Kirsty Gunn: If we don’t start hitting back, politics will make us all ill

Theresa Mays endless repetition of the same boring old slogans somehow seems to make her safees
Theresa Mays endless repetition of the same boring old slogans somehow seems to make her safees
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The snap of cold weather is making me think about the climate in general. The political climate I should say, though goodness’ knows global warming and the strange nature of the seasons press more and more upon our imaginations and fears as this planet of ours hurtles into what philosophers and scientists are now, very cleverly, calling the “post anthropocene age” – the end of we humans being at the centre of things and the beginning of the world striking back.

All riveting and wildly important, this, and on my mind as the snow was sitting amongst the blossoms, but, yes, it’s the political environment that is so peculiar and making me wonder about the future. So Theresa May is “calm and cute” is she, as I heard on one of the multitude of vox pops that are piping up all over the radio and TV news channels? She’s “getting on and getting the job done” and “nothing like” the rest of them, apparently, all those showbiz politicians we’re all so fed up with. The “most popular prime minister in 40 years” according to some poll or other. What’s going on? Is there something about her low profile that people trust? Her endless repetition of the same old slogans, a bit like our mothers’ constant reminders to brush our teeth and do our homework, making everyone feel safe? Is it her lack of sound bite? Media presence? That seems to affect the impression that she is actually working for the taxes we pay her, not squandering them on fancy outfits and big costly PR opportunities. In fact, is it the very absence of “Theresa May” as a “personality”, I mean, that makes so many feel they can trust her?

I heard the last in lines of generations of Labour supporters in Wales talking about how they’ll be voting Tory now – leading to the sort of dramatically different political livery being worn in that country, as we’ve seen happen in Scotland. Though the colours aren’t the same, the message is: We’ve had enough of Labour. But haven’t we also had enough of everyone? My daughter, who is 18, is voting for the first time and, though we talk about politics all the time, doesn’t have a clue as to who is the best person for the job, or what party might represent her interests more than the others. She is quite certain, as her family is, as to the best person for the job in the forthcoming council elections up north, the wonderful Graham Phillips, who has done such a great job in the East Sutherland and Edderton ward and who continues to be the most fabulously astute and on-the-ground thinking politician I’ve ever come across. So yes, that one’s easy. But those others? In Holyrood and Westminster? Who are they?

All that’s clear is that everyone’s fed up with politics and elections and politicians’ vaunts and squabbles. We just want our countries – all of our countries in Britain – to get on with things and make sure we’re not all going to go down, down, down the plughole as a result of the last stupid referendum. We want to make sure the basic nuts and bolts of society are in place and doing their job. Here in Scotland, right now, the nuts and bolts I am most concerned about are those 700 or so teaching vacancies in schools. Where have our teachers gone? What’s happened to our maths and English? What’s happened to the country that has always prided itself on having one the best educational standards and ideals in the world?

This week I saw the New Zealand writer and director of writing studies at the University of Auckland, Paula Morris. She used to have a job at Stirling but was driven out of there by terrible politicking and in-fighting amongst academics and managers that made her physically ill. So busy were some teachers, furthering their own agenda within the new management systems brought in at higher education, that they couldn’t see a wider picture that might create spaces where students could flourish. “It was all about Me! Me! Me!” Paula says. She loved being here, in Scotland, but was depressed by what she saw happening in all our universities, and across Britain, as the cuts deepened, and workloads tripled.

Talking to another academic at a different institution about the forthcoming secondary schools teachers strike, our conversation turned to the number of colleagues we know, across universities, who are off work with stress and depression. Stress is a political issue, we have decided. Those “Curriculum for Excellence” reforms the teachers are struggling with? Those endless ridiculous bureaucratic processes that take them out of the classroom and the students they care for into the world of endless form filling and meetings about meetings? And that, along with increased class sizes and lack of teachers and cuts for materials and provisions? No wonder they want to bring to public attention the stress of trying to make our society work in the face of a political system bent by national ambition instead of a sense of civic duty. If we don’t watch out – if we don’t, like the planet, start hitting back – politics will make all of us ill.

I don’t even like the poetry of TS Eliot – and I must be the only teacher of writing who might confess that, the only writer, even – but he got it right when he wrote “April is the cruellest month”. Now it’s just behind us I can see how it certainly felt that way. “Breeding lilacs out of the dead land…” Eliot went on. Well, The Educational Institute of Scotland said the government’s plans to reduce secondary teacher workloads and stress haven’t gone far enough and I for one, based on what I see going on at universities where they employ bureaucrats to tell we teachers how to do our job and want to turn all us into bureaucrats at the same time, believe them. As a much more interesting modernist than Eliot, Virginia Woolf, had it, the soil around the flowers must always be seen as part of the bloom. You can’t force loveliness from earth that has no goodness left in it.