ALWAYS DID AIM HIGH, MY CHILDHOOD FRIEND AIMS HIGH
from the Independent
The amazing thing, really, is that after about 25 years, Colin Fox looks so very
much like the boy he used to be. Or maybe that is not so amazing. Maybe what is
really amazing is the vastness of the change in my own perspective in that time.
Possibly, since six weeks ago he became leader of the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP),
Colin won't thank me for saying this " although I've no personal evidence that
he, like so many left-of-centre politicians, prefers to play up his
suffering-proletariat credentials. But when we were children, and Colin lived
next-door-but-one, the Foxes seemed like one of the most glamorous,
sophisticated, and terribly upmarket families that could possibly exist.
Not only, for a start, did Colin and Carol (his sister, who has stood a couple
of times as a Labour candidate) have alliterative names like me and my brother
David. Their dog, Candy, also had a name that began with C. For me, at 10, this
was pure class.
Further, while the Foxes rented their house, like everyone else, and sent their
kids to state comprehensive, like everyone else, theirs was a two-career family,
with his father an insurance salesman and his mother a staff nurse " and rising
" at the local hospital. Lots of the mothers worked back then, but few had their
eyes so confidently focused on advancement and promotion. Perhaps it was this
that lent them their exotic, aristocratic veneer.
Colin and Carol were older than us and we younger kids considered them more as
deities than contemporaries. We never really played together, or had any more
than desultory conversations. But childhood bonds are oddly enduring, however
abstract they may be. Through all these years, my mother has kept me posted on
the interesting doings of the Fox children. Finally, on Wednesday, I decided to
have a look at what was going on with Colin for myself.
He's a busy man, because as well as being the new party leader (though they
prefer to say 'convener'), Colin is also list MSP for the Lothians. So, while
he's campaigning all over the country for the general election, he remains a
member of a separate parliament that, unlike Westminster has not been dissolved
during the election.
He's also his party's justice spokesman and culture, media and sports spokesman,
and continues to be involved in grassroots organising. Throughout the election
campaign he's been working 18-hour days, as he moves between local activism,
parliamentary debate and frantic campaigning.
Why is this middle-aged father of two young children putting himself through
such a gruelling schedule? It's not, emphatically, for political glory. The SSP
is fielding a candidate in every Scottish seat, except East Kilbride (where the
Armed Forces minister, Adam Ingram, is being challenged by Rose Gentle, the
mother of Gordon Gentle, who died in action in Iraq).
Ask Colin, though, how many seats in Westminster his party expects to win, and
he'll waste no time in answering: 'None.' All the party wants, he explains, is
to maybe keep a few deposits and to ensure every Scot can choose to vote for an
explicitly socialist party if they want. Judging by the way Keith Baldassara's
canvassing is going, they'll be lucky even to accomplish that.
We are outside a shopping centre in the Pollok area of Glasgow on a rainy
Wednesday morning. Mr Baldassara is standing as candidate for Glasgow South West
(formerly Govan), and Colin is here to lend him support. However, Mr Baldassara
shows little interest in taking up such a role. Somebody asked him what he'd do
if he was MP for Govan at a hustings the previous night, he explains. His reply
was he had no idea, because the standing MP for Govan, when asked if he could
take up any issues involving social services, health, education, housing or
transport, would have to explain they were devolved issues and the concern of
the Scottish Parliament or local councils.
Clearly, this is a bit of a farce, since it begs the embarrassing question: What
are Scottish backbenchers in Westminster actually doing? It's a good political
point, well made. Mr Baldassara is not a poor canvasser because he lacks
technique " not by any means. Rather, it is because he is waylaid every couple
of minutes by locals whose problems he's involved in sorting out.
A young man who suffered brain damage in an accident clearly adores him, while
an elderly women with spinal trouble thanks him for persuading the council to
install a shower for her. A harried-looking mother berates him because her
housing problem isn't fixed yet, and his mobile is ringing with similar stuff
all the time.
Mr Baldassara's true political ambition is to help other SSP members to win
seats on the city council with him, so that he can do work as a team with other
SSP councillors, instead of having to shoulder such a huge social burden on his
own. He is, and appears to want to remain, a local activist.
It makes a telling contrast, when the local SNP candidate swings by, remarking
to Mr Baldassara that he hasn't done much 'street work' himself this election,
because in his opinion it's not worth the bother.
It was pretty much in direct response to that move away in mainstream politics
from 'street work' that the Scottish Socialist Party was founded six years ago.
Its leader, Tommy Sheridan, had been expelled from the Labour Party because he
was part of Militant. He, like many members of the party, including my old
neighbour, had been heavily involved in the civil disobedience that greeted the
introduction of the former poll tax. But when, on live television, Mr Sheridan
ripped up and threw away a legal document enforcing a warrant sale of the
belongings of a non-payer, he was considered to have pushed protest too far.
A high-profile trial, and a six-month sentence at HMP Saughton, won much respect
for Mr Sheridan. It also helped win his fledgling political party its first
council seat " in Pollok " and the first of the six seats that the SSP now holds
in the Scottish Parliament. Mr Sheridan remains an MSP, but the party now has to
move away from its close identification with him, or fade off the scene.
Mr Sheridan, although respected, was also considered a typical man of the left "
dour, humourless and wedded as much to the jargon as the cause itself. He did
not like humorous political stunts too much, fearing they trivialised the
message. Mr Sheridan's style was much more to pledge that he and his fellow MSPs
" Rosie Kane, Carolyn Leckie, Frances Curran, Rosemary Byrne, and Colin Fox "
would donate half of their parliamentary salaries to the party, if elected.
Likewise, councillors hand over half of their allowance.
Colin, while enthusiastic about working for maybe a quarter of the hourly pay
he's campaigning for others not to have to accept, is very fond of humorous
stunts. That can be seen clearly as he poses for the press in Glasgow city
centre, dressed as Robin Hood, firing a child's plastic bow and arrow and
handing out photocopied £20 notes to bemused Glasgow shoppers.
He is endeavouring to give away what he swears is exactly a million photocopied
pounds, while a man with a megaphone intones solemnly and repeatedly: 'The
Scottish Socialists are Robin Hoods, the others are robbin' swine'.
The press are all over him, begging for pictures, accosting young women and
persuading them to pose as putative Maid Marians. Colin understands that is a
high-risk strategy, which invites personal ridicule. From the start, anyway, his
natural optimism and good humour has led him into this territory.
Straight after he was elected, he declared on Radio Scotland that he hadn't sold
out by entering mainstream politics. 'A three-day week? Ten weeks holiday a
year? A £48 grand salary? Man, That's socialism,' he quipped. Fellow MSPs and
the press went to town on the comment.
He maintains that a sneery press is better than no press at all. No one will
turn out for a press conference announcing plans to redistribute wealth. But
plenty will turn out to take a picture of a professional politician goofing
about dressed as Robin Hood.
Colin cites Michael Moore and Mark Thomas as men who have altered the political
discourse by using humour and defends his love of pranks by maintaining that as
long as it is closely allied to the wider point it is making, the occasional gag
injects a populist element.
Divested of his Robin Hood suit, Colin is on the train to Edinburgh, too wound
up to eat a snack, talking nineteen to the dozen, and hopeful of catching part
of that afternoon's financial services debate, before dashing home and having an
hour with his wife, Zillah, a midwife and their two children, before attending a
We get there in time, but as the man with impeccable manners he was brought up
to be, Colin does not go to his official berth. Instead he escorts me to the
public gallery, and sits with me to listen from there. 'I hope no one notices
I'm up here,' he says. 'They take every opportunity to slag us off.'
For the first time, I detect in Colin the stench of that most unattractive
aspect of left-wing politics, the tendency towards tedious and unfounded
paranoia. So it's quite an eye-opener when the Labour man singing the praises of
the Scottish financial services industry in the chamber, Scott Barry,
representing Dumfermline, suddenly singles out the SSP for being typically
absent. These six few, he spits, are not around to talk up the financial
services industry (which has recently gifted us with lame endowment policies and
useless pensions) since they only want to 'criticise success and celebrate
Later, as we move through the building, I notice that while people are
affectionate towards Colin, they never miss an opportunity to slag off his
socialist beliefs. At one point he's even accused of having stolen some
parliamentary shortbread. 'We are,' he sighs, 'considered to be the party that
represents the Neds'.
That strikes me as pretty shocking, since the Scotland of my childhood was
considered a pretty radical place. Now in Scotland it has become acceptable to
lump all of the socially excluded together as people who only have themselves to
blame for their vulnerability and problems.
Perhaps it was the quality of empathy, not the aura of dynamism they exuded,
that gave his family its special quality even all those years ago. In many ways
the Foxes were an ordinary, typically aspirational family, bringing their
children up to aim high, and sending them both of to get the first degrees in
their family. But the members of this family, instead of preening themselves in
the modern way because of their gifts and their talents, have stuck to believing
others are less successful not because they are inferior but because they are
less lucky. It's a shame such beliefs are belittled and derided by the
mainstream, rather than treasured and respected.
Back in the chamber, another Labour member has got to his feet. Speaking in
support of the Make Poverty History campaign, Des McNulty, representing
Clydebank and Milngavie, makes a rousing speech about how the previous
generation achieved greatness by ridding Britain of the 'five great wants'
(defined by Sir William Beveridge as the relief from ignorance, idleness,
poverty, illness and squalor), while the next one can achieve greatness by doing
the same thing on a global scale.
He is applauded. I can't help feeling his man too must be neglecting his 'street
work' if he really believes the five great wants have been eradicated from
Clydebank and Milngavie, and that he is the man to make that transformation
around the world.
That is why I take my hat off to my old neighbour. The people that his party is
despised and ridiculed for representing are the people that the skilled,
polished, service-based, clean, slick, free market is desperate to forget. They
may not be the most heroic or admirable " although sometimes the circumstances
under which they manage to live decently do indeed call for heroism. But in a
democracy they deserve and need representation.
These are the people that capitalism has no use for. It makes its progress round
the world and the results can be seen.
The economic system that all the major parties are committed to, does not
benefit everyone. The SSP exists to bear witness to that and it is important
that it should.
Yet, there's a futility about the SSP's efforts in the election that is
excusable only for the awful reason that it comes across as futile merely in a
different way to the efforts of all the others straining to make their political
The difficult truth is somewhere down the line, issues of national security,
defence and foreign affairs appear to have been reserved from accountability to
the Westminster Parliament, the Government and even the Cabinet, and none of us
even seem that much to mind.