Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Making the tea for the SNP

I am the luckiest of men. 

Through a personal connection I was able to spend seven extraordinary days leading up to the Referendum as a volunteer in the office of the Scottish National Party in Edinburgh. These have been some of the best days of my life.

It was the people, of course. 

A tiny group of people backed by almost half a nation. They made me welcome, laughed with me, involved me in their decisions and drank the tea I made. It is that style of place; no horrible formalities of hierarchy, an open-plan office and a boss who is as willing to find the stapler as he is to discuss voter demographics.

It seems extraordinary to say it of a political party in an era when we are so cynical about politicians, but the SNP works inside what it preaches out. People of all classes are there, all ages, women and men working side by side with sexism stamped on should it ever raise its head (it did, once.) The politicians - their fame multiplied during the Referendum media crush - become normal men and women in the office. There is frantic activity but few raised voices and only the occasional swear-word (this IS Scotland.)

And at the centre, intense concentration, and calm. The calm radiates from a clear-eyed, round faced man squeezed into a desk between two others. He always smiles - with his mouth and his eyes, so you know that he means it - he never shouts, and he simply keeps everyone focused on the one job.

This is the SNP's Chief Executive. A leader unlike any I have ever met - intellectual, clear-headed, and focused on just one simple goal, one clear message. Always ready to listen, ready to leap up to find you a seat or a pen if that would help you get us to the goal. Dragging staff away from the television screens to refocus them on real people, real doors to knock, real work to get out to vote.

There is calm but there is also speed and productivity. This was at its most obvious in the media room known as 'The Bubble' but was true all around the office as people phoned in to check on their voter registration, or as my desk neighbour organised flights for a First Minister caught in Scotland's fickle fog. It was like sailing with a good crew. Everyone knew what she or he was doing in a ship whose course had been set months before.

Which is not to write a hagiography of the SNP. These are human beings making human decisions and dealing with human issues, and historians will no doubt find errors in their strategies or plans. I overheard phone calls from irate voters swearing down the line at SNP staff. The fleet of 170 people carriers that were to ferry people to the polling stations caused a couple of headaches and a resigned laugh when one had its door comprehensively ripped off in an accident two days before polling.

But the crew knew what to do. And that made working there a complete pleasure. Their confidence helped me to be confident, their smiles made me smile.

My immediate boss embodied the new Scotland. A straight-speaking woman who had served as an MSP, she had the armour plating of a politician but the heart - you could see her heart through her eyes - of a lover of people, real people. She spoke economically - no hot air - and directly. In a taxi on the way back from a press conference I heard the politician in her as she gave the driver a clear run of the main arguments for Yes. Her voice took on a tougher timbre as she did so, and I imagined her on the stump at a public meeting, drilling supporters on what to say and how to say it.

And then there are the others - the cast of a dramatic, funny, gritty play by a modern Shakespeare. The Aberdonian, despairing at her neighbours' greater interest in handbags than in politics, the data team, working all hours to squeeze the most from the voters, the senior staffer phoning editors to tell them, one more time, that their reporters had a story wrong....

But my strongest impression will be of a positive, determined calm. This tiny crew of men and women fuelled on a diet of haggis wraps and chocolate were determined, together, to make Scotland better for its people, for the ordinary people whom they all knew. And so long as I was working to the same goal, I was welcome, and here's a desk, and here's a phone and here's a team mate who'll help you, and now let's just do this.

And then there was the result. The party's after-party, which bounced out of its seat for Glasgow and Dundee, but which spent most of that teary Thursday night subdued and quiet. I went back to the office around midday on Friday to thank the team for taking me into their lives; just three people were there, unslept and a bit sad, but composed and ready for the next step. 

They will pick themselves up, they will be cheered by the 10,000 people who have joined the party since the vote and, because these are people who think about people, they will do good.

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