You know the political ground has moved in Scottish political life when one of the most eye-catching banners to be seen at the recent anti-austerity demonstration in Glasgow’s George Square was the one displaying a quote from a Leonard Cohen song,
“Everybody knows, the fight is fixed, The poor stay poor, the rich get rich, That’s how it goes and everybody knows”.
Suddenly sweet old Leonard had been turned into ugly old Thersites, the common soldier in the Greek army at Troy who stood up and told King Agamemnon he was a “greedy bloody fool and a coward” and who was beaten for his honesty by no less a fool than Odysseus. Thersites is often described as ugly, bow legged, humpy backed with jagged tufts of hair sticking out of his pointed head. He appears like this, in various degrees, in the works of Plato, Lucian, Goethe, Sterne and in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida where he is Ajax’s slave and insults him from the beginning of the play to its end. In other words Thersites as a character is a device that history has used to say out loud what everyone else is thinking. He is the ugly social critic. The truth teller.
Everybody knows that George Osborne’s fixation with “balancing the books” is an economic and political myth he uses to shrink the state, exploit the poor and to protect the rentiers in the City of London. Everybody knows that sooner or later the money extortionist’s in the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund will have to be reined in and the European Union will have to cancel or suspend Greece’s debts or the whole cartel of the EU is going to implode. Everybody knows the USA, NATO and the West in general have no idea what the hell is going on in Iraq, Syria or Yemen and other than using the area as a weapons testing ground have no intentions of doing anything even if they knew what that was, which they don’t. Everybody knows because ugly Thersites, which in this case is our own common sense, tells us so. That’s how it goes.
Independence for Scotland, it seems to me, has proved to be quite a hard sell to the Scottish people. The referendum campaign of 2014 was a brilliant time for debate and for political consciousness raising and the General Election result last May, in Scotland, was nothing short of sensational. Despite that if there was another independence referendum next week the Yes side would lose again. This despite yet another Tory government in Westminster and their savage programme of hammering the poor and the vulnerable and their open hostility to Scotland and their little-Englander chauvinism towards Europe.
This annoying conundrum likens me to how difficult it is to deal with “dying scenes” on stage in the theatre. No matter how well written the play is, how competent the director is or how highly charged the actor is none of us in the rehearsal room have actually died before so in actual fact we have nothing to go on. Of course we have all been born, fallen in love etc, experienced the trauma and grief of relations or friends who have died: but none of us actually know what dying is. So to avoid the scene being naff we either cut the lights or have it happen off-stage. Unfortunately you cannot cut the lights on a country nor have its independence happen off-stage. The conundrum continues: the SNP are both in government and in opposition. Unless I am mistaken this must be a first in politics anywhere within a so-called unitary state.
There are a few things happening here. None more so obvious than the growing, inevitable tension – monthly, weekly, daily – with England, or more exactly, with Westminster. Then we have, I think, three distinct realities. One is the singular body of Nicola Sturgeon as the unassailable leader of the nation, the “best” First Minister the country could have hoped for. The second is the Scottish people who, despite the hectoring and consternation of the media and the Tories, will prove next year at the Holyrood elections that they have no immediate intention of abandoning the SNP. The third thing is the SNP itself. It is in the political party I fear that there is a concern. When it stops being a movement and starts being a machine then there are dangers. The party could “gradualist” itself into its own strategic long grass.
One of the political problems for the SNP is the collapse of Labour South of the border. North of the border Labours mass extinction presents a different set of problems. One aspect of the disastrous legacy of “good” Ed Milliband is that in the House of Commons the 56 SNP MP’s can effect very little but they can be affected by the place and the process very much. In other words: how long can the SNP, even with Nicola Sturgeon as leader, keep it all together? Ugly Thersites is asking. He is asking because the Tories are getting very nasty very quickly and they intend to get very nasty indeed. What he is saying is that the recently announced £12 billion cuts to social security benefits are nothing to what they have planned and if they could abolish the Scottish Parliament they would.
One answer to all of this is to do what Nicola Sturgeon appears to be doing, which is to act as if Scotland is already an independent country. If that is the case then another problem arises: how can you effectively, positively “build a nation” when every fiscal and statutory agency is against you, when you simply do not have the power to implement the changes you desire and the nation needs? Does it just come down, in the end, to faith, of hope over expediency and that, eventually, the Scottish people will sicken completely of the complacent eternal self-rightness of the Tory world-view? What the experience of Barack Obama in the US has shown us is that “Yes we can” rather predictably turns into “Er, we didn’t”.
There are obvious popular measures the SNP government could take and they have made beginnings on some of these but not all: lowering the voting age so that if you can be taxed you can vote in every election or referendum; reorganising landownership so that the 19th century can be finally put to sleep and the real value of the land can add to the wealth of the nation; a restructuring of local government so that it is both local and democratic; admit Police Scotland is a mess and sort it out; have an open immigration policy because we need the people economically and to show to the world that Scotland possesses humanity – it is people we desire in our country not weapons of mass destruction; inject massive investment into the arts and realise that Ugly Thersites is more likely to be a poet or a painter than a soldier or a slave; ring fence and develop health and education and protect them with your lives. There are other things, of course, but if the Scottish Government were to do any, some or all of these and implement them whole heartedly then the Scottish people will stand by them.
If the SNP hesitate or lose their nerve now they are lost. All egos have to be put to one side. The stakes are too high for the self-seekers to prevail. As old sweet Leonard croaked and as the banner in George Square proclaimed loud and clear – “Everybody knows”.
Light does shine in, however. A couple of weeks ago Nicola Sturgeon visited Dublin to meet the Taoiseach and to set up a “Scottish Hub” at the British Embassy. Earlier in June the Irish writer Fintan O’Toole was in Edinburgh to give a lecture at the University titled, optimistically, “After Independence”. He said that Scotland was well-placed to avoid some of the mistakes made by Ireland after the formation of the Free State in 1922. But O’Toole also pointed out that both pro and anti-independence camps have to recognise how much would stay the same – institutions, structures – if Scotland were to become independent. He noted:
“Ireland in very fundamental ways has remained British in its skeletal structures. We have to think of independence as one moment in a process rather than as a transformative moment. You need to know what you want to be independent for.”
The obvious answer is to produce a better society than the one we have now: one more fair and just, open and empowering. We need to be independent to build our nation for the people who are going to live in it. Ugly Thersites might say that Ireland as it is now is exactly the social and economic model we do not want to copy and however much it might delight Alex Salmond to misquote W.B. Yeats to announce that Britain, post-referendum, is “changed utterly” the reality is that the UK, as it is currently constituted, is changing for the worse. That Scotland has close cultural ties with Ireland, everybody knows. The kind of Scotland which interest me is the kind of Ireland envisaged by James Connolly, a figure rarely quoted by Alex Salmond, who wrote in The Irish Worker on the 8th of August, 1914:
“Ireland may yet set the torch to a European conflagration that will not burn out until the last throne and the last capitalist bond and debenture will be shrivelled on the funeral pyre of the last warlord.”
At least Connolly knew what he wanted to be independent for. Can Scotland, acting as if she is already an independent nation – which at the moment is our only alternative as we witness the Tories binding us closer to the union legally while at the same time pushing us out politically – produce a better society where the values of liberty, equality, human rights and popular sovereignty can prevail over greed, exclusivity and cynicism? Can we believe, as Thomas Paine in the 18th century believed, that “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.”
It is hard, I know, to hold on to that belief each time we witness George Osborne rise up from his front bench as Chancellor of the Exchequer to eat the very air of our existence and spit it back out to us as austerity, repression and poverty. Gideon knows “the fight is fixed” because he helped fix it. He also knows, deep within his baronet’s dark heart that the bubble of mythology he gives to us as economics is soon set to burst. As Ugly Thersites spewed so eloquently in “Troilus and Cressida”: “The plague of Greece upon thee, thou mongrel beef-witted lord!”
©George Gunn 2015