It was October 1983, and Argentines were throwing off the shackles of military power in the wake of the Falklands War. The military regime’s impending exit was not, as Margaret Thatcher and her Tories (wet and dry) claimed, directly a result of defeat by the British Task Force the previous year.
In fact, Argentines had been rioting in the streets, Arab Spring-style (sans Facebook and Twitter, but with stones), for days before the occupation of Port Stanley on 2 April 1982. I know this because I was tear-gassed in the streets and was there when heads were battered.
The military regime, though in even more obvious rigor mortis after their humiliating defeat, stayed true to the Argentine armed forces’ traditional commitment to preserving the nation state, and suddenly, there I was, months after the war, summoned to help man an electoral desk at the Schule Alemán (German school) in the Buenos Aires suburb of Lomas de Zamora.
This was not a paid position. As I recall, the instructions received through the post explained that the appointment was a great honour, but if I didn’t appreciate the honour and failed to turn up on election day, I could spend up to two years in jail. So this was both a civic right and a duty: it was democracy, force-fed, and it was great.
I remember every instance of that day: the paraplegics who came to vote for the first time; the very elderly who still remembered what democracy was about; the young people and middle-aged, also voting for the first time; the parents explaining to their children what they were doing before entering the cuarto oscuro (dark room), as it was known.
After 10pm we had to count the votes there and then, but someone had left the window open, the piles of ballots were scattered across the classroom in a gust of wind, and we had to start counting all over again. Did we care? No, this was democracy, and we hadn’t had much of it in our lives.
When it was over, I found a cousin waiting for me outside, three sheets to the wind, shouting “He’s done it! He’s done it! We’ve won!”
Who had done it? Against all the odds (for even the US embassy had been sure a Peronist victory was on the cards – hence the Americans’ endless receptions for and sucking up to Peronist figures before the polls), it was Raúl Alfonsín Foulkes of the Radical Party, who was to become Argentina’s first president of Scots descent, deeply despised by the US as a “socialist”.
Alfonsín was a prominent human rights lawyer at a time of vicious human rights violations by the military and atrocities by left- and right-wing urban guerrillas with whom they were locked in a terrible “dirty war”. My grandmother seemed unaware of the significance of Alfonsín’s victory. She remembered Raúl only as a “little boy running around the yard” in her, and his, hometown, Chascomús, on the Pampas.
Yet her grandfather had donated the land on the Pampas on which the first “Rancho Kirk” – a thatched-roof, white-washed adobe building – had been built in Argentina. A Scots church stands to this day on that site – and Alfonsín was a product of that Scots community, his mother a member of that kirk.
Alfonsín’s legacy is one any Scot would be proud of. He opposed Argentina’s occupation of the Falkland Islands; on taking office he pledged “100 years of democracy” for Argentina; he vowed that the demands of the International Monetary Fund would not be considered over the right of the people not to starve; he faced down the last military revolt by the Carapintadas (Painted Faces); he jailed former junta leaders for human rights violations; and he tried to introduce social welfare reforms, only to be voted down by a belligerent Peronist Congress, intent on preserving trade union control over health and benefit schemes introduced by Perón and Evita in the 1950s.
What I remember most vividly, however, is the wind of freedom that suddenly blew through the streets of Buenos Aires: the blossoming of buskers and street artists, and the right of people to say whatever they wanted to say.
And now, in Scotland, I find the same rush of the democratic pulse of a nation at ease with itself: it has found a way, for now at least, out of the wasteland that Britain became after Thatcher’s cold shoulder, John Major’s anachronistic appeal for a decidedly English “return to basics”, with gin and tonics and cricket on the common – and Tony Blair’s savage, pointless war in Iraq, the stigma of which will plague Labour forever.
In Argentina’s time of peril, a Scot came to its rescue. Before his death in 2009, Alfonsín was honoured by the unveiling of a bust in his image at Government House in Buenos Aires, by President Cristina Kirchner, a Peronist. Who would have thought?
Today, to my mind, Alex Salmond strikes the same chord among Scots as Alfonsín did among Argentines all those years ago. Alfonsín knew what Argentines were about, even if they didn’t – but, most of all, he knew which way they should be heading. He was eventually undone by hyperinflation, the scourge of his time, and by a disloyal opposition – but he was an honest man who by then had made his mark and had laid the foundations for a lasting democracy, a fact for which all Argentines are becoming increasingly aware and grateful.
Alex Salmond and the SNP face a not dissimilar challenge here. Of course, there is no military regime, no repression, no desaparecidos, but Scotland seemed to have lost its way – until now. Even leaving aside the question of independence, the task of building a new nation, or rebuilding one on ancient foundations, should not be beyond the reach of the SNP. Not with its majority, not if it senses, as I do, something in the air – as Raúl Alfonsín Foulkes did all those years ago in Argentina.
* Far Away and Long Ago, by William Henry Hudson, is a masterpiece of life on the Pampas in the 1840s. “One cannot tell how this fellow gets his effects; he writes as the grass grows…” – Joseph Conrad.