At eight words, my first ever political speech was rather short. But it made a point.
As a youngster I was often sickly and as happened back in the 1950s, I was booked into a local hospital to have my tonsils and adenoids extracted. My mum and dad had promised me a football if I didn’t create trouble. However, one day my mum approached me and said
“The queen is coming to town on the day you are supposed to go into hospital. Would you like me to postpone your operation so that you can see her?”
This was the trigger for my speech
“I’d rather have my tonsils and adenoids out!” I exclaimed.
Funny the things you remember from childhood. I remember other events quite vividly which I think contributed to my early belief in Scottish Independence. My mum and dad came from poor backgrounds and two harder working and caring parents you couldn’t find. I remember my mum, one of a family of five, telling me that when she was a wee girl as a special treat her mum would buy four bananas. As she was the youngest, her banana was made from the cut-off ends of the original four. My dad was from a much bigger family, but as too often happened for families in Scotland faced some personal family tragedies in the inter-war years. He watched the death of his 6 year old sister, a brother at the age of 20 and his Mum too at the early age of 48. All before the establishment of our NHS.
My mum and dad had to leave school at the age of 14 despite both being near the top of their classes. Kids much less talented, but from better off families, got to stay on and in some cases go to university. It annoyed me no end.
Such stories had a profound effect on me as a youngster. I hated the idea that my mum and dad didn’t have the same chance in life as others. I think I hated it more than they did; they were more resigned to their lot.
At nights, my great joy was to go to bed and my mum would kneel down beside me and sing me Scots songs until I fell asleep. She could even sing “Ye Banks and Braes” in Latin (having taken Latin in high school).
My dad never sang (he says he was told in school he couldn’t sing so never attempted for the rest of his life), but on request he would tell stories of his time in the army in World War Two. He had been in the south of England preparing for the NAZI invasion that thankfully never came, then spent a few years in Africa. He talked freely of the funny things that happened in those days. But he never talked of the latter part of the war. I was to find his Burma star only after his death. He did say that at the end of the war while waiting to be shipped home, he would help captains and majors (with a private education background) complete their application forms for colonial service. This too enraged me. He couldn’t apply (not that he wanted to) because he didn’t fit the British culture of the day. I suppose in a very personal way it helped me begin to understand the class system, and the gross unfairness it represented.
As I moved along in life into my early teens, another event happened that seems in retrospect to have brought all these threads together. My older brother Jim was the first in our family to go to university. He graduated with a double honours in Mathematics and Natural Philosophy. He couldn’t get a job, with one exception. He was offered a job with the Atomic Energy of Canada. I can remember as if it was yesterday standing in Greenock and watching the ship depart taking him to Canada.
I can remember saying to my mum and dad that it was terrible that we should have to lose Jim to a far off land. Why couldn’t he get a job at home in Scotland? Jim was destined to become Secretary of the Science Council of Canada, Vice President of the International Development and Research Corporation of Canada, a Chair of the OECD Science and Technology Committee etc etc. He epitomized to me a saying of Margo McDonald many years ago,
“We have been pioneers in many countries, time to be pioneers in our own”
(Aside: I actually did a job in South Africa with Jim not long after his meeting with Nelson Mandela. He was leading the writing of a science and technology policy for the new South Africa.)
So this haphazard awareness of the effects of poverty, of a class system, of our cultural heritage, of the stifling British elite and of the lack of opportunity for talented people in our own land, all of these influences led me as a teenager to join the SNP.
Everyone reading this will have their own journey they can recount. Nowadays of course, when I speak of the need for Scottish Independence, I speak of democracy, of social values, of the environment, of justice, of the economy, of internationalism and such like. But deep down, that young boy still lurks and has more influence than I sometimes care to admit.