Yesterday was, of course, May Day – Beltane, the beginning of the Summer according to the Celtic calendar – the day of international socialism, Labour Day, call it what you will. It is a time for renewal, for positivity and whether you drive your black cattle between two fires, tein eigin (the need-fire), in order to protect them from “mischance and murrain” – ealtraigh agus dosgaidh – during the coming year, or are looking forward to the referendum in September now is a time when the heart beats faster and the feet skip lighter over the dew soaked ground. The intellect tends to be pessimistic but the will is always optimistic.
The old Gaelic incantation, the Beltane Blessing, puts it quite beautifully and even those who are not of a Christian disposition can share the stated hope in this translation by Alexander Carmichael;
“Bless everything and everyone,
Of this little household by my side;
Place the cross of Christ on us with the power of love,
Till we see the land of joy,
Till we see the land of joy.”
This is indeed optimism, albeit one of faith rather that hope but it stems from the desire for survival none-the-less. It is an expression of the optimism of the will and it is one which, at this time of the year, touches us all. Or it should do. Obviously Phillips O’Brien, the director of the Scottish Centre for War Studies at the University of Glasgow is not one prone to washing his face in the rejuvenating morning dew in order to “see the land of joy”. Or I may be doing him a disservice but there was not a lot of optimism on evidence in the Agenda article he wrote and published in The Herald on the 25th of April – a tad too soon for the May Day morning baptism of hope I do admit.
The gist of the piece was captured in the headline, “Why ordering Trident out promptly would be disastrous for Scotland” – this was not a question I hasten to add.
In their White Paper the SNP government states that Trident will be removed by the end of the first parliament of an independent Scotland, which will be – if it sees out a full term – 2021. That is if the Scottish electorate return an SNP government and there is no certainty to that. Also it is important to remember that on September 18th we are not voting about Trident, the EU, monetary union or anything else relating to policy. What we are being asked is if we want Scotland to be an independent country? Phillips O’Brien is not the only one to get the wool of his war studies in a knot about this.
He does, however, point out that the stated aims of the White Paper are not the same as that of a country like New Zealand, which has banned all countries from taking nuclear weapons into their territorial waters or onto their land. Phillips O’Brien reminds us that the White Paper “asserts” the more flexible position of Norway which does not have nuclear weapons but does not forbid their NATO allies from taking them in on ships. NATO is the crux of Phillips O’Brien’s anxiety: if, he argues, Scotland adopted a similar “amicable, negotiated arrangement on Trident, perhaps keeping the weapons for longer than some on the Yes side might desire” then this “positive and constructive atmosphere” would allow Scotland to make a creditable case to join NATO. On the other hand he warns that if Scotland was to “order Trident out on a timetable of its own choosing this would be disastrous for Scotland and would make NATO entry almost impossible.”
Like the itchy semantics concerning the European Union this scenario ignores two things. One is that Scotland, whether we like it or not as a part of the UK, is already a NATO member. The militarization of the Highlands and Islands is proof of what that means. The second is that, like the EU, a newly elected government of an independent Scotland might not choose to join NATO, assuming that it is kicked out and has to re-apply.
Like most unionist shibboleths this one is designed to make us doubt our resolve, to lessen our will, to go from optimism to pessimism. Phillips O’Brien’s main shoogly dialectic is that if we don’t do what we are told over Trident and the NATO question then the nuclear alliance which is NATO and the UK, which is NATO’s “most important European voice”, will do everything to derail such matters as EU negotiation and scupper currency stabilisation. He states quite plainly: “If Scotland is seen to be dictating on Trident, it will be punished. If London says that Scotland is being unreasonable, it will damage the new state’s interests.”
Is it not ironic that a democratically elected government acting upon the stated will of the people would be “dictating” to anyone, never mind to a US led military alliance whose strategic purpose post the Cold War is what exactly? It is easy seen that Phillips O’Brien is the director a centre for “war studies” and not, sadly, “peace studies” when he can write that “Getting rid of nuclear weapons in Scotland is an irrelevant achievement. A small nation of five million is never going to be a nuclear power.” I wonder what they make of that statement in Israel?
The fact is that if we manage to win our independence and get rid of nuclear weapons from our land and waters it will be a major “achievement” of international significance, and that is Phillips O’Brien’s, the London government and NATO’s problem. If Scotland is nuclear free will the rest of the UK still be able to justify Trident and its replacement? The wheels are about to come off the property led, consumer fed and banker bled economic hand-cart which is UK Ltd so who is to say that sections of the political class in England will not be advocating a scrapping of Trident anyway? Perhaps the black cattle of democracy can be driven through the twin need-fires of the peoples’ will and the general good? I grant you that Westminster, in the past, has shown scant regard for either democracy or the people’s will. As to the general good the current government has proven time and time again that it is only interested in the elite class from which it draws its own members. “The land of joy” is a long way from the banks of the River Thames.
Of intellectual pessimists such as Phillips O’Brien one is entitled to ask, as Walter Benjamin did of Karl Kraus, “Does he… stand at the threshold of a New Age?” Benjamin concludes of his fellow philosopher, “Alas, by no means. He stands at the threshold of the Last Judgement.” That the No campaign is so full of the apocalypse and anxious judgemental pronouncements is because they do not know how to use language to its best effect. They do not seem to realise that language is the world essence from which speech – free speech – arises and that it is essentially a poetic phenomenon. Truth does not destroy a secret – on the contrary, it is the revelation which does it justice. The unionists crouch like a gang by the roadside of language and make an armed attack on all truth-seekers who pass by in order to rob them of their convictions. The light the No camp seek to shed on reasoned debate is the neon public glare which darkens everything. They continually and habitually display, as Bertolt Brecht said in another context, “materialism without sensuality”.
That glare is corroding their very argument. The pessimism of Better Together is internally stubborn and self-confident without, but a detached observer cannot help but see self-consciousness and insecurity. The continual drive to the Last Judgement is beginning to destroy the credibility of the media-angel designed to deliver it. History will record, I suspect, a machine which beat itself to pieces. Even if its momentum, the gods of reason forbid, carries it over the winning line this September it will have destroyed the very union it sought to preserve. Like the city of Caen in Normandy after D-Day, it will be liberated by being bombed to ruins.
As I write this from the dreamy heights above Atomic City I see lurking out in Thurso Bay the blue bulk of the ship which ferries the nuclear waste away from Dounreay to wherever it goes. The red-lead derricks of its two cranes look for all the world like gallows or a pair of gibbets from where we hang our civil rights. This is the least understood aspect of the atomic matrix which links reactors with warheads and the first strike capability which Trident adds to NATO’s already over-tooled capacity for a modern Ragnarok. It is the precise reason why Scotland should get rid of Trident as soon as is possible, de-commission once and for all every nuclear installation we have had the bad luck to have foisted upon us and to get out of the atomic missile death-collective which is NATO. Scotland needs none of this to “see the land of joy”. What we do need is a participative democracy where no-one has to sign something as anti-democratic as the Official Secrets Act. We have to create a country whose citizens can activate the optimism of the will and free our children from the pessimism generated from the studies of war and the Masters of No.
© George Gunn 2014.