Peter Ross: Fife tea dancers vote with their feet

FIFE’S tea dancers are sceptical towards independence, but Peter Ross finds some who are ready to shake a leg

Martha Bruce and John ODonnell at the Coal Industry Social Welfare Organisation tea dance. The couple are voting opposite ways on 18 September. Photograph: Robert Perry

TOM Young is not young. He is 90 years old, a retired travelling salesman, long resident in Kirkcaldy, the Lang Toun, though he himself is far from lang, standing just five foot two in his socks – a lack of height which has never held him back in matters of the heart or in any other area of life. The ladies love that Young is a fine dancer; there is perhaps no greater exponent of the rhumba in the whole kingdom of Fife, and he has moved through his life with grace and ease. He never stops, never stumbles, and he is certain to apply that sure-­footedness – both literal and metaphorical – when he makes his approach to the ballot box on 18 September. He is voting No.

Scotland, he thinks, is a small enough country as it is. “Breaking up is silly. There’s too many imponderables. Would we have border controls with England? Would the currency change? Would we be slung out of Europe? The SNP don’t have the answers.” He rather likes Nicola Sturgeon. Indeed, he once waltzed her round the floor when she came campaigning at one of the tea dances he attends, and he pays her what passes for a terrific compliment – “She wisnae bad” – from a man who has spent 76 years and counting gliding around Scottish ballrooms. The First Minister, however, he considers hubristic and sleekit. “He’s a politician through and through, and he’s only out for himself.”

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

This, I find, is a widely held view among men and women of Young’s generation, the last of the dance hall age. They move to their own tune here; they are fine individualists, full of pep and pop and vim. But when it comes to the question of independence, their inclination, for the most part, is to cling close to their well-loved partner – Great Britain. Let Alex Salmond try to be seductive; he will find it difficult here to cut in. They are unimpressed by his pitch, considering it mere patter. As Jim Simpson, 89, puts it: “Ye dinnae get a fish man shoutin’ ‘Stinkin’ fish!’”

Older voters are more likely to identify with being British. Picture: Robert Perry

We are in Glenrothes at the CISWO Club – the Coal Industry Social Welfare Organisation, pronounced Sis-woe. A few dozen folk are here for the weekly tea dance. All these men and women, aged between their sixties and their nineties, are former habitués of the Fife dance halls. Oh, if you’d seen them in their youth: dressed to the nines and beyond, in the Burntisland Palais and ­Kirkcaldy’s Burma Ballroom, glamorous figures out for a rhumba and a lumber, the working class at play; the sort that inspired Jack Vettriano’s nostalgic paintings. And here they are now, wringing the last drops of pleasure out of a long life and a rainy afternoon. A few drinks, a few sandwiches, a turn on the floor and, thus fortified, they are ready to talk about the referendum.

“My answer’s No,” says Bobby Davie. “The UK punches above its weight in the world, so why break it up into smaller parts? I’ve worked most of my days in England and Wales and have met many people with the same ideas, who do the same work, and have the same outlook on life as myself. We’re happy enough, we’ve lived together for years, and we’ve produced people of distinction – Scots, English, Welsh – who have contributed to the welfare of the country as whole. I’m as proud to be a Scotsman as anybody else. It’s a great country. But let’s not break up Britain.”

Davie is 81. He worked in construction, doing pipework for oil rigs. His white hair hints at a golden age of quiffs. He is old enough to have witnessed the infancy of the SNP, remembering with great clarity the cries in the streets of Kirkcaldy in the 1940s of “Douglas Young for Scotland!” But he has always been a Labour man. “I am a socialist and don’t want my English friends to be left with a Tory government in perpetuity.”

Polling suggests that those aged 65 and above are the age group least likely to favour independence. It is impossible to overestimate the importance of the Second World War and the establishment of the Welfare State in shaping the views of these people. They have seen the ways that unity and common purpose, in peace and in war, can lead to greatness. Britain, for them, represents resilience and compassion.

Tea Dance at the Coal Industry Social Welfare Organisation, known as CISWO, on North Street in Glenrothes. Picture: Robert Perry

These men read the Beveridge Report while still serving overseas. They fought for Churchill but then voted for Attlee. Their families benefited from the physical courage of the former and the moral courage of the latter. Annette Gray, a 79-year-old to whom I spoke in Glasgow, was born into a terrifying world of gas-masks and air-raid shelters, but as someone who was a sickly child, she remembers too the hard days when families had to find the money to pay for the doctor. The two half-crowns on the hall table, she minds that. And now she says: “I’m opposed to the word ‘nationalism’ and all it entails. I’m afraid of how it has been used and abused in the past. I am proud of my Scottish ethnicity, but I like to be considered a citizen of the world. I do not want shrinking little tribes and people who feel a grievance against the rest of the world.”

Not everyone at the CISWO is so certain. The women, especially, admit to doubts. Catherine Carroll is 81 and lives in Ladybank, though she is originally from the west, where she spent her youth working in a smart Glasgow kilt shop, serving celebrities playing the city’s theatres. Jerry Lewis, she recalls, was more handsome than Dean Martin. How Roy Rogers compared with Trigger she cannot say as the horse did not attend the fitting.

She has reasons for voting Yes. All her family are doing so. She wants rid of Trident. She is confident in the earning power of whisky and oil. She likes that we will keep the Queen. “I do honestly, within my heart, feel that Scotland, with the right people in charge, could be independent. But…” There is always a but. The choice weighs heavily upon her. She doesn’t want to make an error for which future generations will pay. “My family are grown up but I think about my grandchildren. I want to make the right decision for them.”

William Reddie is all for Yes. He’s 71, a retired baker. He stopped voting for a long while, scunnered with all politicians, but the referendum has made him a believer again. “Independence is the best thing that could happen to this country and we should grab it with both hands,” he says. “There’s all this scaremongering about the economy, but this is a rich country – we’ve got tourism, we’ve got oil, we’ve got whisky, and we’ve got wind-power coming too. If there’s a No vote I’ll be very disappointed in the country and the people who had a chance to do this and didn’t. I think it would turn me against Scotland. I wouldn’t regard myself as a Scotsman after that. We’ll never be in this position again.”

John O’Donnell and Martha Bruce are sitting near the stage. “He’s a widower and I’m a widow.” They met here and have been together for a year. At 70, she’s six years his junior, “a toygirl” she jokes. They go dancing. They holiday in Benidorm. They feel they’re better together.

He’s a Yes, she’s a No. “Independence is a good idea,” he says. “But it’ll be a No vote. I would sell my house and put all the money on it. The Scots are too frightened. I know it’s not going to happen, but I’ll vote Yes.” He turns to Martha. “You’re as well voting Yes, too.”

She shakes her head. “I don’t know, John. I think it’ll be chaos. The pensions and everything. The EU are not going to have anything to do with us.”

She laughs, wags a finger at me. “You’re starting an argument here.”

Time to leave them to the raffle and speak with George Laing. He’s been on stage all afternoon, playing Caledonia, It Keeps Right On A-Hurtin’, You Make Me Feel So Young – on a keyboard with his name written in glitter across the front. He used to play the clubs of Fife five nights a week, but arthritis in his hips means he can no longer humph the amps, and so this is now his only regular spot. He’s The Ciswo Kid and he’s voting Yes, a decision made out of what sounds a lot like frustration and despair.

“Aw, tae hell,” he says. “I’m seventy-bloody-one noo and we’ve had enough of Westminster and aw their bloody carry on. I dinnae think we could dae much worse.”

But it’s such a huge decision. Is he certain it’s worth the risk?

He nods. “We aw ken there’s no turnin’ back on this.” «

Twitter: @PeterAlanRoss