Saturday, 22 February 2014

Hillhead (Part 3)

Before I go on and suggest any lessons it is only right that I recount the subsequent fate of the various participants.

Roy Jenkins became the MP for Glasgow Hillhead. He then led the SDP into the 1983 General Election where they came close to being second. After that he stood down as leader and in 1987 on new boundaries, he lost his seat, finally, to the Labour Party. His successor was George Galloway who many of us (myself included, I confess) thought should have been our candidate in 1982.

P. Gerald "Piggy" Malone became the Tory MP for (marginal) Aberdeen South in 1983, only to lose the seat to us in 1987. In 1992 he secured a safe berth in Winchester, but in 1997 lost that (very) safe Tory seat as well, albeit in bizarre circumstance. (look it up). Since then he has concentrated on making money. At least hanging never was brought back.

Dave Wiseman became a senior social worker and subsequently moved to Cumbernauld where I still occasionally encounter him in the car park at Tesco in a manner reminiscent of Robert Redford and Barbara Streisand at the end of "The way we were". He didn't ever find the Loch Ness Monster. At least as far as I know.

And the big loser of Hillhead? The woman under whose leadership the Tories had not only lost their last seat in Glasgow but had come close there to coming third? The by-election took place on 25th March 1982. On 2nd April, Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands. The rest is history. Or, if you are a Tory, legend. 

But what of the wider political lesson? Why, despite all of the human resources that Labour had available to throw at the seat, had we not done better? Why hadn't all these voters who had packed in to these public meetings not then flocked to the polls? Because these voters never existed. Certainly the meetings were packed, but they were packed with Labour Party activists.

 We were entirely speaking to ourselves.

And sure nobody at these meetings asked any awkward questions, or pointed out the obviously contradictory messages coming from the platform once one got beyond a common hatred of the Tories and contempt for the SDP. Because we had no interest in asking awkward questions of ourselves. 

But, insofar as they attended these meetings at all, the undecided electorate noted that. And whether at such a meeting or more likely sitting in front of the telly, they were not inclined to vote for those who might be united (just) in what they were against but obviously in no way certain as to what they were for. And the more it became apparent that the partisans of Dave Wiseman and his Party were uncaring as to these obvious omissions, the more the electorate was inclined to distrust us with their vote. 

I now could make all sort of comparisons with the Referendum Campaign. Alright, I will.

It seems almost every night I am currently besieged on twitter by Cybernat comment about how the "tweeter" has just come back from a brilliant meeting packed to the rafters where they have heard unanimous acclamation for the rhetoric of Jim Sillars, or Patrick Harvie or Colin Fox or Robin McAlpine or all four. Last week we were told that the new Academics for Indy group had attracted more than one thousand twitter followers within twenty four hours. 

I don't doubt any (or at least most) of this. 

But did anybody at these meetings ask Mr Harvie why, if his vision was so popular, his Party currently polls about one third of the Scottish support of UKIP?  Or ask Mr Fox why his Party seemed to have abandoned electoral tests of popularity altogether? Or ask Mr Sillars why, if he believed the only 
"Independence" prospectus currently on offer was "stupidity on stilts"we should nonetheless vote for it? 

Or did anybody ask any of them at all where the women were?

Apparently not.

Just as nobody was interested in asking Academics for Indy how many of their immediate twitter followers were common to Farmers for Indy, Poles for Indy or Women for Indy while actually being neither academics nor farmers nor Poles nor even women? Rather simply being the same thousand or so Nationalist activists doing the internet rounds trying to give the impression of wider support.

Of course not. For there is nothing more comforting than being among one's own and believing that to be representative of wider opinion. 

It might have been thirty two years ago but I knocked a lot of doors in Hillhead. And while I still remember the bluntness of Jimmy's speech his opinion itself, at the time, didn't surprise me.

I don't doubt, equally, that many Nationalist activists are also, in the modern age, making a lot of phone calls before they go out to be inspired from the public platform by Sillars, Harvie or Fox. And they'll know the results they are getting on the phone because it will, broadly, be the same results as we are getting. 

And I suspect that, in their heart of hearts, they already know that. That when Peter Murrell is lifted onto his metaphorical table after the close of poll on 18th September, his message will echo that of Jimmy Allison all those years ago. That he is going home to his bed because he already knows the result.

Not that it will prevent them standing outside the count. 


  1. Very entertaining, Ian. I can genuinely say, however, that I have never been to a Yes meeting where the audience didn't have more folk I've never seen before than people I already knew, including one last night in Montrose.

  2. Really good stuff - but I also think that the pro UK campaign could also learn from this. I'm not sure that we're articulating anything that inspires the electorate.

    Thanks for this series on Hillhead. I must see if someone who was there at the time can write something from our perspective.

  3. Very interesting Ian - I leafleted for Labour in the Woy election I wonder if we met! I agree with littlegidding though, I know people enthusiastically throwing their energies into the Yes campaign who have never been involved in any politicking before. Certainly the Ayes have the energy and the numbers - whether this means victory is theirs, or is a manifestation of one of those revivalist movements that occurs periodically in Scotland, well we shall find out.

    Spot on about the Greens and SSP. The Greens have some excellent councillors, including mine, Martha Wardrop, but as you say for Holyrood UKip are beating the Greens - all under 5% of course but still.

    As for the SSP, oh dear.