Stephen McGinty: On the road with Jim Murphy

WHEN the police officer failed to adequately disarm the six foot yellow chicken, Margaret McIver got as mad as any self respecting 84-year-old can and still avoid departing in handcuffs.

Jim Murphy is pictured with a newspaper reporter dressed as a chicken, as he resumes his 100 Streets in 100 Days tour. Picture: PA
Jim Murphy is pictured with a newspaper reporter dressed as a chicken, as he resumes his 100 Streets in 100 Days tour. Picture: PA

The retired teacher had come to the Mound on Princes Street in Edinburgh to defend the Union and did not expect to find herself remonstrating with an officer of the law over a giant chicken’s right to possess a dozen eggs. If the question was: why did the chicken cross the road? Mrs McIver was in no doubt that the answer was to pelt poor Jim Murphy.

The police officer may have initially nursed a similar suspicion, but it was dispelled following a conversation with the giant chicken whom he politely addressed throughout as “sir”.

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“Sir” said the officer to the chicken “you’re not going to throw anything are you? You know what would happen to you if you did?”

“I’d be sacked officer,” said the chicken who then revealed himself to be a cunningly disguised reporter with The Sun newspaper who then explained he only wished to present the eggs to Mr Murphy, not to pelt him.

If a second question was: ‘what came first? The chicken or the egg?’ It would be the egg, for had Mr Murphy not been rather forcefully presented with an egg by a strident ‘Yes’ campaigner during last week’s leg of his 100 towns in 100 days tour then The Sun’s chicken would not have been here, nor would seven TV camera crews, over a dozen photographers and a crowd of over 150 supporters of the ‘No’ campaign. After withdrawing briefly from the campaign trail and seeking police advice, the former Scottish Secretary of State had returned to make a large and opportunistic omelette from a single egg.

Yet Mrs McIver was adamant that the chicken be disarmed and when told by the police officer that he could do nothing unless an egg was thrown she exclaimed: “If he was holding a box of bombs would you still let him keep them?”

Thankfully relations between both sides of the referendum debate haven’t fallen quite so low, but Mr Murphy has succeeded in spinning himself as a straight talking Gary Cooper prepared to face up to those who would do his beloved union down. He arrived not at High Noon but on the stroke of 11 am, striding down the Playfair Steps cradling not a six gun in each hand but a red Irn Bru crate. Politicians have a curious relationship with their ‘soapbox’ of choice. John Major credited his sturdy wooden crate for elevating him above Neil Kinnock’s slicker media operations and helping him to secure the popular vote in 1992, while Murphy has carefully chosen as his political plinth a box associated with a Scots working class icon and one also full of air.

After a minor struggle to plug in his microphone to the mini-amp, Murphy, tieless and beltless, like someone who had recently had his own brush with the law, quickly stepped up onto his mini-mound and began to figuratively wrap himself in both Union Jack and Saltire. In a fluent, rousing speech that wandered around Scotland, praising both geography and geology, and celebrating both the Barnett formula and the NHS and insisting: “it’s a remarkable country with remarkable people and there is no country quite like Scotland.” A point which made you question whether there was indeed duplicates of England, Austria, New Zealand or Peru.

His argument was that Scotland would be foolish to turn its back on a union that currently gives it £1200 extra per head of population, a higher percentage of university spending, and a seat on UN’s Security Council. He said: “the flag of St Andrews is our banner it should not become a blindfold to the risks of independence.”

At one point a solitary heckler hollered from the back and as the crowd began to shout him down Murphy said: “He’s allowed to heckle, he’s allowed to heckle. Just don’t call me a traitor, don’t call me a quisling. Nobody in this debate is a traitor. Nobody in this debate is a quisling.”

The crowd was distinctly partisan, grey haired and had the air of comfortable affluence, especially the chap in the mustard tweed jacket tapping his top lip with a rolled up copy of the FT and one would wager many had not attended a political street gathering in many years. Certainly the ‘cheerleaders’ who found themselves standing behind Murhpy’s Irn Bru ‘soapbox’ exuded a certain experience over youthful optimism. Joanna Young, 85, and Dame Mary Corsar, 87, two friends from The Grange had come down to lend their support after being angered at Murphy’s treatment by independence supporters last week. “I have supported Scotland all my life but we are also a part of Britain,” said Dame Corsar, a former director of Woman’s Royal Voluntary Services who said: “I was so vexed by the way he was treated last week.”

Standing at the back, wearing a ‘Yes’ hat was David Coutts, who runs a lobbying company in Edinburgh, who said the crowd gathered to support Jim Murphy was unrepresentative of Edinburgh. “There are members of the CBI, members of the House of Lords, former Lord Provosts and I would say to all of them to come back on the 19th of September and see if Jim Murphy is still smiling then. These people are not representative of Edinburgh. None of the people here are going to be affected, like my 16-year-old daughter, by the cuts to the single disability living allowance.”

Buoyed up after his stump speech Jim Murphy then embarked on a round of television interviews while the chicken now headless crossed the road. Eggs are known for their nourishment and one thoughtlessly thrown has certainly done that to his campaign.