STRENUOUS LIBERTY: From the Province of the Cat
Maybe it takes a blind English Protestant, republican poet from the seventeenth century to succinctly remind the Scots what we should be concentrating on in the febrile years of the 21st centuries second decade. John Milton framed it for his people in his time (and for us?) in his dramatic poem “Samson Agonistes” when he has his hero exclaim,
“But what more oft, in nations grown corrupt,
And by their vices brought to servitude,
Than to love bondage more than liberty –
Bondage with ease than strenuous liberty”
Freeing ourselves from the arrogance of a Tory dominated Westminster constitutional arrangement is indeed going to be “strenuous”, when the regime in that crumbling palace insists that we moaning Scots should just shut up and “love” our “bondage with ease” as we have done, without complaint, in the past. That was the message received loud and clear North of the Border from Theresa May, David Davis and the rest of them as the non-debate last week about Article 50 slid across the floor of the House of Commons like a discarded dead mackerel on the deck of a Shetland trawler in a swell.
As the days pass it becomes ever more apparent that Scotland has no representative purchase or political territory in the UK Parliament. What do the Scottish people gain from sending 59 MP’s to London, when English Votes for English Laws have made them second class members of the club? Now the determination of most English MP’s to “follow the rabbit down the hole”, as Ken Clarke put it, to activate Article 50 and which goes against the democratic wishes of the Scottish people, must surely reduce the relevance of the Scottish politicians there to zero? So, let us recall the SNP’s 56 to Edinburgh and set them to some useful task such as structuring a working constitutional apparatus for an independent Scottish nation. There is much work to be done to undo the “vices which have brought (us) to servitude” as Milton put it.
Scotland’s greatest essayist, Angus Calder, always said that Ken Clarke was his “favourite Tory” because he loved jazz. I objected – and quite reasonably, I thought, at the time – that as a member of Thatcher’s cabinet he was beyond the reach of humanity. Angus would smile wisely and say, “Well, George, at least he loves something.” The rabbit hole Ken Clarke suggested the Tory party is taking us down – democratic lock stock and barrel – will lead the UK out of Europe and into the arms of American corporate capitalism with The Donald as chief deal cutter. In a trade deal, it his terms and his only. That is the way this grandson of a floating brothel keeper in the Yukon does business.
The Tories constantly claim to be the party of “business” but their history since 1979 – Ken Clarke included – shows them to be, when in government, terrible at business. The class and culture they are drawn from cannot plan or look to the long term because they have never been required to. When everything is inherited, what need you of business skills? Thus, we have an off-shore manufacturing dependency instead of production at home, and the inevitable reality of the service economy dreamed up by Thatcher’s midnight managers is a corrupt financialisaton of everything that moves and a banking system in ruins, destroyed by a lack of direction and purpose, riddled from top to bottom by useless greed, regulated by an incarnation of the Three Monkeys.
We are moving into an arena where language itself melts from the white heat of media manipulation and the corrosive intensity of dark money. The word “corporation” suggests “corporeal”, as of the body. “Capitalism” has as it Latin root “capit”, or “head”. American corporate capitalism has no body or head, like a cyber-Hydra, it cannot physically be decapitated and like an actor from ancient Greek tragedy it wears a mask. To “Make America great again” and to “Put America First” is fascism as Americanism and it comes swaggering out of history wrapped up in the Star-Spangled Banner, carrying a cross and brandishing a dollar bill. Donald Trump is the mask they wear.
Now I know that Trump, the man, would have to look fascist, the word, up in a dictionary. It is the process which has brought him to power and the forces which will keep him there that should be addressed, “in nations grown corrupt”. Those of us who live in the cosy corners of the left and who refute that the rise of Trump and big lie of Brexit is fascism, that it is something else, better recalibrate our political lexicon. What we are witnessing is, admittedly, not the bringing together of a bundle of Italian rods – the “fascio” – nor is it the misappropriation of the Hindu world-wheel of myth, – the “svastika” in Sanskrit – by the Nazi’s: but it is the tyrannical ordering of corporatism’s bad faith at the expense and dismantling of the good faith of democracy.
As far back as 1938 President Roosevelt told the US Congress that: “The liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic state itself. That, in its essence, is fascism.”
That, “in its essence”, is what we are seeing. Trump will not give up Trump Inc because he has been encouraged to see White House and Trump Towers as the same thing. What we are also observing, but because of dark money – the dollars that pay for Trump – not “seeing”, is that tyranny is better organised than freedom. Going down the rabbit hole, where language resembles the melted clocks of Salvador Dali – Soft Watch at Moment of First Explosion – means we also come out into the world of “fake news” and “alternative facts”, with one Tory after another standing up, as they did in the Commons last week, to make speech after speech about how the UK-Britain-England (Narnia?) was reclaiming its independence, sovereignty and laws or whatever it was they thought the Daily Mail wanted to hear. The BBC reported this without so much as a giggle. I looked out of my Caithness window and I could have sworn I saw the White Witch of Winter gathering firewood for her seasons extension. It was, after all, the Celtic Festival of Imbolg, or Groundhog Day if you live in Trump Land. The ironic thing about narrative fiction is that no-one will believe it unless it is true. History has no such requirement.
Hannah Arendt, the political theorist of the 20th century and a stern critic of the Nazi’s and of Stalin, whose 1951 book “The Origins of Totalitarianism” is fast becoming a bestseller (I wonder why?), might have had Trump’s adviser Kellyanne Conway and the Scots in mind when she wrote,
“If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer. And a people that no longer can believe anything cannot make up its mind. It is deprived not only of its capacity to act but also of its capacity to think and to judge. And with such a people you can then do what you please.”
That is what the new fascists think. There are ways that the Scottish people can resist it and flex our “strenuous liberty”. So, what could our recalled MP’s, working with the Scottish Government, actually do to create a country fit to live in. One idea would be to manufacture the slogan, “Export energy, import people.”
In 1979 one of the first things Margaret Thatcher’s government did was to dismantle the British National Oil Corporation (BNOC) set up in 1975 by Labour’s then Department of Energy led by Tony Benn. What this could have become, in an alternative universe, would be a version of the Norwegian Statoil with the result that Britain could have had a similar Oil Fund security which Norway currently enjoys. BNOC became Britoil and was bought up by BP in 1988. This lost oil revenue financed, instead of the future, the civil war that was Britain in the 1980’s: literally pissed up against the wall of history by the then Conservative government. It is still not too late for Scotland to salvage something from the wreck.
One idea would be for the Scottish Government to set up a Scottish National Energy Company to directly invest in the North Sea and the oil field West of Shetland and in all the sectors of renewable energy such as hydro, tidal, wave and wind, and at both a micro and macro level. That means investing in projects ranging from oil exploration and in schemes for an individual to set up a renewable energy system to power their home. To do this the country would need its own central bank and a structure of local banks and its own currency. Those of a Green and environmental persuasion might throw their hands up at this suggestion, that the Scottish Government should be a direct and active player in North Sea Oil, but at this stage in the North Sea story it is now or never and it would be a delicious irony to have capitalism, for once, service socialism and the legitimate needs of the Scottish people.
Investment, world-wide, in oil exploration is at an all-time low. That is the reality. The Norwegian analysts Rystad Energy have published figures which show that the total offshore discovered volumes of hydro carbons (oil and gas) in 2016 were 90% down on 2010. From Brazil to Angola, from Russia to Guyana, and even in frugal Norway, the results for wildcat drilling are the same: dismal. The reason is not that the world is running out of oil (although eventually it will), or because of the relatively low price of a barrel of oil: it is because real cash investment in oil exploration has fallen off a cliff due to the nervous nature of international financial markets. Again, environmentalists may think this a good thing. What I think is that most of the damage has been done in the North Sea and all the big oil companies have gone, Shell last week being the latest to sell up. A significant amount of the production platforms are currently under decommission which is one reason the oil majors have withdrawn. The Tory government has assured them that the taxpayer will pick up this particular multibillion-pound tab.
Yet there is still wealth a-plenty in the North Sea and West of Shetland and if the Scottish Government, or indeed the more enlightened heads in the Parliament, want a secure economic footing for a stable and independent future for Scotland then they must be bold now and act as though we are already an independent country. Similar bold and interventionist moves could be made on behalf of other vital industries such as shipbuilding, farming and fishing, because they are all linked. Forget the caveat that these powers are “reserved”. The game has changed and it is the Tories themselves who have changed it. We must organise ourselves so that our riches in energy can be made to work, so that we can export it and create wealth. On the other side of that Scotland, and the Highlands and Islands especially, need people. Let us declare that Scotland is a safe haven for refuges and actively import people. It is an active working population that generates an economy and creates wealth. A sensible government will redistribute that wealth to ensure the welfare of its citizens and the health of the economy.
This is not the time for pleasant proceeduralism or for those who cannot aspire to anything other than a post-graduate student politics: this is the time to say that Scotland is a rich country and can be even wealthier but we must secure that wealth on behalf of the Scottish people from the spivs and wide boys in the City of London who have been given a free hand by Westminster to bleed us dry. The history of North Sea oil is an example of this. There will be no special status for Scotland after Article 50 but the London Government will ensure there is for the financial market which is the City of London. They will protect the casinos, Brexit or no Brexit.
Is all of this a pipe dream? Am I the only one arguing, badly, for direct action now? After all, I am the modern Scottish literary equivalent of Ovid exiled to the Black Sea. In the 1980’s it wasn’t the way with Scottish writers. Without the urgings of the poets, playwrights, novelists and such brilliant advocates for independence as Angus Calder the move to devolution and to where we are now would, I think, have been much slower.
With a handful of exceptions where are the writers who are reflecting the new reality of Scotland, where democracy has lost its liberty, where it is effectively dead and political contempt in London towards Scotland is rife, and The Donald is in the White House? Where are the new advocates? They are hiding in universities, chasing prizes (I confess I am as guilty, by necessity, of this as any other writer) and wallowing in a self-congratulatory fug of critical acclaim that has been made possible for them to enjoy by the talent and sacrifice of a previous generation of Scottish writers’ who actually believed in something. They did this knowing, in the main, that theirs was to be a creative life of struggle, poverty, exile and obscurity. A pushy agent, a London publisher and an eye on the glittering prizes means you can learn nothing and believe in less.
We are sinking in full sight into a period of hellish right wing reaction, where juntas, cliques, cabals and oligarchs are trampling hard won human rights and workers conditions into the dirt and where the natural environment is being treated as an industrial toilet. This is a time when wealth is stolen and hoarded by a small number of appropriators. Their message to the majority is simple: those who have neither the desire to act likewise or the resources to compete can go to the dogs. About all of this, as far as I can see, the new voices of Scottish literature have little to say. Let me proved wrong, but poverty, it would appear, is not a popular genre, unless it is in the form of voyeurism. Likewise, the rise of corporate fascism is too dark a subject to hang a kilt on, so that narrative will never make a couthie six-part drama for BBC Scotland, who seem to “love bondage more than liberty”, as Milton would have it.
“To be truly radical is to make hope possible, rather than despair convincing”, was Raymond Williams slogan. “Export energy, import people” may be a poor thing in comparison but at least it is positive, at least it proves that it is possible, as Angus Calder urged, to “love something”.
©George Gunn 20017
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