All the King’s Horses

ALL THE KING’S HORSES: From The Province Of The Cat by George Gunn

It is difficult in these depressing times to find a positive thread to hang onto, especially if you are a believer in the increasing necessity for an independent Scotland. Every pathway towards that goal is blocked, every political aspiration and civic desire is thwarted – and everybody falling out with everybody else. Every day through the media everything good in Scotland is portrayed as bad and bad is everywhere you look or listen, while at the same time the corruption and cynicism of those that rule us is under-reported, glossed over or ignored. In Scotland we are forced to see the world and current events through the eyes of a media that does not reflect our realty and who either apologises for or actively promotes the actions and policies of a government that does not represent us and for whom the majority of Scots did not vote for. Our own Scottish government in Edinburgh staggers punch drunk from one crisis to the next, some of its own making – its shotgun wedding to and Haitian divorce from the Greens being one of the biggest examples – but mostly they are the constructs of the attack dogs of the UK state. The prospects for the SNP at the forthcoming General Election do not look good, unless all the forecasts are wrong, which they could be.

However you must find optimism where one can. How strange, you might think, that I extract some solace, even find a thread of optimism, in the story of Macha, wife of the mythical King of Ulster, Crunniuc Mac Agnomain. His wife had just died and a beautiful woman appeared at his fort and took on the role of his wife. She called herself Macha. She became pregnant by Crunniuc. One day, at a gathering of the clans of Ulster, Crunniuc in a vain and boastful mood claimed that his wife, as pregnant as she was, could run faster than any of the horses so prized by Ulster chiefs. The pregnant Macha was summoned and told that she was to race against the horses. She begged to be allowed to have her child before she was forced to race. She pleaded to Crunniuc, but he ignored her. Macha turned to the people. “Help me,” she cried out to them, “for a mother bore each one of you!” But like the king the people did not listen.

So the race began and as pregnant as she was Macha raced the horses and reached the winning post first. As she crossed the line she gave birth to twins, a son and a daughter. Then Macha got her revenge. All the men of Ulster fell weak with women’s birth pains. She told them, 

“From this hour the ignominy that you have inflicted upon me will rebound to the shame of each of you. When a time of oppression falls upon you, each one of you who dwells in this province will be overcome with weakness, as the weakness of a woman in childbirth, and this will remain upon you for five days and four nights; to the ninth generation.”

“Macha Curses the Men of Ulster”, Stephen Reid’s illustration from Eleanor Hull’s The Boys’ Cuchulainn (1904)

I thought of this story as I watched on TV “all the king’s horses” running, terrified and bleeding, through the streets of London. It was a shocking image but one that symbolises the state of Ukania and Scotland’s position within it. Mary Condren, of the Centre for Gender and Women’s Studies, University of Dublin Trinity College, has written, 

“Macha’s cry was possibly the last symbolic attempt to appeal to true motherhood as the basis for public social ethics. That her people ignored her meant that the values of relationship and affiliations were effete; violence, death and the threat of death became the dominant grammar of political relationships.” (The Serpent and the Goddess: Women, Religion and Power in Celtic Ireland, 1989).

Rishi Sunak announces an extra £75bn in defence spending over the next six years. According to the Nuclear Restoration Services spending on decommissioning Dounreay, on the north Caithness coast, will amount to almost £8 billion between now and the site’s revised end date in the 2070s. These are the “values” and “relationships” the Westminster regime endorse: war and nuclear waste. They have no interest in “public social ethics” and I wonder was it “death and the fear of death” – other than a very loud noise from a construction site – that sent those riderless horses mad, careering down busy streets, blood and sweat pouring from them, colliding with buses, taxis and startled people? 

What the Tories have inflicted upon the people of Scotland is pain and there is no pain like the pain of watching civic society being overtaken by its most shameful parts, where the chaotic, the cruel, the selfish and the racist elements are given oxygen by a government that governs by fear and denial whilst spreading confusion and anxiety over anyone it deems a threat. We have a Prime Minister and a regime that can justify a £75 billion increase in the (nuclear) defence budget by attributing it to a defence of “our values”, while at the same time cutting the welfare state, espousing sophistry when announcing NHS spending and inflicting inhuman distress on those who come to our shores seeking sanctuary. “Help me,” Macha cried out to them, “for a mother bore each one of you!”

The Tories, and Labour to follow them, are not listening. 

A society where compassion and empathy are absent is a society that cannot stand for long. It will inevitably succumb to the confusion, chaos, cruelty and selfishness it promotes and to the indestructible energy of the counter-culture of lucidity and calm against which it has no defence other than more confusion, chaos, cruelty and selfishness. We must reaffirm our public social ethics and work to create a new Scotland where truth and fairness can prevail. We must own, as citizens in the real sense, all the component parts of our civic inheritance and our own individual consciousness. We have to lay claim to all our aspects, but not to be owned by any single one of them, to embrace the totality of our humanity so that we can act upon it and hand over to our children a better country where they can thrive and live without fear. That is, I think, what Macha’s appeal to true motherhood means. It is an appeal for a society where human relationship and affiliations are not considered effete, but normal – a buffer against the macho death politics of the Unionist parties.

That is what the Tories fear and why they will continue to deny us a referendum on independence, any development of our Scottish democracy and asset strip us until there is nothing left. This is also why we must oppose everything that they and their tribute act the Labour Party propose by voting for independence at every election we can participate in. By not doing so we are withdrawing from the possibility of a decent future and ignoring the hard won right to do so. We have to turn the whole of our being towards the light. We have to remember that Ukania is an oligarchy – or a moronocracy –  where a small number of people exert control over the state for their own gain. The Westminster government is led by a Prime Minister who hasn’t been elected in a popular vote, who backs Israel’s brutal war, complete with mass killings and war crimes, with military and diplomatic support and with the political acquiescence of the opposition party, which is Labour, no matter how loudly the public calls for a ceasefire. The Foreign Secretary, Baron Cameron of Chipping Norton, is not even elected and is chief cheerleader of Ukania’s backing of Israel and the sympathetic media fails to report on secret spy flights and facilitation of arms shipments to the Israeli war machine and parades the Baron of Chipping Norton as some kind of international honest broker and statesman. He is neither. He is King Crunniuc and he frightens the horses as he sells death and violence.

According to the Hamas Health Ministry in Gaza, whose figures are accepted as accurate by the UN, at least 34,262 Palestinians have been killed and 77,229 wounded since the start of the carnage. On Tuesday 23rd April Declassified UK reported that,

“New court documents show the UK government decided to continue arms exports to Israel one week after an Israeli airstrike killed three British aid workers in Gaza. The strike took place earlier this month and killed 7 people in total working for the charity World Central Kitchen. Foreign Secretary David Cameron and Trade Secretary Kemi Badenoch explicitly authorised new arms sales to Israel knowing it had just killed UK citizens. The Israeli Air Force carried out the bombing with a drone which may have been powered by an engine produced in Britain.” 

As reported in The Guardian (24th April, 2024) the US Senate has passed legislation granting $26.3bn for Israel and humanitarian relief for civilians in conflict zones, including Gaza. Israel’s Foreign Minister, Israel Katz, also reacted to its portion of the funding, saying it sent a “strong message” to the country’s enemies. So the race of death goes on and the horses still bleed. 

In Scotland we have no political purchase on any of this other than by voting for independence. It is also difficult to advocate for this as we approach the tenth anniversary of the 2014 referendum. But it is precisely because this was a defeat that we should persist even though the past ten years have shown us that devolution does not work. Political parties in power always fall apart and the SNP are no different from any other, except that it is questionable that they are in power any longer now that it is obvious that since Brexit the country has become poorer and because of the Internal Market getting any democratically elected legislation enacted is increasingly problematic. The collapse of the Bute House agreement only adds to this malaise. The functioning of Holyrood is being stifled and by extension our political rights are being eroded. More money for armaments means less for everything else. The upping of the decommissioning budget for Dounreay and the extension of the completion deadline means, in reality, less investment in Caithness because the Highland Council and all levels of government confuse spending on Dounreay as investing in Caithness. They are not the same thing. 

As Noam Chomsky has recently commented:

“Part of the tragedy of the Palestinians is that they have essentially no international support. For a good reason – they don’t have wealth, they don’t have power. So they don’t have rights. It’s the way the world works – your rights correspond to your power and your wealth.”

The same could be said of the Scots, except we do have wealth but we do not own it. So how can we own our wealth and how can we acquire political purchase? I suggest by doing two things, but sadly neither of them are likely to happen before or any time after the next General Election. The first is that all the independence supporting MP’s should withdraw from the Treaty of Union and the House of Commons. They should claim that Brexit and the Internal Market Act are counter to and in breach of the Treaty. There are countless other examples. The second thing is the independence supporting MP’s should set up in Edinburgh and convene a Constitutional Convention to prepare for a home grown referendum, enfranchising all resident EU nationals and those over the age of 16, to dissolve the Treaty of Union under the terms of The Claim of Right, which was endorsed by the House of Commons on July 4th, 2018. 

How many times must Macha be made to run the cruel race? How many times must “all the king’s horses” be subjected to the carelessness and cruelty of their owners? How many times must Scottish democracy be denied before it atrophies? We cannot hang by a thread forever. Something has got to give. 

©George Gunn 2024

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Comments (11)

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  1. Meg Macleod says:


    I hope this article gets to our parliamentarians.

  2. SleepingDog says:

    Less Macha, more Macbeth, when dark desires catapult already-nepotistic Scottish politics into a doom spiral (Act 2 scene 4):
    And Duncan’s horses–a thing most strange and certain–
    Beauteous and swift, the minions of their race,
    Turn’d wild in nature, broke their stalls, flung out,
    Contending ‘gainst obedience, as they would make
    War with mankind.
    Old Man
    ‘Tis said they eat each other.
    They did so, to the amazement of mine eyes
    That look’d upon’t.

  3. Joe Middleton says:

    The time to withdraw from Westminster is after we have voted for our independence. Not before. At the moment the people have chosen the union and withdrawing from Westminster without proof that the public actually want independence would just give a bigger stick for the media and the unionist parties to beat us.

    1. Derek Thomson says:

      Quite correct Joe. Much as it would please me, it would be folly.

  4. Colin Cooper says:

    Powerful stuff George.
    Like you I am appalled that the Scottish genius for making weapons has been put to service by the Israelis.

  5. Jenny Tizard says:

    George, thank you for bringing optimism, and a tale of courage and valour in these dark times. This was a splendid article.

  6. David B says:

    Poetic stuff, but governments (famously) govern in prose. ScotGov needs urgently to reform local taxation and use that to fund public services and a Just Transition. If they cannot do that relatively simple task, they rightly will not be trusted with the far more complex task of independence.

    1. John says:

      Too wee, too stupid argument.
      If the last few years has taught us anything it is the limits of devolution due to power of Westminster parties, hostile media and vested interests to oppose any type of meaningful reform proposed by Edinburgh or Cardiff that are different from Westminster policies.
      To implement the more radical changes that Scotland requires (including land reform) Scotland needs to be completely free from Westminster not subservient to it.

      1. David B says:

        It’s in no way a too wee too stupid argument. It’s the exact opposite. We have powers to be far more self-sufficient than we are (tax reform, ScotWind) and we’re not using them, or using them very badly.

        Independent government isn’t magically different from devolved government. If we elect parties who are incompetent at the latter, they’ll very likely be incompetent at the former too.

    2. Frank Mahann says:

      Your argument reminds me of Johann Lamont’s remark that Scots are not genetically programmed to make decisions.

      1. David B says:

        How on Earth does it remind you of that?!

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