By Ryan Fleming
Welcome to the latest in our series of first chapters showcasing our books.
Today, we have the second chapter of Reid in Braid, by Ryan Fleming - a linked collection of short stories about a Scotland that never was - a Scotland that gained independence from a UK that lost that Great War and dissolved.
The sun beat down on the dozens of workers busy playing their own individual parts in the building of the sandstone monolith that would serve as the new Parliament House of the Scottish Free State. Designed in the modern style and by the same Glasgow firm that had proved so influential at the Commonwealth Exhibition just two years prior, but which to the man watching and waiting from outside the construction site felt more than a hundred years distant. Things had progressed so quickly, and for the most part so negatively, since the bright summer in 1934 when it seemed England, Ireland, and Scotland could make the circumstances forced on them at the end of the Great War work for their mutual benefit. Now, for this Edinburgh barrister, he worried the three nations might be doomed to drift further apart thanks to the events that had taken place in the two years since the Exhibition.
Like many men in his class, he was used to life in these once-unified islands going on much as it had before the hasty dissolution that had followed the starvation, humiliation, and anarchy of the Great War and its aftermath. Though still a boy at the time the Commonwealth of Great Britain, the Republic of Ireland, and his own Scottish Free State begrudgingly agreed (under German auspices) mutual recognition and respect of each other’s borders and sovereignty, he had still gone to school, and later University, in England. He still counted as many friends in London and Cardiff and Dublin and Belfast as he did in Edinburgh and Glasgow. He was still courting, and intended to marry, an English girl. He was also conscious of the fact that all this was unquestionably a product of the class he was born to, and that for so many more of the citizens in what some of his friends still half-jokingly, half-wistfully called the Three Kingdoms, the English (and Welsh) and Irish were becoming as foreign to them as Americans or South Africans.
“A penny for your thoughts, Jo?” said a voice from behind the man staring through the fence.
“Archie,” responded Jo, turning around. “How long have you been standing at my shoulder?” he asked, smiling.
“Long enough to see there is something on your mind making you look so pensive.”
“I’m not sure, just a general feeling of foreboding at recent events.”
“Oh dear, let’s see how you feel after a dram with our lunch – and we had best get moving if we want that table at the North British.”
“At last, someone from the Government talks sense.”
The Member for the Wick Burghs smiled at this, and they began walking down Regent Road towards Princes Street and their destination therein.
“How are things at Parliament House? Old Parliament House, I should say,” Jo asked.
“I’ve had worse days, but those were spent in the mud of France and then later in a German prisoner camp.”
“I was glad of the long walk from the Old Town to Calton Hill to try and clear my head.” Archie’s voice was steady, but it was clear to Jo that he was trying very hard to keep it that way. “The atmosphere has been poisonous since Forgan left the ILP and started loudly calling himself an ‘Independent Fascist’.”
Jo had noted that action as a minor news item in the papers a fortnight ago, but even as a prominent Liberal Party member in the capital he had not heard it discussed a great deal. To him, and apparently to most others, it was just another drop in the ocean of fringe beliefs in the Assembly outside of the main Liberal (and Lib-Lab) grouping that had formed every government of the Scottish Free State. Even the official opposition, the National Party, controlled less than a quarter of the seats to the Government’s majority – which was unsurprising when it had taken the better part of the decade for the old Unionist Party to finally recover from the shellshock of the Dissolution and coalesce into an actual political movement. The rest of the Members were a parcel of rogues if ever there was one, in Jo’s opinion – varying shades of left parties from Communists to Cooperatives to Socialists to Independent Labour; the Highland Land League, resurrected to its old strength since the Dissolution; the nationalistic Scottish People’s Party that was largely unable to agree on any policies beyond not being England; Ratcliffe and Cormack’s Protestant Action League that several self-styled wits in Jo’s social circle had taken to calling the ‘Kaledonian Klan’; prohibitionists; monetary reformers; and now, apparently, an out-and-out Fascist.
“He’s just one man; or are others in the Assembly starting to be drawn into his views?”
“No, and in some ways, that’s part of the problem,” Archie lamented. “You see, he has some admirers in the Senate.”
“Please tell me you are joking...”
“I’m afraid not – Lords Buccleuch, Erroll, and Glasgow have all spoken approvingly of his decision. I’ve also heard rumours – just rumours, mind – that the First Minister had to personally ask the Governor-Steward from speaking approvingly in his monthly radio broadcast.”
“I can scarcely lend credence to such a rumour.”
“Nor would I under normal circumstances. So much has changed since Don Roberto’s death…” Archie trailed off.
“Do you actually believe that the Marquess of Douglas and Clydesdale harbours Fascist sympathies?”
“Do you remember the weeks following Cunninghame Graham’s death?”
“I was down at Oxford and then London that fortnight; the first I knew of it was seeing the black-bordered phrase ‘Last King of Scotland’ scrawled on newsstands.”
“Well, the reason both houses only nominated the Member for East Renfrewshire was because he seemed to have no strong sympathies either way. A trade union supporter and the son of the Duke of Hamilton who sat as an Independent Conservative was the ideal choice. While the Party wanted to nominate someone from the New Liberal wing the Lib-Lab contingent kicked up such a fuss and were threatening to band together with the rest of the left parties for their own candidate. We were worried pushing through our man with National, or whatever they were calling themselves at the time, support would split the government. I believe the Americans would call young Hamilton the ‘compromise candidate’.”
“Isn’t that tangential to those rumours?”
“Not really, we chose an empty kilt to replace the man who had, more than any elected official, kept Scotland stable for the past quarter of a century. We wouldn’t have avoided the violence of Ireland or the denial of England without Don Roberto sitting in Holyroodhouse occasionally riding his horse amongst the working class.”
“We would have pulled through,” began Jo.
“Yes, I’ve no doubt,” Archie interrupted. “But it would have been riddled with strife and probably stained with blood.”
“Archie…” Jo struggled to articulate how he felt about this.
“I’m sorry, Jo.” Archie responded to his friend’s unspoken emotion. “But it’s how it would have turned out.”
“No, it’s just I think we could both do with a dram at lunch. Maybe more than one.”
This finally brought a smile back to Archie’s face. “Finally, something from a barrister, or a publisher for that matter, with which I cannot argue.”
Their conversation had taken them all the way from the site of the future Cunninghame Graham House (renamed from the original St Andrew’s House after the death of the first Governor-Steward) to the North British Hotel that overlooked Waverley station. On a Thursday lunchtime, they did not have any trouble being seated; not that two of the capital’s more prominent citizens would ever have to worry about finding a table.
First order of business, after placing their order, was the acquisition of two glasses of a Speyside single malt, their toasting and sipping drawing a few disapproving looks from a table of elderly women by the window. The temperance movement that was campaigning for an American-style prohibition in Scotland was still – thankfully, in both Archie and Jo’s opinion – a fringe movement in Scotland, but not an insignificant one by any means.
“I’m given to understand the whisky industry fears a repeal of prohibition in the United States,” Archie said.
“Shouldn’t they be more worried about its introduction here?”
“Ever read the Prohibitionists’ manifesto?”
“I can’t say I have.”
“They only call for a ban on the consumption of alcohol; manufacture would still be allowed.”
“Doesn’t that kind of defeat the purpose?”
“I suppose they think people might be more willing to support them if there isn’t a danger of shooting ourselves in the foot economically by banning one of our biggest exports.”
“At least the Governor-Steward isn’t thinking of giving a speech in favour of Scrymgeour and his ilk.”
“I’d be much happier if he did that instead of wanting to commend Forgan.” Archie’s tone had become serious, his face stony.
Jo regarded the face of the man across from him, more than twenty years his senior but who rarely showed his age in either appearance or attitude. Now there were lines on his face that Jo could have sworn were not there a few weeks ago, and he was sure that his last comment had been the beginnings of a telling off should he continue.
“Do you…” Jo trailed off, this was not a question he could believe he was asking. “Do you actually think that Fascism could become a significant force in Scotland?”
“I don’t,” Archie sighed. “But I’m a little less sure than I would have been a year ago. In some ways, I’m more worried about what a perceived rise in Fascism could cause amongst the other radical elements.”
“I’m not sure I know what you mean.”
“Maybe best not discussed whilst eating, I think I can see our luncheon en route.”
The two plates Archie had seen an oncoming waiter bearing did indeed turn out to be their order. Both men ate their chicken mostly in silence, speaking only to compliment the preparation of the food and the choice of the white wine to accompany it, though Archie did notice Jo’s ravenous consumption of potatoes.
“Has the bight returned?”
Looking up, it took Jo a few seconds to fathom Archie’s meaning. “Oh,” he smiled. “It doesn’t do for a barrister to return from lunch with a whisky and glass of wine in the belly without adequate protection against their adverse effects. I’m not a parliamentarian… yet.” He quickly added the qualifier at the end when he remembered Archie and other Liberal members of the Assembly and Senate mooting his potential standing at previous engagements.
“An election isn’t due for another six years, but even, God-forbid, if a by-election came up I would think very carefully if you really wanted to enter the Assembly. The already toxic atmosphere might worsen even in the next few weeks.”
Finishing the last of his vegetables, Jo placed his cutlery side by side on his plate as Archie had done a minute previously. “You were speaking about your worries regarding that before our food arrived?”
“Oh, yes.” What little levity was left in Archie’s face again disappeared from it. “I’m sure you can understand that Forgan’s defection, or whatever you might call it, has drawn some ire from his former colleagues in the ILP and fellow travellers in the awkward benches of the Assembly.”
“Of course, a Fascist would naturally draw the ire of the rest of the left-wing groups in the Assembly. We’ve fortunately not seen in Scotland the running street battles between Fascists and Communists that have plagued the likes of Paris, Barcelona, and Dublin in the past few years, but that bad blood is there. I’ve never seen the left-wing parties so united on the same issue as I have their opposition to the idea of Fascist views being represented in the Assembly. The ILP, the Communists, the Fife Socialists, the National Socialists, even the Co-ops – they’ve all been working together more and more since he jumped.”
“Why’s that a worry for you? Surely that means that Fascism is even more unlikely; aren’t most of the Fascists on the continent ex-socialists?”
“Yes, but Gallacher and the rest of the Red Clydesiders don’t want them to even get a foot in – and they’re willing to do some make some… reprehensible allies in the process.”
Jo stared at his friend and motioned for him to continue.
“Would you believe the Protestant Action League to be more in the vein of Fascism or socialism?”
“Neither, I would have thought; but Fascism if I would have to pick one.”
“Kirkwood and the rest of the Red Clydesiders must have been of the same opinion; at least, it’s the only thing that could logically lead to him denouncing Fascism as a Catholic ideology in the Assembly this week.”
“Yes, I had a long talk with Shinwell in the bar that evening. There had been some attempts to set up Fascist meetings in Glasgow and the West of the country, but the unions are so strong that people have not bothered turning up. Glasgow would be ripe territory for any sort of Scottish Fascist movement, and the only other thing that plays as much a part in people’s lives as the trade unions are the Lodges. I think the socialists want to make sure those never become a viable route for Fascism to take hold, and if there’s one way to make sure of that it’s to tell them that Fascism is a Catholic thing.”
“But how do they justify that statement?”
Archie raised his right hand and began to count on his fingers. “Mussolini, Salazar, de La Rocque, Dolfuss, O’Duffy. All Catholic leaders of Catholic nations.”
For a moment Jo simply stared, his words failing him. “They’ve decided that any potential friend of Fascism should become their friend instead – no matter whom.”
“Exactly; there are a lot of Catholic socialists and trade unionists who must be feeling very uncomfortable this week. They’ll never be friends to Fascism, but the methods their fellow travellers are using to keep Forgan and his beliefs isolated is probably causing some stomachs to turn.”
“I don’t feel that well myself, after what you’ve just told me. What about the National Unionists in England? Surely the socialists aren’t suggesting that Winston Churchill is an agent of the Pope?”
“Oh, they’ve a different tactic for that.” Archie suddenly looked furious. “This referendum on the head of state that Amery foolishly agreed to for the NUP’s support to form a government is being touted as the first step in trying to reassert English control over Scotland.”
“Who could believe such nonsense? The pro-restoration side would have to win the referendum first, and-” Jo was cut off.
“Have you seen the pictures of Edward Windsor out meeting people? You can see it in people’s eyes they’ll vote for him to be their King. The Scottish People’s Party take very seriously any suggestion that London might want to interfere in the affairs of Scotland. And the socialists are taking care to note the NUP’s support in Liverpool with a wink when discussing the matter with the Protestant Action lot.”
Once again, words failed Jo.
“Do you still want to become a politician?” Archie almost managed to laugh.
“We all have to make sure the centre holds,” Jo sighed.
“Absolutely. Care for another?” Jo knew Archie meant whisky.
“No, I’d best be getting back to work. Our discussion has been sobering but I daren’t take the chance.”
Settling the bill, they retrieved their hats and umbrellas and were stepping back out into Princes Street when they both paused at the sight that greeted them. Hundreds of people were slowly walking past the entrance of the hotel in the middle of the road.
“What’s all this?” Jo asked of no one.
They were not the only ones staring; exiting the building to get a better look, they were able to get an inkling as to the nature of the march. People were in their Sunday best but were clearly of working class stock; they looked exhausted, and some of them carried banners – banners of various trade unions, of political parties, and in some cases of Orange Lodges. In addition to the uniform exhaustion on the faces of the marchers, a lot had looks of despondency and some even anger. A large banner was now approaching the North British Hotel – “March for Jobs”. Like the others, it went past the North British and towards Calton Hill.
“I had heard something like this was being planned, but I never imagined so many…” Archie trailed off.
They were disturbed by a breathless man ascending the Waverley Steps to their left.
“They’re here already.” The newcomer sounded amazed.
“Do you know where they’ve come from?” Jo asked.
“They set off from Glasgow yesterday.” The man rushed off in the same direction as the march, which still stretched the entire length of Princes Street – buses and cars and trams stood motionless unable to move through the sea of people. “Sorry, got to get to the front – I understand Maclean, Kirkwood, Gallacher, and MacDonald are speaking as soon as enough of them reach the Monument.”
Jo and Archie both stared at each other.
“MacDonald?” Jo raised an eyebrow.
“There are a lot of MacDonalds.” Archie sounded as though he knew he was clutching at straws. “It doesn’t have to be the Minister for Agriculture and Fisheries.”
“You don’t think that the socialists have managed to somehow get him on board?” Jo sounded excited.
“I’m not sure, if he were to resign from the Cabinet there are a lot of Lib-Lab Members who would follow him into opposition. Ramsay is still a popular figure on all sides of the Assembly. Sorry, Jo. I have to get back to Parliament House.”
“We’ll speak soon, I’m sure; thank you for lunch, Archie.”
Archie said his own goodbye and rushed down the Waverley Steps, leaving Jo to try and work his way through the throng of people to get back to his office in the New Town. Jo would have to get in touch with the Party soon find out what he could do from his end, he could not remember how many Liberal-Labour members there were in the Assembly but from Archie’s reaction he was inclined to believe there were enough to force Rosebury’s government from a majority to minority. He considered for a moment waiting for the crowd to pass before setting off across Princes Street, but there was still no end in the tide of working class making their way to the future home of the Scottish Assembly.