Places of the Sunset: Independence and World War One
Christopher Silver launches his weekly column for Bella Caledonia with a long view of how a politics of nightmares, not of dreams, has become embedded in our culture courtesy of British decline.
So, lest we shame them, let us believe that the new oppressions and foolish greeds are no more than mists that pass. They died for a world that is past, these men, but they did not die for this that we seem to inherit.
Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Sunset Song
A century ago a global system many thought unshakeable came crashing down with an awesome cataclysmic force.
Today, the world is on fire again. A roch wind is indeed blowing, but it is not one of emancipation and optimism. It is sailing over the once again contested plains of eastern Ukraine, whipping up the dust from the ruins of Gaza and the desolation of Syria and Iraq: moving across swathes of the planet from Europe to Africa.
This is a world in which nothing is certain and everything is in motion.
The ingredients taste all too familiar: ethnic territorial disputes, intractable internal conflicts, totemic acts of terror all too easily linked to ethnic tension. In 1914 as in 2014, the world is not at peace. Though the alliances and massive military arsenals may have become more subtle in their operation, it is questionable whether the individuals that wield them have become more intelligent.
As the centenary of Britain’s entry into World War One is marked, the world is just as flammable and uncertain. Clinging to what has aye been seems obvious to many. But perhaps the most important lesson to learn from that most absurd of conflicts, is that a status quo’s conceit of itself should never be trusted.
The present world dis-order, is neatly encapsulated by Francis Fukuyama’s premature heralding of ‘the end of history’ in the 1990s. In the west at least this was just one symptom of the intellectual hubris that defined the pre-2007 consensus. At a time when boom and bust was being abolished, everyone was middle class and polar ideologies were gone, why would anyone question an apparently self-evident continuation of a constantly innovating present? The work of thinking up alternatives went out of fashion along with pagers and VCRs.
This is just one reason why the referendum in Scotland is so interesting. Scotland’s task is (to borrow from Edinburgh’s Makar Ron Butlin) that of ‘kickstarting history’ not celebrating its end. Rather than accepting that the present order is a terminus, Scots have been asked, with a rare kind of urgency, to think about a wide variety of different onward journeys. That we do so in an age of vast uncertainty is of profound importance.
It’s daunting: independence casts us out into the uncharted waters that will define the coming century. The question Yes Scotland’s rhetoric asks us is whether we want our own hand on the tiller or not. There is however a bigger question, how would Scotland’s change of course impact in a world defined by fear and mistrust?
We should begin by noting that the last people who want to play down the significance of Scottish statehood are supporters of the union. In the words of Lord Forsyth:
‘I know that it is a cliché to say, “United we stand, divided we fall”, but it applies to companies, political parties and families, and it certainly applies to countries. That is what is at stake here.’
Globally, this is a time of unravelling, everywhere old elites are nervous. Whatever their faults, the ‘networked social movements’ of recent years are fundamentally about creative, collective responses to the blatantly anti-social behaviour of elites. People, aided by technology, are learning to overcome a fear of the unknown, to share information, to organise and establish new political spaces.
Perhaps this is why the referendum has revealed multiple cracks in the status quo. Antiquated jingoismhas been marshalled to defend the union. It can be questioned and lampooned as never before. Especially for politicians who have held high office in the UK, the response is to protest too much. For this elite, cataclysm is a very real and apparent outcome of a Yes vote, as made clear by the now notorious words of George Robertson.
The repercussions will be global and therefore dark and unpredictable. The favourite term in No’s lexicon is ‘irreversible’, for, as Alastair Darling is fond of remarking, ‘there is no going back’.
Their relatively recent careers aside: we must remember that these men are from a different political era. Uncertainty: the prospect of irrevocable, disastrous change, is something that a new generation of political voices have to confront as a matter of course.
As a vote winner, the threat of instability is aimed at the old, the mortgage holder, the pensioner. Many younger voters look at the debt they’ve been saddled with and the profoundly fucked up world heralded by New Labour’s embrace of open-ended neo-liberal war, with the same contempt and incomprehension that they might greet Lord Kitchener.
It was the UK government’s pre-crash generation of ideologues whose decisions are the real drivers of fear and uncertainty today. Politics in much of the west has developed around this major paradigm shift: from shared optimism, to individual pessimism after the failure of the post-war consensus.
A politics of nightmares, not of dreams, has become embedded. All over the world, people, particularly the young, want to wake up.
Innocence is Drowned
For today’s centenary should remind us that in war it is the young that pay the greatest price. The atrocities being carried out in Gaza as I write are a depressing reminder of this.
The essential message of ‘hard power’ unionism, however, is that this as good as it gets: we know what happens to those who are not content with what they’ve got (terrorism, economic collapse). The threat from No is, in effect, that without the security and continuity of union, the global condition of the many will come to get you, even in conspicuously wealthy Scotland.
So much for solidarity. But there is something else that is omitted from that narrative. Disaster, fear of collapse, are now a part of all of our daily lives. The post-9/11 generation looks on at a global scene in which existential threats flash past on a daily basis. Since then, worried about losing viewers, news media has been almost entirely reconstituted. Hopping from mass shooting, to natural disaster, to terrorist attack, via pandemic virus: the shift of sensationalist focus is often so rapid they don’t even bother to change the graphics.
It’s perfectly possible that independence would be a mere tartan riff on this all-consuming experience of anxiety politics. Though in comparison to the visitations that would haunt the recesses of a UKIP designed fortress Britain, it seems infinitely preferable. Security stopped being a geographic concern some time ago, but our leaders can still make us feel secure thinking otherwise.
A long walk home
The big question of Scottish independence is about our relationship to the rest of the world. The prevailing political consensus has long viewed control of domestic policy as suited to Scotland. In truth, we’re being asked to decide what our place in the world is to be, how we relate to our neighbours, whether we wish to join the international community or not.
A century ago Britain’s deterrent was a vast navy, a force more powerful and pervasive than anything that had gone before it. Yet for all that unprecedented military might, the country was still dragged into its most disastrous conflict.
Today, the Dreadnought’s ancestor is a token symbol of past influence. An absurd and expensive fig-leaf for greatness. If Scotland votes for independence, Trident goes and it is perfectly feasible that the UK will be forced to stop being a nuclear power. The first official nuclear weapon state to do so.
It then becomes likely that the UK will lose its unjust place at the UN Security Council table. The continued exclusion of vastly more populous countries in the global south like India, Brazil and South Africa, would become impossible in that scenario. For better or worse, geopolitics would be significantly altered.
Just as importantly, if peaceful secession from the UK occurs through a Yes vote, it will reassert the validity of a democratic process at a time when politics is riven with crisis and extremism.
Furthermore independence does not mean ‘balkanisation’. The term is a glaring misnomer that belies the reality that great powers, not small countries, have both the capability and the tendency to incite cataclysmic events (as for example in the Balkans a century ago).
In 2014 we can show that a social movement can take back power without blood, ethnic strife or territorial dispute. Borne of quiet necessity and desire, independence would also be a performance to the world about who we are. In particular we would be seen as a state that refuses to heed the military industrial complex, or the exhortations to pride, clout and strength that accompany it. Refuting the very ideas that saw young men from across the globe die in their millions, for nothing, in 1914 would be a fitting and proper tribute to their loss.
World War One was Scotland’s first post-union existential threat. With a death rate only exceeded by Serbia and Turkey, by its end, many in Scotland felt that the country would soon be entirely extinguished. It was rapidly losing people (especially the young), its economic base, its culture. It was a nation at risk of losing its very sense of itself. Yet it survived.
Throughout Scotland that experience provoked a renaissance; a renewed awareness of Scotland as a polity accompanied by the rediscovery of a distinct culture as part of the wider cosmopolitan movement of Modernism.
The war is also the subject of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song, a book that remains the nation’s favourite (despite having the life drained out of it in many a Scottish classroom). A key theme in the book’s treatment of the war is that refusal to participate, to abandon that which is unjust, is a profound act of courage not cowardice. The most poignant moment in this highly significant narrative of that conflict, is Ewan Tavendale’s desertion of the front line, in a moment of clarity amid the slaughter.
This act of defiance is a deliberate inversion of the manner in which the war was already being sanitised and glorified as Gibbon was writing in 1932. His work tell us that to apply meaning to that which is devoid of it, is the worst possible memorial for a conflict, not least because it contains the seed of repetition. Today we must remember such alternative stories, if we are to have any hope of honouring an old world now lost to us with the potential creation of a better one.
The memory of war is often hallowed, separated off from contemporary interference, treated with religious solemnity. In this centenary year I can think of no better tribute one hundred years on from that absurd act of ritual sacrifice than to dismantle the final absurdities of British power. To begin, like Ewan, a long walk back from the insanity of militarism, to a place we might recognise.