From The Province of the Cat #26: Killing Squirrels With A Howitzer

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Sometimes through the heavy metal fuzz of mass media and the modern world, when the individual is striving for some clarity amongst the incessant network noise and flashing neon which signifies nothing, there comes as from nowhere – it seems – a brief shining light of clarity. So it was on the night of Monday 24th of March when these weary eyes tried to focus their tired and thirsty gaze upon yet another “debate” on Independence and the Referendum on yet another Newsnight Scotland “special”. Having watched with a sad heart the rammy between Nicola Sturgeon and Johann Lamont that was the previous mordant manifestation of this discursive form on STV I held out no hopes. Who could blame me: the participants were Jim Sillars and George Galloway.

Well, I was wrong. Well, only half wrong. Galloway was appalling, but Jim Sillars was quite brilliant. It was not a debate. Not in the strict sense of a robust exchange of thought through and deeply felt ideas and convictions, with a protagonist and antagonist giving as good as they get. What we, the viewers, got was a 76 year old politician, who was in Yeats’ phrase, “a travelled man that knows what he talks about… a politician that has read and thought… of war and war’s alarms…” and a 60 year old dandy from Lochee called George Galloway.

In a 1925 article on Hugh MacDiarmid in the Scottish Educational Journal Thomas Henderson criticised the poet, in so far that “He was too fond of killing squirrels with a howitzer”. Henderson thought that the targets chosen by MacDiarmid suffered an un-necessarily powerful blast of intellectual ordinance to render their positions inoperable. In other words MacDiarmid too often went for easy targets with too much force. In the case of Jim Sillars he could only deal with what was put in front of him and that was George Galloway and three BBC journalists. The considered clarity of Sillars argument and the quiet passion and humour of its delivery shot the squirrel which was George Galloway clean away. As for the three journalists, he smiled politely (yet exasperated) every time they asked a question. Bertolt Brecht once wrote that “Everything that is good is in the future.” That was the message from Jim Sillars on Newsnight Scotland. Oscar Wilde wrote in De Profundis, “What lies before me is my past.” That was George Galloway in his own stand up routine. For Sillars the camera is the conveyor of information. For Galloway it is a mirror.

The “howitzer” used in this scenario was the argument for Scottish independence which in itself is a mighty weapon, especially when it comes up against the same old Tory/Unionist canards as put forward by George Galloway. He had no real arguments as such and only one idea for the future which was that everything would return to its natural balance when “real Labour” gets back into power in Westminster. This is not political vision, this is fantasy. This is a chittering squirrel from the petrified forest of a political Brigadoon. Sillars killed it stone dead. All Gorgeous George had, in the end, was pouting and a shiny jacket.

It seems to me that this exchange highlighted two things about our current and on-going political debate – and there is only one subject: independence. Until this issue is settled, or achieved, everything else hangs like a hawk in the air. The first thing is very simple: despite “whit the hoodies croak for doom” as Hamish, that other Henderson, put it – Scotland as independent country will flourish and most of us just want to get on with it and every outpouring from the CBI or yet another “financial expert” only increases the collective Scottish irksomity. The second thing is how inadequate, so far, both the BBC and STV have been in covering the referendum story. STV treat it as if it were just another “fascinating” development in the lingering but terminal corruption of Rangers Football Club, a subject to which they are addicted.

The BBC on the other hand doesn’t really know how to deal with the referendum on Scottish independence at all. Sometimes they treat it as if it were a Jonathan Watson comedy sketch, a bit like the 1978 Scottish World Cup campaign. This only makes them look cynical. On other occasions they try to construct “head to head debates” in order to show themselves as serious and balanced broadcasters. Unfortunately for them the Unionist advocate always, usually, gets a political and philosophical doing from their opposition, especially when it is comprised of Nicola Sturgeon, or in this instance Jim Sillars This, of course, they hate. The BBC’s problem is that they find it hard to disguise this condition.

So what they do is they think “programming”. By this I mean people in the BBC sit around a table and discuss how they can make the referendum “interesting”, even “sexy”. This is when they resort to what they know best, which is personalities. If politics doesn’t work then bring on the celebrities. This could be Kate Moss impersonating David Bowie, Alan Titchmarsh, Ben Fogle or Kermit the Frog. Believe me, it matters not. Any splash for the Union will do. In this bracket they place George Galloway. After all he is in the middle, or end, or beginning of a “sell out” – no-one knows for sure – tour of “The George Galloway Show” which purpose is to… em… this is where it all gets a bit vague… to talk down Scotland, or up the Union, or what George Galloway thinks about the early morning rain, or something. But no matter, thinks BBC Scotland, he’s box office. Jim Sillars, on the other hand, has written a book which he is trying to flog. Perfect.

Well, perfect for Jim Sillars. I’m sure, and I hope, that copies of his “In Place of Fear 2” are flying off the shelves as a result. The original of that title was penned by Aneurin Bevan in 1952. I was also struck, when I listened to Sillars, by the great profound tragedy which the Labour Party has become. So much so that a socialist such as Sillars cannot be in it. When one thinks back to Bevan’s time, how he pushed through the National Health Service into being despite opposition from the British Medical Association, the Conservative and Unionist party and members of his own government, and what that has meant for the benefit of everyone of us, one wonders just why is it that power corrupts, and that absolute power corrupts absolutely? How can we be rid of them? How can we protect our vulnerable and our innocent? Bevan would have argued, if he was with us now, that these achievements – that of the Welfare State – were just the beginning. He wrote in “In Place of Fear” that “A free health service is pure socialism and as such is opposed to the hedonism of capitalist society.

This “hedonism”, as Jim Sillars pointed out on Newsnight, has cost, so far, around £1.5 trillion in public debt and some £1.4 trillion in personal debt and that 90% of the Tory “cuts” to public spending, which they bleat will pay for this, are yet to come. So not only is the British state to all intents bankrupt, its government is determined to condemn the majority of its citizens to ever increasing levels of poverty. What Jim Sillars suggested was that this is not necessary, that there is another way. Like Bevan Sillars believes in the ordinary people of Scotland, of Wales, of England, to be extraordinary. For Scotland, at this stage in history, we have to free ourselves of the dead weight of the failed state of Britain. If we do not do so it is our children and grandchildren who will pay the price. It is the decadence of the elite that they never pay. It is the tragedy of the poor that they always do. This is a “howitzer” of an argument. It is one that the BBC did not expect to hear and did their best to undermine. They put up a squirrel. The squirrel was killed. That squirrel was George Galloway.

As the plot of King Lear shows and as George Galloway proved in relation to the Union, it takes a fool to tell the truth to the king, however unwittingly. The historical tragedy of the Labour Party was mirrored in the personal tragedy of George Galloway. As my grandmother used to despair out loud, sometimes about myself, “How can someone who’s supposed to be so clever be so stupid?” The Union of Scotland to England, as advocated despite himself by Galloway, is a prison. He knows it. We know it. Even the journalists at the BBC Scotland know it – and the recent writings of Derek Bateman show it – but it took Jim Sillars to speak it plain. Gone was the acrimony and antagonism of his former years. Instead we had before us a man who knew his mind, who had worked a few things out, who possessed, as Seamus Heaney noted “the creative spirit… which… remains positively recalcitrant in the face of negative evidence, reminding the indicative mood of history that it has been written in by force and written in over the good optative mood of human potential.”

These moments of illumination come through our television by accident. This should worry us. Once the managers at BBC Scotland have worked out that Jim Sillars was by far the best advocate for Scottish independence they have had on, arguing convincingly that it is both natural and inevitable, they will do their best to make sure it never happens again. This from an organisation whose very financial foundations are being chewed at by the free market squirrels disguised as Tory MP’s. The BBC – a howitzer itself – is inadvertently prolonging the existence of a status quo which hates its very being. If and when the Tories get back into power how long before the legislation is in place which will result in prescription, or “public service” broadcasting as they have in the US? Our newspapers are already owned by the enemies of the Scottish people, so how long before the BBC goes the way of the coal mines? I would rather have the BBC so that we can reform it in an independent Scotland than lament it’s passing in a corporate Britain.

The people of Scotland need a broadcaster that stimulates, educates and entertains them. They do not need one which seems at times to be terrified of them and at other times to despise them. The BBC probably will never learn to treat the subject of Scottish democracy with anything less than hostility. Not unless that very democracy is brought to bear upon it. Jim Sillars is not King Lear and George Galloway is not his fool. Perhaps democracy, in this instance, can be best summed up by Geordie Fleeman who used to shout around the wynds of old Aberdeen, “I’m the Earl oh Huntly’s feel. Fahs feel are ye?”

It should not require howitzers to kill squirrels but until the media reflects the people’s real concerns that is what we will have.

© George Gunn 2014


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  1. Iain fraser says:

    Why is Bevan never remembered for widening access to the “high” arts (sneered at as being ‘elitist’) through subsidy? Surely an independent Scotland will draw more people in to enjoy them?

  2. Evan says:

    I find it quite strange for a man that has devoted his life in fighting for freedom,liberty and justice in places like South Africa and Palestine but cannot apply these same principles to his ‘nation’ and his own people…

    I am always also sceptical of people that hold someone like winston churchill in high regard…ws was someone who looked up to mussolini and was prepared to gas the Iraqi people back in 1920….

  3. Alex Buchan says:

    Once the die was cast and we were to have a referendum then I think a process is instigated where people have had to think things through. The result has been seen in many quarters, Sillars is not the only one, many have travelled that road and would probably still be bogged down in old recriminations if it weren’t for that fact that history has set this deadline with destiny.

  4. Muscleguy says:

    George this piece is a shining example of Kevin McKenna’s recent point in the Observer that the best writing is on the nationalist web like here or Eric Joyce’s serious piece over on Wings on the nuclear issue the media are too scared to have. Why is the British and perhaps the American media not besieging the MoD and the Pentagon demanding to know what will happen to Trident when we vote Yes in September?

    Leaving aside that WMD’s are much, much more overkill than shooting squirrels with a howitzer. When you consider what the RAF managed in Dresden or the USAF did in Tokyo with conventional incendiary bombs.

  5. Bigbricks says:

    I swithered over posting a comment on the today’s other piece on Alex Linklater, or this article, and came down in favour of this. Thank you for a very thoughtful and analytical piece. I agree wholeheartedly with what Bella Caledonia has to say about the current buzz in Scottish life due to the referendum. There seems to be a huge and energetic discussion and creativity in our artistic and (non-mainstream) journalistic community as a result (e.g. Scottish National Theatre’s recent touring production of “Rantin”, which evoked for me at least, long forgotten memories of the vigour and excitement of 7:84). What is happening around me now is (bar the big personal milestones of family life) the most exciting and invigorating event of my 60 years of life in Scotland and see no reason to doubt that this view is widely shared. This debate was an unexpected little gem of TV, and one which the BBC probably regrets having allowed out under the wire.

    You’re also bang on target with your opinions of Jim Sillars. The fact that Labour in Scotland had (and has) no place for such passion and intellect explains how they have ended up in the squalid mess they’re in at present. I fear that any of Labour’s current Scottish front bench, if asked how politics looked to them, would reply, if they were being truthful, “like the inside of a deep trough”.

  6. Muscleguy says:

    Watching it again I was struck by Jim Sillars’ assertion and assumption that after September 18 all these people who have been in the SNP or Labour for Indy are just going to swan into the Scottish regional branch of the British Labour party and take over from the incumbents.

    Firstly, the leadership sacrifices for failure aside, why should the present Labour MSP’s stand aside? especially for ex SNP people? Not to mention there will be Labour MPs agitating for those constituency and list places as well. Scottish Labour is going to fall apart from recrimination and infighting and jockeying that will result in serious bad blood and the losers sniping from the sidelines and some of them will be New Labourites and some Sillarsites and who will be in the ascendant?

    Voters do not vote for parties that are not united and I cannot see Scottish Labour being united or in any fit shape to present itself as a credible alternative government in 2016. Parties that are seen to lose after hitching themselves so strongly to a particular horse are also not credible. British Labour are finding that out in the UK as the polls narrow.

    Not to mention that they will still likely to be up against the most able politician in these Isles who I have no doubt has some choice tactics to use against Labour as the recriminations hit.

  7. Muscleguy says:

    Not to mention that I was living in New Zealand after we changed the voting system to MMP from First Past the Post which produced the sort of new political space that will open up after Independence here in Scotland. Parties parted others joined together and other parties sprung up as if from nowhere, espoused populist policies and had overnight success.

    Some of that happened here, we have the Greens and the Socialists but there is scope for a new party of the Right as well as a new one of the Left and if people leave the SNP a new party of the Centre as well. In NZ people both from Labour and National (the NZ Tory party) split of into ACT, a Libertarian party to the right of National. Who can say one such will not arise here in Scotland? Especially if an independent Scottish Conservative party moves back to small c Communitarian conservatism. What will those of a different bent from that do?

    I can easily from that experience see an altered Scottish political landscape that looks very different from today with turmoil to come. That populist party in NZ that came from nowhere, formed part of a government, it’s leader was deputy PM, they were kingmakers. Now out of the parliament and trying desperately to achieve the 5% of the party vote to get back in.

    Oh one more thing. Can we absolutely say we won’t see a party of the Isles or a Gaelic party formed?

    We will certainly live in interesting times.

  8. Muscleguy says:

    George Galloway also wants to homogenise everyone, providing they are English speaking mind. Why stop just there George? Do French and German workers not deserve socialism as well?

    After that he got into a hissy fit over being correctly described as an English MP which he is, representing an English constituency. After IIRC failing to take his old Glasgow seat for Respect. Rather than stay and fight he sloped off in a huff.

    I hate to say it but denying us our distinctiveness then insisting on it for himself is hypocrisy of the highest order.

  9. Dan Huil says:

    The only thing Galloway is interested in is himself. I know, I’m stating the bleedin’ obvious, but it can’t be said often enough.

  10. Alex Buchan says:

    I wanted to add one more point, this time about getting a handle on the BBC. I think the important point about the BBC that this programme with Sillars and Galloway demonstrates is the BBC’s obsession with maintaining the hierarchy between the centre and the regions. It really is part of the BBC’s DNA that regional output should always be dumbed down so as to accentuate the difference with the centre. It isn’t just to do with output it’s also to do with ensuring that only second rate presenters are operating at the regional,; anybody whose any good like Kirsty Wark, is seen as inappropriate at the regional level. The referendum therefore poses a problem because it is probably the most important political decision this century in Britain but it is happening at the regional level. So the BBC’s instinct is to trivialise it if its on BBC Scotland and only give it any real gravitas if it is being dealt with at the London level. Sillars versus Galloway was a good example of this. Could one imagine for instance the BBC hosting a debate between political has beens if it had been a general election. What we need to be monitoring the BBC for is how much they provincialize and trivialize the debate because that is part of the centres propaganda. In effect they are saying to Scotland: “In the eyes of the world you are nothing”

  11. At the event with 100 or so people in Govan this evening (just passed) at which Jim Sillars spoke organised by the SSP I went up and told him how statesmanlike his exchange with Galloway had been. He was pleased, and I am pleased to see that I was not alone in this perception.

    1. lloyd quinan says:

      Outstanding analysis by yet another of our marginalised poets and playwrights,George Gunn has been and continues to be one of the most truthful,passionate,trenchant and visionary writers of this country.
      The tragic fact is that George Gunn has been denied access to the audience he deserves by the small minds and narrow self interests of talentless bureaucrats and self defined “creatives”in theatre,publishing and the electronic media in our country for at least 30 years.In many ways the self seekers in our political sphere have done the same to Jim Sillars,who has throughout his life shown the same passion,vision and commitment to truth and vision that George has.Our country is changing and the debate is opening new opportunities for both,George has access through Bella and Jim is tramping the length and breadth of the country presenting his vision of a new future for the people.The writer,the socialist and the vision are driving the movement for that new future.In the Jewel MIners club in Edinburgh on the 27th of last month Jim spoke to an audience of 153 people, 85% of whom, came from a 2 mile radius of the club,the housing schemes of Niddrie,Craigmillar,Bingham and Magdelene his message was greeted by a standing ovation and the people bought 48 copies of his book,I look forward to the time,not so far away,when George will do the same.

      1. I agree with Lloyd. It took me some time to recognise just how much the times and the referendum are, in the main, bringing out the very best in people like George Gunn and Jim who are seeking radical change and conversely bringing out the very worst in those against, such as Galloway. I’m sure there are many like myself who have been won over in recent months by the passion, truth, vision and commitment to radical change displayed across so much of Scottish society. And as in Lloyd’s example, it’s clear that this movement for change is now really taking hold in working class communities. Jim’s reaching out to those who, like me, have had serious concerns about siding with any nationalist movement was brilliantly pitched in the debate with Galloway. I’d say he won over sways of Labour voters with his points about what sort of politics can emerge post Yes – a left Scottish Labour government as most likely. In other comments, folk seem to have taken that he was talking about a left British Labour government but I really don’t think that was what he was saying. Ludicrously, that’s all Galloway could offer without a hint of how to get there. He couldn’t even argue for his own Respect “party”.
        I have to say I look for movement towards a new type of radical politics post-Yes, not the old failed Scottish Labour or SSP, but a coming together of forces for the left libertarianism that I know that Lloyd and George Gunn and Bella will have so much to offer in.

  12. Steve Bowers says:

    Excellent article once more, thoughtful and thought provoking. Love the comments, I too think that Scotland (after a YES vote) will split into many smaller parties and I hope this will be a good thing, much more accountability from our politicians.
    I’d love to see “politics” spreading through our new society right down to kids having a referendum about what they want for school dinners next week ( options on the blackboard, tokens in the slot to decide, 5 mins , done ) let’s prepare our new generations to be able to make decisions for themselves, to accept the majority but question it if they wish. It can be a much better world we make.

  13. Lochside says:

    Great article. But a couple of observations: Jim Sillars is an old fashioned socialist and has gravitas. However, he still clings to the dotty idea that the Brit./Scot Labour party can reform itself. It won’t. It will implode and something better will arise, minus the traitors currently ‘leading’ it. George Galloway is a self-regarding charlatan and will soon disappear up the indefatigability of his own hubris. A fitting end to the end of the pier act that he has now become.

  14. raddledoldtart says:

    Kate Moss can impersonate David Bowie, Alan Titchmarsh, Ben Fogle AND Kermit the Frog?! Now that I’d like to see…

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