I went to the David Livingstone Memorial yesterday, a kind of mission to the man who I think it’s fair to say introduced me to the idea of internationalism. That is, my mum was in the Women’s Guild and we were Church of Scotland whose World Mission followed the tradition of helping “those worse off than ourselves” on the African continent. Livingstone was integral to that, a standard bearer for all those thousands who trod the same African paths in the relatively vain hope of converting the natives. It was bred into me I suppose that there was a wider world to which we belonged and which we had a duty to support to the best of our ability. We were fortunate and untold numbers weren’t. Through the years that basic equation informed my beliefs and does today. I see no contradiction in being nationalist and internationalist. On the contrary…
It’s the 200th anniversary of his birth and I love the fact you can walk into the room he was born in and see some of the items from his home. There is nothing prepossessing about the memorial and museum – in fact it would have been nice if the National Trust had spent a bit whitewashing the tenements and upgrading the tearoom. On the other hand, I think it’s pretty much as DL would have liked it, unpretentious and educational. The most touching moment is a tableau of his death in a straw roof hut. He is depicted kneeling beside the bed and giving up the ghost in the moment of prayer. I wanted to reach out and comfort him.
Then last night I heard Jack McConnell talking about the scheme is launching to give financial help to young Scots to go to Malawi. I applauded inwardly. I’m afraid I take some effort to applaud Jack and did some self-examination seeking explanation. I remember a gallus young politician I think in charge of finance at Stirling Council where Michael Connarty was leader. I liked him. He was chatty, energetic and helpful to a journalist. I came across him several times later and he hadn’t changed. He was an advocate of Scottish Labour Action, a ginger group that irritated the leadership. It was a real surprise to me when he accepted the job of general secretary of Labour and became part of that leadership.
How things changed. He turned into the party apparatchik, the easy charm gone and although I understand the need to rise to the job, it was, for me, accompanied by what seemed like a campaign of disruption. I worked for the Radio Scotland political radio programme and, when I was featuring Labour, which was often, I did him the courtesy of telling him early in the week and reaching a tentative agreement to interview him on the Friday. It never happened. There never was an interview – which created all kinds of problems for me as I relied on it for balance and story-telling reasons. Not only that, but complaints started coming in to the BBC about my reports from Labour sources alleging stuff that wasn’t even in them. They weren’t accurate or even meaningful but they were sustained and had the unmistakable smell of set-up.
What had I done to be treated this way since, it was, after all, the BBC not Derek Bateman that was snubbed and not by McConnell but by the Labour Party? Well, I did spend time digging into the Labour cesspit that was Paisley. There were no real politics involved – as in policy – but petty and bitter personal resentments that tore the two CLPs to bits. In talking to the locals I discovered that Jack’s official investigation hadn’t a clue what was going on. They told me who he had been speaking to without any understanding of the relationships involved, family and otherwise and how everybody was inter-related…MPs, constituency officials and council Labour people. Jack didn’t know how to handle it so simply suspended both CLPs without limit. I spoke to the local paper, the Paisley Daily Express and discovered that the editor was a member of Paisley North CLP and the chief reporter a member of Paisley South. Talk about close to the community…
So digging around in that territory week after week wasn’t exactly what the new general secretary wanted. I’m afraid by that time I was identified by the Labour machine as a Nat, not through anything broadcast but through private conversations. (I never did feel the need to hide who I am but that doesn’t mean I was ever unprofessional)
When Labour appointed a new press officer I thought I’d get off on the right foot and invited him for a drink. The first words he said to me were: “What have you got against us?” His name was Tom Harris, the reporter from Paisley, later the MP.
When he was First Minister McConnell told me how a BBC employee – long departed – would let him access material from the in-house computer system via the radio van sent to his house in the mornings for interviews into Good Morning Scotland. That way he was able to see my questions in advance and my background info on which they were based – a serious breach of professional trust by the former employee. You might say Hard Luck to a journalist who is rumbled but I was struck by the total lack of compunction on the part of McConnell who didn’t seem to realise either what he was saying about the individual. Still, it’s all water under the bridge and it helps me move on and to welcome his Malawi initiative without further rancour. Honest.
Except to say that I saw his career come full circle when he agreed to be interviewed about the disastrous loss of power to the SNP in 2007. When I walked into his office with the producer, his face fell faster than the RBS share price. He shuffled some papers and said to the producer: “I though Colin would be doing the interview…” He meant my colleague Colin McKay. He really didn’t want me to question him but it was too late. I’m afraid Livingstone would be ashamed of me, but I enjoyed it.
And do you ever think the former left-wing rebels look at their ermine robes and wonder what was it all about? I don’t think DL would have had a dead stoat wrapped round his neck.