“Don’t move, or the poor black Gaelic speaking single mother transgender independence supporting refugee gets it!” you can almost hear Ruth Davidson yelp, if she were playing Sheriff Bart of Rock Ridge in a remake of Blazin Saddles.
This is how the blood-circus of contemporary politics can reduce consciousness to a cartoon. You witness the world and you wonder… “How can this be?” But there it is in all its Brexit, Trump, Harvey Weinstein media-horror, with refugees dying in ditches from the Bangladesh border to the five million Syrians scattered across the Levant like so much human dust. All this while, concurrently, the world’s super-rich hold the greatest concentration of wealth since the US Gilded Age at the turn of the 20th century, when families like the Carnegies, Rockefellers and Vanderbilts controlled vast fortunes. “My minds not right” as the poet Robert Lowell noted of himself in 1959.
Inequality and forced migration, sadly, is nothing new. In 1821 three hundred or so hungry and homeless refugees, who had been cleared from Assynt and Strath Naver, wandered in a long and slow-moving line to camp on the common-ground of Marymass, in my own native village of Dunnet on the North coast of Caithness. Here they settled for the night (and for several years to come) making the most of the bad deal history and the Countess of Sutherland had dealt them. The local people, from what can be gathered from what constitutes the written record, and from what I know of their nature, showed them kindness and offered them sustenance and sanctuary. In 19th century Caithness this was not an uncommon set of events. There were “beggartoons” in many neighbouring parishes to Dunnet. The land enclosures enacted by the likes of Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster and the Gordons of Dunrobin, and the social chaos and the human suffering which was the result of these land grabs, further opened up the societal wounds, both political and spiritual, which had been brutally inflicted from 1746 onwards and would result, amongst other things, in the Disruption of the Church of Scotland in 1843. The Free Church of Scotland which emerged, believe it or not, was a kirk for the poor and the landless, no matter what it has metamorphosed into now. The destitute three hundred Highlanders who hung onto Scotland with their bare fingers in Dunnet in 1821 were only a small percentage of the greater body of poor, evicted and beggarly bands who wandered the North, looking for a country to live in.
The Reverent Thomas Jolly, the minister in Dunnet at that time, and having had a year or two to “study the foreigners”, described these poor destitute people as having “got into arrears with their rent…. Their habits not being adapted to an industrious life.” The “habits” which so distressed the good Reverend included speaking their native Gaelic, longing to own and to tend to black cattle (of which in Dunnet they had none) and failing to grasp the need for the birth of capitalism and the necessity for their cultures destruction. The “rent” they failed to pay, because they had no money, was for approximately six by six feet of ground upon which they erected a tent, or a lean-to, or some other kind of shelter. After a few years of watching their children die, of harassment from the agents of landlordism and sermons from the pulpit about how their wretched condition was a mark of their sin, half of these Mackay’s, Mackenzie’s and Macleod’s found passage on a ship at Scrabster bound for Canada. The other half, too poor to do anything else but endure, stayed and I am glad they did because I went to school with their descendants, grew up with them and call them kin. The “industrious” crofting township Dunnet became, and the beautiful and prosperous village it now is, is down to the sheer determination of the cleared refugees from North West Sutherland, who had no other option but to settle in Dunnet in 1821.
The “bad deal” history and the landlords dished out to the native Highlanders in the 19th century was presented to them as their own fault. Something had to be done to save them from their wretched condition, from starvation, indolence, sloth and the bad “habits” of their culture. The Reverend Jolly, to his credit, stopped short of calling the refugee Highlanders “lazy” and that their poverty was both punishment and a tonic for their condition, but many of his clerical contemporaries did. The view of the upper class in the 1820’s was that the Highlanders were poor because that was their natural condition – it had always been the case and, if left to their own devices, would remain the case.
So, in order to implement “improvement”, which the benevolent landlords let it be known they undertook at their own expense, it was they, “the bare-arsed banditti”, who had to change. By change, of course, was meant removal, exploitation, emigration, extinction. But this was for their own good.
Universal Credit, as doled out by the Tories, is also “for their own good”. Such is the attitude to those who have wealth to those who do not. Universal Credit is the Panglossian “best of all possible worlds” solution to the problem of the poor: exploit, humiliate and punish them. Whereas Universal, or Basic Income is portrayed as a socialist utopian fantasy even though it would enable, liberate and empower the poorest in society. You can see how unattractive that prospect is for a Tory government minister? Whose “mind”, you may ask, is “not right”?
As the Winter of 2017 begins to bite the rich are as confident as they have ever been about why they deserve their wealth. Increasingly the “moral sentiment”, if I can borrow Adam Smith’s misunderstood phrase, is that the poor deserve to be poor because, like the 19th century Highlanders, their condition is their own fault. It is this “moral sentiment” which underscores the programme of Universal Credit. That wealth is often an accident and that the management of prolonged poverty should be viewed as a crime, is a “moral sentiment” of the left. However, not everyone agrees. Just why the poor are poor was a question which figured in the Eurobarometer Report in 2010 which examined attitudes to poverty in the EU. 47% of those polled said that poverty was the result of injustice in society. Sadly 16% thought poverty was the result of laziness and a lack of willpower. Another 16% viewed poverty as an inevitable part of progress. 13% answered that they thought people live in poverty as the result of bad luck.
As Fintan O’Toole argues in his new book, Jugging Shaw, that the great Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw was dissecting these arguments, these “moral sentiments”, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. O’Toole writes:
“Shaw was a crucial figure in making people understand that poverty is about the way society is organised, not about the failings or bad luck of the poor. The cure for poverty is an adequate income. ‘The crying need of the nation,’ he wrote, ‘is not for better morals, cheaper bread, temperance, liberty, culture, redemption of fallen sisters and erring brothers, nor the grace, love and fellowship of the Trinity, but simply for enough money. And the evil to be attacked is not sin, suffering, greed, priestcraft, kingcraft, demagogy, monopoly, ignorance, drink, war, pestilence, nor any other of the scapegoats which reformers sacrifice, but simply poverty.’ The solution he proposed was what he called a ‘universal pension for life’, or what we now call a universal basic income.”
Just how Bernard Shaw would suggest we implement his “universal pension” in this modern word where there are such volatile levels of inequality is an interesting conundrum. I suspect the Tories cruel and ham fisted Universal Credit scheme would not be among his solutions.
But time is not on our side. Something is going to have to give soon. The voices from the pulpit are no longer enough to subdue the poor and the dispossessed. According to the UBS Price Waterhouse Cooper (PwC) “Billionaires Report” billionaires increased their combined global wealth by almost a fifth last year to a record $6 trillion or £4.5 trillion – more than twice the GDP of the UK. The report states that there are now 1,542 dollar billionaires world-wide and last year alone 145 of these saw their wealth ratchet up into “nine zero fortunes”. Josef Stadler, the lead author of the report and UBS’s head of global ultra-high net worth, said that his billionaire clients were “concerned that growing inequality between rich and poor could lead to a strike back”.
Tim O’Reilly, tech pioneer and CEO of the publishing company O’Reilly Media, recently told The Guardian in an interview that he thought:
“The whole cycle of capitalism depends on people being able to buy things. And with the short-sighted approach to capitalism, in which the rich get richer and it doesn’t trickle down, we’re getting to an endgame of that. That idea played into a set of observations I had been making my whole career. Namely, the rise and fall of technology platforms has lessons for the rise and fall of society. When those platforms create value for the participants, they flourish. When they start taking too much of the value for themselves, they fail. We have to fix the algorithm that we’re using to manage our markets and our economy.”
I suspect the algorithm Tim O’Reilly is looking for has flown the computational nest and like the refugees from Assynt and Strath Naver in Dunnet in 1821 is looking for a country to live in.
It is not easy, being a mere mortal, to work out just what is true and what is false, what you can believe these days and what is “fake news”, planted by cynical individuals, organisations and governments. The truth, as I see it, is that the central policy of this present UK government, which is Brexit (they have abandoned everything else), is based on a manufactured lie – that the “British” people are dissatisfied with the EU and want out. In reality the only dissatisfaction the “British” people encounter – and daily – is with the Conservative government itself. This is borne, I would say, from the fact that the so-called constitution of the British state and the first past the post parliamentary voting system denies the people the mechanism to do anything about it. This information is further denied to us – again daily – by both the constitution and the state through their servant media. If the journalists, for example at the BBC, did not accept this power arrangement as normal, that the wealth divisions in society are somehow “natural, that the poor are “scroungers”, or if they thought something else, they would not be in the position of, for example, Kirsty Wark of Andrew Marr. We would not hear from them.
It is easy to write of these things. It is not so easy to live them. Without a media to speak for us we Scots are like our 1821 antecedents from Assynt and Strath Naver, walking in a ragged line to an empty space to be lectured by the minister in the Dunnet pulpit about our badness and shortcomings and about how we had it coming to us, Amen.
So, if we can find it in our hearts, let us in Scotland forgive the Tories, at least, their avarice, their infantile greed and stupidity, their lust for power, their deceit, their cowardice and cruelty – but let us never allow them to strip us of our hard-won democratic rights, our country and our future. The longer Scotland is attached to the UK the more certain will be this ultimate betrayal of our history. I wonder how long it will take us all to see this? Perhaps I have wandered too long in the raggedy line, looking in vain for my country, listening to the mixture of ignorance and dream-devilment which passes for the Tories Brexit negotiations, to expect a better deal? I ask myself, as Autumn dies and the darkness falls, is this what a crisis looks like?
We in Scotland will have to learn one single, simple lesson from Brexit: that the reactionaries of the British state will never change, that they are incapable of it and that is their tragedy. But, like the Highlanders of 200 years ago, we must change. We must be in control of that change, take one small step forward at a time, or we are done for. For sadly, if we do not, they – the Tories and the super-rich – will do for us, and that will be our tragedy. If Scotland does not organise her independence from the UK soon, then the poor may organise their “strike back”, their reckoning with the rich sometime later, and far from being constitutional and reasonable this will stain the people’s flag red once again.
©George Gunn 2017
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