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Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation

An essay by Alasdair Gray

The editor of the Sunday Herald and Alex Salmond were wrong to call me author of the slogan Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation'. I found it in a long poem by the Canadian author, Dennis Leigh.

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I read it in the late '70s and put it on the cover of a novel in 1984. It is inspiring but not boastful. I hate hearing folk say I'm Scots and proud of it'. All people should love their land where the government does not punish them for saying what they think, but the only people who think their nation can only be made worse, not better, are likely to be very rich.

All should be glad to live where we can be good for others because our work helps them. The essential do-gooders in any nation work to provide food, clothes, and necessary transport. They build our houses and roads, mend the plumbing, empty our middens but such folk are the most lowly paid and have little time to improve their nation, having first to silence (as John Locke said) the croaking in their hungry bellies and those of their children.' Unlike professional folk, most reach the peak of their earning power in their early 20s, and since Thatcher's regime destroyed most trade union powers, their only chance of altering their state is through an election like that of May 3, 2007.

But no wonder only about 50% bothered to vote. Every government since Margaret Thatcher has continued her policies. Blair's only original idea was a Scottish Parliament with no power to do what Westminster did not want. He set up an Edinburgh talking-shop of very well paid MSPs chosen by proportional representation, hoping it would keep Scots dissidents squabbling between themselves without interrupting his management of Britain along lines favoured by its chief bankers and stockbrokers.

Three times in the 20thC the English Establishment let in a Scottish prime minister because it was hard to choose one of themselves. They knew Campbell Bannerman and Ramsay MacDonald were too old, tired and sick to be anything but conformists, knew Tony Blair's New Labour policy was wholly conformist. But his Scottish Parliament was a small step in a better direction. The May 3 election is a slightly larger good step. I can only explain how I think of Scotland today by giving my personal history of this United Kingdom's politics for readers too young to remember it.

I grew up believing, with my dad and his friends, that doctors, teachers and Labour politicians were the noblest works of God - doctors worked to reduce pain, teachers to spread knowledge, Labour politicians to reduce poverty and increase social equality. I was born in 1934 Riddrie which, with Knightswood, was the best scheme built by Glasgow Corporation (now called Glasgow City Council) being the earliest built under the Wheatley Act. This, the only Socialist Act of the first brief Labour Government after world war I, let local councils start improving the British workers' rotten rented homes by building public housing schemes. These were added to a Glasgow whose pure water supply, plumbing, roads, street lighting, public transport and schools had been municipalised by the former Liberal Party that had also introduced old age pensions, labour exchanges and doles, paying for them by taxing more highly the owners of richer properties. In this way Glasgow resembled London, Birmingham and many big industrial towns.

When we add tothesea nationalised General Post Officethat ran a cheap firstclass mail service for everyone and the telephone service, with the uncommercial BBC transmitting all radio and television broadcasts, so we knew Britain had the foundation of a completely Socialist state.

When world war II began the London Government was rightly terrified of a Nazi conquest because Britain stood alone against European Fascism. It did not threaten the USA and the USSR had signed a pact with it. A Tory and Labour coalition united the country by nationalising every big British business, industry and bank. Profits were frozen, rents and wages fixed, young men were conscripted into coal mines, girls into factories, rationed food ensured none ate luxuriously while others starved. It signed agreements with our trade unions that lasted for two decades after the war ended. All these Socialist acts had been rejected as Socialist by the same government before the war, leading the novelist Joyce Carey to write, the only good government is a bad government in a fright.' To make post-war Britain a better nation for everyone a government committee drew up a plan for the future of the welfare state. It was called the Beveridge Report.

The main politicians who accepted and carried out that report were Tories and Labourites who agreed Britain should have more social equality. Many had survived the first world war which the British Government said was being fought to make A Land Fit for Heroes to Live in.' After it, reduced wages caused the 1920s General Strike followed by a worldwide economic depression with widespread unemployment caused by overproduction of essential goods. Well, the war had cured that. The last bill passed by a Tory minister in the wartime coalition was an education bill which let any student who passed entrance exams enter universities or colleges without them or their parents having to pay. Peacetime Britain was expected to be better for all the well educated folk it could get. Student grants allowed me, many friends and thousands of other working class kids train for professions. They let clever Margaret Thatcher, a grocer's daughter, pass through Oxford into politics.

Then a Labour government created the National Health Service while keeping railways, coalmines, gas and electricity supplies, steel production and road haulage as public property. We believed Britain had achieved a social revolution better than the Russian one because a democratically elected government had achieved it without killing, jailing or deporting folk. We were also an example to the USA because Britain was not mainly ruled by millionaires. We were naive about money.

The class with greatest power in Britain still came from posh private schools and Oxbridge. They were glad the government had bought their railway and coal mine shares because since the 1920s they had brought a very low return, and now they invested in big private enterprise businesses, allied to petroleum industries. They were still the salaried directors of British Rail, coal, electricity and gas whose boards contained no train drivers, miners or meter readers. When geologists working for British Gas, then a public corporation, found reservoirs of natural gas and oil under the North Sea, these were quickly passed to private corporations. The Norwegian Government kept a controlling share of its offshore oil wells - not the British! The lord put in charge of our oil industries by parliament owned shares in them, Beaching, in charge of British Rail, had shares in road building. He saw no future in public transport and closed most of British Rail's branch lines. That was before Margaret Thatcher started privatising the United Kingdom.

Let me amuse you with the adjacent poster issued by the Board of Trade when it tried encouraging British industry by appealing to the workforce. The designersdidnotmeanitto suggestthatScottish industriesshouldfill English shops. It does, but also reminds us that Scottish industries before the late 1960s were internationally famous. Clydeside made more ships than the USA, with good furniture in ocean liners made by Scottish craftsmen and carpets by Templeton's of Bridgeton who also made carpets for state capitals in Canada, Australia and elsewhere. Railway trains were exported to South America from Shettleston, cars made in Linwood, cranes in Govan, Ravenscraig made steel for these in furnaces from the coal in Scottish mines.

In 1979 the Westminster Labour Party held a Scottish referendum to find if a majority of Scots wanted their own Parliament. Before it, the leaders of the Tory and Labour parties told Scottish voters that if they achieved independence investors would pull out money, Scottish industries would fail and general poverty increase.

The referendum showed more Scots voted for independence than voted against, and in any other democracy we would have gained a parliament. But the government had changed the normal rules of democracy and announced that since the pro-independence voters had won the race by a short head, they had lost it. After which investors pulled money out of Scotland, more and more of our industries failed and what had been built as reaosnably good housing schemes deteriorated into slums.

Every productive work except farming, and whisky distilling seems to have stopped - Denny's of Dumbarton who built the first hovercraft, Singers' Clydebank sewing machine works, Paisley spinning and weaving mills, Bryant & Mays Maryhill Matches, Greenock's Tate & Lyle sugar and Golden Syrup, Dunfermline bed and table linen, Jean MacGregor's Scotch Broth, Caithness Glass perished last year - I can hugely enlarge the list but it would bring me to tears. I believe a Scottish government could have protected some of these industries, encouraging them to modernise by putting them in contact with university research departments that were not in the pockets of global corporations. Pessimists will say there is now nothing left in Scotland for Home Rule to improve. I deny that, if we work as if in the early days of a better nation.

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