Swallowing a Substitute
The great Russian poet Anna Akhmatova once wrote, “The thing about poetry is that once somebody swallows a substitute he will feel poisoned forever after.” If you insert the word “democracy” instead of “poetry” (and I would argue that there is no difference) you get a sense of where Scotland sits in relation to the false and damaging “debate” the Tories have constructed in this complete political canard of an EU referendum. The amazing and ever present irony by-pass and the daily lack of any evidence of a specific Scottish dimension displayed by yet another gormless Conservative politician as they inflate themselves to their full public height to bleat out that if “we” leave the EU “we” will get “our” country back and that “you” Scots will get control over things like “your” fishing. Hourly, as I listen to the radio, I get heart-sick.
The reason we currently have no control over the Common Fisheries Policy of the EU is that Westminster ministers represent “us” (Scottish Holyrood politicians are barred from doing so) in Brussels in negotiations about fishing. Time and time again fishing is used as a bargaining chip by UK negotiators to extract favourable concessions for other English-centric issues such as industrial scale agriculture of which Scotland has little. All this does is degrade both our fishing fleet and our farming communities. I use the word “our” here quite consciously because fishing is a tiny part of the overall UK economy but a significant contributor to the Scottish economy, especially in the Highlands and Islands and in the North East and farming in Scotland, I would contend, is different from that practised in England. If Scotland had direct access to these important EU negotiations we could, as other small independent countries do, protect and develop these two vital and historic Scottish industries. That we cannot is the direct result of the Referendum in 2014 and one of the consequences of the Union of 1707. Ironically the only thing which protects the Scottish people from the full force of the Westminster Tory government’s disdain and reactionary chicanery is the EU.
Let me just state this plainly: the EU referendum of 2016 has been manufactured by the Conservative Party to move the mainstream UK climate further to the right than it currently is in order to facilitate the dismantling of the welfare state and the privatisation and financialisation of every aspect of industry and society, including and most especially, poverty. The focus on immigration allows so called “random” and “ordinary” voices to express through the media concern over “incomers” and the strain they put on “services” such as housing and the NHS. The reality is that the main threat to housing and the NHS comes not from immigrants but from the present Conservative government, which these “random” and “ordinary” voices probably voted for in 2015. The fanning of the flames of this ugly side of English nationalism by embedding a fear of “the other” is yet another venal aspect of the present Tory administration. They make all of us swallow substitutes instead of the truth and as a result all of us are diminished spiritually. Make no mistake: both David Cameron and Boris Johnson want the same thing, which is that the Conservative Party stays in power for the foreseeable future. The media’s obsession, especially the BBC, with a Tory “civil war” is part of the smokescreen. Whatever happens on June 23rd come June 24th the Tories have still have won.
“…the EU referendum of 2016 has been manufactured by the Conservative Party to move the mainstream UK climate further to the right than it currently is in order to facilitate the dismantling of the welfare state and the privatisation and financialisation of every aspect of industry and society, including and most especially, poverty.”
What we Scots are being asked on June 23rd is: a) do we want to go along with a more benign form of oppression, the kind we have at present; or b) do we want to a complete gloves off/iron fist oppression based on racism, chauvinism, corruption and managed poverty by a financially protected but parasitic elite who will day by day, week by week sever our societal expectation from all notions of democracy? Either way we will be “poisoned forever after”. What I suspect we should be asking ourselves before we “hold our noses and vote Remain” is should we be hanging onto the EU, imperfect and overly bureaucratic as it is, which at least offers us some protection from swallowing substitutes for democracy and can keep alive, if we so desire, our political route to independence? After all our Scottish democracy is our only protection against ignorance, prejudice and fear.
To sustain and develop our political system we also have to simultaneously nurture, support and promote our culture. If we do then our politics and politicians will never be allowed to drift too far from the desires and traditions of the Scottish people. We have to learn to know ourselves in order that we do not deny others their humanity. The refugee crisis ongoing in the Mediterranean is a humanitarian tragedy born out of political failure and military aggression which we in Scotland cannot turn our backs on. Our soldiers, whether we like to admit it or not, have “broken faimlies in lands we’ve herriet” as Hamish Henderson put it in The Freedom Come-All-Ye; these recently being Afghanistan and Iraq and the RAF is currently engaged in bombing Syria. Where next? Libya again? A war with Russia, as the former deputy commander of NATO, the British ex-general Sir Alexander Richard Shirreff who has a book to sell, recently suggested? We are as responsible for the bodies in the sea off the coasts of Italy and Greece as anyone else and if the wars were fought “not in our name” then I say the refugees “are in our name”. The UK government wants to shut the refugees out, the old, they young and the innocent. Scotland is a country, especially in the Highlands and Islands, blighted by emigration, for we too, in the not so distant past have been refugees, and our future is currently less than it could be as a result.
To sustain and develop our political system we also have to simultaneously nurture, support and promote our culture. If we do then our politics and politicians will never be allowed to drift too far from the desires and traditions of the Scottish people. We have to learn to know ourselves in order that we do not deny others their humanity. The refugee crisis ongoing in the Mediterranean is a humanitarian tragedy born out of political failure and military aggression which we in Scotland cannot turn our backs on.
From both a moral point of view and from economic necessity Scotland needs new people. We are in world terms a small country with a small population but half our land mass lies empty and is owned by a few individuals and companies. This is the result of history. It is the cultural lamentation drifting out from the 19th century. The empty acres of the Scottish Highlands are a cultural crime so let us not commit another one on June 23rd. The empty lands of Scotland are a wasting cultural and economic asset. It must be our policy to put people back into the straths and glens. There is no substitute for progress in the Highlands other than people.
All across Europe the political right is on the rise. In the US we have witnessed the toxic kick-ass pantomime of Donald Trump play to full houses. In the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte, and uber-Trump impersonator (or is it the other way round?), will be the next president. In Australia the recent electoral success of the Australia First and the Australian Liberty Alliance parties has been achieved on an anti-immigration and more specifically an anti-Islam ticket. As Kevin McKenna noted in The Observer (28th May) “There are a lot of small-town fascists lurking under cover of liberal, tolerant Scotland” so we cannot afford to be complacent. Neither should we mistake for one moment that the EU is anything other than what it has become: a captive market run for and by corporations and elites where vulnerable countries like Greece are asset stripped by neo-con austerity. On the other hand the UK Foreign Office is now a PR front for “British” business interests. Both are a substitute for real democracy but if the UK votes to leave the EU then it is ordinary people who will pay the price, but this referendum is not about ordinary people: it is about the Conservative Party. As an independent country and an EU member Scotland would be free to call for reforms and work for procedural change, clarity and accountability. As it stands we are at a double remove from influence: we are irrelevant.
June 23rd 2016 will come and go and the Tories will get what they want, either way. For the independence movement in Scotland, I think, the conduct and tone of the exchanges (I will not disfigure the word “debate” here in relation to what has gone on) between one set of Eton educated toffs and another and the sheer lack of human sympathy displayed by both, should re-energise the demand for a second independence referendum, or at least activate a more informed discussion as to exactly what kind of Scotland we desire. In the end, is this simple question: what exactly are countries for, because from outer space it is difficult to see boundaries? The answer surely must be: they are for people to live together in peace.
As Anna Akhmatova put it
“Because somewhere there’s simplicity and light,
Transparent, warm and joyous…
There a neighbour talks with a girl at twilight,
Over the fence, and only the bees hear,
The most tender of murmurings.”
Ever since the Scottish elections we have heard anything but “tender murmurings”. It has been the savage rasping voices of power hungry men. Over the coming summer we should re-capture the energy of the Yes movement of 2014 and inject some “simplicity and light” into our discussions. Otherwise we will never have an independent Scotland and having swallowed the substitute will find it difficult not to remain poisoned.