A short story about a referendum on Scottish Independence in a Federal UK.
Jimmy lay in bed, willing himself to move.
Hard to get going these days—Doc says nothing serious, just getting old—isn’t that serious enough?—Kathy gone—no reason to get up some days—never hear that laugh again—no smiles—Conor won’t be back, that Kiwi friend keeps tight hold—take love where you find it he says—like Mari, there she is, city girl, out in the Islands, biggest place she sees is Stornoway—happy she says—only Scotland left—my life—probably why Conor and Mari gone—can’t change that at 74—is that the door?
“Your 6.30 call sir.”
“Thank you,” he called back.
Could do with another hour—that brute of a minder would just burst in—making sure I’m still in the land of the living—shower now—get Big Jim McLean ready for his public—ache all over, hot water, helps, yes—can’t keep up the pace like I used to—course not—you aren’t a boozy shinty player any more—74 not 24—God that knee hurt when it went—limped for months–no more shinty—going to be another long day—when can I ever retire?–play with Mari’s little ones—on the beach—never did with her—sorry my girl.
The radio clicked on.
“Good Morning. This is Scotland Today. It is 6.30 am, and here’s Bill McNaughten with the latest news from Holyrood and Whitehall, after the General Election.”
“Thank you Lachlan. Starting with the fall out from last week’s General Election, we don’t seem to be any closer to forming a Federal government. With almost 50 parties spread across eight regions, that is a fact of political life these days. The negotiations around membership of the various party blocs are inextricably entwined with those about the coalition proper. While we expect some small shifts in bloc membership, the alliances they represent look likely to remain broadly the same. The Federal Alliance bloc is still holding the largest number of seats with the Left Caucus next in line. The Liberal Democrats will be the key. Which way they jump, will pretty much decide the content of the coalition.”
“Here in Scotland, there may be problems ahead for the Holyrood Government if the Federal Alliance remains the key bloc in any government. The decision last year by Holyrood to go ahead with a referendum on Independence after the next Scottish elections, depends on approval by the Senate. The composition of the Senate won’t change until after the proposed referendum date. It includes many parties not sympathetic to the proposal, but on the other hand, Senators are notorious for not following the strict party line and on numerous occasions have supported decisions by Assemblies and Parliaments against the Commons.”
“It certainly looks as if everything is up for grabs over the next week or so. Now back to Lachlan in the studio.”
Need to talk to Pete Fowler—build the party blocs—can we get a single left wing group this time—Trots and Communists always holding out—that’s why Da didn’t like them much—build a better world one step at a time—get what you can when you can, he said—will we outnumber the United Workers bloc this time?
Jimmy struggled out of bed and into the bathroom.
Hot water, that’s better—long day ahead—all are—and getting longer—at least the election’s over—still lots of bargains and promises—and sweet talking—used to be good at that—no patience for it now—keep on keeping on they say—been doing that 40 years—time to go—let someone else do it—all these fragile egos—setting up on their own—should knuckle down and fight—I did—so did Da—he wouldn’t like seeing me here though—he was old school—like Tom Man, Ben Tillett—he hated it when Mann gave in and stood for MP—was an old man when I met him—old man Mann—is that me now?–old man McLean?–not Big Jim any more?
Out of the shower, he looked at himself in the mirror.
Still the big man, even if I do ache all over—what to wear—Kathy had a good eye for my image—always made me look good in the papers—hyenas—they’ll be everywhere today—need to look on top of things—no boring suit—never been my style—shook them in Dundee when I turned up for my first committee in bike leathers—old union guys looking like bank clerks in shiny suits—not me.
Breakfast next—what’s Roddie got for me—then Pete—hate living here in the Official Residence—better than cooking for myself though—burnt offerings, Kathy called it when I tried—I did try, but she enjoyed cooking—kids loved her cooking too—rubbed off—Conor with his own restaurant now—Mari running a hotel—no she says, just a guest house—Da would have been proud of them—taking control of their own lives—old bugger never managed it for himself—never stopped working for that better world inside the shell—still miss him—he wouldn’t approve of me here though—I’m still in Scotland though Da.
“It’s all for Scotland, Da,” he said to himself as he walked into the dining room
“Sorry sir, what was that?” said Roddie Gregg.
“Nothing, Roddie, just thinking aloud. Now, what have I got today?”
How would I cope without Roddie? Yes Da, I have my own secretary.
“The Leader of the Party in Westminster will be calling in 45 minutes, then you have a call from the First Minister of Northumbria. After that you asked me to set up a conference call with the First Minister of Mercia…”
Always on top of the details, Roddie, but I can’t handle it today.
“…Finally you have a conference call with the Westminster Leader and Mr Malone at about 11.30 pm.
“Is that all? With that ahead of me I definitely need more coffee before I talk to Peter Fowler.”
Coffee—after my shower, the most important part of the morning—what does Pete have from overnight—was still close yesterday—impossible job, but he’s doing well—what did the wireless say—50 parties—madness—coalitions no bad thing, but getting there almost impossible—too much back room stuff—don’t want Feddies to take over party registration—don’t trust the Feddies, said Da—still true, especially the current lot.
Jim’s offices in the Residence were literally across from the dining room which doubled as a conference room.
Don’t think I see daylight some days—winter in the Isles not much better—could get outside though—at least I don’t have to sit in a traffic jam every morning
“Pete? What’s the latest?”
Fowler yawned before answering, his voice still fuddled with sleep.
Another reason to go soon—don’t have the stamina any more—all these late nights and early mornings
“Sorry, Jimmy, I was up until past 3.00 this morning in meetings and calls. I think we are close though. The Caucus definitely has at least 77 members. We’ll probably pick up the solitary from the Anglian Workers Party and perhaps a couple in Wessex. “
God, another one obsessed with every little detail.
“The main issue is the Socialist Party in the South. They have 23 members …”
“I don’t need every single MP we might pick up, Pete – just tell me where we’ll end up.”
“OK, umm, I’ve got someone sending you a Telex with all the details, but my best guess is, Left to Right, United Workers 65-70, Left Caucus 95-100, Liberal Democrats 95-100, Christian Democrats 30-35, Federal Alliance 130-135. Outside of them the Anti-Federalists and the Regionalists about 10 each, and the Nationalists will have 5. They’ve already registered the bloc with the Speaker’s Office.”
“So we’ve swapped places with the UW, but otherwise the balance is much as before the election? It’s going to be another marathon getting a government together isn’t it?”
“’Fraid so, yeah. Arithmetically only two groupings add up, but neither of these would work politically, without major concessions somewhere or defections. Or to be honest, a bit of both. I suspect the closest we could get would be us, the Lib Dems and the Christian Democrats plus the regionalists and the Nats. That would get us just over. The Feddies could do it with the Christian Democrats and the Lib Dems. The problem with both of those is they include some very dubious people. The Lib Dems would have the same problems as we do with the Social Liberals, and to be fair, with some of the UW too. As for Ulster…”
“Not going to work without breaking one of the blocs is it?” interrupted Jim. “It looks as if it could take weeks otherwise. Any chance of persuading some of the UW to come across to us? If we could get the Caucus to be the largest bloc it would change things quite a lot.”
“There are no obvious chinks I can see. We’ll keep plugging away at the smaller parties, but we really need one of the bigger ones. If we can chip even one of them off, it might start something.”
“Thanks Pete. I have meetings stacked up all morning now, but if anything changes leave a message with Roddie. I have a meeting with our Coalition members in Scotland this afternoon. I’ll see what comes out of that and let you know.”
Jim sat back in his chair.
About 100 MPs for the Caucus—not enough—no surprise the Lib Dems won’t work with some of the UW—one or two I would prefer to steer clear of—not that the CD much better—some very dubious types in Social Liberals—near fascist—UW holding themselves apart doesn’t help—not all of them Trots or hard line Communists—surprised Lib Dems willing to work with me—same background as Dan Smith—he was a hardliner in his day—don’t entirely trust him—is he really on the take or is that a Feddie fairy story?–suits them for it to be true—definitely don’t trust them—what does he want?
“First Minister, I have the First Minister for Northumbria on the phone”
“Morning Dan, what can I do for you?”
“Jimmy, what’s your take on the balance of the parties after the election?”
“Probably much the same as yours. Feddies will still be the largest bloc,”
“The Caucus are going to be the largest bloc on the left though.”
He’s after something
“But the Feddies get first stab at forming a government and can do it if they persuade the Lib Dems to hold their noses and work with the Social Liberals.”
“As the largest bloc, yes.”
“So in order to stop that, the Caucus needs more MPs that they do.”
“I can offer a deal that could give you that.”
What will it cost me, I wonder?
“How can you deliver anything like? You are not an MP.”
“No, but I have a lot of influence. I can offer enough votes to put the Caucus in power.”
“I’m sure there’s a price.”
“No need to take that tone, Jimmy. I’m on your side.”
“For as long as it suits you. I’ve seen you operating before, Dan. Your first priority is always you.”
“Jimmy, you know as well as I do what’s happening. Soames in the South and Butler in Whitehall want to bring power back to the centre. They were getting close. If they had been a bit more patient and hadn’t been so stupid about the Federal Agreement, they wouldn’t have lost the seats they did in the General. Now is the time to fight back.”
Too fond of his own voice—started like me though—the local council, then stepped up to the Assembly—a revolutionary back in the 40s—claims to be a moderate now—like me I suppose—like Tom Mann—never a syndicalist though—wouldn’t object to centralisation if he was in charge—still a hard liner that way—claims to be a businessman—a fixer maybe—likes doing deals anyway—does he have anything?–never sure with him—enemies by the barrow load, as many on his side as opposition—backhanders—who knows?—powerful though—Big Dan—Big Jim—ha!
“I have to look out for Scotland’s interests. That’s why we are holding the referendum”
“I know.” He sighed. “If I was in your position I would do the same.
Same conclusions as Pete then—what’s the price—blethering on a bit—usually more direct than that.
“If you leave the Union, we lose Scottish members in the Commons and on the Senate. Without you its much easier for the Feddies to get a super-majority and force through the changes. They will get everything they want, the Provinces will become not much more than over grown County Councils because we won’t have the votes to stop it.”
I know that, you know that—why do you think we want the referendum—more blether.
“Jimmy, the Feddies are coming after me. I’m going to be used as an example, to undermine opposition generally. They think Northumbria is too independent and don’t like us taking our own line. Mercia did too for a while, then they got control there. I’m pretty sure they are using the security services. That’s illegal of course, but how do you prove it’s happening? If the Feddies stay in charge, I expect to be arrested before the end of the year. I will plead Not Guilty, but I won’t get fair treatment from London. Shutting me up is more important then the risks of fixing a trial.”
Smith took a deep breath.
“If I offer you a way for the Caucus to get first chance to form a government, will you agree to stop the investigations and drop any trial?”
“I can’t do that Dan. I’m not going to be in government am I? From what I hear the charges are likely to include bribery and corruption as well as Misconduct in Office. I don’t have the power to set that sort of charge aside and you know it.”
“What if I was resident in Scotland?”
“I don’t see what difference it would make. The charges, as far as I know anyway, relate to offences committed in England. I’m not willing to do a deal for votes that involves me being seen to interfere in the criminal process. Misconduct in Office is a Federal level offence anyway. They can take action on that themselves. They don’t need us. I’m certainly not going to put the referendum at risk for a deal like that. Neither of us are in a place to offer guarantees are we?”
The phone line fell silent.
“I sorry to hear that Jimmy. I had hoped you would help out a comrade, but obviously I was wrong,”
“Dan. I sympathise with you, but you gave the Feddies the opening, didn’t you?”
There was another long silence.
“I’ll talk to some people and get back to you later today.”
“OK Dan, I’m sure that keeping the Feddies out is something we both want to see. If you can help with that, we will all be grateful and I will personally do what I can without interfering with law officers.”
“Talk to you later.”
What deal can he offer—got to be switching people out of the UW—can’t see the ILP doing that though—always well on the left of the Caucus
Hanging up, he sat back in his chair, shaking his head.
“Roddie, can you get me Peter Fowler again, please.”
“Pete. I’ve just come off a long call with Dan Smith. He says he has a deal to make the Caucus the largest bloc and give us first stab at forming a government. The trouble is he wants a promise to drop the charges the Feddies are preparing against him. He didn’t give any details about the deal, but it must involve defection from the UW surely. I know he has some unlikely friends, but whatever he could achieve with the other blocs wouldn’t affect the overall balance. Have you heard anything?”
“Well the possible charges are an open secret, but I haven’t heard anything else. What did you tell him?”
“Only that I couldn’t make any commitments without knowing what he’s offering and we couldn’t be seen to be interfering with legal proceedings. I think he has something to offer, but can’t take the risk we’ll by pass him and negotiate directly. He came across as a bit desperate to be honest. Perhaps one of his contacts has tipped him off that something is about to happen. Can you do some digging?”
“I will, Jimmy. Look, I’ve been skimming through the numbers as we talk. The only signifcant group that could make a difference is the ILP. There are two of them, Dan’s in Northumbria and another in the South. I’ve heard stories that they are going to merge under one leader, so if he can bring them both into the Caucus, that would do it. I’ll talk to some people and get back to you.”
“He’s going to call back later today, so I think he’s still keen. I’ll keep you posted.”
Jimmy scanned through the Telex with the results and Pete’s analysis.
He’s right—only the ILP can make a difference—I don’t see a deal for Dan though—it’s a slippery slope to interfere with legal processes that way—pull this off though and I can go out with a big win. Pete should do well out of this too. Should get him a good Cabinet job. Now that waste of space Watson.
“Roddie, First Minister Watson please.
“Colin! Now about this rail agreement with us and Northumbria…”
After half an hour of Watson saying nothing very much Jimmy was finally able to escape.
God save me from fools like this. Pompous little fart.
For the last few minutes the Finance Minister and Deputy Party Leader, Craig Malone had been waiting, an amused smile on his face as he listened. His opinion of the pompous First Minister of Mercia was much as Jimmy’s. Fortunately, direct contact like this was infrequent.
Craig can step up when I retire. Doesn’t come over strongly with the public. Should let that sarcastic tongue of his loose a bit more often. Makes mincemeat out of the opposition all the time. Not difficult though.
After briefing him on the calls with Smith and Pete Fowler, they settled down to discuss the plans for the next Budget. The rest of the morning went in a blur of meetings with various Ministers, interspersed with reading departmental papers.
Lunchtime took him mentally at least to the Islands.
What’s Mari doing, I wonder. Colin will be out in the school yard I expect. Their two eldest will be there too. The little one at home. I missed so much of Mari and Conor growing up. Kathy never complained, but…
“Sorry Mr Donaldson, I was just reminded of something I need to do this afternoon. Can you summarise the revised winter services for me. As I understand it, the oil industry has created a year round demand to Orkney and Shetland, so you need an extra vessel. I’m not so clear on the Western Isles though. You haven’t discovered oil there too?”
Stop woolgathering, Jimmy. Focus or they’ll be thinking you are going senile.
Once lunch was over Jimmy briefly returned to his office. Roddie was, as ever, sitting at his desk, ploughing through piles of material, organising it for Jimmy to review overnight.
He closed the door and picked up the phone, hesitating before dialling.
“Mari? It’s Dad…”
The meeting of Coalition partners was a weekly event. Tam Duncan, leader of the Crofter’s Party was amiable and not normally a problem unless you mentioned the Clearances. They only had one seat in the Commons and that had been an unexpected gain at the last election. He knew he was only there because the Scottish Democrats insisted. Duncan Andrews, leader of the Scottish Democrats was much more ambitious. He was Deputy First Minister but also the Minister for Housing and Urban Development. Although nominally an ally, he never missed an opportunity to point out shortcomings of SSLL ministers in Cabinet.
I never understood why the Crofters and the Democrats are so close. Especially with Andrews being such a snot.
“What do you both have on the election results and bloc membership?” asked Jimmy.
“Ruraidh has joined with the Christian Democrats,” said Tam. “He’s a staunch Catholic and felt it was best for him.”
“He should really have gone with the Liberal Democrat bloc,” snapped Andrews. “he should be in the same bloc as his partner party.”
Never miss a chance to snipe do you Duncan.
“I’m not going to argue with him,” said Tam “he’s on his own there and needs all the support he can get.”
“That’s for you two to sort out somewhere else. I’ve spoken to various people today and it looks as if the Caucus will have about 100 and the Lib Dems about 90-95. Does that match your party estimates Duncan?”
I’ll save the news about the ILP until it’s a done deal.
“Aye, I think so, give or take a couple either way.”
“At the minute it looks like the Federal Alliance will have 130 plus, so will still be the biggest bloc. I’m told the horse trading is still going on though, so there may still be changes. I can’t see their numbers changing very much though. The MPs they still have are all much the same politically regardless of party. The Christian Democrats will be on about 35. It looks at the moment as if the Lib Dem bloc will be key to any coalition, left or right. I hope that doesn’t affect what we are doing here.”
“I don’t see why it should. If we left the coalition it would mean an election and it’s not a good time.”
I’m pretty sure we’d survive without you, Duncan.
“As a courtesy, although it is outside of Government business, I need to tell you that the work towards a referendum on independence is continuing. We need to wait for a government to be formed before we go ahead, because the Senate has to give approval. I expect to bring forward a Bill in about 4 months time.”
“You know that we won’t support it,” said Andrews.
Perhaps not you, but I know at least half of your members will. I think that might be the end of your career as Party Leader. You won’t be missed.
“You’ve made that clear, Duncan. Many times.”
“Independence has always been our position, Jimmy, you know that,” said Tam.”We’ll vote for it. How’s it likely to go in the Senate though?”
“I don’t think there will be a problem. It’s a simple majority needed and I think there are enough Senators who think we should have the choice, even if they don’t agree with us seceding. After that it will be up to the people of Scotland.”
We need to make sure any constitutional changes survive Scotland leaving. It’s not in our interests to have the Feddies permanently in power south of the Border. Pete will know that without me telling him, but best to make sure
“The people of Scotland don’t want us playing games with their lives. A referendum is a waste of time and money.
Be glad when I don’t have to put up with toads like Andrews. Too fond of playing games. That’s him to a T. He’s never happier. Forgets he’s there for them, not the other way round. That’s what Da said too. No one survives party politics he said. Andrews is the perfect example. He was a normal, pleasant young man when he was first elected.
“Again, Duncan, you said as much many times. Save it for the campaign. Now, can we talk about the by-election coming up in Paisley? It was one we held until Caroline died in that car accident. Are the Democrats going to stand against us. It wasn’t a marginal but nor was it a huge majority, so it would be better if you didn’t.”
“We don’t plan to, but the Liberals have a strong candidate and could well take a lot of our supporters, so I wouldn’t be over-confident.”
“Are the rumours about the two of you having merger talks true?” asked Tam.
Annoyance flickered across Andrews’ face.
“How did you find out?”
Tam said nothing, just a half smile.
“It’s pretty much an open secret, Duncan. You are obvious partners and similar parties have merged elsewhere.”
He really doesn’t like it when his games are exposed does he…
“Well, I can’t talk about it.”
“I’m sure it hasn’t escaped your notice that the combined party, if it stayed in the coalition, would have the most seats of the three of us.”
And you would step up as First Minister, at least you hope so. From what Craig tells me though, a good chunk of your members would rather have Lachlan Ferguson as leader than you.
“I still can’t talk about it.”
First Minister’s Questions was as usual, more about the questioner, than the question or Jimmy’s answers.
I used to enjoy this, but either I’m getting tired or the questions are getting sillier. I don’t have the patience for fools these days. Craig will do fine. He’s quite happy telling people what fools they are. Not always politically a good idea, but he generally knows where to draw the line. Can’t see him getting along with Andrews though. He and Lachlan will do much better. They’ll be a good team.
Question from Mr Macready.
“When is the First Minister going to stop playing games with the lives of the people of Scotland and give up on the waste of time and money of a referendum?”
Interesting choice of words there from a Unionist. Is Andrews getting ready to jump ship after a merger with the Liberals?
“I’m sure Mr Macready is quite happy to give up on actions designed to improve the lot of the ordinary Scot. He represents Edinburgh Morningside, one of the most affluent areas of Scotland, but one who’s affluence is derived from Finance and Insurance, an industry heavily dependent on England and the City; an industry which constantly leeches money from the Scottish economy. Independence will offer the chance for Scotland to control that industry, to make it work for Scotland, not the City or its US investors. It will enable Scotland to retain the benefits of the oil industry by the creation of a Sovereign Wealth Fund, which will invest the proceeds of that industry in Scotland, not cream them off for foreign shareholders.”
No one really believes you care for the average Scot you pompous…Calm down Jimmy don’t get mad, get even.
“The First Minister always has a sharp answer, but as ever he fails to provide anything of substance.”
“As ever, Mr Macready defines a lack of substance as something he disagrees with. I will be blunt with him. My concern is for Scotland, Scotland first, Scotland second and Scotland always. He may never tire of the sound of his own voice, but most of us in this chamber do. He wants me to deny the policies on which I was elected, on which my party has stood for decades. I will not.”
“If he wants to stop the Referendum, he has two options. He can, and no doubt will, vote against it in this Chamber. Or he can actually win an election and stand here in my place, something which he and his party has consistently been unable to do in two decades. It is the people of Scotland who will decide, not Mr Macready. So long as I stand here neither he nor anyone else will tell them they cannot have that choice.”
Well, that was a bit sharper than I intended, but it was coming sooner or later. Look at him, red faced. You can almost see the steam. He never could think on his feet. Always easily provoked into losing it.
By the time of the Party meeting, Jimmy had settled back a bit from the high he’d been on.
FM Questions used to be fun. Now it’s just eejits like Macready. Eejits – that was Granny Malone. Everyone was an eejit or a top man. Haven’t thought about her in years. She was a real character. I never found out how she got from Kerry to Dundee. Never lost the Irish, though. My Gaelic was never good enough to work out what she was saying when she went off on a rant in Irish. Probably just as well. She had a tongue on her. Always embarrassed my old Mum when Granny let rip. Mum had no Irish though, born and bred in Arbroath, then Dundee. Met Da during a dispute somewhere I think and bang. Married within six months. Joanie a year later, them Siobhan, that was Granny’s name, then me, then Donald. I was always Jamie to her. No one else called me that until Kathy. Stop maundering Jimmy, focus.
Jimmy looked out at the sea of faces. A full house Craig said. Seven Cabinet members beside him, 32 MSPs facing him.
This is where I belong. Most of these people think like me, believe the same things, want the same future.
He stood up. The aim was to brief everyone on the current state of negotiations. He had good news. The deal to secure the ILP as members of the Caucus had been done. The next government of the United Kingdom was going to be led by the Caucus. Looking out at the smiling faces, he made his decision.
“I have some other news for you. We expect the Bill to hold the Referendum will be laid before the Parliament in about 4 months time. That will set a date for the Referendum of about April next year. Elections to the Parliament will be the year after. Originally I was going to resign as leader before the Election. Even though I’ve never announced that, you will surely have worked it out. By then I will be almost 77. It wouldn’t be appropriate to stay on at that age.
“However, I’ve been giving it a lot of thought. I think the Party Leader who takes us into the next Election, should be the Party Leader who takes us into the Referendum. I am therefore resigning as Party Leader. Craig will step up as acting leader while the election takes place. I think that is the right thing. It keeps the Leadership election well away from the debate over the Bill, from the Referendum Campaign and from the Election Campaign. Just think about it. That Election is in all probability going to be the first Election to the Parliament of an Independent Scotland. Now, isn’t that something to look forward to.”
When boyhood’s fire was in my blood,
I read of ancient freemen,
For Greece and Rome who bravely stood,
Three hundred men and three men;
And then I prayed I yet might see
Our fetters rent in twain,
And Scotland, long a province, be
A Nation once again!
“Alba, dùthaich a-rithist!
This story is set in the same universe as a previous story here, called ‘A Frozen Spring‘, although many years later. It’s based on the premise that the events in that earlier story lead to the creation of a Federal Britain in 1919. The current story is set in the 1960s, with Scotland about to hold an independence referendum. Other changes should become obvious.
If these different events panned out as described, it is highly unlikely that T Dan Smith would even be around, so I’m pushing it a bit, but wanted a recognisable character.
I’m still working on the story, this is just a draft.