The Australian Marxist archaeologist (now there’s a wonderful mix) V. Gordon Childe, in his Rhind Lectures of 1944, which became the book “Scotland Before the Scots”, observed that history comes not so much in “ages” as in “stages”. As December kicks in and the year begins to end it is, I suppose, a good time to look back over the last twelve months and wonder just “What the hell happened?” to our little wannabe nation. Politically, since September 2014, it has been – to paraphrase Alan Bennett on history – “just one fucking thing after another!” On the radio I heard a comedian say that to her it felt as if the year 2016 had just “taken a great big tab of acid”, and looking back over the last twelve months it does seem as if some collective psychotropic hallucination took place, with two “bad trip” episodes in June and November.
In truth, the year did not start well with rail fares rising on the 2nd of January (annoying) and on the 3rd the Islamic Sate releasing videos of the execution of five men (which is beyond shocking) . The on-going tragedy of Syria runs through 2016 like a knife wound through the heart. The revelations last month of mass killings in Aleppo are, I fear, the prelude to many more such dark revelations. Everything else pales into insignificance but as everything is related, the Scottish elections in May, the EU referendum in June, the transitional Tory coup which followed it and the US Presidential elections in November are all part of the dog-dance of history. I am sure that many people achieved many good and beautiful things in 2016 and that someone somewhere in Scotland will look back on the year just ending as the best year of their lives. For many others, however, it will be seen as the year when the world got ever more dangerous, ever more unpredictable. In the future, I suspect 2016 will be remembered as some kind of chemical episode: a year on acid.
Brexit, for example, could mean the end of devolution. By that I mean an end to the necessary but grudged sympathy Westminster has always (so far) extended to Holyrood. Negotiating rationally with the irrational will prove to be such a sour procedure for Nicola Sturgeon and her government that eventually she will have to spit and admit to what she probably has suspected all along: that Scotland is going to get nothing out of this, not from this bunch. No exception to closed borders. No special status within the UK in relation to EU single market. No free movement of labour which Scotland so badly needs. No powers coming to Holyrood that currently lie with Brussels – fishing and farming, for example – despite the positive noises emanating from Westminster prior to the June referendum. In fact, the very opposite will happen. All those, and more, will be retained by Westminster.
Scotland, as a former nation and an on-going colony of a residual if failing empire, will be forced to accept our newly defined post-Brexit position in the dynarchy. “Dynarchy” was a system cooked up by Lloyd George’s rag-bag wartime coalition government of 1919, in its Government of India Act, where Westminster came up with a dual legislative arrangement in which London would grant permission for a limited degree of Indian political power which could not be exercised without London’s approval. As the Tories negotiations with Europe fall apart, as the Tories have designed them to do, Scotland will be going back to the future which is where the Tories want us. Our attempts within the dynarchy to organise our social and political life, our attempts to assert control over our own affairs, to free ourselves from this power bind will be sneered at by arch-dynarchists such as Phillip Hammond who will tell us that we “are clutching at straws”, that we are “obsessed”. From devolution, as “a process, not an event”, we are heading to dynarchy in the UK. Quite an acid-house party, don’t you think?
The irony in all of this is that the short-termism of the Tories (which is both their habit and their policy) is finally coming unstuck. Trump does not understand the “special relationship”. Exceptionalism is a state of mind not a negotiating position for a state. Short-termism can never be forever. The perennial “now” only exists on the stage in a theatre where the audience suspend their disbelief. What the Tories are asking us to do in Scotland is to suspend our belief, to do nothing except what we are told and to accept every unpalatable, odious measure as democracy working for “the whole of the United Kingdom”, as Theresa May is so fond of telling us. We are all to be one happy family. But as Tolstoy has written at the beginning of Anna Karenina “All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Whatever post World War Two family values, those silver medals of mutuality, that Scotland and England supposedly shared were trashed during Thatcher’s regime of the 1980’s and have now been melted down for beer money by Cameron’s posh reactionaries and pissed up against the cenotaph by May’s sentimental dynarchists.
When I watched Nicola Sturgeon addressing the Irish Seanad last week I had the feeling that this was a missed opportunity. There was nervous laughter around the room when she mentioned, during her remarks, that Scotland would become a sovereign nation “eventually”. How I longed for her to say “Scotland is now a sovereign nation”. There would have been loud cheering all across the Republic. Where better than Dublin for Scotland to declare her independence? But, at the moment, there is more chance of Donald Trump’s hair coming to chemically induced life and consuming him. I suspect other things will consume him, eventually.
So, what is to Nicola Sturgeon, as First Minister of devolved Scotland, to do? What is our strategy to freedom? What should our tactics be? It is becoming clear that the Tories in Westminster have a strategy and it is not to have one, or at least one that they will share with anyone outside their caustic sanctum. Their tactics are to belittle and to bully, to deny and undermine and to shout louder when they think the foreigners do not understand them. Considering this I’m not at all sure that the tools currently being used by the Scottish government to establish a set of relations through which we, the people, can engage with them are working. I am not certain that the aims of the Scottish government are the same as that of the people, no matter how often the government tell us they are. Their strategy is to lead the country to independence. The majority of Scots now agree with that. Calm headed managerialism is the SNP’s tactic of choice. Is that what were really want, and what is the alternative? Tactics stem from strategy and all governments have a systematic desire to manipulate: it is the logic of power. Tactics are by necessity opportunistic, fragmentary and are used to deflect criticism of power through spin, surprise and general political trickery.
On the other hand, how can the SNP government resist getting dragged, against their will, into the procedural quagmire of Tory led negotiations with the EU, as Westminster searches for the perfect moment to press the Article 50 button. My fear is that this particular dog-dance may result in the hound being put down at the next Scottish election in 2020, and that dead dog would be an SNP majority in the Scottish Parliament. The thought of a Tory Scottish government or a unionist coalition in power at Holyrood is just too dismal to contemplate. A process is both strategy and tactics. Are we engaged in the wrong process? Is there another we can embark upon before it is too late? Before the catastrophe comes? Before we succumb to the acid?
But being alive is to emanate power. The low December Sun pours its honey light across Caithness on this still Winter morning. Our benign star is the ultimate power. “In love we were made and in love we will disappear” sang Leonard Cohen, who disappeared in 2016, as if he was singing about the Sun. Such is the dichotomy of power: politics and nature. Nature is an end in itself and requires no reason to exist other than it must. Of politics, the question must always be asked: in whose interests is this practice pursued? Power is neither natural or cultural but is realised as an ongoing attribute of social relationships – or life as most of us would call it. Will our politics evolve to reflect our nature? Will it become a song of resistance or an internal journey? Will it be a process of engagement as one would hope, or will it be a strategy of passivity employing the tactics of isolation? Looking down the barrel of 2016, who can realistically say?
Resistance assumes that the actions the insurgents take are proportionally serious enough to force central government to act. A declaration of independence in Dublin by the First Minister would have had something of that art about it. Playing the procedural game is not a song of resistance. The Tories, who believe in nothing and plan for everything, love the procedural game.
During the year-long campaign which led to the Referendum on independence in September 2014 a great deal of the eclectic energy of the time was generated by Scotland’s writers. I participated eagerly and freely myself. Poems, plays, you name it – they all poured joyously into the collective consciousness of the time. This year of the acid trip, 2016, it has not been like that. Fantasy fiction, crime and other manifestations of the cultural cul-de-sac, products of the inner journey, of passivity and non-engagement, these seem to prevail: exercises in style as opposed to the rasping, demanding song of resistance. We have returned, it seems to me, to the subjective world of the self, of short, technology and media driven narratives more concerned with emotions than passions, with escapism rather than truth. This, so it will be proclaimed, is the power of the individual in a post-collective, post truth society.
But the power that resides in an individual is only made manifest through action (or inaction) and must always be enacted in the relation to the real world: in books, on the tongue, in the ear. To be alive is to emanate power, yes. But being alive and politically active in Scotland now is to know that the world the Tories are planning for us post-Brexit will be a hi-tech panopticon of surveillance and regulated poverty for the majority. Is there a literary prize or award for a novel or poem about this possible future? Just as I fear that managerialist politics is failing the Scottish people I also fear that contemporary Scottish literature – or at least publishing and the theatre – is also failing to meet the needs of the moment.
The sunlight gets longer now and even more beautiful as the day beats on over the undulating fields and high red cliffs of Caithness and I would like to think of the future like this: long and full of light. We owe it to ourselves to struggle, politically, poetically at least, to that light. What do we, in Scotland, owe to the people of Syria, who are dying every day and whose nightmare has stained the memory of 2016 a dark, violent red? We owe it to them – at least – to be the imaginative insurgents in our own occupied space. We may be physically powerless to help them directly, but we are not physically, creatively or intellectually incapable of helping ourselves. Our lack of political wherewithal in Scotland to secure our own freedom is at least our own disgrace. What is happening in Syria is the disgrace of the world. We owe them that out of pity because, as the great man sang, “In love we were made”, and we owe it to ourselves for the same reason. Let 2017 be a year of peace, hope and achievement, not of bad acid dreams.