So. I did a new thing. Something I’d wanted to do for a long time, but for reasons I won’t elaborate on here, could not. It wasn’t on a bucket list. I didn’t swim with a dolphin. Machu Picchu is as far away as ever and I won’t be swimming in the Dead Sea anytime soon. But. This ‘thing’ was unexpectedly just as life affirming.
I joined a political party. Not that this was ‘The Thing’ per se. Joining a political party is no more adventurous, or difficult, than shopping on Amazon. Perhaps there’s a PhD in there. The ‘Commodisation of Politics’…or something. If you happen to stumble on this humble blog and are inspired to publish a ground breaking thesis by that thought, I hope you find fame and fortune. I’m on a different path.
If you’ve kept up with political developments in the United Kingdom these past 11 years you’ll know there’s been a fair amount going on. Particularly in Scotland.
Devolution, the emergence of the SNP as a force to challenge the Labour Party, their rise to minority government and eventual majority, have been the backdrop for Scottish political life in recent times. The Scottish Independence Referendum, which gave birth to a renaissance in political involvement across the full spectrum of Scottish society, propelled them even higher. And now there’s been a bit of re-calibration. The EU Referendum. A few seats lost at the recent General Election. A feeling that the pendulum is swinging back a tiny bit towards the other parties. A sense of dust settling a little and the fevered nature of political discourse cooling as we wait for Brexit.
These events have, in any case, given rise to a renaissance in grassroots political engagement; through social media and a variety of political organisations. Some organisations were already well established, some were born as a result of the IndyRef. Whatever the medium, public involvement in politics appears to have reached an all time high and it has been difficult to remain a causal observer in such a climate of engagement. Especially if, like me, you’ve held lifelong views on the future of your country, but were constrained from chipping in your tuppenceworth in any meaningful way.
Now. I’m retired. A mixed blessing and not the nirvana folk think it is. If you’ve been in a high stress, high tempo career all your working life, the sudden stop can be disclocating and depressing. It offers you all the time in the world. To either waste and fritter away, or to dive decisively into a new start. Three months have now gone by. Some fitful short story writing and some DIY, getting the kids out to school and picking them up. This has been my lot. Planned hillwalking trips and expansive road trips have had to be put on the shelf for a bit. It is insufficient and I’m beginning to atrophy.
I’ve immersed myself in the world of social media. It’s a double edge sword, but there has seldom been such an egalitarian playing field in the history of human communication. You’ll know as much as I that it is one huge melting pot of the erudite, the lunatic, the informed and the downright ignorant. It’s insightful as much as it is infuriating, but for all it’s many highs and lows, Twitter et al give us the gift of participation. You can take it or leave it. Simples. With a little more time on my hands I’ve spent a little too much of it in the twittersphere, but it has highlighted something. I enjoy political debate. I do have some heartfelt beliefs. I do think things could be better and can be made better.
So there it was. A twitter post by ‘The Party’. Not a recruitment. Just a simple news bulletin. But one click led to another and the next I knew, I was looking up the annual membership fee. It was a spur of the moment thing. A flexing of new wings if you like. And it felt strange. I actually debated within myself whether or not to do it. Affiliation brings with it a definite stamp. I have friends who will not join a party for fear of jeopardising career prospects, even though their jobs do not prohibit it. And I have 30 years of institutionalised behaviours to overcome. So you’ll no doubt laugh at the idea of a middle aged man feeling a sense anxiety, followed by release and real satisfaction when his online application was greeted with a message of welcome. But that’s what I felt.
But. That was not ‘The Thing’. The Thing was looking up my local branch contacts and going to the branch meeting a few days later. And I was nervous. This was new ground. I had no idea what political meetings were like. I imagined the scene from ‘American Werewolf In London’ when our heroes approach a country pub bursting with music and raucous laughter, only to be met with baleful stares and impenetrable silence when they walk in. To top it off, a ‘social’ was planned for the end of the meeting. I’m horribly anti-social sometimes. A reserve born from being in the company of too many anti social people, over too long a period of time. A naturally defensive position given the violence and suffering I’ve witnessed during my career.
So I turn up. In a well lit hall that doubles up as a community centre. You know the type. Painted cream and lit with bright fluorescent strip lights. A well polished parquet floor. A stage fringed by a heavy red velvet curtain. A complete side taken up with floor-to-ceiling, metal framed windows. About 50 or 60 people were already seated in rows of chairs, just as if they were there to see a concert. I took a seat and someone to my left smiled. We were facing a table at the front in which sat three people who were office holders and who steered the meeting.
People got up and talked. Order of business, agenda and some messages of appreciation for campaigns past. A recently defeated candidate expressed heartfelt thanks for the support she had received and shared her belief that they would do better next time. Flowers were presented and members applauded her. Local councillors gave insight into the issues that they were currently dealing with. The workload was impressive. It was all done in a down to earth and honest way. The meeting moved onto the main business. The forthcoming party conference and the subject of resolutions. It was a surprise to learn how rooted in the ordinary members this process was. A number got up and spoke in front of their fellow members. The subject matter was varied and thought provoking. I couldn’t help but be engaged by the questions being posed, or the sometimes challenging and often radical suggestions being made for change in Scotland. And responses were encouraged. Absolutely welcomed with open arms. Frank debate took place. There were views expressed, diametrically opposed to the proposer, but it was all handled with honesty, sincerity and at times, a little bit of humour. No-one was offended. Resolutions were put to the vote and half them voted down. The proposers took it in good spirit, even though they had clearly carried a torch for the particular subject. In a word, it was healthy.
Within the first resolution, I was in. I couldn’t help myself. I stuck my hand up and made some observations. I voiced opposition to two resolutions and received applause from a hall full of strangers on a thorny constitutional point. An established member made a point of referencing his agreement with me in his own particular reply. It felt as if I had never been anything other than a grassroots party member engaging with political debate in diverse and intelligent company.
And then it was over.
The meeting rounded off with thanks from the chair and reminders of dates for the next branch meeting and the forthcoming party conference. People waved to other people as they left. Others meandered to a trestle table of drinks for the social at the other end of the hall. I was a bit unsure as to what to do next. Having resolved to quietly make an exit and maybe get to know people better next time, I was stopped by one of the people whose proposal I had spoken against. Had I been a big mouth upstart, driving a coach and horses through someone’s dream? I braced myself.
I needn’t have. The approach was gentle and polite. A genuine interest in how he could frame his argument better. Sincere questions about what it was that I opposed. And so, after the meeting had been closed, I had a nice, friendly and thoughtful discussion on prisoners within our penal system and their rights to vote. And we parted on good terms. Neither agreeing with each other, but understanding the others point of view and with me suggesting an alternative way to deal with it. On the face of it, not how the average person might want to spend a Thursday evening. But. This is what politics should be about. You and me. Debating and discussing what kind of world we want to live in. What kind of society we want our family and friends to be part of. And doing something about that. Putting in our tuppenceworth. Engaging with others. Putting forward our ideas and maybe even going to a party conference, standing up for what we believe in and making proposals.
Politics is definitely not just for politicians, or political pundits. It wasn’t for previous generations and it’s time we all were as engaged as they once were.
You should go. Try it out. You might really like it.
Me? I’m ready for the next meeting.
I have some ideas of my own…
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