My mum always told me never to speak ill of the dead, especially in the immediate aftermath of their passing.
So, this column is not about Captain Sir Tom Moore, the 100-year-old war veteran, who raised almost £33m for NHS charities by walking laps of his garden, nor is it even about the cruel irony that he was admitted to Bedford Hospital on Sunday where he died of Covid. It is about the way his ageing optimism, was so callously exploited by the British state, up to and including his death.
Captain Tom became a cherished toy of the system. He was knighted at a special ceremony at Windsor Castle in July and on the announcement of his passing, flags at Downing Street flew at half-mast in his honour. Earlier this week, a Buckingham Palace spokeswoman said: “Her Majesty very much enjoyed meeting Captain Sir Tom and his family at Windsor last year. Her thoughts, and those of the royal family, are with them, recognising the inspiration he provided for the whole nation and others across the world.”
Even if I did want to disobey my mum there is not much to hate about the old soldier except the people that clocked around him and who have abused his efforts to shore up abject failure elsewhere.
Although the official discourse around Sir Tom’s passing was one of national loss and of British mourning, a more infuriating set of values were hidden beneath the nostalgia. Many felt that his passing masked a mountain of contradictions which were barely even alluded to in our national media.
First and foremost, there was his widely publicised efforts to raise money and the way in which they were gleefully promoted on television. No one can dispute an old man and a walking frame raised substantial sums of money at home and abroad during an unprecedented pandemic. But his efforts came at a time when the National Health Service, particularly in some parts of England and Wales had been stretched beyond tolerance and were exposed to near collapse.
Many of the newspapers that gave such cheery oxygen to Captain Sir Tom’s story where the very titles that would viciously clamp down on a national debate about increased taxation, to fund a more robust health service.
The Conservative government that has used his story as a modern-day morality play would be the last to listen to tougher tax legislation on the super-rich and greater scrutiny of offshore funds. We know they would not permit that, it’s one of the many reasons that the right wing of the Tory Party were so determined to quit the European Union.
Sadly, Captain Tom was a mannequin for a very tired and largely irrelevant Britain that clings like khaki to the military, to memories of war and to an exhausted English exceptionalism, one that argues the toss over vaccine nationalism and yet struggles to find a relevant place in the present tense never mind the future.
Captain Tom was in every respect a national treasure forged in an era when the nation he treasured was in perilous decline and the values he stood for were already largely confined to museums and military tattoos. His indomitable spirit was not one that was widely alive in the creaking care-homes of Michael Gove’s England.
What is sad about the story of Captain Tom was that he initially represented the resourcefulness and determination of the elderly and was a beacon for all of us as we stood at our doors clapping the health workers. But day after day, the burden of declining nationhood was hung on his back like an ill-fitting greatcoat, and his story became one of British eccentricity rather than respect for health workers.
It was as if the post-war Labour government had never won that historic election and we were back in a never-ending loop of rationing, the Blitz and Churchillian conservatism. Paradoxically, this lust for military respect came at a time when more veterans are homeless, and the provision extended to serving military families is woeful.
Too many questions remain unanswered about the public health response to the pandemic, which only a public enquiry can answer, and in the fug of doubt and false bravado much suspicion clings to the government in Westminster. The procurement of essential protective equipment was lamentable and costly; giving into business lobbyists whether it was racetracks, or the restaurant trade exacerbated the rates of infection. A casual contempt for science has been visible throughout and has only now been reversed as the wonderous Oxford vaccination rolls out.
Many instinctively sensed that Captain Tom’s herculean efforts were in inverse proportion to feckless government. Keith Burge, Director of the Institute of Economic Development tweeted: “In the run up to his 100th birthday, Captain Tom raised a staggering £1.25m a day for the NHS. If only he could have kept going at that rate until he was 149, he would have covered the cost of Test & Trace.”
Then again it is only fair to Tom Moore’s memory to make a point that has often been overlooked. The NHS has always had a close working relationship with charities and has a team in place whose key objective is to seek charitable donation to enrich the service. Some of the most famous hospitals in the UK, including what was once the Sick Kids Hospital in Yorkhill, have used charity to brighten the lives of seriously ill children and to provide specialised equipment that is beyond the reasonable budget of a hospital.
Many people bequeath money to the hospital that treats them during their dying days, and we cannot claim that the NHS alone funds hospital care. But the more that charity is seen to form a bigger slice of the pie-charts, the greater the loss to our commonwealth.
Significantly, here in Scotland, there has been much less unanimity about Captain Sir Tom Moore and his sterling efforts. Scepticism can be a powerful thing. Fewer people bought into the media construct and there was a widespread cynicism about the way he was being feted in the national news. Earlier in the pandemic respect for front line workers was noisily enacted by nearly every home. This week, in my own street, nothing – not a single house was out. The silence was deafening.
But scepticism did not quell the national news. In fact, the eulogies to Captain Tom and his heroism gathered pace, they proposed a statue, a public holiday, and even a state funeral as ghoulish politicians sucked the last drops of out of the story.
I was taken by a front-page photograph in The Herald. The Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon stood stoically alone applauding in an office doorway. It was telling portraiture. Oh, for a polygraph test, what brought this smart and savvy young woman to stand there solemnly in her Slanz tartan mask? Was it the First Minister showing her customary respect for a deceased man she had never met, just a generalised sense of duty that all democratic leaders are required to show or was it a more complicated pragmatism?
The First Minister is now inured to the chicanery of the press and is required to fend off loaded questions on a daily basis at Covid briefings. She knows full well that if she did not join the parade it would have been a major story for nervy Unionists and blustering columnists. Not clapping would have been an invitation to the declamatory hypocrites of the big newspapers to pass judgement and find fault.
I hope it wasn’t too cold out on that desolate step.
Introducing my favourite new word: Scötterdämmerung
I am a serious politician with important things to say. - https://twitter.com/i/status/1196394793670258688
Declaration for Independence, 2019
It is the sovereign right of the Scottish people to determine the form of government best suited to their needs. - A Claim of Right for Scotland, 1989
Guiding principles for a new and better Scotland
- It is the sovereign right of the Scottish people to determine the form of government best suited to their needs, now and in the future. In all political deliberations, decisions and actions their interests should be paramount.
- Scotland should be an open and democratic society in which no individual is excluded, oppressed or discriminated against on account of their race, colour, faith, origin or place of birth, physical or mental capacity, sex, sexuality, gender or language.
- Scotland should have a written constitution which clearly lays out the rights of its citizens, the country’s system of government and the relationships that exist between government, its instruments and powers and the rights of individual citizens.
- Scotland should take its place as an independent country on the world stage, free to join international organisations and alliances for purposes of trade and commerce, and for the protection and care of the planet’s natural environment, without which the human race cannot survive.
- Scotland should uphold internationally acknowledged values of non-aggression and self-defence, and should refuse to maintain, stock or use, for itself or on behalf of any other power or government, chemical, biological or nuclear weapons or any other weapons of mass destruction.
- There should be clear separation of the powers of the Scottish parliament and government (the executive). The judiciary should be completely independent of government.
- Independence will provide an opportunity to review and, where necessary, change the systems of both national and local government, in order to make them more accountable to the people and more beneficial to their needs.
- Ownership of land, property and natural resources should be subject to open and democratic scrutiny. The ability of communities, both rural and urban, to own the land in and on which they exist should be enhanced and extended. There should be total transparency in the way property in Scotland is bought, sold or possessed.
- Freedom of speech and action, and the freedom to work, create, buy, sell and do business should adhere to principles of environmental and communal sustainability and responsibility. Profit and economic growth should not be pursued at the expense of the wellbeing of the people or their habitat or that of other people or nations.
- We affirm the values of care, kindness, neighbourliness and generosity of spirit in all our dealings. Such values are the foundation stones of a fair, free and open society where all citizens have the opportunities to lead the best, most fulfilling lives they can.
- It is our belief that the best option now open to the Scottish people is for Scotland to become an independent country.
- The alternative is to accept that Scotland’s fate would remain in the hands of others and that the Scottish people would relinquish their right to decide their own destiny.
Iain Anderson, broadcaster
Peter Arnott, playwright
Neal Ascherson, journalist and writer
Aly Bain, musician
Margaret Bennett, folklorist and singer
Robert Black QC, Professor Emeritus of Scots Law
Christine Borland, visual artist
Stuart Braithwaite, musician
Calum Colvin, visual artist
Roddy Buchanan, visual artist
Stuart Cosgrove, writer and broadcaster
Brian Cox, actor
Robert Crawford, writer
Sir Tom Devine, Professor Emeritus of Scottish History
Lari Don, writer
Jenni Fagan, writer
Rt. Rev. Richard Holloway, writer and broadcaster
Robert Hodgens, musician
Kathleen Jamie, poet and writer
Jamie Jauncey, writer
A.L. Kennedy, writer
Liz Lochhead, poet, playwright, former Makar
Val McDermid, writer
Jamie MacDougall, singer and broadcaster
Lorraine Mackintosh, actor and singer
Dr. Dolina Maclennan, writer and broadcaster
Aonghas MacNeacail, poet and broadcaster
Dr. Ann Matheson, literary historian
Karen Matheson, singer
Alexander Moffat, artist
Jemma Neville, author
Andrew O’Hagan, writer
Aidan O’Rourke, musician and composer
Don Paterson, poet
Karine Polwart, musician and writer
Eddi Reader, singer
Prof. Alan Riach, poet and academic
James Robertson, writer
Donald Shaw, musician, composer and producer
Ross Sinclair, visual artist
Donald Smith, storyteller
Elaine C. Smith, actor
Alan Spence, writer
Will Storrar, minister and academic
Gerda Stevenson, writer and actor
Sheena Wellington, singer
Prof. Gary West, musician and broadcaster
Ruth Wishart, journalist and broadcaster