A Year on Acid: From the Province of the Cat

crop,750x427,2483124373The 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.

Comments (26)

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  1. Mike Fenwick says:

    … and it goes

    a year

    known

    formed

    written

    full

    Its farewell – Learn from my passing, learn from all the years that have passed..

    … and it comes

    a year

    unknown

    unformed

    unwritten

    blank

    … and it comes

    a year

    yours

    ours

    waiting

    Its greeting – Scotland: Give me life, write my story, I am in your hands.

  2. Kevin Williamson says:

    Over the next few weeks the usual suspects will dust down their dreary predictable phraseology, their political bubblethink, and hackneyed cliches and present the official narratives of 2016. They’ll be courteous to their political friends in power, they’ll sigh at the irrational in politics, but at no point will they embrace, advocate or even shine a light on the politics of resistance. Politics is just another game of musical chairs to most of them.

    Which is why we need the George Gunns to present a different narrative and why this Province of the Cat column will probably be the best end of year read/reflection I’m likely to read anywhere. Unlike the Torrrances and Co who whore themselves to every mass outlet, keeping the bandwidth of commentary as tightly controlled and manageable as possible, you wont find George Gunn or other dissident thinkers on the BBC’s annual vomitarium of End of Year reviews. Which is their loss and Bella’s gain.

    2017 will be the year where Trump takes power and Article 50 gets enacted. Where shit gets real. It wont be pretty. The racist genie is out of the bottle and the surveillance state is rampant. From Remainers to Indyref2ers we’re all enemies of the British state now.

    All the stars have lined up in favour of the Independence movement. This wont last. If by this time next year Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP havent named the date for Indyref2 then the window of opportunity will have past and we’ll have lost. There wont be another Indyref and as George Gunn predicts SNP managerialism will be stuck in an ever decreasing circle of popularity, and as such their leadership of the independence movement may expire for many who’ve backed them so far.

    I hope 2017 is the year we strike back at the London-based elites & their corrupt political system. It’s in your hands now, Nicola. Will you or wont you call Indyref2. If anyone thinks we can leave naming the day until 2018 then they’re kidding themselves on. It will be too late and game over. London wins. But it doesnt have to be that way.

    Kevin Williamson

  3. GraemeMcCormick says:

    We have got told e as if we are already independent, and every nationalist whether a government minister, Councillor, employer or ordinary citizen must consider the implications for Independence on everything we do. There is an independence angle on everything.

  4. Alf Baird says:

    “Where better than Dublin for Scotland to declare her independence?”

    Thon wid hae been a hoot.

  5. Alasdair Macdonald says:

    Ye’ve been a bit soor an gurrly for several munce, Alf. Whits ettlin ye?

    1. Alf Baird says:

      A thocht A wis bein gey blythesome tae, Alasdair!

  6. Alf Baird says:

    “I am not certain that the aims of the Scottish government are the same as that of the people”

    We can be absolutely sure of this given the unionist-appointed UK ‘Home’ Civil Service remains in overall control of the ‘Scottish’ (sic) Government, the latter merely a département of Westminster. Scotland still needs to ‘drain the swamp’.

    1. Graeme Purves says:

      We will have an independent civil service when we become an independent country, Alf. It’s as simple as that. Drainage won’t have anything to do with it, no matter how vigorous you are with your stirrup pump.

  7. GraemeMcCormick says:

    We have got to live as if we are already independent, and every nationalist whether a government minister, Councillor, employer or ordinary citizen must consider the implications for Independence on everything we do. There is an independence angle on everything.

    1. Alf Baird says:

      Deid richt Graeme, an creautin shaidae meenistries fer aw thon ‘reser’d’ pouers wid be a guid stairt, tae gie thon SNP 56 somethin uissfu tae dae anaw.

  8. Willie says:

    There is indeed an independence angle on everything but unfortunately it’s not working. We have 56 SNP MPs, our third SNP government, a narrowly failed Scottish referendum, the outrageous welshing on promises made during the Scottish referendum, and now, the total and utter disregard of the majority wish of the Scottish electorate to remain in Europe.

    Like the Irish Famine where millions died as a consequence of British colonialism, the current political system delivers naught. Caught like rats in a trap, it’s not difficult to see how Scotland is in truth no different from that of Ireland. Fuel poverty, food banks, economic cess pits, despair and deprivation. Yes there is an angle to all of this.

    1. Alf Baird says:

      “it’s not difficult to see how Scotland is in truth no different from that of Ireland.”

      Not so; unlike the Irish, the Scots SNP MPs tak thair unionist seats an unionist salaries.

        1. Douglas Scott says:

          Well said…our SNP representatives in Westminster are trying to shake the Tories up ,
          which is more than can be said for the Labour”opposition ” doon there, ye ken

    2. Connor McEwen says:

      Like INDEPENDENCE

  9. Fay Kennedy. says:

    Thanks George Gunn for that inspirational writing. These are dark days and so easy to withdraw but that never won the day so on we must go and resist what’s not good for Scotland. Though far away down under the troubles are similar racism. bashing the poor and on it goes verbatim. And writers have a big responsibility to engaging with these serious events not gazing at the moon in wonder as tempting as that may me. It’s a well worn path but to be downtrodden is not life as we know it can be when the independent spirit is nourished.

  10. manandboy says:

    As a boy, I woke up in a flash. But now as a man, near the other end of life, I wake up slowly and need time to come to my senses.
    Scotland can only become Independent when the nation has come to its senses, and at the moment, some are taking their time, but too many are still in an induced coma.

  11. Geel says:

    Issue EU recognised Scots-EU Passports asap, ScotGov.

  12. bringiton says:

    Should the legal establishment in England rule that Scots have no say in UK constitutional matters or they say that we do and the political establishment in London ignore them and go ahead anyway,that will be the time for our MPs to come home.
    It should be very clear to all Scots now that we are not viewed as an equal partner by England,in fact not even a partner of any sort and that we will never have a say in their union.
    England’s union,not ours.

  13. Richard MacKinnon says:

    George Gunn likes to start his depressing monologues with a quote, this time from the Australian Marxist archaeologist V. Gordon Childe, so I am going to start my comment with a reference to a song by Johnny Nash; ‘There are more questions than answers’
    George Gunn ponders, “So, what is Nicola Sturgeon, as First Minister of devolved Scotland, to do?” ; “What is our strategy to freedom?” ” What should our tactics be?” George Gunn cautions the reader with the caveats, “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”. George then reassures us that “Their strategy is to lead the country to independence”. and that we “The majority of Scots now agree with that”.
    Cant help think, George, as the song goes ‘….the more I find out the less I know’.

    1. John Page says:

      It must be exhausting being so pompous and mean spirited.
      George gave a thoughtful and well written piece that made most of us think……..your barbed and facile comment does you no credit
      John Page

      1. Richard MacKinnon says:

        John Page,
        Your idea of a “thoughtful and well written piece that made most of us think” is a sentimental self indulgent moan to me. Syria lumped together with Brexit, Theresa May and her nasty Tories, and of course Trump, blatantly pitched against brave Nicola over in Dublin appealing on our behalf for help gives me the dry boak.
        Where George Gunn shows his tail is in his use of quotes, topped off some romantic prose that would have made Barbara Cartland blush. An Australian Marxist archaeologist, (impressive) Alan Bennett (contemporary), Tolstoy (classic), Leonard Cohen (who else). What a well read fellow George must be.
        But where I really take exception with this piece by George Gunn’s is his use of the image of the two tear stained youngsters from Aleppo. This image that will live with us for ever is placed immediately adjacent to the phrase “What the hell happened?” to our little wannabe nation”. Stop for a minute and think of how inappropriate that is. The whole piece is clap trap. The more I think about it the angrier I get.

        1. John Page says:

          As I said it must be exhausting for you……..is there not a golf club somewhere you should be at sharing your bile with like minded self righteous bores? You could swap stories about your blood pressure medication.

  14. MBC says:

    Yes, a lot of wheels are coming off a lot of wagons. There is mass confusion. Nobody really knows what is going on or who is in charge. In such circumstances you can only push for what you want – for it is impossible to read the runes.

    It is a time for carving out the future we would want. Dreaming dreams and securing them.

    As for Sturgeon, I thought that her strategy was to show the No Remainers (the group whose support she most needs) that she has tried every possible approach to accommodate theirs and our needs within the Union, and failed. Ergo, independence is our salvation. Bu independence has to have a vision of what kind of a country we would want to be, otherwise it is a hollow prospect.

    As for May, I think her strategy is just to steady the ship for as long as possible, before anybody discovers that she has no plan and is going nowhere.

  15. MBC says:

    2017 will be the crunch year. The US election will be over with its hideous result; the EU referendum with its hideous result; the Tory leadership election with its hideous result; the Labour leadership election with its hopeless result; no longer can the mainstream news media distract with all that election excitement; we will be down to the results and their knowable impact on Scotland. And so with that uncertainty over we can begin to make the case for independence with a clearer idea of what awaits us if we remain chained to the UK. All that remains to be resolved is the Supreme Court case the Tory government is trying to win; but either way, the result can only strengthen the case for independence.

    1. John Page says:

      Spot on. When the dust settles on the Supreme Court decision, it will be clear that in George’s very apt phrase above that we are being treated as ” an ongoing colony of a residual if failing empire”.
      There are some immensely talented SNP MPs………they risk or have already risked turning in late 19th century Irish Redmonites…….their talents should be deployed back here making the case for independence from January 2017 onwards. Their job should be to reach out beyond the ranks of the SNP to persuade former No voters that Scotland has a difficult, challenging but hopeful future independent of England which will become an embittered failing residue, prostituting its declining cultural capital and unregulated banking sector as an offshore tax haven with enough security surveillance to keep the “unnecessariat” in check.
      John Page

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