One of the tenser moments in my too-long local government career occurred when some colleagues and I from a regional council were arranging an event in partnership with one of the district councils in our region (OK, since you insist, the councils were Moray district and Grampian region).
I was explaining the draft programme to the convenor of the regional council, a formidable old-school but pragmatic Labour politician called Bob Middleton. I was in the midst of describing our proposal that the district council provost open the event when, his eye already reaching the end of the programme, he said, ‘And what’s my role?’
‘Well, er,’ I said naively, ‘We thought your presence would give …’
I got no further.
‘I’m sick and tired of this!’ he roared (any surviving regional council colleagues will remember that Bob could roar). ‘Everywhere I go it’s the same. If it’s in the City the Lord Provost should do this. If it’s in a district their leader should do that. They’re all in the region for God’s sake’ (in case anyone close to him reads this it is of course a reconstruction from my memory).
I can’t remember how the meeting ended. I suspect his PA, good at these things, came in with tea and biscuits to rescue me from my naivety and calm him down. He certainly ended up with a role in the proceedings.
The man had a point of course. Moray was part of Grampian region just as Scotland is part of the United Kingdom.
They say the old ones are the best (the regional councils disappeared in 1996 and my anecdote must date from several years before then) but I really had hoped this sort of territorial nonsense was no more than a distant memory. Not so. Thus SNP MP Pete Wishart in the Commons on 25 February this year:
The roles in the present situation are somewhat different but for Bob Middleton read David Cameron and for the provost of Moray district read Pete Wishart. Which in one respect may not be too far-fetched. At this remove of time I cannot for the life of me remember who the Moray provost was in the early 1990s, just as no one will probably remember who Pete Wishart was in twenty-something years’ time. But I remember Bob Middleton and Cameron will be remembered in twenty years.
Cameron of course is too suave (Eton and Oxford) to be bothered by Wishart’s gnat’s bite, unlike Middleton (Aberdeen Grammar School and GPO/BT) who was so agitated by the poor old provost of Moray council. But, my youthful embarrassment and naivety notwithstanding, I’m with Bob Middleton on this subject and, if push comes to shove, I’ll be with Cameron should he choose to visit Scotland during the EU referendum campaign.
The SNP are too fond of telling politicians perfectly entitled to visit and speak to stay away from Scotland just because they disagree with them. Anyhow, it’s a self-defeating tactic. Remember their ‘Make Scotland a Tory-free zone’? That went well didn’t it? Some polls have the Conservatives in front of Labour for the forthcoming Holyrood elections. And then there was UKIP. All the huffing and puffing about Scotland not welcoming them before the last European elections and now one of Scotland’s six MEPs is … UKIP.
There seems to be an assumption that the ‘stay away’ mantra has also been uttered by Nicola Sturgeon. I confess I haven’t seen that (evidence however is welcomed if you have it). Never mind. It doesn’t matter. There is such a thing as the useful idiot in politics and once a thought like Wishart’s has been uttered it becomes part of the narrative. To mix my metaphors, it ties in nicely with the idea of ‘dog whistle’ politics. If the prime minister does choose to visit Scotland in the next few months good luck to him. But he can doubtless expect a disorderly rabble of outraged ‘patriots’ to harass him if he does.
Oh, and one more thought back at the regional council. The twentieth anniversary of their demise (end-March) may be the time to tell the story of the regional councillor from Moray who turned up unannounced in Aberdeen with a hire van on the council’s last working day to remove some of the fixtures and fittings from the convener’s suite. He was SNP. Just saying.