I never thought student politics mattered much although I had a nominal position of ‘welfare officer’ at Edinburgh College of Art which enabled me to stand up in front of all the new first years from the lofty position of second year and sport my latest arty outfit, which I recall on that day included green, rope-wedged espadrilles worn over coloured socks. The Students’ Association as it was called, was so moribund that there was no danger of having to face an election, so filling the roles was more a case of who you could drag into them rather than anything else. An early lesson in the sorry state of participative politics perhaps but other than an early flirtation with the Lauriston Place fire station (now a museum) when we made the student common room available to the striking firemen, like most I didn’t understand what politics was about, despite my tribal family loyalty to the labour party, till it affected me.
That came in 1980 when I emerged from the red sandstone ECA clutching a degree when I had actually only embarked upon a diploma, something of a small lottery win for us fortunates who had managed to cobble together a dissertation of suitable standard to satisfy the awarding CNAA body. This degree would bequeath upon us the same pay as maths and geography teachers, we were gleefully assured when (not if) we gave up any silly notions we had about revolution through art and knocked on the ‘told you so’ doors of Moray House.
But the degree was something that commanded achievement (even a 2ii whatever that meant) and a nice little library job was something I thought might be fitting. I had spent most of my summers earning big bucks at the Flotta Oil Terminal working for Occidental’s Vick-fragranced yanks and then in a moonscape of portacabin canteens at Sullom Voe getting eye-raped by the ‘bears’. A two hour stint at Martin’s shortbread factory in Fountainbridge was enough to tell me the factory line was not for me but I got my come-uppance in true old wifie style with the election victory of Thatcher.
The airy fairy aspirations were unceremoniously and rudely ramped down till all of us ‘young unemployed’ of the Thatcher dawn (the price worth paying for the economy remember) were scrambling for pub work, signing on the dole, taking cash in hand jobs, getting paranoid about DHSS snoopers and circulating in our own little underclass of economic activity. There was a black economy of nice degree-educated Highland girls who did cash-in-hand cleaning and childminding jobs for wealthy double-income families in Morningside and Marchmont, one I remember ironically the female CEO of a large benevolent charity set up by a Scot. It was as if we were a different species to the adult employed who inhabited a world we could never attain. We slept all day and thronged sweaty clubs by night, the nice Highland girls quenching their next-day hangovers with freshly squeezed orange juice from the middle class fridges.
If you can become phobic about watching election counts then that is what happened. As young people in the 80s we could not believe that Thatcher would be re-elected. As the screeching face of shrill Toryism took greater hold our hopes and aspirations conversely plummeted. It was the most rotten and inescapable trap to be in – to want a kind of fairness people called socialism, live in Scotland and get cruel Conservatism via England. When Tony Benn lost his seat in Chesterfield we sent him a drunken post-card from our communal flat to which the dear man even replied.
Then came the Miner’s Strike and things went up a gear. This was real big men in Donkey jackets, not our Jessie lads with their skinny drainpipe trousers and Flip baseball jackets. Hearing Dick Gaughan play in the Dalkeith Miners Welfare along with the rallies and speeches by Mick McGahey and Arthur Scargill reaffirmed the power and passion of the word, what a real gut politician sounds like, and how the aspiration of fairness, a job and a fair pay is emblematic across the centuries. The things you can’t learn out of a politics manual.
When the bottom rungs of the ladder are ripped away, you never recoup your place or any place in that world where people assume positions on a career path. As one of the lucky ones with a bar job in the High Street (for which I had to fight off 23 competitors wear a tight black skirt and invest in brand new un-laddered tights) and where the learing advocates swilled large gin and tonics before going into court to ‘nail’ the likes of Jimmy Boyle, I recall the cigars on the top shelf costing more than my entire week’s wage of £34.00. Surely some skewed Cuban solidarity lurks in there somewhere but I can quite reach it. As FE places got cut the big metal gates to the ‘second best’ profession of teaching began to clank shut, and it was only by doing a hasty limbo under the descending security gate of Birmingham Polytechnic that secured me the magic pass out of the world of £1.20 and hour into the stratosphere of ten quid an hour work.
You could still get a full grant for teacher training – just. Phew all round!
Still seduced by the magic of ‘pieces of paper’ a merry-go-round of hard-to-let supply teaching posts was the mixed and varied diet post TC and in the days before Newly Qualified Teacher posts secured at least a year of relative stability in which to figure out when to shout and bawl or use the killer stare and who it was that dished out the proper rollickings in the school, the shiny £10 per hour was indeed a well and hard–earned pay. Supply teachers are the outsiders of the profession, whose survival in the supply jungle doesn’t count as ‘experience’. Real ‘experience’ being that thing you get when you actually have a job not when you are doing things like, delivering yellow pages, running summer playschemes, inventing lessons from the seat of your pants, doing a bit of waitressing and early morning cleaning. As your CV starts to resemble an improbable Chinese menu of ready and waiting options produced from a miniscule kitchen and with the unemployed gaps whipped up into more positive if bland offerings, the reality is, no-one gives a damn how adaptable you are, if you don’t have a proper job record like normal people, forget it.
By the time of the labour landslide in 97, and after 13 years of Tory government, us of the unemployed expendable youth ( could almost be a band title) had a natural fear of election night. On election night 1997, I was at a meeting on a remote island about re-establishing common grazing rights for some of the few aged crofters left, in the face of exemplary imperial arrogance from the multi millionaire landlords, the RSPB. With no electricity in the cottage where we had to stay, myself and my husband had come prepared with a portable black and white TV (indeed bought once I’d repaid my bank overdraft from my £34 pw pub job) and a car battery. Suffice to say that too much beer was taken in the pub post grazings and in Lib Dem Orkney there is never much chance of a photo finish with any national political interest marking you out as decidedly nerdy. The last thing I remember is watching Halley’s Comet over the hill as we drove an ancient Lada through the darkness, and then blanking out and missing probably the most cheering spectacle for a generation as Forsyth and Portillo were gubbed by Labour.
The 7 year old daughter who stayed that night with her grandmother is now 21, and one of the 23% of 16 – 24 year olds who cannot get work. The sacked miner who was with us at the Dalkeith Welfare in 1984, has been to university, got a much better degree than I could ever have, overcome alcoholism and is now facing his second tranche of redundancy from the public sector. This is the repetition of human wastage that is unforgivable. And there are those that say we should stop talking about Thatcher.