2007 - 2021

Unbeing, Estrangement and the Politics of Fear

Let me tell you three stories to try and explain my country. My situation is very simple – I am in the process of falling off a cliff. It is also very complicated. Many other people are falling and yet some of us have not yet noticed that the ground has dropped away. A handful of us believe that we are flying.

We can’t fly.
We are falling.

Story One

I meet prominent human rights lawyer Philippe Sands at London’s South Bank Centre on Sunday the 3rd of June 2016. As the cultural climate in the UK has clouded we have both been spending more and more time addressing human rights issues, the role of the arts, our fall – in print and at various events, addressing audiences in a variety of contexts. This is still permitted.

Every time I have spoken, audiences have shared both dismay and impotence. Many of us are aware that hatred is a rabid dog and that our leaders have released it. Quiet articles in our press do mention a (relatively) bloodless coup that has left us in the hands of long-term Pinochet admirers who want to expel human rights legislation from Britain as a form of foreign contagion. Some of us stand on platforms and mention what is blindingly obvious: that the arts and the media colour culture and that culture has the power to restrain, enrich, or poison us. It permits action, legislation, social transformations for good or ill. To think arts activity is morally neutral is to volunteer for the fall. But we have been taught to think that.

Some of us, like Philippe, are aware that genocide is hard to prosecute because there may be no hard evidence of individual guilt: no tapes, emails, notes taken while seated at a lakeside villa’s conference table. If a country’s culture is toxic enough – if your versions of Der Sturmer, or Radio Mille Collines, are operational then traceable orders may be rare, or unnecessary. The population will simply improvise on themes of hate. After the nightmare, prosecutable individuals may well be low-ranking murders; local-level organisers: the man who distributed machetes, or an especially toxic journalist, implicated in the horror their words summoned up. Words are necessary; of course, cultural manipulation is essential, because sociopaths are unusual. Ordinary people in functional communities can only be convinced to set aside their lives and commit or enable atrocities if they believe they are acting in the name of self-defense. They need convincing – so you convince.

Then self-defense will do the rest – after all, it’s justified. Normal people with kids and hobbies and smiles for the camera and blueberries to eat at picnics will fight to keep their nice things and clean lives until they are covered in children’s blood if you scare them enough.

So you put fear and hate in newspapers, magazines, cartoons, films, broadcasts, websites, social media, viral gossip, posters, rallies, political pronouncements, click bait outrage. Produce figureheads just freakish enough for the media to love them, for the public to find them dreadful, but fascinating and disempowering, laughable but ‘honest’, comfortingly stupid and yet strong, so strong. Culture convinces. However freestanding we think we are – decent and independent – we are often malleable and will murder if murder is made decent. We are marinated daily in our culture, it tells us what to buy, in every sense.

On that June Sunday, after the hate-filled self-delusion of the Brexit vote, our assisted suicide, here is Philippe. We hug and swear softly – it’s probably already too late for us. Philippe has prosecuted murderers from former Yugoslavia – once an expanding holiday destination with a diverse community and then dropped into hell quickly, predictably by speeches, songs, stories legends, fear. Brexit is not just a frightening expression of convinced xenophobia – it will bring economic chaos, take away normality and bring us the pains that demand scapegoats, targets, the exorcism of perceived malignity. We won’t now simply admit that we’ve done a stupid thing, that our economic and political masters have done a large number of stupid things and that they abuse us and that we love them for it.

Repeatedly condemned by EU and now UN observers and currently campaigning hard for an additional exit from European human rights legislation, the UK’s media are now mostly hate mills. Cost cutting, lack of experienced staff, thrill seeking, various addictions and a handful of morally corroded media barons have given us a pre-genocide culture. We could hope we’ll be lucky and escape the final descent. Many are turning aside to alternative media, but the mainstream can feel overwhelming. Slowing revenues that have cut back investigative reporting, fact-checking, anything but gossip and kicks – they may bring an end to print media and its stranglehold on government. With no real mass media support, the leader of our largest opposition party, Jeremy Corbyn, has thus far weathered all manner of storms. If he, or a figure similarly committed to democracy and ‘free’ from corruption (and ‘free’ is a relative term with any politician) can use alternative media and micro-finance to succeed, we might save our democracy. But our economy will crash, blame will seek targets. We have a failing education system, shattered social care and a culture that denigrates knowledge and imagination. We may simply be waiting for a plausible demagogue to harness our pain. Or just that quiet coup, those men in suits.

Philippe arrives at our event both professionally and personally shaken. This is comfortable Philippe with comfortable colleagues, who don’t look poor or vulnerable, Philippe who works in a fashionable and world-famous chambers. Philippe who was collaborating this week with another top-flight lawyer from India. A stranger abused her on her way to the chambers, simply for existing as black, a black human being, a woman a man could abuse. She had never known such a thing happen in years of visits.

Philippe and I are part of culture, too, but we are hardly News International. I have just published a novel, in part about a senior UK civil servant who can no longer stand the casual cruelty of his government, or its aversion to facts and devotion to its own delusions. I’d hoped it would prove relevant. I shouldn’t have. Disillusioned civil servants seek me out after every reading. Philippe has just published a book examining the lives of three Jewish men from the same part of Galicia. These were Philippe’s grandfather, Leon Buchholz, and lawyers Hersh Lauterpacht and Raphael Lemkin. Buchholz managed to escape the bloody mechanisms of the Holocaust. Lauterpacht also escaped and was the lawyer who developed the concept of ‘crimes against humanity’ and legislation to combat them. He worked for the defense of the individual. Lemkin invented the term we now use to describe the destruction of individuals simply because they belong to proscribed groups: genocide. Lemkin focused on the defense of groups, because racists, genocidaires, will insist on refusing to see the objects of their loathing as anything other than fractions of groups, wrong things seething with interconnectedness to other wrong things. Lemkin sought to put legislation in place to keep groups safe from extinction. He is a personal hero of mine. I see Lauterpacht’s point – defending the individual defends us all. But I see Lemkin’s point too, making genocide the crime of crimes and actually prosecuting genocidaires (even when they have powerful friends and are rich and Caucasian) would send a powerful signal. Genocide is a step beyond murder and mass murder. It seeks to remove all manifestations of human immortality: neighbourhoods, languages, art, children, monuments, place names – everything. The whole culture. We might say it attempts a murder of the soul.

It should be the crime of crimes. It’s hard to prosecute, the evidence is hard to gather, but then most criminals seek to conceal their crimes – we still try to prosecute them. And we know that the impunity with which Turkey committed its genocide and (although we mention this much less in the UK) the cheerful efficiency and pride of the British Empire’s murder machinery, both emboldened Germany’s genocidaires. Maybe Kissinger’s impunity and the UK’s championing of Pinochet have been of comfort to Tony Blair as he returns from the confessional. Crimes unpunished allow imaginations to imagine further impunity, to gather potential. And so imagination is appropriated by the enemies of humanity and creativity as surely as ‘Lady With Ermine’ was once displayed in the home of the Nazi who stole it.

As a writer, a producer of culture, I know that if I fail – if I do not adequately present the humanity of other humans to humans, then I do not help create a culture which defends humans against destruction. If I do not help the individual reader inhabit the Other, empathise, identify, experience, then I move us nearer our cliff edge by a fraction of a millimeter. And meanwhile multiple advertisers, keynote speeches, articles and interviews shove us onwards, meters at a time.

Which is to say, when people like me fail, people like Philippe have to step in, long after the blood has dried and the disaster has happened, trying to administer justice.

Culture at its most effective and sustainable, shows us people, human entities. The UK’s current culture shows us caricatures, threats and freaks. It seeks, apparently to make us all the Other.

Story 2

I am being interviewed by a German film crew soon after the Brexit vote. They want to film in various locations, one of them a train carriage. Once we’re aboard, I find myself thinking, “I hope the crew won’t speak German out loud. I hope no one sounds overly foreign. I don’t want anyone in the carriage to get angry. I don’t know how that would go.” And I am ashamed.

I didn’t trust the passengers on a commuter train I have ridden time after time without fear. The sound operator, a black Kenyan, had come to London to further his studies – he told me the city terrified him and that he was leaving as soon as he could. I was sad, but unsurprised.

Because the UK is collapsing. The kingdom is not united. England and Britain are no longer synonymous. The inclusivity of our society’s experience during World War 2 and an awareness of Europe’s part in that, refugees’ part in that, the world’s part in that – has been lost. The wonder in decades of European peace has been lost. There has been a lazy and toxic assumption that countries like Yugoslavia, or Iraq implode simply because they are filled with foreigners. Rwanda became a bloodbath spontaneously, because, well what can you expect – it’s in Africa. (An entire continent our current foreign secretary recently referred to as one country) As even the last vestiges of the British Empire slide away, the idea of the white man’s burden, the pacification of the restless natives, joined with Blair’s messiah complex to wreck the Middle East – against all informed advice – and produce the world’s worst refugee crisis since World War Two.

Meanwhile Wales has sunk into self-loathing and post-industrial bewilderment. Northern Ireland has been able to stabilise slightly (although its peace treaty relies on EU membership) and has drawn closer to the South. Scotland, after a degree of devolution, has been able to explore a modern, Europhile identity and to redefine what nationalism can be. With roots partly in a racist, right wing desire for spurious ethnic purity, Scottish Nationalism has spent decades exploring and embracing its other motivations – progressive social policy, the nation state (with citizens, taxes, laws, rights and responsibilities) pitted against corporate states (with customers, tax-avoidance, entitlement, reckless endangerment and a desire to avoid all responsibility) It currently has grassroots mass membership, microfinance party funding, a massive majority in the Scottish Parliament deriving from proportional representation and a relatively content and active civil service. This model is not perfect – politicians anywhere will always be politicians with politicians’ faults – but it is increasingly divergent from the Westminster model. Although Scotland’s mass media landscape is very similar to that in the UK as a whole, the independence campaign (and a general frustration with corrupt and inaccurate media coverage) has spawned a rather more mature alternative media landscape than in the rest of the UK. The lowered voting age has also raised the level of public and youth involvement in politics.

The SNP are largely vilified by the mainstream media, but apparently do not need their support – do not need to parrot their racist agenda – to win elections decisively. This suggests a new model of press/ political relations is more than possible. In real terms, this means – among other things – that refugees in Scotland receive a letter of welcome from Scotland’s First Minister and efforts are made to support them in their new communities and to keep those communities onside. There has been a sustained spike in racist attacks and hate crime (and misogynist crime) in the UK since politicians and their media masters began opportunistically attacking The Other. This is occasionally bemoaned in the very papers fanning the violence, but increasingly ignored by Theresa May’s Tory party and its openly race-baiting agendas. What isn’t mentioned is that Scotland hasn’t experienced the same spike.

The most recent Tory Party Conference advocated, among other things, shaming companies by forcing them to admit how many foreign workers they were employing and only allowing foreign doctors to continue working in our desperately hard-pressed health service until UK doctors had been trained. (It’s highly unlikely current levels of investment in the NHS would ever produce enough trained indigenous doctors.) Hate has become the norm in the UK’s public discourse, but within days of announcements that would disgust any democracy worth the name from the UK’s current leadership, the SNP First Minister and the leaders of all major Scottish parties (who all happen to be women) had made statements in support of refugees and European citizens in the UK. (These are the same Scottish political parties, which have continued to finally address centuries of sectarian injury and discrimination in Scotland and to effect slow change.) After the announcement of Scottish government solidarity with the Other, individual Scots spent a day flooding Twitter with #WeAreAllScotland messages – stating their mixed origins, partnership across nationalities, children of mingled parentage, their various journeys to reach Scotland, and reinforcing an idea of nationality which only requires self-identification. Born Scottish, raised Scottish, ancestrally Scottish, residentially Scottish, Scottish by marriage, Scottish with other identities maintained, or simply Scottish, or part of Scotland by choice – these are all being defined as equally valid and valuable identities.

On 9th October 2016, an open letter appeared in The Scotsman, condemning xenophobia, signed by 300 academics and open to all thereafter. While Jeremy Corbyn and others on the UK (or English, or Westminster) left have also condemned racist hate, their statements have been reframed by the mass media as bizarre, dangerous, somehow foreign. At the end of September, one statement of support offered by Corbyn to migrants was answered the following day by a vile cartoon in The Times, a mainstream, formerly-respectable newspaper, showing an overloaded boat laden with threatening black bodies, captained by Jeremy and heading across the Mersey – the river running through Liverpool, a city with a reputation for Left Wing agitation and an established black population…

Not everyone in Scotland, of course, finds this official attitude of openness agreeable, but the public discourse is not enabling the minority’s racism. Populations feel empowered to combat hatred. After an outbreak of sectarian violence in George Square, gifts of food were left for the homeless, as a demonstration that Glasgow was a caring place. When an Asian shopkeeper was murdered, a vigil was held in the same square with the stated intention of showing that the majority in Glasgow abhors racist violence. (This is, in part the result of a long-term campaign of bridge-building and integration, working to ease the plight of refugees dumped into already hard-pressed urban communities – Westminster feeling that already-worthless and alien populations of the poor wouldn’t be further damaged by the addition of traumatised victims of war.)

Despite generally toxic and irresponsible UK reporting of events and nationalism in Scotland – or even because of it – a tolerant and experimental spirit is often maintained, running beneath the usual social and political to and fro. This idea of internationalist nationalism has its roots in a cultural renaissance and exploration that has been decades in the making. Stemming from traditions of working class education and solidarity, it is a thing of paintings, novels, songs, plays, anarchy, disaffection, irony, modernity and above all imagination. The promise of a newly independent nation that has yet to be (which would, of course, be very much less than perfect if it ever arrived) is nevertheless providing inspiration and a chance to think outside any of the approved boxes. The dominant UK discourse that praises the armed forces and the royal family, denigrates the poor, the disabled and the foreign – plays complete differently and very poorly in Scotland.

Meanwhile England – with its rich cultural history – is suffering a huge estrangement from itself. The dominant discourse seeks to deny a loss of Empire and impose a loss of memory, a vacuum into which opportunistic hatred can be poured. Many find this utterly abhorrent, but they are surrounded by loud voices, gleefully condemning judges, inciting violence and preparing a pathway to a loss of democracy. (And how quickly we have forgotten that the Brexit campaign involved the political assassination of a pro-European MP as a “traitor”.) How many working in our press actually want to live in a violent dictatorship is unclear. Many may simply be enjoying the manipulation of outrage, doggedly following their owners’ agendas. We are probably being cursed by a combination of fascistic social engineering and simple, dogged stupidity, a monumental lack of historical awareness.

As a Scot who remembers my country in the 1970’s when doubt, despair, unbeing, empty machismo, soccer violence and hatred of the Other was commonplace, I had a sense of deja vu when I moved to England a few years ago. Here a vocal minority is publicly howling to “take back” what it already has and telling the Other to “go home” when those homes may be only meters away. Many seem afraid to explore England as a cultural entity; complex, historically diverse and as beautiful as most. As the English Left slowly realises that Scottish Nationalism is not reactionary, but a kind of “soft liberation struggle”, so the possibility of a benevolent English renaissance might still arise – not better than, not angry, not entitled, not reckless and scared as an over-reaching public school boy. I would like to have cause for hope – and so would hundreds of thousands of beleaguered human beings, living in England and increasingly feeling they may be the Other, or else surrounded by the Other, suddenly the alien on a train.

Story 3

Or – my third story – they may no longer belong in their street, amongst their neighbours – like the Asian Londoner who simply, gently, sadly told me, “Nobody says good morning any more. Why don’t they? Nobody says good morning.”

I want to hope this can be different, can still change for the better. I want us not to fall. Last night I watched Trump and Clinton’s 2nd debate live in the United States, watched one candidate promise to jail another, while conducting a campaign of unparalleled loathing. (And there would, of course, be worse to come.) Today, before I finished writing this in Manhattan, I walked into Central Park. I passed a Proudly-Veteran-Operated hot dog stand, meters away from a man and a woman performing their Asr prayer together, standing and then kneeling undisturbed in shafts of autumn sun, behind them an actress holding a script, pacing and learning her lines, beyond her, lovers lying together, embracing on a rock uncondemned, beyond that faces and bodies of all colours and constitutions and ages going about their joys and toy boats drifting on the lake, the only creatures screaming, two blue jays in a tree. People stopped and stared at them, because they seemed unusual. Any city, any country can have moments like that, when nothing is wrong with our manyness and richness and nothing is felt, or said or ruled to be wrong. Anyone who has anything to do with creating culture, anyone who has anything to do with humanity, who wishes to be part of the human project, can only battle to elongate those moments. And in the dark times we must make sure that we are singing – and singing about much more than the dark times.


This is from a speech given by A.L. Kennedy in Berlin at a meeting of the Akademie Der Kunst in October this year.


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Comments (46)

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  1. Ben Zyl says:

    “A massive majority in the Scottish Parliament” a massive minority perhaps, certainly massive enough to get the job done but isn’t that how proportional representation was meant to work?

  2. George Gunn says:

    A beautiful, wise thing to read. I hope the Germans got it, as it was from the heart. Except one thing: Britain isn’t anyone’s country. Britain is a state created in 1707 and the subsequent union with Ireland. In Britain we are not citizens, we are subjects of the monarch. Alison, Scotland is your country. Come home. She needs you.

  3. tartanfever says:

    (Genocide) ‘It should be the crime of crimes.’

    Shouldn’t the ‘war of aggression’ be the ultimate crime ?

    After all, as argued by many, including Chomsky, it encapsulates all other war crimes. By it’s very nature it works with current UN legislation, that the only paths to war are through self defence upon attack or by a UN mandate and anything else, ie Iraq and the many ‘regime change’ military actions conducted by the US, including Ukraine, are therefore purely and simply a crime against humanity.

    So much so that I believe the highly ineffectual ICC are now considering this very proposal, but of course, it can’t be backdated to include Blair.

    And in the age of ‘false news’ let us also remember Slobodan Milosevic, accused by the Western powers and media of genocide, and just about every other murder in the Balkans during the 1990’s who was ultimately exonerated of those fictitious charges.

    The word genocide serves a purpose for Western powers to demonise those political regimes that won’t bow down to their will. It provokes emotional responses in the populace and inevitable comparisons with the most vile historical figures and leaves any rationality at the front door. Gaddaffi was going to commit genocide in Benghazi is another example, ultimately a lie promoted by Hillary Clinton to get her war in Libya.

    Genocide accusations allows our war obsessed leaders to make claims that our military actions are for ‘humane reasons’ – which is time and again proven to be utter bollocks, more likely than not they are to do with oil or gas pipelines or overthrowing democratically elected governments that happen to have a socialist element. It is a word often mis-appropriated and used for the harshest of military aggression.

  4. florian albert says:

    After the Brexit vote, AL Kennedy and Philippe Sands ‘hug and swear softly – it’s probably too late for us.’

    It is worth remembering what precipitated their melodramatic actions. The people of the UK voted democratically to leave an organization they had joined in 1973. Since older voters mostly voted to leave, it is clear that very many of those who did so, like me, had voted to remain in the 1975 referendum. This is democracy in action.

    A L Kennedy would do well to give some thought to why 17 million people chose to vote to withdraw from the EU.

    The article is replete with virtue signalling, denunciation and a total lack of empathy for those who have a different political view from her own – what she herself calls othering.
    As a case study in how the Left has made itself irrelevant it is could hardly be bettered.

    1. IndiaOsaka says:

      I think it’s a curious move to mock someone hugging a friend who is afraid for their future as ‘melodramatic’, to attack and reduce that person for ‘virtue signalling’ and then — to top it off — for a ‘total lack of empathy’.

      Someone is failing to understand how other people think and behave, and quite honestly, it doesn’t seem to me to be AL Kennedy.

      1. florian albert says:

        My objection to A L Kennedy’s empathy is its selective nature. There is no attempt to empathize with 17 million people – often in the most deprived parts of the UK – who voted ‘Leave.’

        If the endless articles denouncing the right wing press have made no impact on voters, does A L Kennedy believe that one more will do the trick ?

        The populist right is clearly on the rise. The left is – to repeat – close to irrelevant. There is nothing in what A L Kennedy has written which will impact on this.

    2. I love it when people get played back the consequences of their dire decisions and their repellent politics and quack back ‘virtue signalling’.

    3. Richard MacKinnon says:

      Well said florian,
      What A.L. Kennedy does not mention is the democratic process, and the democratic rights of the people to vote: Leave. I am amazed by the hypocrisy of Scottish Yes voters who are now greetin about the UK/EU referendum result. Our referendum was somehow holy and pure where as the recent one was nasty and filled with hate. I still think the only explanation is sour grapes.

      1. Hey Florian, Richard – you’re welcome to your referendum and no doubt it will go ahead.

        We’re also welcome to publish about how and why it’s an unmitigated disaster. It’s objectively an economic fiasco and unarguably a cultural shambles.

        It’s not ‘sour grapes’ to point to the £220 billion extra national debt over the next 5 years. The Chancellor wasn’t talking from ‘sour grapes’ when he abandoned balancing the books by 2020 and announced new borrowing of £122 billion. And there was no spike in hate crime during ‘our’ referendum.

        Our equivalent of Jo Cox was someone bunging an egg at Jim Murphy’s arse.

        1. Richard MacKinnon says:

          Im talking sour grapes as in Scotland voted to remain and England took their chance and voted Leave. This seems to rankle with Yes supporters ( see article above). Not with me, I accepted our ref result right away and I accept this years result as well. Its democracy at work.
          I actually think that the UK/EU result has finished the EU project for good. Nobody will admit to this but if I’m right it has a massive bearing on any second Scottish referendum. I think the SNP hierarchy know this that’s why they will never call one.

          1. Redgauntlet says:

            Richard, did you actually read the article?

            It’s hardly a question of “sour grapes” to bemoan a racist and xenophobic political phenomenon like Brexit, as AL Kennedy does in her article.

            This wasn’t a normal referendum, like the last one on EU membership was back in the 70’s.

            This referendum was called by the English alt-right, backed by their newspapers, and consisted of lies and lies and more lies, and a clear unashamedly racist discourse against immigrants. A woman was gunned down in the street by an alt-right fascist.

            That people like yourself – and Cat Boyd – continue to think this was really about the EU is a worrying sign. The EU was merely the excuse for the English alt-right to seize power and the initiative and make the poor poorer and themselves richer.

            And as AL Kennedy rightly says, when the poor get poorer as a result of Brexit, the immigrants will be blamed by the same people responsible for Brexit in the first place.

            As for your insistence that the EU is about to end. Do you want a bet? Will Bella stand as broker here? I bet you 100 quid that Marie Le Pen will not win the French Presidential Elections. And that is the only way the EU could end, if France or Germany decided to leave.

        2. florian albert says:

          ‘you’re welcome to your referendum’

          It was never my referendum. It was called by a government which had won an election promising to hold one. This was how we got a referendum in 2016. It is also how we got one in 2014. In each case, the government failed to get the voters to endorse their hopes. That’s democracy.

          ‘It’s objectively an economic disaster.’

          It will be a number of years before the economic verdict can be delivered – even tentatively. I voted ‘Leave’ – without enthusiasm – assuming that it was a decision for the long term. I have seen too many economic forecasts come spectacularly unstuck to take much notice of what anybody, leave or remain, is saying today.

          1. K. A. Mylchreest says:

            The key words in your post are IMO ¨without enthusiasm¨. I´m sure many others were also less than enthusiastic one way or the other. Add to that the narrow majority, the flood of misinformation from one side and the other, and the fact that the outcome was not, and could not (and still cannot!) be fully predicted … putting all of that together, I cannot see that a sensible government should feel bound to follow through on any flavour of Brexit that would prove disasterous. And if they did embark on such folly, no sensible Scottish government ought to feel bound to remain within a Union that would have clearly outlived its utility.

      2. Stuart Ingleby says:

        Actually both referenda were won by the side that terrified the gullible most effectively. If only the result of either had been different.

  5. Redgauntlet says:

    Al Kennedy wrote this for a certain audience, and so I don’t think it’s fair to judge this piece as if it were written for Bella Caledonia.

    That said, the mildly hysterical tone, and the highly personal approach taken to make the valid points she makes, do illustrate pretty well the huge divide that exists between the social classes in Britain. AL Kennedy’s words probably sound pretentious and distant and precious to somebody living on the breadline in Scotland. I agree with her basically, but the Left has collapsed in the UK, and what remains of the Left doesn’t speak the language most people speak. We lack a language.

    England is a culturally dead, monoglot, stuck-up, class ridden backwater no sane European would choose to live in these days. But Scotland isn’t that much better. That’s the fact. Almost 40 years of neo-liberalism have ripped the cultural fabric out of the country and if we don’t get out the Union now, we never will.

    Everything is money, everything is materialism. Bookshops barely exist these days, because they are no longer profitable. There are more bookshops – I mean bookshops packed with thousands of beautiful books you’ve never even heard of, bookshops where you can spend hours – in the two or three square kilometers in my neighborhood in Madrid than in the whole of Scotland.

    That’s not an exaggeration. And the reason is that they respect the net book agreement here, and so bookshops are booming, because they’re not undercut by the supermarkets. In Britain, the net book agreement, like so many other virtuous things, was deemed a contamination of the free market. There are cinemas all over the city centre here showing films from all over Europe and the world which, the Filmhouse and the GFT aside, just don’t exist in Scotland. And there are dozens and dozens of theatres.

    Almost everybody here under the age of 40 can speak a second language, sometimes two or three, usually English but not always. Again, almost nobody in Scotland speaks a second language, few people. It is seen as exotic enough to be remarked upon in the papers that Angus Robertson speaks German. And when people do learn a second language, it better be one which is spoken in a major economy. Otherwise, people argue, what is the point? So even learning another language is reduced to money. Our translation culture is tiny, and our national arts body in Scotland does not fund individual translators working into Scots, Scottish English or Gaelic – though it does the other way.

    Some very distant relations of mine have five very successful children, and I met them recently. All of them are highly educated and on their way to becoming doctors and engineers. These people live in England, and they could not understand why anybody would do an arts degree, or even read a book. It emerged that they had a very hazy idea who Adolf Hitler was and what he had done. Needless to say, they all voted to leave the EU.

    The central role of the Humanities in British culture has been killed off and it can be no coincidence, that Brexit happens at the same time as bookshops are dying, foreign languages are no longer learned and education is conceived of as something purely driven by career needs.

    Over the last few months, the Greek poet Cavafy’s words keep running through my mind, in his fabulous “Waiting For the Barbarians”:

    What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?
    The barbarians are due here today.

    Why isn’t anything happening in the senate?
    Why do the senators sit there without legislating?

    Because the barbarians are coming today.
    What laws can the senators make now?
    Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating.

    Why did our emperor get up so early,
    and why is he sitting at the city’s main gate
    on his throne, in state, wearing the crown?

    Because the barbarians are coming today
    and the emperor is waiting to receive their leader.
    He has even prepared a scroll to give him,
    replete with titles, with imposing names.

    Why have our two consuls and praetors come out today
    wearing their embroidered, their scarlet togas?
    Why have they put on bracelets with so many amethysts,
    and rings sparkling with magnificent emeralds?
    Why are they carrying elegant canes
    beautifully worked in silver and gold?

    Because the barbarians are coming today
    and things like that dazzle the barbarians.

    Why don’t our distinguished orators come forward as usual
    to make their speeches, say what they have to say?

    Because the barbarians are coming today
    and they’re bored by rhetoric and public speaking.

    Why this sudden restlessness, this confusion?
    (How serious people’s faces have become.)
    Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
    everyone going home so lost in thought?

    Because night has fallen and the barbarians have not come.
    And some who have just returned from the border say
    there are no barbarians any longer.

    And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
    They were, those people, a kind of solution.


    1. Alastair McIntosh says:

      That’s a very interesting post, one that would have been worth submitting as a Bella article in its own right.

      Passing through Glasgow airport on Monday I was dismayed to find that what had been a decent little bookshop (I forget who ran it) had now been assimilated by WH Smith, and packed with anodyne pulp. All I wanted was a Katie Morag book. All the minimalist staff could tell me was, “What we’ve got is on the shelf” (and the poor woman looked so harassed that I spared her my protest).

      1. Redgauntlet says:

        Cheers Alastair.

        “Madrid alone and solemn, July surprised you with your joy
        of the humble hive ; clear was your street
        clear was your dream.

        A black hippopotamus
        of Generals, a wave
        of rabid cassocks
        broke around your knees
        their swamp like waters, their rivers of phlegm

        With your eyes wounded still from sleep
        with shotgun and stones, Madrid, newly wounded,
        you defended yourself….”

        That’s from Neruda’s “Spain in the Heart”.

        We have our own “black hippopotamus”: Farage, Johnson, May and co have broken their “swamp like waters” around our knees. And we must break free from London rule…

    2. Robin Kinross says:

      Thanks for this. I think you’re exactly right. One could add France to your example of Spain. There is a still flourishing independent bookshop culture, not just in Paris, but in “provincial” cities, such as Bordeaux. The number of French people speaking good English has grown very markedly over the last 10–20 years. And, further, the translation culture in French publishing is strong.

      Fixed prices for books (as in our lost UK Net Book Agreement) is the single most important factor here. The British book trade has been dissolved into an Anglo-American business – a penalty of working in a world language and under a common set of neoliberal (have to use the word) assumptions.

      This is partly the point of an independent Scotland: there would be the possibility of breaking from the UK–US nexus. A Scottish government could nurture the local publishing and book trade. Fixed book prices in Scotland would be just one of the things that it could set differently.

  6. MBC says:

    A beautiful heart felt article which is very sharp and prescient, but the SNP does not have a massive majority in the Scottish parliament and never has. Neither does the modern SNP ‘partly have roots’ in ‘a racist ethnic purity’. I take it this is a reference to Andrew Dewer Gibb’s influence in the 1930s and his anti-Catholic, anti-Irish rhetoric, a poison which was soon spat up as indigestible, though it has taken decades for the taint of it to wear off. But this brief period in a toxic decade was preceded by a Liberal-inclined secular pan-Celticism with long and deep roots since the Celtic revival of the nineteenth century; then was succeeded by today’s civic nationalism. Scotland as an idea has never been about race, but about place. We are Ultima Thule, beyond which there is nothing. Part Norse, part Pict, part Gael, part Welsh, part Anglo-Saxon, the unification of the kingdom was never on an ethnic basis. The authority of the King of Scots was moral not imperial. He was a king of men, in voluntary allegiance, not of territory, whose role on binding men together in common alliance was primarily as a law-giver, and only when need be, a war-leader. England however was a land conquered and made subservient by a brutal military dictator, which gradually imbibed the cruelty and hubris of the Conqueror as its own culture, as it sought to dominate others and eventually the world. Yet underneath that thousand year reich of the Norman yoke, one hopes that another stifled England is trying to articulate and free its long submerged liberal egalitarian soul.

    1. Alastair McIntosh says:

      “Scotland as an idea has never been about race, but about place” – that’s a line to remember.

      1. MBC says:

        Scotland is where you would end up in Europe when you could not go any further except if you cast your fate like St Brendan did, to the wild Atlantic.

        DNA research into the Y chromosome in Scotland is yielding some interesting results. It turns out there is quite a variation in the male descent line, greater than in other European countries. This is possibly explained as the result of shipwreck, over millennia, or of males otherwise being stranded or fleeing from enemies to the south and east and settling in Scotland, or at least, settling long enough to have relations with Scottish women.

        The mitrocondrial DNA passed on from mothers to daughters is however ancient and much, much less diverse. Suggesting that the women of Scotland have been here for a very long time, a matrilocal tendency that is quite different from most parts of Europe and the world generally, because the normal pattern is for wives to move to the husband’s people and territory, not vice versa. Thus in central Europe you would tend to find a diverse mitrocondrial line amongst women, but a more consistent and far less diverse Y chromosome pattern amongst men.

        So in Scotland we have an historical political culture with a matriarchal base, forged by belonging to and defending a place, with a higher than normal proportion of male incomers whose common bond as men is not primarily that of blood, is not primarily ethnic, but is based on place and the perceived need for mutual co-operation and defence.

    2. Frank says:

      I think your knowledge of Scottish history is based on romantic fairy tales rather than on historical fact. The Normans may well have gained England by conquest and laid it under a tyranny but the same Normans were invited into Scotland and gained it by stealth. Robert the Bruce was of Norman descent (3rd generation) and had estates in England, the majority of those who signed the Declaration of Arbroath were of Norman descent and together they laid the same feudal tyranny on Scotland as their brethren did on England. It was the descendant of these same Normans who sold Scotland to England in 1707 and it is basically the same feudal system that those Normans established that we live under today. If you read Scottish history alongside English History you will find that the poor and the unemployed (maisterless men) were probably treated more harshly in Scotland than England. Slavery existed in Scotland until the Westminster parliament ended it in the 1790s.

      1. Alan Stewart says:

        Genetics denial !?!?

  7. MBC says:

    I heard of a student union (in England, btw) that was trying to get the Sun and the Daily Mail banned from the campus. People laughed. But the more I think about it, and reading this piece, that’s what we should all do. Drive hate mail and fake stories out of our public space.

    1. Richard MacKinnon says:

      What is your preferred weapon of choice? I like a good old pitch fork, but are you maybe suggesting something a bit more subtle? like consorship? That should work if we all stick together.

      1. MBC says:

        Yawn. Whatever. As it says on the tin – we have no obligation to promote the hate and lies as spewed at us through the Daily Mail.

        Go online if you want to read their poison.

        1. Richard MacKinnon says:

          Yawn all you want, but talk of censorship is plain silly. It makes you sound dismissive and intolerant of others veiws, which is of course exactly what you are.

          1. MBC says:

            Don’t be naive. The Daily Mail and the Express spew out hate and lies.

    2. Frank says:

      And once we get rid of the Sun and The Daily Mail, what will be next?

      1. Alan Stewart says:


  8. Aladair Maol-Chrìosd says:

    ¨seeks to deny a loss of Empire and impose a loss of memory¨
    A wonderful distillation of the ´English disease´

  9. George Gunn says:

    Our public space, our forum and agora, out theatres – are full of the timid squakings of careeroraptors. Scotland, I fear, is not having the public discussion it needs right now. The National is two years old. And thank god for Bella C. Everything else is in the possession of the barbarians who came in the night and stole our history.

    1. Thanks George, we’re 10 next year.

      1. Redgauntlet says:

        Bella, the like/dislike buttons are overlapping on the text of people’s comments, so that they are illegible. Or is it just me?

        1. Dunno – it looks okay on Mozilla here. Will check. Anybody else having problems?

          1. tartanfever says:

            Fine for me using Chrome.

          2. MBC says:

            Fine on Safari.

  10. Richard MacKinnon says:

    You say “That people like yourself – and Cat Boyd – continue to think this was really about the EU is a worrying sign. The EU was merely the excuse for the English alt-right to seize power and the initiative and make the poor poorer and themselves richer”.
    Here are the facts which are indisputable. Brexit was triggered by the UK/EU referendum result. The question on the ballot paper was (something like) Do you want the UK to Remain part of the EU or Leave? This referendum was a conservative manifesto pledge. They won the GE 2015. They delivered on their manifesto. The majority voted Leave.
    Your thesis about right wing coups, seizing power and the poor getting poorer is just you dreaming up some notion to suit your preconceived prejudices (and I dont mean that to be offensive). It is your take on the situation facing us, and fair enough, every one has an opinion. You may well be proved right, the poor might end up getting poorer, we shall see, but it was mostly the poorer regions of England and Wales that voted to Leave so how can you blame others and make out this is some kind of right wing scheme to grasp power?
    Let me remind you nobody saw this coming, not even Nigel Farage, so please lets stick to the facts and leave out the melodrama.

    1. Robin Kinross says:

      I did see it coming. I live in London, but just had to leave the place and travel west, north, east, south through England – and the evidence was all around: in the predominance of Leave posters and in conversations with people in shops and public places. There were journalists, like John Harris in the Guardian, who registered accurately what was happening in England.

      But every council district in Scotland voted to stay in the EU.

      The June 2016 referendum has been interpreted as a vote for English independence: for England to leave the EU and to regain its identity, which is seen by the English as having been blurred by the immigration from East Europe, and in a much more complicated way – as having been dissolved into the Empire state of Britain. This was what the Leave campaign means by regaining sovereignty. When you ask those who voted that way, they cannot tell you exactly what is this sovereignty that has been lost: they just have a sense of something gone wrong.

    2. Redgauntlet says:

      Richard MacKinnon, I would describe the attempt to use the medieval Royal Prerogative to force Brexit through over the heads of Parliament – which according to English Constitutional law is sovereign – as an attempt at a soft coup by the English alt-right Tory/UKIP Party.

      As for “melodrama”, tell that to the hundreds and indeed thousands of immigrants who have been abused, insulted and assaulted since Brexit, not to mention the family of poor Jo Cox….

      Democracy is not infallible, Hitler came to power through the ballot box… the alt-right Tory party conference was well to the right of the mainstream political spectrum.

      When Theresa Mayhem stood up and said “When you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere”, and when Amber Rudd talked of obliging companies to list foreign workers, then we are in the territory of European fascism….which has a very long history…

      And it should be resisted by every peaceful means possible…fascist Tory scum…

      1. Richard MacKinnon says:

        Im not here to defend Theresa May or Amber Rudd. I dont care whether Article 60 has to be debated in parliament or not. My point to you, is not to over react. This is not a right wing plot to grab power, it is domocracy at work. Of course it is terrible when people are murdered or assulted or racially abused. Nobody is condoning that. But it doesnt help the situation to amplify the rhetoric as in, ” …fascist Tory scum…” Name calling is playground stuff.

  11. SleepingDog says:

    When giving a speech on such themes in Germany, an outsider might take the opportunity to say things that ordinary Germans are discouraged from, by law or taboo.

    Long before the full extent of German National Socialist atrocities were uncovered or even committed, the UK (and allies) were devising a systematic bombing campaign that would reduce the cities of Germany to rubble, culminating in the firestorms that killed as many civilians in a single raid as died in the Blitz. I am reading the English translation (The Fire) of Jörg Friedrich’s Der Brand, which details this in themed sections, including the destruction of culture which was also protested at the time by the Bishop of Chichester:

    As the Allies closed in on Germany from East and West, sadly committing all kinds of war crimes along the way, they stepped up the bombing even as its military usefulness approached zero. Plans were drawn up to punish the Germans to an even greater extent than after World War 1. The evidence of the Holocaust, and the experiences of German occupation of liberated lands, certainly hardened public opinion.

    So what happened to the bombed-out German people from 1945 to 1950, before the Marshall Plan was finally put into practice there? According to James Bacque in Crimes and Mercies, in three groups (prisoners of war, residents and refugees returning to the smaller country after being expelled from outer lands), millions died in the Allied-controlled zones: denied food, the industrial means to create fertiliser, or emigration; at the mercy of troops and freed camp inmates, some dying neglected in camps or shot for infringing harsh rules. Many are supposed to have starved to death or succumbed to exposure or disease in the Hungerwinter of 1946/47.

    I am not sure how reliable his numbers are, but they may be supported by declassified information from Allied archives (the UK is supposed to release more by 2019, I gather, although perhaps the usual foot-dragging, misplacement, redactions and weeding will occur).

    This is not something I heard about growing up, but since the only mention of British war crimes in WW2 I heard about in my formative years came from serving relatives, I guess this would be hushed up. I had to read a novel, Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut, to learn about the fire bombing of Dresden (like I found out about Britain’s Opium Wars through a novel by Michael Moorcock). And even then, Dresden seemed like an exception. Only after a met a German from Pforzheim did I realize that every German city regardless of military value received similar treatment.

    So, did you ask any Germans if they experienced what may be termed genocide at the hands of the Allies?

    1. Alf Baird says:

      The British elites have a very long experience in conveniently forgetting their military past. Only this year a new memorial to Lord Kitchener (of Khartoum!) was raised in Orkney, though nobody seemed keen to highlight his role in the deaths of thousands of women and children and older men that occurred in concentration camps under his command during the Anglo-Boer War, 1900-1902.

  12. Mach1 says:

    Artists are the sentinels of individual freedom. They are most striking but least celebrated when the enemy is at the gate.
    Al Kennedy’s warning of a pre-genocide culture, a political ethos to match the pre-economic suicide culture of an austerity UK set on an extreme laissez faire course, should alarm every free thinker.
    One myth that should be dispelled is that those who voted Brexit are the left behind, the white male underclass. Just like the No vote in 2014, it was the lower middle classes, the aged and fearful who voted against social progress, gulled by lies and fearmongering.
    The cause of Scottish independence within the European community of nations is a consistent progressive vision. Let its opponents, whether Labour or Scottish Tory, hang their heads in shame if they stand idly by and let the Brexit catastrophe envelop us all.

  13. John B Dick says:

    It’s interesting that ALK notices that Scotland is more uniform and different from England.

    I’ve met some people who think Scotland is enough different from r-UK to justify being a separate country.

  14. Ottomanboi says:

    Sadly, not sure what ALK is getting at here. Hope the German audience got the message though. It needs to be pointed out that the man of South Asian heritage referred to in Glasgow was murdered by another of like background from somewhere in England. The Victim was Ismaili, a denomination execrated by some Sunnis and considered not even to be Muslim.
    The Ottoman, specifically Jön or Genç Türkler (Young Turks) considered liberal secularists, slaughter of Armenians was vile however it was not motivated by racism. Armenians were considered a security threat. Imperial Russia carelessly exploited their cause to further its ambition to return Constantinople to Orthodoxy. Armenian uprisings were perceived as Russian agitation. Armenian intellectuals were easy targets for elimination.
    The Ottoman empire, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-confessional, was far from perfect, its leaders wielded the sword of retribution with alacrity, but what replaced it thanks to the old and rather duplicitous colonial fondness for ‘nation building’ promised much but has effectively delivered little except more misery.
    Scotland would do well to learn from history from beyond the bounds of anglo-saxondom.

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