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