for passengers, it must have been even worse for station staff, who presumably had to nip over the road to the V&A every time they needed the loo.
Coming back, I decided to visit the train toilet before arriving back at Dundee, something I rarely do as I'm never convinced by those electronic door locks. The toilet was a few feet away but in the next carriage, and two sets of electronic doors had to be opened to get there. Thankfully, they both opened and the lock on the toilet door actually worked.
Coming back, however, the first set of doors opened but the second didn't – and neither could I make the door I'd just come through open again. I was now effectively trapped in a sort of glass prison cell, unable to go forward or back. I did have my phone with me but I wasn't keen to call the police to rescue me. At least I was visible so I might be able to attract help at Dundee where the train terminated.
Then I remembered that although the carriage I had been sitting in was relatively empty, there had been a young woman sitting behind me. I banged on the glass as hard as I could and thankfully she heard me and turned round. With various wild gestures I pointed to the electronic door opener, and at last she understood, pressed it, and the door opened. I was free!
'The door wouldn't open!' I explained. The young woman gave me a look of some scorn, as she clearly thought I was some dotty old woman incapable of negotiating ScotRail electronics. If I ever catch a train again, I shall attempt to avoid Dundee station, especially if they haven't fixed the toilets!
Dr Mary Brown is a freelance education consultant