A Brexit Bestiary: From the Province of the Cat
On Wednesday 24th April 2019 the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon stood up at roughly 1.30 pm to deliver a very important speech to the Scottish Parliament. She was everything that we have come to expect: measured, assured, articulate, thought through and leader-like; while at the same time cautious, inclusive, reflective, promising something and committing to nothing. We “should” have a second independence referendum before the end of the life of this government in 2021. But it all depends on what happens with Brexit. Should we stay or should we go? After the First Minister’s statement, as predictable as rain at the Thurso Gala, Theresa May’s spokesperson and her dolorous deputy, David Lidington, ruled out the prospect of the UK government granting a Section 30 order – which would transfer the necessary powers to hold a referendum to the Scottish parliament – before the aforesaid 2021. Nicola Sturgeon has subsequently said, with an air of resignation and frustration, that she would not “spend too much time bothering about the diktats of a government that I expect will be out of office before too long”. Some have seen this as a signal that the SNP could manufacture a Section 30 concession from Labour as a price of supporting a minority Corbyn government at Westminster. So far so strategic.
The word “should” leaves those, like me, who are eager for a second referendum in a state of suspended anticipation, a bit like those who await the rapture yet are confused as to whether they will shall ascend to heaven or are to expect the kingdom on high to come down to Earth. Is it to be the First Epistle to the Thessalonians with the “trump of God” or is to be The Revelation of St John the Devine with its “beasts full of eyes before and behind”? Or is the prospect of Boris Johnson becoming Prime Minister, “A beast rising from the sea”, really a signalling of the end of days? Brexit, so far, has proven a rather comic apocalypse with the Brexiteer beasts collectively having their eyes closed and talking out of their behinds.
How long can our anticipation be suspended? To make sense of this madness I listened intently to what Nicola Sturgeon had to say. Which was difficult as those other beasts, the BBC, those media corvids, those ape’s with feathers, decided to show the snooker simultaneously on BBC Two and BBC Scotland. I watched the First Minister’s speech on the Scottish Parliaments own website. On the Politics Channel the BBC broadcast the funeral service for Lyra McKee from St Anne’s Cathedral in central Belfast. It is was interesting and moving to note that McKee’s north Belfast family is from a Catholic background but chose a Protestant cathedral because they wanted a cross-community, cross-border and multi-cultural service. If only we had such holistic and inclusive approach to politics in Scotland now, instead of the partisan bestiary we have currently to endure.
As the First Minister spoke it seemed to me that most of the MSP’s in the chamber had their minds on other things as well, from the amount of them who were twiddling with their smart phones. You got the impression that to the left and right of the First Minister all the opposition MSP’s would rather be somewhere else, anywhere else. They obviously have no idea that how they look and behave profoundly informs the viewer as to their integrity. It as if they think they are on some obscure shopping channel which only begins broadcasting at 3.00 am and everyone who is watching it is drunk. The British Tories, as a tribe, imitated a band of loud flesh-eating chimpanzees as much as they imitated Scottish politicians, as they yawned, chatted, mocked and jeered their way through the First Minister’s speech. On the other side of the chamber were the sullen, silent, de-libidinised bonobos who were impersonating members of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition: i.e. the Labour Party, looking bored and resigned. Of course, this is doing a complete injustice to both chimpanzees and bonobos, which are magnificent animals, but in the bestiary of Brexit the SNP and the Greens run like a river through the oppositional jungle tree-lines of the two main unionists nay-sayers. As to the Liberal Democrats they squeaked and gnawed on the dead-wood of their historical irrelevance like so many “peedie moosags” in a shed. That’s “little mice”, in case you were wondering.
What could any honest person disagree with when Nicola Sturgeon described Brexit as “a nightmare”, “a catastrophe”, “a toxic compound of dishonesty and incompetence” which “misled people” and of Theresa May putting forward “contradictory red lines” and adopting “a hard line interpretation” of the Brexit referendum result, claiming that “faith in democracy has been damaged” as a result? Well, the dog-dancers of the British Brexit bestiary chose to ignore everything the First Minister said and accused her of being “obsessed” and of “putting her party before the nation”. After thirty minutes of this even St John the Devine would prefer the snooker.
So, in pursuit of fairness and balance (remember them, BBC license payers?) the question must be asked: what kind of beast is Nicola Sturgeon? In a fragment attributed to the ancient Greek poet Archilochus (680 BC – 645 BC) there might be a clue. The lines translate as “a fox knows many things, but a hedgehog one important thing”.
In his 1953 essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox”, that philosophical shape-shifting value-pluralist, Isaiah Berlin, expanded on Archilochus’s aphorism. The piece is subtitled “An Essay on Tolstoy’s View of History” and it runs for over 60 pages. It is in the first few paragraphs, mercifully, that he gives us this
“For there exists a great chasm between those, on one side, (the hedgehog) who relate everything to a single central vision, one system, less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel – a single, universal, organising principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance – and, on the other side, (the fox) those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way, for some psychological or physiological cause, related to no moral or aesthetic principle.
The first kind of intellectual and artistic personality belongs to the hedgehogs, the second to the foxes; and without insisting on a rigid classification, we may, without too much fear of contradiction, say that, in this sense, Dante belongs to the first category, Shakespeare to the second; Plato, Lucretius, Pascal, Hegel, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Ibsen, Proust are, in varying degrees, hedgehogs; Herodotus, Aristotle, Montaigne, Erasmus, Moliere, Goethe, Pushkin, Balzac, Joyce are foxes.”
Of course, like all over-simple classifications of this type, the dichotomy becomes, if pressed, artificial, scholastic and ultimately absurd. But not without merit. Of Tolstoy, as to whether he is a hedgehog or a fox, Berlin has this to say,
“But when we come to … Tolstoy, and ask this of him –ask whether he belongs to the first category or the second, whether he is a monist or a pluralist, whether his vision is of one or of many, whether he is of a single substance or compounded of heterogeneous elements – there is no clear or immediate answer. The question does not, somehow, seem wholly appropriate; it seems to breed more darkness than it dispels.”
In short Tolstoy was by nature a fox but by conviction a hedgehog. Nicola Sturgeon, on the other hand, is by nature a hedgehog but has developed, through experience and by the necessity of modern political dog-dancing, into a fox. Her conviction is one big, simple idea – independence for Scotland and for that idea to be “normalised”. What we witnessed on Wednesday 24th April was a fox at work. She was far too engaged, focused, quick minded, smart and canny for the dull creatures of the Brexit bestiary who rose up from the cold waters of their own indifference, snatching at arguments like lazy elephant seals at dead cod.
Towards the end of another very long essay, “The Pursuit of the Ideal,” Isaiah Berlin apologized for the absence in his philosophy of a visionary gleam—a flash of poetry, of moral splendour. “Value-pluralism was”, he conceded, a “little dull as a solution,” a “very flat answer, not the kind of thing that the idealistic young would wish, if need be, to fight and suffer for, in the cause of a new and nobler society.”
What was lacking from what the First Minister gave to the Scottish Parliament, and to the nation, on Wednesday 24th of April 2019 was exactly what we most desperately need – a visionary gleam, a flash of poetry.
As I write this the SNP conference is in full swing (and by the time you read this it will be over) and already the delegates have voted against the governments plans for a gradual introduction of a Scottish currency. Is this the “flash of poetry” we need? It is my experience of observing the SNP over many years is that no matter how the delegates at conference vote the leadership will plough their own sweet furrow. The SNP have form, in the past, of being a consultative-light organisation. If they are to have any long-lasting future, despite their current high poll ratings, that will have to change – and who knows, maybe the Citizen’s Assembly initiative pioneered in Ireland is the way forward. The question facing us all is whether we want to continue being a UK subject or aspire to becoming a Scottish citizen? Perhaps the answer has to be a little dull and flat? My contention is that the “flash of poetry” Scotland desires resides in its people, that commodity the politicians consistently take for granted. As James Connolly proclaimed of Ireland in 1900, “Ireland as distinct from her people, is nothing to me.”
The creative genius an emerging Scotland requires resides in the capabilities, as yet mostly untapped, of the majority of her people. A people who are being subjected to economic robbery on an unprecedented scale by a combination of the brutal monetarist policy pursued by Westminster and such robbing devices as the 0% interest rates which causes poverty for the many as the banks siphon off wealth from ordinary bank account holders to reward the few. This is the zombie cash culture that the likes of Andrew Wilson and others on the right of the SNP want to embrace. The people of Scotland cannot afford (literally) to let them. We should all understand that the Bank of England and the City of London are vampires and that Scotland needs to exorcise itself from that horror as soon as possible.
On a smaller scale we have done it before. In 1843, during the Great Disruption of the Church of Scotland, when the Free Kirk broke away from the established Church of Scotland, to “free” themselves of having their ministers appointed by the landowners, the Free Kirk supporters in the parish of Farr on the north coast of Sutherland suspended a dead dog over the pulpit of the abandoned parish kirk. The landlords had come to the conclusion that they had no need of the people. It was part of their arrogance and their ultimate hubris that the people decided that they had no need of them.
It is time for the people of Scotland to hang a metaphorical dead dog on the gates of the Palace of Westminster. We have the EU and the Scottish elections to do so. We may also have a UK General election to do so and more importantly, as Nicola Sturgeon has alluded to, we may have an independence referendum to do so. The grotesque burlesque which is the Brexit bestiary may yet benefit us, despite the odds, and bypass both the fox and the hedgehog and produce the beautiful white dove of freedom. We will emerge soon, if we so desire, from the labyrinth of the Brexit beast and dance between the moons of its curving horns.