It Was Twenty Years Ago Today
Each country is unique because of its people and history but all countries are alike because none can exist on their own. Scotland’s problems are particular to its history and are perhaps singular in as much as her people are struggling to articulate a constitutional release from the British state, while at the same time striving to find a way to remain in the European Union, from which the British state is seeking, unsuccessfully, to formulate an exit. On one hand the EU is conscious of and alert to Scotland’s political koan to which, on the other, the British state is hostile and tone deaf.
It was twenty years ago, on the 1st of July 1999, that the Scottish Parliament was formally opened in the Assembly Hall of the Church of Scotland on the Mound in Edinburgh. The first meeting took place on the 12th of May with David Steel as the Presiding Officer. Prior to that there was the business of the 1997 referendum on devolution held on the 11th of September which returned a double Yes vote to the establishment of a Scottish Parliament and one with tax-varying powers. The first election of this Parliament took place on 6th May 1999 which resulted in the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats forming the very first Scottish Executive, with Donald Dewar becoming the First Minister. On 2 September 2007, the SNP minority government with Alex Salmond at its head, announced that the Scottish Executive was to be retitled as the “Scottish Government”. On September 18th 2014, in the referendum on Scottish independence, the Scots voted narrowly to remain as part of the UK.
So here we are, as July of 2019 begins, with Nicola Sturgeon as our First Minister and the call is going up from the many marches, rallies and meetings across Scotland for a “second referendum” to save us from the venal nostalgia concept being cooked up by the Tory party as they stumble from one self-inflicted cock-up, coup and calamity to another, dragging us against our stated democratic desire down into political, economic and cultural isolation. It’s not so much a version of “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” but more an out of tune rendition of “When The Music Is Over, Turn Out The Lights”.
They, the Scottish Parliament, may or may not be “going in and out of style” and they are perhaps guaranteed to raise the blood, if not infrequently a smile, to mangle The Beatles, but in order to fully appreciate how we got from there to here we need, I think, to go back forty years to the 1st of March 1979 when the first referendum on Scottish devolution took place, this time not for a “Parliament” but for an “Assembly”.
An amendment by Labour MP John Cunningham to the Scotland Act (1978) stipulated that it would be repealed if less than 40% of the total electorate voted “Yes” in the referendum. The result was that 51.6% supported the proposal, but with a turnout of 64%, this represented only 32.9% of the registered electorate. The Act was subsequently repealed. The truth was the Labour Party in 1979 hated the idea of any devolution to Scotland and it was only contemplated because by 1976 James Callaghan’s government had lost its parliamentary majority and needed to placate the SNP to support it in the House of Commons. The resultant Kilbrandon Commission eventually led to the Scotland Act which after much filibustering, derailment, delay and attack came into being, after a fashion, in 1978. The rest is the history of gerrymandering and the explicit hostility by the British establishment to any kind of Scottish self-determination. The recent ill-informed and aggressive statements by both Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt concerning Scottish democracy continue this negative convention.
In 1979 the Labour governments decision to abandon devolution led to the SNP withdrawing its support of James Callaghan. The Tories sniffed an opportunity and on 28 March tabled a motion of “no confidence”. The Labour government was defeated by one vote and a general election was subsequently called on 3rd May. This was won by the Tories with a majority of 43 seats and the result was the reactionary regime fronted by Margaret Thatcher. Whatever mess we are in economically, politically, constitutionally or spiritually was brought into focus at that moment. The Labour Party have always perpetuated the myth that it was the SNP who brought in Thatcher but history shows quite plainly that Thatcher’s eleven year campaign of terminal destruction was the direct result of Labour’s economic incompetence, political temerity and, it has to be recognised, bad luck internationally.
One thing that is a continuum within the usually bloody events which constitute Scottish history is that the sovereignty of the people will always burst out. It may behave badly, it may blunder and roar, whisper or cough, but like all human actions even in its most incoherent moments, it remains our one great manifestation. What the sovereignty of the people always wants, strives for, desires, demands – is progress. Opposed to progress are the oligarchs, the stock-exchange racketeers, the landowners, the rich, the powerful – in other words the various brands of Tories who want to preserve the past in order to rent the life out of the present and destroy the future. Yet progress has no time to waste on these aberrations. Surely it is time that in Scotland we say to ourselves that the referendum on the UK membership of the European Union on June 23rd 2016 was their last day in the waning sunlight. It is an uneasy spectacle to watch them now, as this leadership enthronement gurgles on, as everybody concerned comes into it as though they were just about to leave and a collective dysphoria, a state of unease or generalized dissatisfaction with life, deadens the spirit of the people. I am reminded of a verse from the 18th century Irish poet Eibhlín Ní Chonaill which goes,
Cease your weeping now
woman of the soft, wet eyes
til Art O’Leary drain his cup
before he enters the dark school
not for music or learning
but to prop the earth & stone.
When do we think that Boris Johnson will finally “drain his cup” and enter into “the dark school”?
History is preoccupied with fundamental processes of change. If, as a politician, you are allergic to these processes, you abandon history and take cover in the “dark school” of the sectarianism of “our sacred union”, or you aspire to own and influence the media. In this way you can conjure up what the German philosopher Immanuel Kant called “hypotyposis”, by which he meant a work of fiction that appears as real as the material world. The dispassionate can see the ugly veracity of Kant’s vision and also his trend to racism when they read the Daily Mail.
Boris Johnson is good at pretending to be a fool. He has always, as far as I can see, been careful not to come over as the wrong sort of idiotic hypocrite – that is someone who talks down to people – and who at least can be entertaining, even though he is a serial liar. Or so his image is promoted. Jeremy Hunt always sounds as if he can’t be bothered talking to ordinary people and over health has been proven to be a hypocrite. If the voters have to choose between the two, as they had to do between Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton, they will invariably choose the comic liar over the po-faced hypocrite. Which goes to show that it is not what you say that counts in “British” politics, its what you say about yourself by saying it that resonates with voters. Boris Johnson is an arch cynic and he knows full well what he is doing. That is why decent, honest people fall into his trap.
Boris Johnson is the logical political extension of Thatcher and Blair. The political system Scotland endures now as a part of the British state is unbalanced, uncontrolled and uncontrollable whilst simultaneously it is lurching ever further to the right. We cannot exercise a solution to this as long as we remain within it. It is pertinent to remember what Tommy Douglas, the great co-operative politician of 20th century Canada, had to say about similar tendencies in his day,
“Once more let me remind you what fascism is. It need not wear a brown shirt or a green shirt… it may even wear a dress shirt. Fascism begins the moment a ruling class, fearing the people may use their political democracy to gain economic democracy, begins to destroy political democracy in order to retain its power of exploitation and privilege.”
Let us stop pretending that the enemies of Scottish independence, of progress, are reasonable. They are not. They are extreme and wear “dress shirts”. The on-going Tory leadership reality TV programme shows us that we are being conditioned into political compliance by the media. This is a compliance which is conditioned by what is absent from our screens. What we need to be is liberated by democracy. For the past three years the Tories have hi-jacked the political debate and for the past three weeks the media have hi-jacked the collective critical faculty and helped cement in the populations mind that these charlatans are the natural party of government. We must ensure that they will not and cannot hi-jack the future of our democracy.