The Conceit of Our Leaders
“If you are a member of the 60% who did not vote last week, or of the significant number who never vote in any election. Well, what I say is that you might like to consider that the 60/40 split is a rather listless portrait of our democracy, with grief at its heart. This a grief born out of the failure of the political system; it is an alarmingly sharp intake of breath from those who are concerned for our hard won rights and a despairing yawn from those who do not engage and who condemn us all to a hell of boredom. This boredom is British politics now. It is a boredom manufactured by those who rule over us in order to distance us from engagement. From the conceit of our rulers is built the slaughter-house of our liberties. Does that conceit not interest us all?” George Gunn takes a hammer to the system that manufactures apathy.
The worst trait in any politician or political party is conceit. Since 2016 we have witnessed, in the malevolent maunderings of the British Conservative Party, a three year manifestation of self-indulgence and of criminally damaging conceit. When Theresa May in her resignation lachrymose talked about “this country I love” two things, I imagine, pulsed through the minds of most Scots who listened to her. What country was it, exactly, she was talking about? And further, more profound and complicated in nature due to her emotional delivery: did any of us believe she could actually love anything?
Democracy is in real trouble when less than 40% turn out for an election. That is the real lesson of the EU election of May, 2019. For the UK populists and the Tory part the whole sore process of Brexit has been a disaster which they have mistaken for a success. They do not understand, or perhaps they don’t care, that by cooking up a bogey-man (the EU), through lies and their repetition, they have seriously weakened themselves and undone what they have thought was immutable. The much trumpeted strength of the Brexit vote is in fact a weakness of the political system. The system is weak because no-one believes in it, certainly not the politicians, and those who imagine they will profit from this weakness will in all likelihood be ruined by it. This is the conclusion which history draws from the spirit of double-dealing which pervades any Tory policy. The Tories have made the fatal mistake of misunderstanding the anger of the electorate as the consent of a nation. This delusion will destroy them. Democracy is supposed to rouse the soul of the people, not to stifle it. The electorate are a strange conglomerate in which “power is the sum of a vast total of impotence” to reference Victor Hugo. Concealed in this is the revelation that power, as exercised by the Tories, is inflicted in the name of the electorate upon the electorate despite the electorate.
The Tory party may already be destroyed. If there is a second referendum on Scottish independence they will evaporate. If there is a General Election any time soon they will be reduced to a sorry rump. They can only survive in power and as a political party if they suspend democracy – finding excuses not to hold elections – which, ironically, is the logical conclusion of the Conservative Party, who have stood resolutely against any form of progress since their formation in the 1830’s.
“Of what interest is this to me?”, you might ask, if you are a member of the 60% who did not vote last week, or of the significant number who never vote in any election. Well, what I say is that you might like to consider that the 60/40 split is a rather listless portrait of our democracy, with grief at its heart. This a grief born out of the failure of the political system; it is an alarmingly sharp intake of breath from those who are concerned for our hard won rights and a despairing yawn from those who do not engage and who condemn us all to a hell of boredom. This boredom is British politics now. It is a boredom manufactured by those who rule over us in order to distance us from engagement. From the conceit of our rulers is built the slaughter-house of our liberties. Does that conceit not interest us all?
Brexit has destroyed both the Tories and Labour. The Labour party has been sucked into this political black hole because they tried to ignore it. They are disappearing over the event horizon; all political matter and gravity being sucked from them as they struggle against the inevitable. They call for a General Election when in fact a General Election would eviscerate them. What happens then, to the people and the state? The people will have no representation, they will have been betrayed. The state will be done for. It will collapse, or be pulled down, like a condemned building. The Brexit Party will see to that and then they too will dematerialise. What will follow them through the angry streets of northern English towns may march to a different, more authoritarian tune. Then the Liberal Democrats will discover what happens when political heat is directed at borrowed clothes: they will burn. No amount of resignations will make any difference to the physics.
So, what in Scotland can we do? We could have a second referendum on the EU, but that will make no difference across the UK. We could have, should have, will have a second referendum on Scottish independence. That is the general mood but the reality is that whatever Unionist cabal are in power in Westminster will say no to that because they are unable, because of their culture and their fear, to say anything else. They will say no because we are living in a political world without imagination or any courage or ability to see what is going on, to speak out and act accordingly.
“Scotland said no to Brexit in 2016. This result makes clear: we meant it.”, said the First Minister, in Dublin last week to meet with the Taoiseach. I would argue that what the EU result meant was that we, the Scots, desire to be an independent nation and if you, First Minister, do not facilitate that then we will find someone who can. The people of Scotland need a country to live and work in. As it stands at present we do not have such a thing. It is too late for the Unionists to contribute anything positive, but what of the SNP? If the SNP do not show the necessary leadership, vision and bravery very soon they too will inevitably be drawn over the event horizon into the black hole of history.
In the end, when it comes down to the bit, the Tories will always betray the people, aided and abetted by the media who portray the interests of the rich as the legitimate policy of government. They will betray everything, including themselves – witness this ridiculous “leadership contest” – in order to hang onto power. But the specific gravity of power is not measured in such conceit but in things more useful and beautiful: they are called ideas, those concepts and structures that keep power in check and allow us to live free, fulfilled lives. The misusers of power depend upon our indolence for their maintenance and that we do not get too close to ideas and that we are kept well way from concepts such as self-determination. Why have we let our political wits fall asleep? It is as if we have been in a continual night but today, thankfully, history and broad daylight are one. Those who think, like the Tories, that they can escape the eventual scrutiny of the people will find that the daylight of history is merciless.
Whatever manifestation of conceit, in whatever person it is garnered, who eventually leads the Conservative Party and becomes for a while the Prime Minister, that person will have to perpetuate the myth that the UK leaving the EU is, somehow, “a good thing”. Quite why it will be a good thing and what they will do when it becomes apparent, and quite quickly, that it is obviously not a good thing will never be explained. We will constantly be reminded about how they will make Great Britain “great” again. Like King Croesus of ancient Lydia, who was planning to invade the Persian Empire and who consulted the Delphic oracle for advice, the new Tory leader will have to have some divination up their sleeve because the economic evidence before their mortal eyes regarding leaving the EU trading block is not good. King Croesus was told by the oracle that if he attacked the Persians he would destroy a great empire. According to Herodotus’ Histories the powerful empire destroyed by the war was Croesus’s own. Croesus was a victim of his own vast conceit, as was Theresa May, as will be the new Prime Minister unless there is a miracle to come. The bad news is that there is no miracle to come. There is only the status quo, which is falling apart despite itself
Hannah Arendt, the 20th century German-American philosopher, had an observation on the failings of the status quo. “What the defenders of liberalism and humanism overlook,” she observed, was that it had become “easier to accept patently absurd propositions than the old truths which had become pious banalities.” Why was that? Well, people had eyes, she said. They could see that elites who proclaimed themselves champions of civilization were “parading publicly virtues which [they] not only did not possess in private and business life, but actually held in contempt.” Everybody knew the whole thing was a joke, except for the conceited great men who bought into their own propaganda. Confronted with this hypocrisy, “it seemed revolutionary to admit cruelty, disregard of human values, and general amorality because this at least destroyed the duplicity upon which the existing society seemed to rest.” Certainly, the alternative was farcical, but at least, Arendt suggested, everyone would be able to stop mouthing the same old lies, and that offered a kind of liberation. No, she was not talking about the rise of Brexit Party or the demise of the Tories, but about the Nazis.
Nicola Sturgeon has warned the UK Government that any attempt to block a second independence referendum would result in “democratic outrage”. Speaking in the Scottish Parliament last week, ahead of the publication by the Scottish Government of legislation setting the stage for a future vote on independence, the First Minister said: “It is essential the UK Government recognises that it would be a democratic outrage if it seeks to block such a referendum – indeed, any such stance would, in my view, prove to be utterly unsustainable.” Is she not displaying a conceit? In mitigation, if she is, it is one born out of necessity. Being outside of a single market which guarantees the free movement of labour and a customs union which facilitates trade Scotland will struggle economically and socially. How long will it take for the welfare state, so painfully struggled for and so nobly achieved, to finally crumble into dust if or when Britain finally leaves the EU?
The reason Scotland needs to stay in the EU is that economic prosperity requires trade and political stability requires social security. Scotland requires the EU to become a country. To achieve both prosperity and stability a free trade area will not be enough. European integration is necessary for Scotland because a common regulatory framework for trade, labour and human rights prevents a destructive race to the bottom which will happen in a post-Brexit Britain. So, ironically, Europe could come to the rescue of the European nation state, which is the thing the English nationalists fear they will lose but which, so far, technically, they have never had.
This, I think, is one of the main problems the English nationalists have with the thing called the United Kingdom: it has never, in their eyes, been a nation state. This conceit, by extension, causes great problems in relation to the EU. As the idea of a European Common Market was forming, post Word War Two, Britain still had a conceit of itself as being an imperial power continuing. The thought-dog running through the power-elites then was that trade should be concentrated on the former and soon to be former colonies and these British elites were very suspicious of a “rival” continental union. This may seem like a form of madness to us viewing such a notion form the end of the second decade of the 21st century, but here is the conclusion of a British parliamentary “expert” committee appointed in 1947: “A continental customs union had little economically in its favour other than the damage which would be caused by being excluded from it.”
The contradictions in such a conclusion are obvious now but, I imagine, thought little of by the ruling elite then. As was the notion that in 1947 their imperial Britain was composed of three different nations and a province and that these four cultural polities in 2019 would have a very different view of the world in relation to Europe, their sense of identity and the nature of what constitutes a welfare state.
The perceptions concerning the make-up of the UK might have reluctantly changed over time but the English ruling elites still believe in heredity and hierarchy and continue to cherish their feudal conceits and illusions. Will these snakes ever shed their skins? I doubt it. It would be a mistake for the Scots to believe it. We cannot afford the conceit. When we walk in the broad daylight of history and as the Sun shines now that Summer is upon us we should listen to the Gaelic song the oyster catcher sings, “Bi glic, bi glic!”, “Be wise, be wise!”