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.

Comments (10)

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  1. Richard Easson says:

    If by some miracle Scotland was Independent and free tomorrow, then obviously there would be no place for foreign party members, i.e. Conservatives, Labour and Liberal who all belong to “British” parties and pay their dues to London addresses. Which begs the question; why are they there now.

  2. George Muir says:

    Hear! very hear!! Well said, George.

  3. Alasdair Macdonald says:

    And, as I type, the BBC Scotland phone-in is giving a welcome back party broadcast on behalf of the Ruth Davidson Party.

    No mention on any of the GMS broadcasts of the SNP Conference other than the FM’s statement about climate change (and that is a very important theme).

    For some time now, the MSM has been in ‘Better Together’/’Project Fear’ mode.

  4. Derek Henry says:

    Nothing about the EU as you think it is going to save you ?

    You’ve completely ignored why the set of the monetary system in EU has been a complete failure. Yet, can’t even describe what’s wrong with the UK set up.

    Nothing at all about France being on fire, what happend to the Greeks, what’s going on Italy and why millions upon millions of people are turning their backs on the EU neoliberal globalist project.

    You’ve chosen to ignore it but hey you have mentioned Ireland. Ireland the largest tax haven within the EU that now holds over $250billion in US treasuries at the FED.

    It is very clear to me that you don’t understand ZIRP or 0% interest rates.

    Here’s what’s wrong with the set up in the UK.

    The difference is that the bank account the Scottish government uses will bounce cheques when they reach their overdraft limit. Payment authorisation would be refused without HM Treasury permission. Just like any other local county council area in the UK. Nicola thinks she’s running something other than a glorified county council. She isn’t.

    The UK does the tax collection across the UK. Scotland is nothing more than a glorified county council. If you did the accounts for North Yorks County Council you would find it too has a ‘deficit’ that is filled by the block grant and whatever ‘borrowing’ HM Treasury permits.

    So the leakage out of the arbitrary line of the Scottish border within the Sterling currency zone is to anywhere else in the world (including the rest of the UK) – and the rest of the UK saves a lot of Sterling. That leakage, plus any net savings within Scotland’s non government sectors, is what causes the Scottish government sector deficit.

    Ultimately in the same way that Greece needs to tax German savers, Scotland needs to tax UK savers. To have the power to do that you need UK savers saving in Scotland’s currency which the Scottish government can control and if need be tax. Otherwise Scotland will run out of money as it all drains to the rest of the UK.

    Foreigners save your currency if they want to sell you more things than they want to buy from you. The floating rate from an independent currency would make sure that

    Export+foreign savings = imports in terms of the Scottish currency.

    You can tax it because it is the Scottish currency, and therefore to transfer it to anywhere where it is anything other than inert it would have to go through banks that are licensed by the Scottish authorities to deal in that currency. They will do as they are told if they want to retain their licence.

    Oil is a hug red herring. An enormous canard. It becomes important because although all the dealings are essentially in US dollars and most of the balance sheet is in US dollars, when it is reported in the national accounts it is declared in the reporting currency – which is the Scottish currency. So it’s an accounting trick mostly to make the figures look ‘good’ superficially. The actual Scottish effect is just the fraction of the oil income that has to be physically exchanged for the Scottish currency – to pay staff, suppliers and of course the licence fee and other taxation for the resource.

    Spending only comes back if you have your own currency. If you use somebody else’s then it leaks into a different banking system. Greece spending ends up under the control of the Bundesbank. Similarly Scottish spending ends up under the control of the Bank of England, which is owned and directed by the UK government. As long as that arrangement stays in place, Scotland is owned and directed by the UK government – like any other county council.

    That is the key issue with fixed exchange rates. You end up with control of the money under some other entity which you have to follow the directions of.

    If Scotland became independent then what happens depends upon whether it floats its own currency or not. That is the only way to ensure that Scottish money doesn’t leak anywhere. What the size of the government deficit is will still depend upon how many people want to net save in that currency.

  5. Derek Henry says:

    Now let’s talk about Zirp or 0% interest rates which is MMT economic policy.

    An independent Scotland does not need to issue any debt. All it needs to do is open the Ways and Means account which was banned by the EU and the Mastricht Treaty at the Bank Of England.

    Free from the EU neoliberal globalist treaties Scotland uses their own ways and means account.

    The Ways and Means Account is just an infinite overdraft with the new Scottish Central Bank, and it grows over time to balance the net-savings of the non-government sector just as the Gilt stock does now in the UK.

    The Scottish Treasury simply doesn’t issue any Gilts any more. Any funding of private pensions in payment should be done by offering annuities at National Savings, which would also have the neat side effect of ‘confiscating’ net savings and making the deficit go down.

    It’s irrelevant what interest the new Scottish central bank charges on the ‘Ways and Means’ account since any profit the new Scottish central bank makes from it goes back to the Scottish treasury anyway. So it can 50% if that gives the necessary level of satisfaction to mainstream economists or thse of little thought.

    What you have is a standard intra-group loan account between a principal entity (Scottish Treasury) and its wholly-owned subsidiary. Normally those sort of loans are interest free for the fairly obvious reason that interest charging is utterly pointless, and they are perpetual for the same reason. Rolling over is totally pointless.

    Any term money can then be issued to the commercial banks directly by the Bank of Scotland – up to three month ( whatever the new currency will be called) bills.

    The interest rate to the banks from the new Scottish central bank is a matter of the ‘capital development of the economy’. Almost certainly it would be ZIRP.

    If you are a member of a pension scheme then the savings of the current generation, plus the interest on Gilts and any income from the other assets owed pay the pensions of the current generation of pensioners. They are all, in effect, private taxation schemes that circulate money around the system.

    You’ll note that when there was a threat of people failing to save in pensions, the government introduced compulsory retirement saving – which is of course a privatised hypothecated tax.

    So in essence rather than the assets of a pension scheme being used to purchase Gilts, the assets would be used to purchase an annuity from the Scottish government dedicated to an individual. The result is that rather than the parasitic private pension industry receiving Gilt income from the state, to then pass onto the pensioner, the state would cut out the middleman (and their cut) and pay the pensioner directly as an addition to the state pension.

    There’s a whole private pension industry out there literally doing absolutely nothing of any real value. They can’t provide a guaranteed income in retirement without state backing in the form of Gilts. So what is exactly the point of having them?

  6. Derek Henry says:

    Warren Mosler and Bill Mitchell who are coming to both Glasgow and Edinburgh in May have set out this plan of 0% interest rates for nearly 20 years now.

    It’s called understanding how the monetary system actually operates – In Short Modern monetary Theory we are no longer on the gold standard.

    If you want to know what to expect then this is a must watch and it’s from the MMT international conference all about ZIRP and 0% interest rates.

  7. Alex Rennie says:

    Excellent piece

  8. Derek Henry says:

    The simple facts remain

    If an Independent Scotland sticks by the growth comission or joins the Neoliberal globalist EU

    And you put all of the neoliberal globalist rules side by side from both in a table that runs through both like a piece of Blackpool rock. Then…….

    All the economic policies the SNP want to do X

    All the economic policies in the Common Weal Library X

    All the economic policies from MMT economists X

    Will not be allowed any of them as they all take higher government budget deficits than the 3% allowed by the neoliberals.

    The SNP are in cloud cuckoo land if they think either sticking to the growth comission or joining the single market and the customs union will reduce poverty and inequality. It’s in bulit into the treaties and the growth comission that the reverse will happen and inequality will get larger and people will become poorer.

    If you reduce the Scottish government deficit to 2 or 3% then you reduce Scottish households and Scottish businesses surplus to 2 or 3%. The reason why the high streets are now nothing but pound shops and charity shops inbetween pawn shops and the bookies.

  9. florian albert says:

    Rather than reference the New Testament or Greek philosophers, what about a bit of old fashioned political analysis ?
    Nicola Sturgeon took over as First Minister when there was a sense of inevitability about Independence. The General Election result of 2015 reinforced this.
    From 2016 on, this optimism dissipated. The Brexit voted did not lead to a surge in support for Independence. The 2017 General Election was a major disappointment for the SNP. Alex Salmond losing his seat was, symbolically, hugely important.
    The SNP began to look to the long haul and to a more cautious brand of Independence. The Growth Commission exemplifies this. Andrew Wilson speaks of taking a generation to create a successful, independent Scotland.
    Not surprizingly, many activists, both inside and outside the SNP, are unhappy with this.
    Nicola Sturgeon’s job is to try and keep everyone happy and – of course – deliver Independence, when polls suggest that not much has moved since 2014.
    I am far from a Sturgeon supporter but think that she is doing a reasonably good job of keeping the various factions happy and the dream alive.
    Like Theresa May, it is probable that any likely successor would do the job significantly worse.

  10. meg macleod says:

    Succinct as always.And thinking about the` fox` lurking within the hedgehog [Nicola] it comes to mind that she is patiently and wisely waiting for something she feels instinctively about to take place which will shift the balance in favour of Independence..perhaps it is the Brexit outcome..perhaps something other for surely the list of `mishaps in judgement` at Westminster cannot continue to be unnoticed by those North of the invisble border. The fox knows when to move…..the mouse[a small beast but capable of doing great damage] in the undergrowth gets careless and too complacant…….there is a danger in moving too soon . Remember the tortoise? It won the race against the hare……perhaps the hedgehog will win eventually…..the poetry ? it is in the belief..in the tight hold on the rope as the boat shift in the wind…….many have died without seeing their dream of Independence come to fruition…..the next vote must be taken on solid grounding without unanswered questions hanging in the air causing doubt

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