The Theatre of Humiliation: From The Province of The Cat by George Gunn

As the ungainly farce of Brexit blathers to its inevitable conclusion, now that Theresa May has set the date for leaving the EU – 29th March 2019 – and bowed low to the inevitable cash settlement for the European divorce bill which will be £50 million (although it could rise to £90 billion or more, as it is an ongoing negotiation) – it is timely that the Scottish theatre community is in full panto-mode, to set the scene for January next year when Creative Scotland will announce just how the financial wheels are coming off the cultural wagon. To conflate arts funding and the cliff cascading exercise that is Brexit may seem to many to be flippant, if not downright perverse, but I think the two are intrinsically linked. Both these things are unnecessary, and both are tragedies for Scotland.

It was the Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh who claimed that all tragedy consisted of was underdeveloped comedy. The comedy of Brexit is ever realised in the antics of Boris Johnson, Theresa May, David Davis Michael Gove and co and their ham-fisted impersonations of politicians, negotiators and democrats. They are the cast of a new kind of comedy: the theatre of humiliation. Their singular joke is that they, apparently, represent the people of the UK, when they so obviously have only the interests of their own class in mind. Oh yes, they do! As John S. Warren has repeatedly pointed out on Bella, the shambles that is the Tory negotiations with the EU is the plan. These people know what they are doing even if they give off the appearance that they do not. What they want the mass of people to think is one thing, what they are actually up to is another. Look out, they’re behind you!

In his book, “The Anatomy of Fascism” (Knopf, NYC. 204) the American historian Robert O. Paxton persuasively defined fascism as a form of political behaviour marked “by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood”, in which “a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal constraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion”.

That is closer to a definition of the US than the UK. However, as a former powerful state, now in decline, the UK, does excel in humiliation and victimhood. The core ethos of Universal Credit is the personalisation of the poverty of the individual and a denial that it is systemic of a crumbling economy. We have moved from decrying “rights without responsibilities” to accepting “responsibilities without rights”. The clarion call of the Leave campaign during the EU referendum was the threat posed to “British” workers by European “immigrants”. Fear was used as a smokescreen for the desires of the elite. The “redemptive violence” engaged on these islands, I would argue, is the UK state’s heavy metal fetish for the twin brothers of nuclear weapons and nuclear power and its addiction to its seat on the UN Security Council. These are dangerous dreams and totally at odds with the reality of the UK’s real place in the worlds economic and military pecking order. But as long as the UK allies itself so unthinkingly to US foreign policy and Scotland is constitutionally attached to the UK the “goals … of external expansion” can be applied to us, no matter how much we declare that we are different from “Conservative Britain”. In truth, as long as all the parties in Holyrood concern themselves with the mediocre politics of managing the crisis that is the economy, then we can demonstrate little real difference.

In Scotland we have few real defences against the “obsessive preoccupations” of the big state. The devolved parliament and the current SNP government only offers us partial protection from the “internal cleansing” which lurks at the back of the Brexit madness and permeates the thinking of Tory immigration policy. Throughout the dark days of Margaret Thatcher’s government and during the years of the Iraq war it was to our creative community that the Scots looked for energy and imagination to resist Thatcher’s bullying and to believe in a better world. Our writers, artists, theatre and film makers were the ones who had the big ideas, who articulated what the people believed, who were maddened with frustration, by what the French call résentiment. They wrote, sang and painted the shape of our political consciousness. They offered us through imagination a hope for the future. Come January next year, after what Ruth Wishart has called the “cultural carnage” that is coming, who is to say whom or what will be left standing in Scotland’s artistic community, able to muster anything, never mind résentiment? We will be forced to attend the theatre of humiliation, with the likes of Bo-jo and the Govester, and witness performances charting our own decline. Oh, how we will laugh! Humiliation and decline were two of Professor Paxton’s signifiers of the political behaviour of a fascist state.

The development of theatre in ancient Athens was paralleled by the development of democracy: they were mutually enhancing and one depended upon the other. They were like two vines which wrapped themselves around the civic pillar of the Polis to ensure that it weathered the storms of history. If we cut our cultural sector in Scotland we are diminishing our hard-won democratic rights. That the majority of people do not make this connection and think it unimportant if they do, only shows how successful the ruling elite have been in disenfranchising us from our cultural history, from our imagination. Fascism is an extremely ugly word, but at the moment there is no other nomenclature that fits or definition for the way of political travel in the UK. By limiting people’s cultural life you limit their future possibilities. That is another form of internal cleansing.

In Scotland the theatre has always been a public forum. It is, by its nature, passionate, poetic and political. It has also been accessible, portable and has concerned itself with the cry of life, rather than indulged the dolorous chorus of death. The theatre brings people together in order to speak freely, one to another, one with all. It is the last public place where we can truly be free. I have believed this all my life and I am not about to change my mind because some political managers find it necessary to savagely cut the creative sector which amounts to less than 0.01% of the GDP. To what end? Without art and artists we are less well placed to counter the chronic self-harmers of the present Tory administration. If we erode our civic imagination how can we put forth alternatives to Moray councillors, for example, who every fiscal year decide that shutting public libraries is the way to alleviate the reduction to their block grant. “Mechty, ye’ll nae be needin tae read ony oh they books noo that the hospitals hed tae close!” What alternative narratives can we offer our children who are constantly bombarded by digital messaging and the mind-numbing fodder of flat screen tv’s. If they have no idea of who they are, where they are and how they got there, how are they supposed to form a pathway to the future? If our children are not exposed to the imaginative fabric of Scotland, in all its many colours, how can they be expected to believe in their own dreams? This covers ever aspect of our cultural inheritance.

This is what the architect Ian Begg wrote in the Japanese “a-u” magazine in 1997,

“Where do I see architecture featuring in Scotland? What do I want to see happening and what am I doing about it? It is a big subject; but I want to see the people in Scotland becoming more aware of our history including our architectural history because through that we can more easily understand who we are, what the problems have been in the past and how we have coped with them, and with this appreciation build up confidence and courage which are to me essential if we are going to progress. Teaching children comes first, but we must do more. I want our museums and the countless modern heritage centres to shift emphasis and focus more on the future while teaching the past story of Scotland. History is primarily a story and it never stops. It is part of the continuity of all life. It is strange that as we lose our traditions we, ordinary people, also lose control of our future.”

When Creative Scotland, in association with the Scottish government, under licence from Westminster, cut the budgets of our arts organisations to the bone they are ensuring that we in Scotland are losing “control of our future”, as articulated by Ian Begg. They are diminishing the possibilities of that future. They are making the gaining of the independence of our country just that bit harder. They are funnelling us into the theatre of humiliation. The laughter is fading and when the clowns have left the stage the lights will go out. One joke doesn’t get you very far, except on the charabanc of corruption which keeps rolling on.

The revelations of the Paradise Papers shows the extent of the corporate deceit and of how the people are being swindled. The UK government has shown little enthusiasm to do anything about. The Scottish government can do very little, even if it wanted to and I’m not convinced it does. Oil companies now have the ability to sell assets to new companies who would then inherit the big companies tax write-offs, thanks to the Chancellor Philip Hammond’s recent budget. This effectively declared the North Sea a tax-free zone and reduced Scottish oil revenues for years to come just in time to banjax the next independence referendum. In the House of Commons the hypnotised SNP actually thanked him for it. There are, as currently estimated, 20 billion barrels of oil in reserve in the Scottish North Sea. The price, as of last month, was $60 a barrel.

Meanwhile over in the land “of committed nationalist militants” which, as defined by Robert O. Paxton, is the US, the national debt is about to double to $50 trillion in the next few years. The US is by far the worlds biggest debtor. Meanwhile China, with cities with names unheard of in the West which have GDP’s bigger than many European countries, is the worlds biggest creditor. Very soon China will become America’s landlord. What will the world look like then? Will the resulting regime be the one that finally cements modern 21st century fascism and, again to quote Professor Paxton, be the one to continue “working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, (and which) abandons democratic liberties”? Or has that happened already?

The goat song of Brexit pales into insignificance compared to that prospect. “History is primarily a story and it never stops.” as Ian Begg wrote in 1997. Increasingly, it will be more difficult to maintain our national moral and to construct an alternative narrative when Creative Scotland have silenced all the storytellers. Maybe that is why they are doing it? The theatre of humiliation will stand stark, cold and empty. We deserve better than this.


For Ian Begg (1925 – 2017)


©George Gunn 2017


George Gunn will be reading from and discussing his novel “The Great Edge” at Blackwell’s Bookshop, South Bridge Edinburgh at 6.30 pm on Wednesday 6th December.