(c) Daily Record
At the end of March we said goodbye to the great Edinburgh-born comic performer Ronnie Corbett, one of whose catchphrases was: “And it’s good night from him.” One month later, on April 29th, we bade farewell to another great Scottish comedy talent. For the journalist, political commentator and former Labour MP Brian Wilson penned his final column for the Scotsman newspaper. It was good night from him too.
When I call Wilson a Scottish comedy talent, I’m thinking of a particular strain of Scottish comedy. I’m thinking of Walt Disney’s Scrooge McDuck, and John Laurie’s Private Frazer in the much-loved wartime sitcom Dad’s Army, and the Reverend I.M. Jolly, one of the characters essayed by the late Rikki Fulton in his sketch show Scotch and Wry. Like those three, Brian Wilson is dour and crabbit and negative, traits commonly attributed to the Scots, but is so over-the-top about it that he becomes hilarious. Though there’s a slight difference. The actors and animators who created Scrooge McDuck, Private Frazer and the Reverend I.M. Jolly weren’t being serious. When the glowering, gurning, face-like-a-skelped-arse Wilson sits down at his computer and thumps out another thousand-word missive of misery and more misery for the Scotsman, he is being serious. He means it. That’s the real him. Which usually makes me fall off my perch laughing.
Before I continue, I should say that Scotland’s Brian Wilson is no relation to the American Brian Wilson, the singer-songwriter responsible for the sunny, upbeat tunes of the Beach Boys during the 1960s – though somehow, sinisterly, his work also inspired the murderous hippy cult-leader Charles Manson. Our Brian certainly has none of his American namesake’s sunniness. In fact, he calls to mind the famous quote by P.G. Wodehouse that it “has never been hard to tell the difference between a Scotsman with a grievance and ray of sunshine.” Wilson is so immersed in doom and gloom that he’d make even the weakest, wateriest ray of sunshine appear as coruscating as a gamma-ray burst from a star turning supernova.
And while American Brian had the dubious honour of influencing Charles Manson, Scottish Brian will tell you that anyone who disagrees with his politics – especially members of the Scottish National Party and other folk favouring greater autonomy or outright independence for Scotland – is Charles Manson.
Wilson has opposed the transfer of political power to Scotland for a very long time. Back in 1979, for instance, he chaired the Labour Vote No Campaign during the debate about the establishment of a devolved Scottish parliament in Edinburgh. No doubt he was happy, or at least a shade less grim than usual, when the proposed parliament came to naught thanks to a rigged referendum whereby a majority of Scots voted in favour of it but, the rules decreed, not enough of them voted for it. Subsequently, during the 1980s, the absence of a Scottish parliament left Margaret Thatcher free to have her wicked way with Scotland from her base in Westminster. Even when his own Labour Party, finally back in power in 1997, moved to create that long-delayed Scottish parliament, Wilson was still harrumphing and huffing about it. Small wonder he became known as the Abominable ‘No’ Man.
In his final Scotsman appearance on April 29th, Wilson claimed there were two reasons for his long-standing opposition to a Scottish parliament. Firstly, he feared that decision-making would become unfairly centralised in Scotland, i.e. in Edinburgh – though how that’s worse than the old set-up, when big decisions affecting Scotland were made 400 miles south in London, is beyond me. Secondly, and what I suspect was Wilson’s real reason, he predicted that a Scottish parliament would sooner or later stop being run by the Labour party and start being run by the SNP – which happened after the Scottish election of 2007. “Since 1997, Scottish Labour might have done better through a more acute awareness of having constructed – with the best of motives – its own potential scaffold.”
Wilson, it’s fair to say, hasn’t been impressed by the SNP regime that’s run Scotland since 2007 (and is set to continue running it after yesterday’s Scottish parliamentary election, in which the SNP won 63 seats and the Labour Party won only 24). In his valedictory column he blasts it for “a constant agenda of grievance and betrayal”, for “self-inflicted timidity and under-achievement”, for “a poverty of ideas”, for “a spiral of decline”, for “a cruel hoax”, for “a con trick”. All of which have put Scotland not on “a mythical motorway to independence but a slow road to mediocrity”.
Well, there are several things I think Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP government should be criticised for. But it’s a bit rich for this abuse to come from a former stalwart of the Scottish Labour Party. For if you want a lesson in what mediocrity, under-achievement and creative poverty are about, you need look no further than the bad old days when Wilson’s party dominated Scotland. This was the era when political commentators joked that Labour votes in Scotland were weighed rather than counted; and in Glasgow you could stick a red rosette on a monkey and it’d get voted into Westminster. Actually, looking at the evidence, the red rosette / monkey scenario must have actually happened in a number of cases.
Among the mediocre, under-achieving and creatively constipated Labour MPs that Scotland had representing it were such specimens as Lanark and Hamilton East’s Jimmy Hood, who once declared he’d oppose Scottish independence even if it made the Scottish people better off – the fact that as an MP he was busy claiming £1000-a-month second-home expenses in London no doubt had something to do with his keenness to keep Westminster running the show. And Midlothian’s David Hamilton, who in 2015 did his bit for the battle against sexism by describing Nicola Sturgeon (and her hairstyle) as “the wee lassie with a tin helmet on”. And Glasgow South West’s Ian Davidson, who charmingly predicted that after 2014’s referendum on independence the debate would carry on only “in the sense there is a large number of wounded still to be bayoneted”. And Renfrewshire West’s Tommy Graham, who was chucked out of Labour in 1998 after he allegedly smeared fellow MP Gordon McMaster about having a homosexual relationship – McMaster had committed suicide the year before and in his suicide note he named Graham as a tormentor.
Among this shower – who became known as the ‘low-flying Jimmies’ because of their lack of ambition in anything other than being cannon-fodder for Labour at Westminster and enjoying all the perks that came with being MPs – any Scottish Labour politicians who dared to display minds of their own were either politely side-lined, like Linlithgow’s Tam Dalyell, or unceremoniously forced out, like Falkirk’s Dennis Canavan. With numpties like these populating the Westminster opposition benches during the 1980s and 1990s, it’s no surprise Mrs Thatcher’s Tories had a free run to do whatever they liked in Scotland.
Unlike most of his Caledonian compadres, Brian Wilson at least had a brain. And under Tony Blair he served as a Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, for Industry and Energy and for the Scottish Office. No doubt for him those years when Labour, or New Labour as they’d been brightly rebranded, were back in power was a golden age of enlightenment and progressiveness. Though many would disagree. The Guardian’s environmental correspondent George Monbiot, writing in response to something Wilson himself had penned for his newspaper, described New Labour as an outfit for whom the important things in life were “keeping faith with the banks, the corporate press, the banks, a tollbooth economy and market fundamentalism” and “voting for the Iraq War, for Trident, for identity cards, for 3,500 new criminal offences, including the criminalisation of most kinds of peaceful protest.”
Wilson was a big supporter of the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and he subsequently became Tony Blair’s special envoy for the country’s ‘reconstruction’.
But I’d hate this entry to be a complete hatchet job. Is there anything good I can say about Brian Wilson? Well, he can at least string a proper sentence together. He’s had enough journalistic practice – as a young man he co-founded, published and wrote for the respected newspaper the West Highland Free Press. His columns in the Scotsman have been mercifully free of the gibberish filling the pieces that his former-fellow-Scottish-Labour MP and ex-Scottish-Labour leader Jim Murphy writes for the New Statesman these days.
He’s campaigned tirelessly for the promotion of the Gaelic language in Scotland and for me anything that preserves cultural diversity is to be applauded. That said, most of the Gaelic speakers I’ve known – and I knew a lot during the years I lived in Aberdeen – didn’t really trust him and any respect they had for him was grudging at best.
He’s had a sane attitude to energy policy, favouring a combination of renewables and nuclear power. I don’t like the idea of nuclear power, but I think with global warming hanging over us like the Sword of Damocles we don’t have any choice now but to continue using it. Mind you, I suspect Wilson’s opinions on the subject are coloured by his private financial interests. From 2003 to 2004 he was director of a company called Virtual Utility Limited, which supposedly was involved in windfarms; while in 2005 he was appointed non-executive director of AMEC Nuclear Holdings Ltd, the ‘nuclear services arm’ of AMEC plc.
Oh, and while he was special envoy to Iraq, who won part of a half-billion-pound deal to reconstruct the country’s water and sewage systems? Why, AMEC did! Funny, that.