I didn’t want you cosy and neat and limited
I didn’t want you to be understood
I wanted you to stay mad and limitless
Neither bound to me nor bound to anyone else’s or your own preconceived idea of yourself..
(Margaret Tait, ‘To anyone at all’)
‘Historical analogy is the last refuge of people who can’t grasp the current situation’ (Kim Stanley Robinson, Red Mars)
‘Because those who came before us did their job…now it is our turn’ George Osborne, key-note address, Conservative Party conference 2015.
So I heard this story a while back. It was the story of British history. A story where every struggle for democratic emancipation over the last century or so throughout England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland has been encouraged and ultimately bestowed by a benevolent conservative government (1,2). A story where every human, or in this version, British achievement to date from the discovery of penicillin to the invention of computers came about because those responsible were consumed by nothing more than the urge to do ‘their job’. George Osborne, the all-knowing, tried to look every inch the demigod as he imparted this wisdom from the pulpit of the conservative party conference last month. But, though his righteous predecessors had the almighty as a major theme. George only had economics. And try as he might to present building policy as the new doctrine for morality it just didn’t have the same pizzazz (1,2). Maybe that’s why this particular story went unnoticed by the political commentary that followed, or maybe it’s because Osborne was only doing what conservative politicians, in the main, have been doing for the better part of the 20th century.
It’s called ye old traditional practice of fictionalising historical truth to suit political agendas…the stuff ideological dreams are made of. And a practice that everyone from Jamieson to Steinbeck has written on at some point or another (3, 5). Though, it’s arguably our understanding of our own political and cultural influences that decides on how influential this practise is. As any uncertainty in the origin of these influences in our knowledge of ourselves, leaves a gap, that politicians have been more than willing to fill with their more practiced version of events since democracy, as we know it, began.
Churchill joked about this ability (6) Anthony Eden used his to rewrite colonialism and justify military action in the Suez Canal (7), Margaret Thatcher added a touch of the sublime to her part of the narrative to justify the Falklands campaign (8) and Tony Blair reverted to historical allegory to justify action on Iraq (9). But as George Osborne showed us in October, conservative MP’s are adept at making a historical drama out of from any crisis, including economic policy. So maybe it’s no wonder that a practice that’s become as familiar in the world of politics as wearing a tie, seems to go by unseen. Even, when in the case of political commentary, the job is presumably to notice the difference between political truth and fiction.
But we notice, don’t we? We know the consequences of historical storytelling by politicians in Westminster, in Scotland, about Scotland, about us. Consequences which for years have fictionalised, summarized and caricatured the complexity of real experiences, real people and real lives in order to keep things more profitable and more manageable for those at the top. We have democratically elected an opposition who oppose this style of politics. So on the run up to the next Holyrood election, our voting preference is surely symbolic enough to show that we’re different, that we are self-determined, independent and autonomous.
We, like so many others before us, are in danger of losing the real energy, life and possibility of independent, self-determined thought for all, to instead consign ourselves to a history of perpetual repetition and where’s the progression in that.
But, therein lies the rub. Because when we start to ‘just know’ or ‘just believe’ that these political conclusions are who we are, we’re left just as vulnerable to political suggestion as anyone else. The reason – because we’re not living independently anymore – we’re just voting for it. The words ‘independence” and ‘self determination’ don’t mean anything if they’re removed from the actions that inspire them. They won’t remain true because everyone in Scotland considered what it would mean to be independent…once. Or because politicians take to podiums periodically and tell us stories of ourselves that we’d like to hear. However, fundamentally different from the opposition that might make us feel. But if we forget and begin to accept these stories, and worse still re-enact them in the role of perpetual opposition. We, like so many others before us, are in danger of losing the real energy, life and possibility of independent, self-determined thought for all, to instead consign ourselves to a history of perpetual repetition and where’s the progression in that.
“Stories are important’ the monster said. They can be more important than anything if they carry the truth’ (11)
Sometimes it seems as though there are two different ways to treat history and only one offers the chance to progress beyond it. The first, the political way, makes historical fictions out of actual truths and it’s loud, bombastic, and full of shit. But the second shows the truths at the heart of fiction, which in turn, inspire these truths to be sustained. And truthfully there has been a tide of political progression throughout Scotland over the last few years. Significant movements like Rise and The Common Weal have offered somewhere substantial and productive for that huge swell of ideas and hopes to go following the emotion of last years referendum. And between them and countless other community and grass root organisations there is more than enough evidence to suggest that a healthy political permaculture is evolving here in Scotland.
But, in order for this culture to thrive, maybe we need to recognize a deeper truth, that it wasn’t a political question that planted the seeds for all this. The question, do you want independence? was always a personal one. To answer honestly, you had to go deep. Deeper than the uncertainty of what currency, oil, economic policy and political warnings or assurances might mean in the future. Beyond any passed down notions of ourselves as definable by our patriotism, or the school our kids attend, or our ability to supersize our homes. And deeper than any faux feelings we might have with being seen as either rebellious or unionists. Deep enough to uncover and understand what we each valued the most, before working our way back to the start.
Some got there fast, maybe they were always in that place. But whatever their reality, these true independents have shown that a political sanction as a prerequisite for Scotland’s future…could one day be considered a simple formality. As they answer the question of independence through their actions each day. Their agenda is collective, but only in sense that it strikes a chord in all of us. And simple, as it starts with the premise that our well-being and our engagement with the actual environment around us, comes first every time. And with this reality as the guiding principle, democracy appears to be growing. People protect the air we breath, the water we drink, the ground we live on, and the anti UCG movement evolves. Parents encourage the well-being and value of their children’s personal development over school standards or expectations, and educational policy is altered. People listen to their conscience, and Scotland welcomes Syrian refugees. This is independence. When the personal shapes the political…not the other way around.
“The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum” (Noam Chomsky, The Common Good)
But as encouraging as this force for independence is. We need more. More people, more thought, more input, more awareness. And we need it quickly. Because history isn’t on our side, at least not the kind of history that’s being written by yet another Conservative government right now. A history that will end in war unless enough of us, do enough, to change the tragedy that this story will inevitably become. But how do we do this? How do we achieve this? In truth, no-one has the definitive answer. But, maybe the clue is in the question itself. Maybe that’s the thing about independence. We just have to keep asking, keep questioning. Not just in a virtual way in virtual world, but up close and personal. And accept that there will be arguments, we won’t always get the answers we want, we won’t always all be on the same page. But that taking this approach will lead us, all of us, beyond the slick, polite and political to somewhere real, a place where the probability of real change grows, each and every time one of us breaks the surface.
Orcadian Rhythm. (04/04/2010) The poetic cinema of Margaret Tait. [Online] Available from: https://voicethrower.wordpress.com/2010/04/04/orcadian-rhythm/ [Accessed: 25 November, 2015]
Robinson, K.S. (1993) Red Mars, 3rd Ed. LA: Spectra Publications
(1,2) www.politicshome.com. (05/05/2015) George Osborne’s full speech to the Tory Conference. [Online] Available from: https://www.politicshome.com/party-politics/articles/news/george-osbornes-full-speech-tory-conference [Accessed: 28 October, 2015]
Jamieson, Frederic. (1982) The Political Unconscious, Cornell University Press.
Tetsumaro Hayashi, John H Simmerman (2002) John Steinbeck: The Years of Greatness,1936-1939. University of Alabama Press
(6) www.bbc.co.uk. (30/03/2011) Churchill: The Gathering Storm. [Online] Available from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/worldwars/wwtwo/churchill_gathering_storm_01.shtml [Accessed: 6 November, 2015]
(7) www.britishpoliticalspeech.org. Leaders Speech, Llandudno, 1956. [Online] Available from: http://www.britishpoliticalspeech.org/speech-archive.htm?speech=106 [Accessed: 12 October, 2015)
(8) www.totalpolitics.com. (2008) Margaret Thatcher, Speech on the Falklands War, 1982. [Online] Available from: http://www.totalpolitics.com/speeches/war/falklands-war/34263/speech-on-the-falklands-war.thtml [Accessed: 9 November, 2015]
(9) www.theguardian.com. Full text: Tony Blair’s Speech, 2003. [Online] Available from: http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2003/mar/18/foreignpolicy.iraq1 [Accessed: 15 November, 2015]
Ness, Patrick. (2011) A Monster Calls, Walker Books.