Culture and the Common Good
It was on Sunday 15th December 2015 that the Sunday Herald published its front page headline “Scotland’s Nuclear Secret” about the shipment of weapons-grade uranium from Dounreay to the US. Such is the symbiotic nature of the relationship between “nuclear” and “political” power that the headline might as easily have been published in 1955, the year Dounreay was commissioned. Now, as we enter 2016, that is 61 years of secrets.
The five kilograms of enriched uranium was removed from a physics research institute in Mtskheta, near the Georgian capital Tiblisi in a secretive US operation codenamed “Auburn Endeavour” in 1998, because the American military were concerned that the material was “inadequately protected” and that it could have fallen into the hands of Chechen gangs and “made into nuclear bombs”. Now the uranium is heading for the US government’s nuclear complex at Savannah River in South Carolina to be, potentially, made into nuclear bombs. If it ever gets to Savannah River it certainly won’t be made into “medical isotope targets for five million cancer treatments” which was the story spun by Tony Blair’s foreign minister Doug Henderson who at the time brokered the deal which resulted in the highly radioactive material being stored at Dounreay, after both France and Russia refused to take the toxic fuel.
Dounreay is no doubt a “secure location” and “just the warehouse for this material”, as postulated by Doug Henderson in 1998: it is also a location far away from London, which is why the five experimental reactors were all sited at Dounreay on the North coast of Caithness in the first place. It was obvious that George Osborne, who was standing in for the Prime Minister in the House of Commons, when questioned by Angus Robertson at Prime Minister’s Questions about the scary prospect of moving such highly dangerous radioactive material across the Atlantic, had no idea where Scrabster Harbour or Wick Airport (the two proposed places of departure for the uranium shipment), or indeed where Caithness or Dounreay itself actually were. What we got from George Osborne instead of information was the usual set of complacent and platitudinous generalities which pass for Tory government policy towards Scotland in general and Caithness in particular.
As David Cameron has demonstrated time and time again – and every British Prime Minister before him has demonstrated – that nuclear weapons in the form of Trident and Polaris preceding that are the ultimate power totems which must be retained no matter the cost. They are used as a political status symbol which masks Britain’s global decline despite the weapons systems increasing strategic irrelevance and allows Cameron to pass himself off as a “world leader” and to implicate the UK’s diminishing conventional military in needless and avoidable wars. Such is the dangerous Alice-in-Wonderland world of delusional Westminster politics. This how much the British desire to cling onto their seat on UN Security Council. Trident is political Viagra.
But Scotland is different, isn’t it? For the duration of the run up to the Referendum in 2014 and ever since the Unionists have been telling the Scottish people that there is essentially no difference between us and the people of England either politically or culturally. The General Election result of May 2015 proved that there is a fundamental political difference in as much as the Scottish electorate returned only three Unionist MP’s. In England, for the first time in over 20 years, the Tories formed a government, albeit with a majority of only 12. One of the significant reasons for this divergence, I would contend, is that for the past 30 years there has been a political direction of travel north of the border towards the idea of an independent Scotland not as some romantic notion but as societal necessity and that this direction is a result of a significant cultural progression – a confidence and popularity if you will – in the worth and benefits of both the political and expressive arts. This is a product of history.
The word “identity” has been used before and after the 2014 Referendum in a pejorative sense and the SNP hierarchy in particular have shied away from it as though the word signified some bogus ethnic or cultural superiority, but this is to deny both the cultural and political history of Scotland and the meaning of the word. The Oxford dictionary defines “identity” as being “the fact of being who or what a person or thing is”. No-one who is acquainted with their history and culture would dare to claim to be superior to anyone else no matter where they came from. The problem for most Scots is that we are not so well acquainted with our history and culture as we should be so therefore our claims to independent nationhood are based on such ill-defined notions as “civic nationalism” or “social democracy” or “social inclusion” and so on. They are ill-defined because we are divorced from the knowledge of where they come from and when applied to a modern democratic and independent Scotland they are dismissed by the Unionist media and politicians as “myths”: they are not myths, they are manifestations born from our political history and cultural traditions.
In December 1792 the Society of the Friends of the People in Scotland held its first General Convention in Edinburgh. A young advocate named Thomas Muir stood up and read to the Convention an Address to the Convention from the Society of United Irishmen in Dublin. The Address began:
“We take the Liberty of addressing you in the Spirit of Civic Union, in the Fellowship of a just and common Cause.”
That “common Cause” was an independent Ireland and Scotland. The Address ended with a dramatic flourish,
“We rejoice that you do not consider yourselves as merged and melted down into another Country, but that in this great national Question you are still Scotland – the Land where Buchanan wrote, and Fletcher spoke and Wallace fought.”
Thomas Muir sat down. The Convention grew nervous. Outside in the Edinburgh streets the beginnings of Prime Minister William Pitt’s governmental crackdown on and suppression of “domestic Jacobins” such as the Society of the Friends of the People in Scotland was under way. The delegates in the Edinburgh Convention debated the Irish Address and flattered as they must have been by the endorsement by their fellow Celts to past Scottish achievements many of them dreaded provoking the highly reactionary, aristocratic and nervous Tory government in London so they declined to answer and Thomas Muir had to withdraw the document he had just read out.
What the Irish Address of 1792 did achieve was to highlight the nature of the radical cultural tradition active in eighteenth century Scotland. The United Irishmen cited George Buchanan, the political theorist of the Scottish Reformation and the author of “De Jure Regni Apud Scotus” or “The Art and Science of Government among the Scots” (1579); Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun, the great Scottish statesman and arch-opponent of the Treaty of Union in 1707; and of course the ubiquitous William Wallace, the people’s champion during the Wars of Independence against England: they cited these figures because they wanted to draw out the deep historic roots and diverse nature of Scottish radicalism. One figure the United Irishmen did not cite, but who would have been simpatico with the “common Cause” was Robert Burns who in 1792 still had four years to live.
Other than independence for Ireland and Scotland the common denominator for the all the heroes of the past and both the Friends of the Scottish People and the Society of United Irishmen was their attitude and resistance to power: the arrogant, self-assuming hegemonic power of the British State whether it was dispensed by Edward Longshanks in the distant past, by William Pitt and his government in in 1792 or now by David Cameron in 2016.
The influence of George Buchanan on Robert Burns, as it was on all Scottish radicals in the eighteenth century, was profound. In magazine articles and essays Buchanan was hailed as a “herald of civil and religious liberty”, “an advocate of the rights of man” and even “an unsurpassed theorist of popular politics, and the maxims of a free government”. According to Liam McIlvanney in his magnificent book Burns The Radical,
“Buchanan’s immediate purpose in the ‘De Jure’ is to vindicate the Scots’ deposition of Mary Stuart in 1567, an act which had alarmed and horrified the rulers of Europe. In attempting to exonerate the Scots, Buchanan adopts two main strategies. On the one hand, he appeals to historical precedent, citing various Scottish rulers who had been justly deposed, and claiming right to resist tyrants as an accepted feature of Scottish constitutional tradition. More importantly, however, Buchanan undertakes a more general theoretical discussion of political society, in which he attempts to deduce the scope and limits of legitimate authority and to determine the distinction between kingship and tyranny.”
Buchanan was quite emphatic in his political origins in as much as they were anthropological: humankind is a naturally a social animal, gregarious in nature and by expediency social in instinct. As a result humanity constructs a “society” as its natural state in which to associate and for George Buchanan this was both a spiritual and natural phenomenon as was evidenced by the Bible where it is taught that “we should love the Lord or God and our neighbours as ourselves”. So it must be that “society is a good in itself” and it then follows that the political arrangements which humanity agrees to establish in order to regulate society must therefore be geared to the good of society as a whole and that there should be a “covenant” between the people and the government.
If Buchanan’s politics are that of a civic humanism they are also self-consciously republican in as much as it is assumed that the true end of government is taken to be the good of the people, what historians have called the “common wealth”. An active citizenry is vital for this “common wealth” to function and that a concern for the public good is the only source of legitimate authority. A young Robert Burns would have lapped up these radical ideas. Buchanan had articulated them specifically so that the Scots could understand that “virtue” lay with a concern for the common good and that the traditional notions – Anglican, Lutheran notions – that social leadership resided in the powerful prince or mighty king were to be no more but was now the social property of the virtuous, public spirited citizen of whatever station – they alone could be “truly noble”: a man’s a man for a’ that. This virtuous social readjustment is a major part of our political and cultural identity as Scots, no matter where we were born and no matter what the Unionists say to the contrary.
Scotland’s political tradition is radical because from its very beginning it has continually advocated the right of the sovereign people to resist a tyrannical government. Scottish literary tradition has a similarly rich dissenting pedigree in three languages. The Scottish cultural attitude as displayed by her bards and poets has never been one of the concilitarist and the only convention held in common was one of resistance to a wayward chief or haughty monarch. The levelling wit and Celtic panache of Scottish culture from the flytings of Dunbar and Kennedy (1507) to the Thrie Estates of Sir David Lyndsay (1552) and on to the work of Burns himself has always been an aesthetic constant. It has always been an outward looking and popular poetic, as keen to celebrate its native form as it is to embrace influences from outside. This cultural eclecticism is also a feature of Scottish theatre. The required collectivism of theatre making suits the “common wealth” tradition of the Scots and if an individual is to shine then it is as a result of the combined efforts and support of the company. Scottish cultural tradition demands that those who participate in it – the artists – give back to those who facilitate it – the people – a life affirming experience. That is the cultural “covenant” between the artist and the audience. I have always thought it a great pity – and a hindrance to artistic development – that those directors and managers of our national and revenue funded arts organisation do not display any sympathy with or knowledge of this deep tradition. But then, as has been stated already: an ignorance of history and culture is normal in Scotland.
The less we know the better the state like it. Because of The Official Secrets Act and the complicity of the mainstream media we know little of what goes on at Dounreay. The industrial-military complex some 8 miles west of Thurso was not built for the common good or to benefit the “common wealth” but to bolster British nuclear and political power during the Cold War. What the recent uranium transportation scandal has yet again proved is that the US assumes that it owns by manifest destiny all the resources of the world, including any nuclear material it declares to be “insecure” and that the British government, of whatever political hue, will always comply in that assumption.
As the Scottish elections draw closer it would be historically fitting if the current SNP government undertook now to enact radical and far reaching policies in such areas as land ownership, taxation and banking and its relationship with Westminster and not to wait for some more favourable or opportune time in the future. It is after all what the people who voted them into power in Holyrood and into opposition at Westminster desire. Caution is not always wisdom and some bravery in action now will reap benefits – even if they are unknown – in the future.
George Buchanan summed up his central argument in the following terms,
“I have sought for nothing in this whole discussion, as you will have observed, other than that Cicero’s dictum should be revered and held inviolable: ‘Let the safety of the people be the supreme law’.”
It is obvious that the US and British Governments and the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority at Dounreay do not revere “the safety of the people”.
In a future Scotland political practitioners must shed powers addiction to secrecy. As our radical tradition informs and as we must constantly remember real sovereign power lies with the people, not the rulers. After all our nation is waiting to be formed and it is the people, the “common wealth” who will produce it, not for their individual gain but for the common good. Let us heed then what the United Irishmen declared in 1792, and as read out in Edinburgh by brave Thomas Muir,
“We rejoice that you do not consider yourselves as merged and melted down into another Country, but that in this great national Question you are still Scotland.”