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As all that is solid melts to air and everything holy is profaned...

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

All crimes are paid

Another Scotland is Necessary. There’s No Future in Ukip’s Dreaming.

‘There is a storm coming that shall try your foundation. Scotland must be rid of Scotland before the delivery come.’ James Renwick’s last words before his execution 18 February 1688. 

God save the queen her fascist regime
It made you a moron a potential h bomb [Sex Pistols, 1977]

Fifty years ago, while staying with my English grandparents in Nairn, I was taken to visit the moor where the battle of Culloden was fought in 1746. I was shown the spot where my ancestors stood before the battle and told the tale of how Donald Livingstone saved the Standard of the Stewarts of Appin from the clutches of the Redcoats. A few years later, after my grandparents had retired to Galloway, they took me to Glentrool to visit the site of another battle, one fought by Robert the Bruce in 1307. There is an inscription on a granite boulder at Glentrool, erected in June 1929,  which reads-

‘In loyal remembrance of Robert the Bruce, King of Scots, whose victory in this glen over an English force in March 1307, opened the campaign of independence which he brought to a decisive close at Bannockburn on 24 June 1314’. 

These battlefield visits left a deep impression. During the 1970 general election campaign I supported the SNP at primary school and even managed to have a fight with a Tory supporting friend. In the two elections of 1974 I helped the campaign of my French teacher who was the SNP candidate in Galloway and who won in October that year. He lost in 1979, by which time I was living in London. I was still there in 1997 when the SNP won Galloway back from the Tories.  I moved back to Galloway later that year and became (briefly) Convenor of my local SNP branch.   

In  May 2007 I was in Dumfries for the Scottish Parliament election count. As the results trickled in via the error prone electronic counting system I remember saying to Michael  Russell (SNP candidate for Dumfriesshire) that it was like watching history happen in slow motion. Fast forward  to 18 September 2014 and history will happen again.

God save the queen she ain't no human being
There is no future in england's dreaming

Except…back in the 1960s I didn’t know that despite the Bruce Stone in Glentrool, forty years after Bannockburn, Edward Balliol had not yet given up his claim to be King of Scots and could still count on the loyalty of Galloway’s Gaelic clans against his rival, Robert Bruce’s son King David II. And, rather than fighting for Bonnie Prince Charlie, my Livingston ancestors were Calvinist Presbyterians who fiercely opposed the Stuarts and their belief in the ‘divine right of kings’. 

Which is where things get complicated. The big problem is that the version of Scottish history passed on to me by my English grandparents is shared by both Scottish and Unionist (British) nationalists. In both versions, the fourteenth century Wars of Independence  secured the existence of a  Scottish nation. In the Unionist nationalist version,  this allowed the Scots (in contrast to the Welsh and Irish) to freely enter the Union of 1707 as equal partners. This Union of equals allowed the Scots to play their part in making Britain the first world super-power, as a global (and uniquely civilised) Empire and as the industrial workshop of the world.  

Don't be told what you want don't be told what you need
There's no future no future no future for you

And, as the post-Union Jacobites discovered, resistance was futile -“We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own. Your culture will adapt to serve us.” [The Borg, Star Trek] In a series of neat manoeuvres, the initially feared kilt-wearing, bagpipe-playing and claymore-waving Jacobite Highlanders became the much celebrated (and expendable) shock-troops of Empire. The process of assimilation was completed by Unionist nationalist Sir Walter Scott through his novels and the dressing of  Hanoverian king George IV in tartan for his visit to Scotland in 1822. This tartanisation of royalty continued  via queen Victoria and Balmoral and is still present.
Gerorge IV in a kilt

While the tragic and romantic aspects of Jacobite myth-as-history (or history-as-myth) were assimilated into Unionist nationalist narratives, the Jacobite interpretation of Scottish history has also been assimilated into Scottish nationalism. In particular, what began as Jacobite anti-Union propaganda has become accepted as ’fact’ - that the Scottish politicians who voted through the Articles of Union in 1706 had been ’bought and sold for English gold’ as Robert Burns  so memorably put it. In this version of history, the Union was a betrayal  ( a ‘stab in the back’) of an ancient and independent nation by a corrupt regime of traitorous Scots. 

God save the queen cos tourists are money
And our figurehead is not what she seems
Oh God save history God save your mad parade
Oh lord God have mercy all crimes are paid

In the full blown version  the Scots brought this  fate upon themselves by rejecting the divinely appointed Stuart kings. As a consequence [in echoes of the Wicker Man and pagan myth] the fertility and prosperity of the land was lost. The resulting famines of the 1690s [which strongly affected the Jacobite heartlands of north-east Scotland] were called ‘King William‘s Ill Years’. Combined with the failure of the Darien Scheme, also blamed on king William, the impoverished and confounded Scots were bamboozled into entering a fatal Union rather than choosing to restore their rightful and divinely ordained king- James VIII.

The Stuart myth and the Scottish identity are closely linked  through the loss of Scottish independence and its relationship to the loss of the Stuart dynasty. Mythology can be a kind of history favoured by the dispossessed; and it helps to read influence of the Stuart myth in such a light. Lack of independence goes along with a lack of independent means of securing one’s own history. In such circumstances, in the eighteenth century and afterwards, the mythology and ideology of the Stuart cause became a kind of protest history, a self-expression of identity on behalf of those whose identity was under threat. In this underground history, many of the ideas still current today concerning Scotland’s place in the Union came into being. [Murray Pittock ‘The Invention of Scotland’, 1991, p.5]

In contrast to the Stuart/Jacobite complex of myths, the once significant rival myth of Scotland as a nation with a special relationship (Covenant) with God has faded away. There are three reasons for this. Firstly,  religious belief has declined, especially the austere and unsentimental Calvinist version held by Scots Presbyterians. Secondly, while regionally powerful in Ayrshire, Lanarkshire, Galloway and Dumfriesshire, many, probably the majority, of Scots did not sign up to the Covenanted nation  belief. Thirdly, the religious notion of ‘equality before God’  threatened not only the divine right of kings to rule, but also to unleash a dangerous democratising  movement. This was seen most clearly in England where the Cromwellian revolution had to suppress the Levellers and Diggers.

In Scotland, the political movement of the Covenanters was towards reluctant republicanism (better no king than an uncovenanted king) and frustration at the apparent willingness of the fellow Scots to tolerate Stuart rule. This is the background to James Renwick’s statement from the scaffold -‘There is a storm coming that shall try your foundation. Scotland must be rid of Scotland before the delivery come.’ 

The storm which came was the wind which blew William of Orange’s invasion fleet across the English Channel. But although one uncovenanted king was replaced by another, a change of regimes is neither glorious nor revolutionary. The lack of any structural change, the failure to ‘rid Scotland of Scotland’ left the possibility of a second Stuart restoration wide open. [This fear of an oscillation between rival regimes had a parallel in the oscillation between John Balliol, Robert Bruce, Edward Balliol and David Bruce centuries earlier.]

When there's no future how can there be sin
We're the flowers in the dustbin
We're the poison in your human machine
We're the future your future

The fear of a Stuart return was the key driver of the Union of 1707. The Scots who had gained power via William of Orange’s invasion of England knew they would face fines, forfeiture and death if  James VIII and III became king. The English feared that the French would exploit the Scots’ Jacobite sympathies to repeat William of Normandy’s invasion - drawing English forces north to check a Jacobite advance from  Scotland, thus allowing a French invasion force to gain a foothold on the south coast. [A situation which almost occurred in 1745.]

The Union of 1707 did not prevent  the Jacobite uprising of 1708, 1715, 1718 and 1745/6, but it did allow them to be contained and defeated. Since it was designed to check the Jacobite threat rather than incorporate Scotland into England (and Wales), significant Scottish institutions were conserved- the Protestant (but uncovenanted) church of Scotland, Scots law, local government and  the Scottish  universities. These vestiges of a Scottish nation-state provide an illusion of continuity for Scottish nationalists and a smokescreen behind which Unionist nationalists could claim that the events of 1707 marked an enduring  ‘Union of Equals’.

Only now, 306 years after the fact, has the truth been revealed. Revealed not by the advocates of Independence but by the defenders of the Union. In order to save Scotland, they have been forced to destroy it. In February 2013, the UK of GB and NI government released a Report on the international legal implications of Scottish independence. The authors of the Report advised that [page 75, para.37]

Whether or not England was also extinguished by the union, Scotland certainly was extinguished as a matter of international law, by merger either into an enlarged and renamed England or into an entirely new state.

There was no ‘Union of Equals’, Scotland  was absorbed into a renamed  England and thus extinguished as an actually existing entity. It was swiftly realised that such clarity was damaging to the No campaign, so a degree of backtracking ensued. However, the reality is that the No campaign have nothing but the negation of ‘Scotland’ to offer.  If there really was a Scottish nation existing as an equal partner in the Union, such negativity would be damaging and destructive.

God save the queen we mean it man
There is no future in england's dreaming
No future for you no future for me
No future no future for you

But if, as Marxist historian Neil Davidson has argued the Scotland which seeks independence is the product of the Union of 1707, the Scotland which the No campaign are negating is (as argued above) a mythical Scotland, then the result is the Hegelian ‘ negation of a negation’, the necessary destruction of an illusion. Or as Karl Marx might have put it -

All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and Scotland is at last compelled to face with sober senses its real conditions of life, and its relations with the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

God save the queen cos tourists are money
And our figurehead is not what she seems
Oh God save history God save your mad parade
Oh lord God have mercy all crimes are paid

The No campaign have stripped away the tartan shroud which covered auld Scotia’s dust dry bones, but that same shroud is entangled with the Union flag. The same movement lays bare the machineries of power,  the tubes and wires which worm from Westminster to animate and synchronise the jerky, disjointed movements of ‘Scottish’ Labour, ‘Scottish’ Conservatives and ‘Scottish’ Liberal-Democrats. Animated by the prime directive - to ensure the survival at all costs of the ancien régime- the outlines of the real struggle begin to emerge.

Before continuing, I will try for a summary of the story so far. The Scotland which entered the Union in 1707 was not a modern state. Most Scots worked on the land, living in scattered fermtouns and practising a still medieval style of farming. This way of life only began to change 60 years after the Union when first the Lowland and then the Highland Clearances created the modern landscapes of rural Scotland. The Scottish Enlightenment, with its emphasis on ‘progress through reason’, helped drive this transformation forward. These changes were followed by rapid industrialisation and waves of mass migration to the industrial areas of Scotland and to north America, Australia and New Zealand, as well as England. 

The background to creation of this new Scotland was the rise of Britain as an imperial and industrial power. Scots as soldiers, engineers, merchants, entrepreneurs and settlers played an active and essential part in the rise of Britain as a world power. The successful modernisation of Scotland from the 1760s onwards was in marked contrast to the situation in Ireland where the Union of 1800 failed. The result was a growth of nationalism in Ireland which was not matched by a similar rise in Scotland. Only once the decline of Britain as a ‘Great Power’ became increasingly obvious after the First World War did a Scottish nationalism begin to emerge. 

However, unlike Ireland, Scotland had become an industrialised country. Labour politicians became convinced that only through access to the resources of the British state could a solution to industrial decline in Scotland be found. This view was also shared by Conservative politicians until the election of Margaret Thatcher’s government in 1979. In the neo-liberal ideology of the Thatcher government, any attempt by the state to support ‘failing’ industries was anathema. The Thatcher government was also determined to destroy organised labour and accepted mass unemployment as a necessary consequence. 

Conservative rule lasted for 18 years, by which time, despairing of ever winning an election, the Labour party did a deal with the devil and re-invented itself as ‘New (as in Not) Labour’. This New Party (shades of Oswald Mosley) kindly allowed the Scots to have a ‘Parliament’ but only if it had little real power and was in safe Labour hands. 

Unfortunately the daft Scots then went and elected an SNP government which then broke all the rules by insisting that they had to stick to their manifesto pledge to hold a referendum on independence. More than just break the rules, such a vote might even change the rules. As the anarchist cliché has it ‘If voting could change the system, it would be illegal’. 

A mature democracy, secure in itself and in its legitimacy, would be able to take even such a big step as the independence referendum in its stride. An insecure state, nervous of democracy and uncertain of its legitimacy - for example through lack of a written constitution- is likely to view such a referendum as a dangerous threat to its continued  existence.  Rather than engaging in a rational and respectful manner to the challenge posed by carefully arguing the benefits of the status quo, it will lash out irrationally. It may even attack itself, undermining its own historic claim to legitimacy by denying the very existence of one of its constituent parts. 

During the Tet offensive in February 1968, the town of Ben Tre in south Vietnam was at risk of falling under Vietcong control. Talking to journalist Peter Arnett, a US army officer explained ‘It became necessary to destroy the town to save it’.

We are engaged not in a struggle for national liberation, but a struggle to complete a revolution which will finally establish a democratic state in the former United  Kingdom.  What the ancien régime fears is not the emergence of a separate Scotland, but the resurgence of revolutionary democracy.  Bold words, but what might they mean? 

Something of the meaning is captured in the title of a book by Keith Robbins ‘The Eclipse of a Great Power -Modern Britain 1870-1978’ published in 1983. The cover is a 1954 painting of a peaceful square of Victorian  terraced houses near St. Pancras station in London. From the early 1970s it was the scene of 17 year fight by residents to save the area from demolition. For a few years a dynamic community of squatters occupied some of the abandoned buildings. The squatters were part of a counter-culture which in its more radical and political aspects crossed over into a movement for worker control of industry [inspired by the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders actions in 1971] and early attempts to build an ecologically sustainable economy  and society.  

When there's no future how can there be sin
We're the flowers in the dustbin
We're the poison in your human machine
We're the future your future

So successful has the subsequent re-writing of history been that it is all but impossible to grasp any sense of the actually existing potentials of that era. ‘Trade Unions holding the country to ransom’, ’the dead left unburied’ and similar stories have prevailed. The reality was a rightward lurch and the calculated destruction of any and all sources of opposition to the ancien régime. Rather than ‘Anarchy in the UK’, something closer to the Sex Pistol’s ‘fascist regime’ attempted to make Britain a Great Power again. But, as Marx once noted  ‘Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.’

The first appearance of the attempt to restore ‘Britain as a Great Power’ ended in tragedy as the Conservative’s monetarist economic policies destroyed the surviving remnants of industries which had once been ‘the workshop of the world’. For the second appearance, England’s dreaming has given us the great world-historic figure of Nigel Farage… I think the Sex Pistol’s got there first.

There is no future in england's dreaming
No future for you no future for me
No future no future for you

Sometimes the political is personal. I’m not thinking of Scotland any more. People living in Scotland will have their chance to negate the negation and say Yes to a future. No, now I am thinking of England, the England where I lived for 20 years. So many places I have known, from Hackney’s grimy streets to the wheat fields of Wiltshire, from the factories I worked in to the sprawling chaos of a free festival. So many people, passionate, caring, angry, wonderful people. The friendships forged in those years have endured  and so has the shared commitment to a future beyond ‘no future’. Another England is possible. 

Sometimes the personal is political. I’m listening to an album released 30 years ago. It is called ‘Let the Tribe Increase’ by the Mob who were (still are?) anarcho-hippy punks from Somerset. I first met them in 1982 when they were living in a row of squatted terraced houses in Hackney.  The Mob split up in 1983 but reformed in 2011. Last year the Mob revived their ‘All the Madmen’ record label. It was Mark Wilson of the Mob’s daughter Tess who encouraged this move and she asked me to write something for the ATM website. This, with some help from my children, is what I wrote.

Sometimes its good to be wrong. In 1980 a group called the Mob released a single called ‘Witch-hunt’. A powerful piece of punk, it reflects and captures the sense of anger and despair felt by their generation as the new decade dawned. A line from the song sums up the situation as the newly elected governments of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan began  ‘Stubbing out progress where the seeds are sown’…
In 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis had shocked a generation into action. The prospect of death by thermo-nuclear war concentrated minds and inspired a life-affirming counter-culture. The renewed threat of nuclear war revived the idealism of the counter-culture. So, despite its ‘never trust a hippie’ rhetoric, as blazing fragments of the punk explosion scattered across the land, there was a fusion with aspects of the existing counter-culture. In particular the ‘Do it yourself’ aspect of punk was able to grow through a fertile relationship with -for example- Joly McFie of Better Badges, Geoff Travis of Rough Trade and Pete Stennett of Small Wonder who were veterans of the sixties counter-culture.
The Mob, along with hundreds of other punk bands released their music on their own independent record label. Alongside the independent record labels there were hundreds of punk fanzines. While most histories of punk focus on the few bands who crossed-over into the mainstream, there is also hidden  history of punk as a creative explosion through which thousands of young people made their voices heard.
Punk did not end when the Sex Pistols split up in 1978. It carried on into the 1980s, given a new edge by the impact of Thatcher’s government on a generation of young people. It really felt that we had ‘No Future’…Radicalised by harsh reality, punks realised that they had to work together and co-operate just to survive. A practical example of this was the creation of punk housing co-ops like the Islington based Black Sheep Co-op which the Mob and other punk bands helped to finance through benefit gigs. The Mob also worked to renovate houses for the co-op which (along with Andy Palmer of Crass and members of other punk bands) they later lived in. All the Madmen was based in a Black Sheep Co-op house for two years before relocating to another housing co-op (originally a squat) house at Brougham Road in Hackney.
Even if most histories of punk forget this hidden history, those involved have not. Against the competitive individualism which has become the norm over the past 30 years, we have held fast to the values of co-operation and mutual aid. But holding fast to a memory of what once was is not enough. Now another generation of young people are faced with a government which offers them ‘no future’.
The revival of All the Madmen as a collective on its own cannot undo the damage done by 30 years of neo-liberalism, but what it can do is offer this generation of young people inspiration in place of despair. The teenagers who created All the Madmen refused to accept that they had no future. Instead they chose to create their own future. And so the seeds of progress were not stubbed out but survived to flower again. 

And that, dear reader, is why I will be voting YES  on 18 September 2014.


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