Scots, tears, and Shahi Syed

Published in The Express Tribune

Towards the end, it just all went wrong for Gordon Brown. After 10 years of Tony, the British public was clamouring for substance over spin. In came gruff old Gordon from his lair in the Treasury, having spent much of those years scheming against Leader Blair. That didn’t take; used to Blair’s flimflam act, the public grew bored and the press got violent.

Before long, Murdoch’s men swung into action: we were told Brown kicked at office furniture, misspelled the names of fallen soldiers, and sulked that elderly voters were ‘bigoted’. We were also told he ran the kingdom via teeny cabal: the infamously awkward Brownies, with such stutterers as Ed Balls (and Ed Miliband). And no one needed to tell us the British economy was tanking.

So steep was Gordon’s drop — on the tail of Labour’s Blair Boom years — that even the Liberal Democrats began smelling blood. Said Lib Dem leader Vince Cable during Prime Minister’s Questions, ‘The house has noticed the prime minister’s remarkable transformation in the past few weeks — from Stalin to Mr. Bean.’ It got worse with the polls in 2010, when Brown was trounced by David Cameron, Tony’s Conservative clone in many respects. The irony was lost on few.

Which is why G.B.’s comeback is such a surprise. As Scotland lurched toward independence, the Eton establishment boys were thrown into a tizzy. P.M. Cameron — he of royal ancestry and West London vowels — chose to tiptoe. They were ‘Better Together’, he said, eyes pleading.

Labour, meanwhile, sent in the distinctly un-Scottish Alistair Darling to make the case for union. Mocked as an accountant and a gentleman, Mr Darling related with few and convinced none. In keeping with more mild-mannered fun, Ed Miliband’s campaign was as strange as he was: ending up mobbed and heckled by both Yes and No voters in an Edinburgh shopping mall.

That’s when the Iron Chancellor showed up. At the final ‘No’ rally in Glasgow, Gordon Brown made the speech of his life. ‘This is our Scotland. Scotland does not belong to the S.N.P. Scotland does not belong to the Yes campaign,’ he said. ‘This is not their flag, their country, their culture, their streets.’

Brown was going for the jugular, ‘There is not a cemetery in Europe that does not have Scots, English, Welsh and Irish lined side by side. We not only won these wars together, we built the peace together. What we have built together by sacrificing and sharing, let no narrow nationalism split asunder ever.’

The polls had put the fight for Scotland at a dead heat; Brown’s appeal to the Scottish heart edged it over. But Gordon the Grim’s rebirth was hardly the most remarkable thing about the referendum. It’s too early to tell whether the people of Scotland — by choosing to stick with the Queen — have made the right choice … or the hard choice. It may be safe enough, though, to laud the democratic experiment we saw last week: with this referendum, it was never finer.

As we now know, those who voted against Scottish independence — and even those who voted for it — didn’t much care about identity politics. In one poll, 47 per cent of the Better Together camp had clear economic reasons for, well, staying together: Scotland’s currency would be in flux, the European Union might misbehave, the financial system may not hold, etc. Those who said it was British pride that was keeping them from going white-and-blue hovered only in the 20s.

These are astounding numbers, made even starker by the ‘Yes’ camp. Those who voted for independence from the British Isles were ever less bothered about their Scottish identity — a whopping 70 per cent said they only desired that Scotland should have full control over the lives of the Scottish people. Hardly your average nationalists.

And at the end of it, we had the Scotland National Party’s Alex Salmond shocking the world by resigning as First Minister. His decades-long dream of a new Scotland over, Mr. Salmond could no longer stay on with a clear conscience. As far as referenda are concerned, it couldn’t have been cleaner.

Watching the events in Europe unfold, one’s eyes and ears wandered back home — to the 40-day dharna, clogging up the country with no end in sight. To the word ‘resignation’ becoming taboo to this government. To the social contract between state and citizen disappear: it has disappeared in Balochistan, it is disappearing in Southern Punjab, and it was never there to begin with in Interior Sindh.

Mr. Syed said he had buried Bashir Bilour with his bare hands, he had buried Mian Iftikhar’s son with his bare hands. He wept that he was tired now.

But above all the din at home, one gentleman’s voice rung out like never before. It came from Shahi Syed, the Awami National Party’s Karachi boss.

In his book Hard Country, Anatol Lieven famously compared the Pathans to the Scots:

One way of looking at the Pathans of Pakistan is as eighteenth-century Scots without alcohol. Here we have a people with a proud history of independence, often bitterly resentful of their incorporation in a new state — and yet many of whom at the same time draw tremendous advantages from membership of that state.

Mr. Lieven went on to say the already-poor province had been further impoverished by war and floods.

While Mr. Lieven has written a superb study on this country, the sheer scale of the sacrifice of the people of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in this war mandates entire books on its own. Shahi Syed did that and more in the Senate three days ago.

Have no doubts, Shahi’s rise has been more than sketchy, and the A.N.P.’s days in K.P. were grossly incompetent. And when the red shirts were thrown out in 2013, more than a few conservatives smirked to themselves. But we were reminded of the wrenching price the A.N.P. — and Khyber Pakhtunkwha — has paid in this war.

With tears in his eyes, Shahi Syed reminded the upper house of exactly that; like Gordon the Scot, he gave the speech of a lifetime. Mr. Syed said he had buried Bashir Bilour with his bare hands, he had buried Mian Iftikhar’s son with his bare hands. He wept that he was tired now:

Karachi mein qaflon ki laashein utha utha ke thak chukay hain. Humein iss mulk mein sahi tareeqay se iss mulk ka shehri banao. Hum iss mulk ka hissa hain, hum iss mulk ko bachaien ge.’ Mr. Syed would break down weeping.

Watching Senator Shahi Syed slumped over, tears flowing freely, the Scottish referendum felt far, far away.