2007 - 2021

Our House is on Fire

On the last day of Summer, when Nicola Sturgeon, had finished very eloquently and openly and honestly recommending to the chamber of the Scottish Parliament the proposal for an agreement, a political coalition, between the SNP and the Greens, all Douglas Ross, the leaders of the Tories in Scotland, could do was sneer. It was then I knew our house was on fire.

Douglas Ross is the cruel, comic messenger from the decaying twilight. He is comic because each time he speaks he unwittingly and clownishly reveals his own political meaninglessness. It was the playwright Eugène Ionesco who remarked that, “There is only a thin line between the horrible and the comic.” The true genius of comedy is that it opens up some unknown human realm. Tragedy, on the other hand, offers us the beautiful and consoling dream of human greatness. It is an illusion, but that is the nature of tragedy. Comedy is about what is unknown, about what is yet to happen. Tragedy is about history. Comedy is tragedies cruel opposite. The unknown realm Douglas Ross brings us into has no human virtue, only neglect and deceit. It is a dimension where the Scottish people are expected to collaborate with all that they instinctively and historically know to be vile. Douglas Ross brings his cruel comic sneer into the arena of both contemporary politics and history. He expects us to file into this arena and to dig our own graves by voting for him. And currently a significant amount of Scots do just that. And oh how we laugh!

The deal passed in the Scottish Parliament is the beginning of a quest to make clear some definitions and to lead the country away from constitutional meaninglessness, cruel political comedy and out of the deliberately constructed tragic dead end of devolution. This new, unknown realm may yet prove comic or tragic. Time will tell because history does not invent, it discovers. History reveals what humanity is, not what we suppose we are. Nicola Sturgeon was right to call the arrangement with the Greens “a leap of faith”, because up to last Tuesday the current direction of travel was taking us exactly no-where. It was as if we were all on “The Barque of Dante”, the painting by Delacroix, which depicts Dante and Virgil crossing the river Styx to the Land of the Dead. Behind them is the red glow of the burning City of the Dead. Beneath their vessel the choppy water is heaving with the bodies of tormented souls bound for Hell. The political Hell for the Scots is a place where we are mere functionaries of the British state. In this Hell we are denied initiative. We are forbidden invention. There is no real freedom of action. There are only rules we did not agree to and orders that we must obey and which will harm us. It is the Hell of obedience. This is “The Barque of Bojo”. On board are the British Prime Minister and his sneering man in the Scottish Parliament. The waters beneath this particular vessel heave from the conflicting tides of the Scots as obedient functionaries who must obey the instructions handed down from above and the self-ruling entitlement junkies of the English Tory elite who are exempt from all rules. In Canto Eight of Dante’s Inferno, Dante and Virgil successfully make it across the River Styx and eventually emerge from the Land of the Dead. Who would put money on a similar outcome for “The Barque of Bojo” with such a crew?

In the first week of August this year the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published a grim report which stated that the fires, floods and extreme weather seen around the world in recent months are just a foretaste of what can be expected if global heating takes hold. For example,

atmospheric CO2 is up one third on the levels recorded in the 1960’s.
– The past six years have been the hottest on record.
– In 2020 the world’s oceans were the hottest ever recorded.
– Scotland has had its fourth hottest summer on record, according to provisional figures released by the Met Office just this week.

Simon Lewis, professor of global change science at University College London, said,

“The observations this summer show that some impacts seem to be underestimated, but we can’t know if the devastation of summer 2021 is the new normal without a few more years’ data. But what we do know is if emissions continue to rise, then increasingly severe climate impacts will occur and the consequences will be severe. What we need to keep in mind is that we all live in places that have built up over decades and centuries to cope well with a given climate. The really, really scary thing about the climate crisis is that every single achievement of every human society on Earth occurred under a climate that no longer exists. The pressure is on for world leaders to agree both detailed and achievable plans to cut emissions now, and plans to adapt to climate impacts, when they meet in Glasgow in November.”

Concurrent with this the British government will push through the development of the Campbell (Cambo) oil field, 75 miles north-west of Shetland, which is estimated to contain 800 million barrels of oil. Our house is on fire and the solution is to turn up the heating. The First Minister of Scotland can plead with the Prime Minister of the UK not to go ahead with this development but energy is a reserved matter and she has absolutely no power to stop it. This is the Hell of devolution. This is its tragic dead end.

For all its infernal imagery and cosmic energy Dante’s three part “Divine Comedy” is in truth a trip around his own contemporary early 14th century Tuscany. The first part, “Inferno”, is jam packed with characters – popes, bishops, cardinals, dukes, merchants, printers etc – who have done him wrong. One of the poems themes is that power does indeed corrupt and one of the many ways it does this is through hypnotism. Dante, the poet, serves the truth that is discovered. He discovered this truth through observation. He refused to be hypnotised by power. He saw it clearly for what it was: brutality and cruelty – the stuff of comedy. Dante’s conclusion was that his house, like ours, was also on fire. His attempt (his contribution) to deal with the crisis was his great masterpiece, which he wrote in exile from Florence, where he was caught up in civil war in 1301.

Recently, here on Bella, Graham Ennis commented,

“In this situation, independence for Scotland is no longer a political issue, but an issue of Survival.”

In this light of Survival the SNP’s deal with the Greens and the ever expanding corruption of Westminster, the rapidly deteriorating environmental situation, the inability of capitalism to change its ways, the abdication of Culture to take any responsibility to engage with any issue other than psychology or sex, where who is going to be the next James Bond is seen by the media as more important than rising sea levels, the question I pose is: As the world begins to burn from greed and blindness, where is out modern Dante?

All writers, including Dante, borrow from their own lives. How can literature be produced in any other way? It has been said that literature has to be an ethical activity, inseparable from questions of moral value. But no single life can stand that much scrutiny. That is a price too terrible to contemplate. I am the last person to declare whether my life has any moral value whatsoever. So I make it easy for myself and take consolation in the realisation that what all writers do is to send out messages to ourselves. However, we are terrified that none of it is real. Just stories we tell to the person we think we are. In these stories it is always night and we are always alone and are, like Dante, in exile. All writers are alone and in exile no matter what else they think. That is our tragedy. Ironically we crave neither loneliness or solitude yet, as our house burns down, we are terrified of both. Doesn’t that make you laugh? What modern capitalism does is that it violates solitude and turns it into loneliness. The Covid pandemic has exacerbated this loneliness. And the polar ice still melts. The forests still burn.

The solace for the artist is that life is work. Work is everything. We work ourselves up into such a froth that, like our communal house which is the planet, we start to smoke and then burst into flames. This is the risk and the cost. And there is a cost to everything, especially creativity, polar ice and rain forests. When the damage is done it cannot be undone. Unlike the planet the human heart does not repair itself. The great joke is that the flames of the ever rising world temperature will consume everything. Even Douglas Ross and his Tories. On the other hand the Roman writer Seneca, in his “Letters To Lucillius”, informs us that, “You will not die because you are sick but because you are alive.”

Seneca was a Stoic, so he was obsessed by the human condition. He saw life as a journey to ethical perfection and in being emotionally resilient to misfortune, even his own enforced suicide in 65AD. The Roman Empire, as witnessed by Seneca, may have begun to fall apart due to the actions of the then emperor Nero, but it’s house was not, as yet, on fire. It did eventually burn to the ground. The difference between Seneca’s time and now is that our house, the planet Earth, is most definitely on fire. A charred planet is history as the human confession of just what have become. If we do not change our ways we will be swept away in the flood and turned to dust in the drought. Most of us by then will be so poor and isolated we will lack everything. The rich and the greedy, who started the fire, will also lack everything. That’s comedy. Will the master clown, Douglas Ross, laugh at that in his horrible, comic way from the decaying twilight? Or will he just sneer, as usual?

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Comments (12)

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  1. MBC says:

    This is a great piece of writing.

    On devolution being a ‘deliberately constructed dead end’ that is certainly how it turned out, but I’m not sure Donald Dewar saw it that way. I think he was optimistic of a progressive Scotland co-operating fruitfully with a progressive, restored UK to expand devolution within the UK framework. But sadly Blair and Brown did little to reorientate the ship of state. The 2008 banking crisis confirmed this. Dewar was possibly naive, but I think he was sincere.

    Much as Tom Nairn predicted it would, England’s political instincts have been atavistic following the loss of empire in the 1960s. A progressive radical England failed to rally. Collaboration with Europe proved not to be enduring, and the ‘special relationship’ an illusion born of hubris. England has no friends, neither in Europe or across the Atlantic, is building nothing of note, and has no leadership. It has no vision of itself and no role, neither a European one nor a transatlantic one.

    Scotland has its failures and share of problems for sure, but there are no problems for which the UK is the solution.

    This is a time to be brave.

    1. Dennis Smith says:

      Your second paragraph gets it just about right. In the late 1990s it was still possible to believe 1) that Westminster might evolve into a democratic institution, and 2) that Labour had the will and power to bring this about. In that context devolution made some sense, as one faltering step on a long road.

      We now know that this road was not followed. UK constitutional thought continues to make a fetish of the absolute sovereignty of the Crown-in-Parliament, which makes a nonsense of the whole idea of a devolution settlement. This is what Enoch Powell meant when he said that “power devolved is power retained”.

      The current UK government is not even sincere in worshipping its own Parliamentary fetish. The executive continually tries to bypass Parliament by invoking the royal prerogative, while also trying to muzzle the independent judiciary. This devotion to the absolute sovereignty of Westminster demonstrates why the alternative of federalism is a non-starter. Federalism implies a division of powers between different levels of government which cannot be amended without the consent of both sides. So federalism would entail the overthrow of several centuries of Anglo-British constitutional thought.

  2. Meg Macleod says:

    Oh..I wish your voice could be heard somewhere south Gretna…..I keep hoping …
    It is debatable whether our actions contribute to the natural phenomena of waxing and waning of ice ages but it it true our actions have polluted the oceans.destroyed the nurturing soil structure of acres and acres of farmland.it is true we have exploited sentient creatures for profit and so called progress.it is true we are responsible.for people going hungry and dying under our British manufactured bombs…..so we have alot to put right…I don’t believe Westminster has the wisdom to change direction…I hope the greens and SNP will be able to shine a light on the darkness..on the few occasions that I accidentally tune into Westminster parliament I am always dismayed at the arrogance and the dismissive attitude to our Scottish representatives there. Disgraceful

    1. John O'Dowd says:

      Hi Meg. Pretty much agree with what you write, and certainly with your main sentiments.

      Just one point:

      “It is debatable whether our actions contribute to the natural phenomena of waxing and waning of ice ages…”

      I’m pretty sure what we are currently witnessing is NOT ” waxing and waning of ice ages” – which as I understand it tend to be much longer-term cycles than this. These tend to be determined by long astronomical cycles and solar activity, whereas mini-ice-ages with relatively short term effects have been attributed to such phenomena as volcanic activity.

      But there is now little doubt that what we are seeing is anthropogenic global warming, and except at the fringes, there is almost complete scientific consensus on this – nor was this un-predicted.

      I recall being taught about the greenhouse effect and the greenhouse gases (e.g. CO2 and methane) in school science classes in the 1960s, and this was predicted to result in warming of the Earth (I’m a retired scientist myself – though not an Earth or Physical scientist). I just didn’t expect to see it in my won life-time.

      We are all in denial to some extent!

  3. Squigglypen says:

    Nicola Sturgeon has the power to deal with Westminster. Call an Independence referendum now.Extract our MPS from Westminister
    Walk away, stop yapping and mean business. You don’t make deals with the devil.

  4. Paula Becker says:

    One week into the SNP/Greens coalition and the fault lines are already showing. The Scottish Greens previously described the Vaccine Certificate as ‘discriminatory’ but now, with two Government ministers, they will have to get in line and support this abomination. Every Green MSP who votes for it (as well as the making permanent of emergency Covid powers) will be publicly exposing their hypocrisy.

    1. Greenergood says:

      I think there is a difference between asking for a Vaccine Certificate (VC), and making emergency Covid powers a permanent fixture. And I think people are blurring the distinctions between the two. A VC is a helpful way of distinguishing between people (the vaccinated) who have less of a chance of contracting and conveying Covid to others – especially others who are immunocompromised, or children not yet vaccinated and those (the refusing-to-be-vaccinated) who really don’t care what happens to other people, even if they are contagious. Making emergency Covid powers permanent is a whole nother story: emergency Covid powers need ongoing reviewing and careful consideration . If used correctly, VCs aren’t permanent signs of stigma and exclusion – they are a temporary measure to help us get back to some semblance of normality – with all the many new parameters that must be considered. Permanent emergency Covid powers are a doorway to a place we don’t want to go …

      1. Paula Becker says:

        The Vax certificates and the permanent powers are indeed separate issues. My point is that the Greens will most likely support the SNP in both cases.
        When it comes to vax certificates consider this: Israel is the most vaccinated country on earth (26% of the population have now had 3 jabs). It has just reported a new record daily case count (40% higher than the winter peak). It has the highest case rate in the world!!

      2. Martin Meteyard says:

        People should be careful not to read too much into the limited proposals to make some emergency Covid powers permanent. One of the four proposals is to allow local authorities to hold public meetings virtually rather than in person (which could actually increase participation). Another is to extend the current practice whereby vaccinations can be administered without the previous requirement that they be carried out only by doctors or persons acting under their direction and control (seems sensible to me). A third gives powers to make public health regulations in response to “the incidence or spread of infection or contamination which presents or could present significant harm to human health in Scotland”. And the final proposal would give powers “to make directions to close educational establishments, and to ensure continuity of education during the remainder of the current pandemic and future pandemics”. We kid ourselves if we think this is the last pandemic we will face – or even the last of this one. But if you’re worried about these proposals, then you can have your say in the public consultation which is currently open until 9 November here: https://consult.gov.scot/constitution-and-cabinet/covid-recovery/

  5. James Mills says:

    Unfortunately , because of BREXIT there is a shortage of Barques ! So drowning would appear to be the alternative .

  6. Graham Ennis says:

    The postings on here are, day by day, increasingly sombrae.
    put simply: “More realistic”. In a year or so, as the first big wave of climate impacts that we can actually see in the media, and have done, this season of fires and storms, all over our planet, will be trailers for what is to come.
    Herein lies an opportunity. The Right in Scottish politics and the Parliament, have basically run out of ammunition. Trying to prolong their dirge of “Climate change is not happening, or happening very little, is now bankrupt. Since they are still vehemently against taking the measures that are now urgently needed, and have themselves no solutions, they are reduced to jeering and sneering at the sidelines. They now have nothing else to say. The stupidity of them will be obvious to all.
    In the meantime, as it becomes clear that the solutions for Scotland are now very narrow and overdue, and may not be effective, given we have effectivly run out of time, and the climate disaster is now outrunning Us, we now have to look, with clear sight, at what comes next.
    The forthcoming global climate summit in Alba presents an astounding opportunity for The left and liberal cadre in Scotland. But no actual planning to take a grip on this opportunity appears to be happening. At the moment, the present Scottish Goverment has no actual “PLAN A”, and there is no sight either of even the bare bones of Plan “B”. The actual civil administration, not the politicians, who have done very little, should by now have started planning for the events that might be happening as near as 2030, or even less. If they do not do so, there will, come the day, be a lot of very angry, hungry Scots.
    Having the Greens locked into the Goverment, is going to be interesting. They will be forced to be horribly realistic, brutally truthfull, and committed to what must now be done. Likewise the SNP.
    The last post I did on here seems to have hit the target, as far as food and other resource issues are concerned. But there is much else.
    I cannot believe that in the swarm of Scottish civil servants, there are not the brains, and the people, to start contingency planning. If the predictions are right, they will have around 100 months to get ready for what is coming.
    Time to start “Planning about planning”. At the moment there is not even a tiny contingency plan. It is well within the bounds of both the Scottish goverment contingency planning capacity, its cadre, and the now large movement for such things in other EU States.
    So:
    1: parliamentary discussions about this issue, asap. (put simply: For Scotland, is there a lifeboat, how much will it cost, who will do this task, and how do we do it.)
    2: Hold a conference. Ideally, in the Spring of next year, after the huge impact of the Global meeting in Scotland.
    3:It should start with a survey of “Relevent skills experts, domestic Scottish organizations, institutes, present and future research, etc etc. ” (“What is there, and what is not there”)
    4: International links and resources. Scavanging the Global meeting in Scotland, for links, contacts, etc etc.
    5: Skeleton Budget. (£100K) and forming a sub unit in the Goverment to start pulling it all together. Then the Civil sertvice will know how much money to ask parliament for, as things develop. It should take no more than a dozen officials, linking and locating, to pull onboard the scientific and technical experts in Scoptland.
    6: This issue needs to be debated here on line. While we still haver the luxury of 100 months to climate disaster and its impacts on Scotland.

    Ok, comments please. Graham Ennis

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