Big Politics in Aboyne
A version of this post was published in The Scottish Review on 9 August 2012.
Each summer, the Aboyne and Deeside Festival brings a whole wide world of culture, music and entertainment to Deeside. It has been the work of a few dedicated souls over 21 years and during this time top musicians and well-known personalities have provided entertainment, stimulating insights and memorable music and theatre at various venues in Aboyne and surrounding area.
This year the festival has a new board of directors and has refreshed its programme. Amongst the highlights was an evening with two politicians for whom Deeside might not be seen as obviously fertile territory – Dennis Canavan and Tam Dalyell. This was perhaps reflected in the rather less than full Deeside theatre on the Saturday evening when they appeared. Nevertheless, both men spoke with passion about their lives in politics. Both were notoriously “awkward” within their own party and to its leaders, as well as being troublesome for the government of the day, constantly questioning and re-questioning events or policies which seemed to them flawed or dishonest. Who can forget Tam Dalyell’s famous West Lothian question, his unrelenting interrogation of Mrs Thatcher’s government about the sinking of the Belgrano during the Falklands conflict in 1982 or more recently his willingness to ask awkward questions about the Lockerbie atrocity and subsequent trial? Dennis Canavan was expelled from the Labour party, was elected as an Independent MSP on the strength of his own popularity and is now a leading light in the Yes campaign.
There was plenty of audience participation – questions to the politicians on education, the workings of the Scottish Parliament, independence. Our local – SNP – MSP was in the audience. Dennis Robertson is always courteous and pleasant and entered into an exchange with the speakers on the merits or otherwise of time-limiting speeches in the parliament. On a personal level, I have a great deal of respect for Dennis Robertson. He has overcome personal tragedy and challenge, and has promoted various health causes in an impressive way in the Scottish Parliament as well as proving to be a good constituency MSP.
Back to our evening with Dennis and Tam. Here we had two former very different Labour politicians, passionate in their beliefs and openly disagreeing with their party’s leadership, an audience of (I assume) mixed political persuasions, and a MSP whose raison d’etre is to declare Scottish independence from the UK – or break up Britain, depending on your point of view. What this evening most definitely was not was a political diatribe from anyone present. No matter how passionately we may hold our political views, one of the great joys and reassurances of living in a mature democracy (despite its flaws) is that it is possible for us to exchange these views openly at such a gathering without fear of retribution or the threat of subsequent interrogation or torture for what we have said.
Selfishly, I would have liked the debate to continue longer than it did – for much of the time, my hand was raised to ask a question, but I failed to attract the chairman’s attention. There was much to ask about.
I suppose in the past we might have expected our local paper to have someone on hand to record the proceedings – an article summarising the evening, with perhaps a photo of the two politicians beside a Festival representative. For us this means either the Press and Journal or The Deeside Piper. The Press and Journal had no-one present and, sadly, The Deeside Piper now consists largely of a series of oddly edited press releases and items copied and pasted from contributors in the local community. So, what we got was something rather different.
When The Piper appeared the Thursday after the event, it contained an article about the politicians’ appearance in the Deeside Theatre with the following headline: Voting Age is Hot Topic of Discussion at Aboyne Event – this issue had provoked, at most, three minutes of discussion on the evening. The article then went on to promote the Yes campaign, the merits of the two Dennises – Robertson and Canavan (photographed together) – and to dismiss Tam Dalyell’s views as “turning back the clock to when all decisions were taken at Westminster”.
A pitiless SNP publicity machine had clearly swung into action and sent The Piper an account of events to suit its own purposes and that item had then been copied and pasted uncritically into the next edition. History had been rewritten here in a small way, in a small community. An evening that had been one of good-natured and stimulating discussion of ideas between political foes at a human level had been reduced to a narrow political diatribe.
The Aboyne and Deeside Festival is a small, but ambitious, local enterprise run by volunteers. No matter how hard they work, they cannot hope to compete with a well-resourced political machine which has decided to hijack one of their events. It is tragic that we no longer seem to have a local press with either the manpower or the will to record in a dispassionate way what actually happened during one of the highlights of the Festival programme – and simply by its presence to prevent a hijack taking place.
In these highly politicised times we need that local presence more than ever.