From the Province of the Cat #24 – Get Stuffed
As Ian Lang both stood up to speak in the House of Lords against Scottish independence and at the same time sunk into the Hades of history it is perhaps as good a time as any – perhaps exactly the right time – to look briefly at how we got to this moment in Scottish political history. It may seem strange to anyone under the age of thirty that their contemporary lives and experiences are part of a historical process but it is precisely this generation who have the opportunity to take control of their history – and by extension, their future – and rescue it from the Langs of this world, who strive to reconstruct the collective memory in order to hold us firm to a version of the past which never existed, which suits their reactionary purpose and protects their interests. Their attempts are ultimately futile. The view of the past as seen from the House of Lords disappears irretrievably with every present “crisis”. For make no mistake: Ian Lang and his class see the prospect of Scottish independence as a crisis – a crisis for them.
However, because the rambling insecurities of a handful of grassed-our me-Lords are given plenty of air time on the media this false reconstruction is extremely dangerous because it threatens our trust in history, as we are then encouraged to think of our contemporary political aspirations as somehow a deviation from the grand narrative of great events, or as Johann Lamont put it, a list of “wee things”.
“Great events” as history exclude, by definition, “wee things” and this conformity flies in the face of reality because history is made by the collective and individual actions of millions of people, either knowingly or unknowingly, through time. Beware of any historian who attempts to tell you “how it really was” because what they mean is “how it really should have been”. The melancholia that such apologists exude is that of the broken narrative. It was apparent in the despondent tone in the ermine voices emanating from the Palace of Westminster last week, for it was if the democratic processes of the Scottish people were somehow betraying the empathy they demand of us, the people, to themselves as history’s victors.
Scotland’s history is a long series of crisis. Each event was seen as “a state of emergency” by the ruling class. Any cursory look at the modern history of the working class in Scotland shows that “a state of emergency” is the normality. From the miners strike of 1972 which was the first industrial action in the coal field since the General Strike, to the 1974 miners strike and the “three day week” of Ted Heath’s Tory government, the “crisis” and “emergency” has been ongoing. Then came 1979 with the rigged 40% referendum on a Scottish Assembly, the election of Margaret Thatcher’s detested regime and the subsequent tragedy of the 1984-5 miners strike and the failed experiment of the Poll Tax: all these “wee things” were struggles by ordinary people against the state and in Scotland that state was headed up by the likes of Lang and Forsyth. That these relics can still rattle their jewellery, their booty, and advocate to the majority that their concept of history is tenable is the cruel joke which class theology plays on history when it is dragged out into the light when the truth is chained up in the dark. It does not only insult the “war dead” but also intelligence and credibility.
This has never bothered the ruling class very much. Each struggle, each historical episode, is dismissed if it does not fit the narrative of grand events. In his novel “Immortality” Milan Kundera takes time out from his “narrative” to reflect on what an “episode” means:
“In Aristotle’s Poetics, the episode is an important concept. Aristotle did not like episodes. According to him, an episode, from the point of view of poetry, is the worst possible type of event. It is not an unavoidable consequence of preceding action, nor the cause of what is to follow; it is outside the causal chain of events which is the story. It is merely a sterile accident which can be left out without making the story lose its intelligible continuity, and is incapable of making a permanent mark upon the life of the characters. You take the Metro to meet the woman in your life and a moment before you arrive at your station a girl you don’t know and haven’t noticed before (after all, you have a date with that woman in your life and are oblivious to everything else) suddenly feels faint and is about to collapse. Because you are standing right next to her, you catch her and hold her in your arms for a few moments until she opens her eyes. You help her sit down in a seat which someone has vacated for her and because at this point the train suddenly slows down, you free yourself from her with an almost impatient movement so that you get off and rush after that woman in your life. At that instant, the girl whom you held in your arms just a moment earlier is completely forgotten. This event is a typical episode. Life is stuffed with episodes as a mattress is with horsehair, but a poet (according to Aristotle) is not an upholsterer and must remove all stuffing from his story, even though real life consists of nothing but precisely such stuffing.”
For the members of the House of Lords history is eternal and universal, their method, lacking any theory, is to add up a mass of “facts” about kings and queens and battles and to claim that without such epoch making instances time would be, in the words of Walter Benjamin “homogenous and empty”. Benjamin sought “a revolutionary chance in the struggle for a suppressed past” but this chance was denied him as he tragically committed suicide on the Spanish border while on the run from The Gestapo in 1940. He knew what was coming. His brother died in a concentration camp in 1942. Two episodes and two examples of what Tolstoy described as “the differential of history”, stuffed into the material mattress of lived human experience. Two “wee things”.
On this theme then what are we supposed to make of the recent TV programme, “Scotland’s Smoking Gun”? This was BBC Scotland’s jolly jape around the “homogenous and empty” episodes of recent Scottish history, a series of somehow unrelated events and phenomenon which mysteriously have positioned us, the Scots, in this pretty pickle of a referendum thing-y? The basic premise of the programme, and this was amplified by Clare Grogan’s “I Could Be Happy” sing-a-long voice, was “Well, I’ll be damned: how on earth did this happen?” Lord Lang is asking much the same question. Here was history, not as melancholia, but as funfair.
Tolstoy, although he wrote long historical novels, was an advocate of taking an infinitesimally small unit of observation – “the differential of history” – in order to “arrive at the laws of history.” In the Far North of Scotland one cannot help but see parallels, historically, with what the No campaign are saying now about independence and what the British state was saying to the people of Caithness in the earlier 1950’s about nuclear power. The same patrician tones of fear, reassurance and lies were employed. Fear that if Caithness did not embrace the nuclear future the county would suffer mass depopulation and the economy would fall through the floor. The last one to leave put out the Tilley Lamp. Reassurance, despite the 1957 disaster at Windscale – now Sellafield – when one of the plutonium producing piles caught fire, that Dounreay was purely a civil nuclear research and development establishment when in reality there was no such thing. That the reactors were perfectly safe when they have been proven to be particle leaking sieves. The lie was in the promise that the electricity produced by the fast reactor would be “too cheap to meter” when in reality the price of fuel rose and Winter blackouts increased. There were many other versions of all of these, one central conceit being that everyone in the North was part of the “Great British Nuclear Family” and that if we were good bairns and signed the Official Secrets Act and went about our daily business without any fuss we would be looked after, could expect a job for life, forever, amen.
Now the talk of the Atomic City steamie which is Thurso is all about decommissioning the entire shooting match and the dodgy boast of Cavendish Nuclear – formerly Babcock’s – is “Gone by 2025”. If Cavendish have their way they will be gone, fat bonus in hand, long before that and the people of Caithness will be left with precisely nothing, as there is no social or economic plan for post-decommissioning and the British government, whose military “experiment” it was, have washed their hands of it. “Out of sight and out of range” has now become “out of sight and out mind”. A sixty year episode and yet another historical differential. For Caithness the atomic funfair is leaving town. For the Unionists the rallying cry is vote No and you will get the past, our past. In Caithness the past has disappeared and the present has no economic future. It is as if the John O Groat Journal has become a weekly instalment of The Torah. In it we are instructed in prayers of remembrance and are warned against soothsayers and visionaries who promise to lead us out of this “homogenous and empty” time.
Currently we have no-one as astute and as brave as Walter Benjamin or as sardonically observant as Milan Kundera to free us from the remembrance brigade of Ian Lang and his parcel of rogues in a coronation, but perhaps our “time”, our “epoch” requires other qualities. One such quality is bravery. It is bravery, come September 18th 2014, which will harness the winds of progress and blow us into the future. Those who have it in their power to do so are those under the age of thirty. It is their time to tell the Lords and masters to “get stuffed!”
© George Gunn 2014