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Independence by Alasdair Gray

An Argument for Home Rule.

Canongate, 2014, 130 p.

(This was published in 2014 in the run-up to the Scottish Independence Referendum as a companion piece to Gray’s earlier book Why Scots Should Rule Scotland. I bought it a year or so ago in a second-hand bookshop and took it along on our recent Baltic Cruise.)

 Independence cover

There are many differences between Scotland and the more southerly parts of the British Isles. The geology differs between Scotland and England and land usage is more problematic – one of the factors which led to the Romans withdrawing from what they called Caledonia to behind Hadrian’s Wall. Different attitudes to education (deriving from a desire in mediæval England to keep the lower orders in their place, whereas the Scots valued an educated populace especially after the Reformation in order that the people could read the Bible for themselves) persist to this day. Gray says, “When writer in residence at Glasgow University I was amused when a lecturer in English from Oxford or Cambridge told me, ‘It is amazing that someone of your background knows as much about literature as we do.’ Many Scots friends thought my learning considerable; none thought it strange I had it.” The prospect of a generally poorer standard of living due to agricultural factors led many Scots with a good education to venture abroad.

This book is not an argument that only “indigenous” Scots ought to be allowed to have positions of influence here. Gray is clear about the difference between what he calls settlers who wish to make their lives in Scotland and colonists who will sweep in (and out again) in order to promote their careers. He gives examples. Glasgow European Capital of Culture hired English administrators who did not organise any festivals or exhibitions featuring local or even Scottish authors or artists since they were mostly ignorant of anything good that had been made here. At least two such appointees announced they knew little about Scottish culture but “looked forward to learning about it.” Any such ignorance of English culture on the part of a Scottish administrator wishing to work in England would be laughable – and is difficult to imagine. Nor does Gray ignore the fact that many Scots did very well indeed out of the British Empire.

There is the occasional further barb, “one of those who were then reviled as middle men, and since Thatcher’s time have been praised as entrepeneurs“.

Gray’s argument is well set out but I doubt, in these times, it would convince any who are of an opposite persuasion.

Pedant’s corner:- CO2 (CO2.) “The warlike Irish kings left these monks in to promote their religion in peace” (no “in”; or else, “left these monks in peace to practice their religion,”) Charles’ (Charles’s,) the Scots parliament accepted it and were denounced” (the Scots Parliament accepted it and was denounced,) Burns’ (Burns’s.) “The Jacobite invasion of England by a mainly Highland force, which hoped to succeed with English support, but finding they retreated back to Scotland” (but finding none they retreated.)

Worst Prime Minister

So the tenure of one of the two worst Prime Ministers the UK has ever had is almost over.

(I wasn’t, by the way, convinced by the crack in Mrs May’s voice at the end of her resignation speech. The tone behind it was too like the one she was wont to use in order to indicate resolve and which to me always seemed more like outright refusal to take any notice of alternative viewpoints.)

That the two politicians who hold the (lack of) distinction implied by my first paragraph happened to follow one after the other is merely a reflection of what a state the UK has fallen into.

Not that their position in that top two is secure. As I suggested here, Theresa May’s successor is likely to be even more of a disaster.

O tempora! O mores!

Same Planet?

Not for the first time Ruth Davidson has come to my attention. I have previously noted her resemblance to Benito Mussolini.

It struck me a while ago that she is largely responsible for the present mess that the UK Parliament has got itself into over Brexit. At the last general election – one in which the UK’s future relationship with the EU was the most important issue facing the country – her campaign consisted solely of insisting that the Scottish electorate reject any more unneccesary elections in the form of a second Scottish independence referendum. (The irony that that general election was itself totally unnecessary in that Theresa May had a perfectly workable majority and no need to bother the electorate seems to have been lost on Ms Davidson.)

The upshot, however, was that the number of Scottish Conservative MPs increased from its previous derisory level to 13. Given that Mrs May managed to lose Tory MPs in the rest of the UK this was something of a triumph for Ms Davidson. However its consequence was that rather than Theresa May losing power those 13 Tory MPs gave her an outside shot at a Parliamentary majority, with DUP help.

The outcome we all know. The Westminster Parliament has been unable to come to any agreement on what the future relations between the UK and the EU ought to be and all is chaos. Without those 13 Scottish Tory MPs there may well have been a different Government – under a different Prime Minister – and an orderly withdrawal from the EU might have been cobbled together. British politics would not then be in its present parlous state. And we have what is arguably another “unnecessary” election.

Yet, what lay in my post on my arrival back from holiday? (A holiday I might add in which my visits to Denmark, Germany, Estonia, Finland and Sweden showed a degree of civic engagement with the elections to the European Parliament sadly not in evidence in the UK in previous years to this – and given the lack of posters on lampposts round my area in this year too. A coincidental mayoral election in Rostock might have added to the interest there, though.)

Well there was a Scottish Tory European election leaflet barely mentioning Europe (if at all) but pleading for votes so as to forestall a further Scottish independence referendum. Ms Davidson it seems has only one tune. Her cupboard is bare. If it weren’t for the prospect of another independence referendum what on Earth would she campaign on? She has nothing to say on any other subject.

Since she has seemingly learned nothing and has forgotten nothing perhaps Ms Davidson is a Bourbon rather than a Mussolini.

A Democrat?

What can you say about a Prime Minister of the United Kingdom who derides Parliament? Who blames MPs for her failure to secure her desired legislation?

It is as if she thinks she is a dictator and that what she says must go. The tenor of her speeches – and her facial gestures – is exactly that of someone who does not tolerate dissent. Trying to suggest Parliament is against the “people” is a dangerous course. I have already suggested that May would be a dangerous PM but even I did not expect such an outrageous comment to come from the mouth of a British PM.

She has already shown many times she is unfit for high office – too rigid, too blinkered, among other things – but if anything proves it, that assertion does.

For that is not the system in which she works. Parliament is not there to do the Prime Minister’s bidding. MPs are not delegates bound to do what they are told. They are representatives, there to exercise their own judgement on the legislation put in front of them. Certainly, they are elected on a broad basis to support the policies of the party under which they presented themselves to their electors but not slavishly to troop through the voting lobbies like sheep.

They have a duty to assess whether any projected law is in the country’s interest and to vote accordingly. It follows that only those laws to which Parliament consents can be enacted. If Parliament does not give its consent the proposed law does not pass – no matter the Prime Minister’s wishes.

Theresa May’s statement that, “It’s a matter of personal regret to me,” that Brexit hasn’t been delivered yet irresistibly reminded me of Neville Chamberlain in his speech on the radio in September 1939 announcing that war with Germany had begun. “You can imagine what a bitter blow it is to me that all my long struggle to win peace has failed.”

Theresa May is not a martyr to MPs. She is the victinm of her own folly. Her flagship policy has been defeated in Parliament – twice, by historic margins each time – and yet she still ploughs on banging her head against the brick wall of that same hung Parliament which only came into being because of her hubris in assuming all she had to do was call an election and then bask in the adulation of an adoring public and a landslide victory. Not the first, nor last, of her mistakes. And it left her held hostage to the extreme right wing of her party and to the provisional wing of the Old Testament in the shape of the Democratic Unionist Party.

What has to happen in order for this woman to recognise reality? That
her time as PM has been a disaster, that she has brought about chaos, and harmed the country in the process. And for what? To keep the Tory Party together? It looks like that’s working well.

People in Britain used to make jokes about banana republics. That’s a bit out of date these days.

Except for the fact we don’t grow any we’re now the butt of any such joke. A banana monarchy.

Scotland’s Art Deco Heritage 40 (iii): Greenbank, Helensburgh

Greenbank is a classic Art Deco house in Helensburgh – once West Dunbartonshire but now – after the Tories gerrymandered Scottish council areas in 1976 in an attempt to bolster their representation, not that that’s how it turned out – in Argyll and Bute

Strong horizontals and verticals, rounded canopy and balcony, appears to be Critall windows still. They’ve not been “poked out” anyway. It looks more like cream than white rendering, though, but that’s okay:-

Greenbank, Helensburgh

The colour scheme reminds me of Wolverton in Silver End.

Greenbank, Helensburgh

A side view:-

Side View, Greenbank, Helensburgh

2019

Happy New Year.

Well, I say happy but – apart from my eldest son getting married in February – I can’t see much cause for celebration this new year. Sons are pretty ropy this season (with only the Cup run helping last season to be anything like bearable) and Brexit looks like making life for most people in the UK more arduous then it need have been.

Happy New Year anyway.

End of Empire

One of the lessons of history is that all empires come to an end. The Roman Empire, the Holy Roman Empire (“neither holy nor Roman, nor an empire,” as Voltaire once quipped,) the Mongol Empire of the Golden Horde, the muslim Caliphates, the Spanish Empire, the Portuguese Empire, the Mughal Empire, the Ottoman Empire, the French Empires (Napoleon’s and the later colonial empire,) the Empire of Brazil, the German Empire, the Russian Empire and the later Soviet one, the British Empire – whose last vestige apart from dribs and drabs of territory around the world surfaced in the “Empress of India” proclamation at the funeral of the late Queen Mother – all gone to dust along with so many others.

This Wikipedia list gives only the largest empires.

US President Harry Truman’s Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, once said that Britain had lost an empire and not found a role. I wonder if part of the Brexit vote – not all, just part – was a reaction by older voters to that lack of a role as they can by and large remember when a political map of the world was liberally strewn with pink. I would venture that young people don’t have that feeling.

As for myself I long ago came to the conclusion that empire was a thing the UK was better off without, a delusion of grandeur no longer sustainable. After all, the British Isles constitute a relatively small mass of land off the northwest coast of Europe, not too significant in the grand scheme of things. That the British state should “punch above its weight” in international circles struck me as an increasing anachronism. And why should we be punching anybody anyway?

Membership of the European Union made perfect sense; a close collaboration with neighbours of a broadly similar outlook and goals.

But maybe this was actually a Scottish perspective as there seems to be a streak of belief in the southern parts of these islands – perhaps more prevalent the further south you go – in English exceptionalism coupled with a desire to have as little to do with foreigners as possible. As a newspaper headline supposedly once had it:- “Fog In Channel. Continent Cut Off.”

Scots do have the saying, “Wha’s like us?” (To which the answer is “Gey few and they’re a’ deid.”) But that was always more of a joke, a whistling in the wind, than an assertion of superiority.

That loss of empire (and of the sense that superiority can no longer be assumed) may well have been a factor in the Brexit vote. Clearly, for some in the southern portions of Britain at least, being part of a larger association in which you are neither the top nor the most numerous dog and therefore cannot condescendingly lord it over others (as they historically have done abroad and do still within the UK) is not a role in which they feel comfortable. Some of them still seem to think the UK can be (or even still is) a force on the world stage. Former (is there any other kind?) Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab said sonorously on the Andrew Marr Show on Sunday, “This is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland,” in the context of what he called “bullying” by the EU as if that assertion still carried a degree of clout. (I note Marr made no attempt to disabuse him of his belief in innate worth. The fact that Raab had been made Brexit Secretary in the first place – and Boris Johnson Foreign Secretary – is an indicator of how impoverished the British political system has become in terms of elected representatives.) Sometimes I could wish that they would get over themselves.

Maybe a period of irrelevance as a North Atlantic offshoot of a more powerful trading block – a truer reflection of the UK’s standing – is just what they need in order to wake up to their reduced capacity to influence world affairs (consider: does anyone in Spain still hanker for the empire they once had?) – but perhaps even that would not jolt their certainties. Indeed, it may even inflame their resentments.

It may be that some of that losing a role sentiment, a sense of imminent decline, is an explanation of why US voters turned to T Ronald Dump two years ago. Decline has not come yet but will eventually – all empires fall in the end – but for now the US is still a preeminent superpower (though facing economic challenge from China in particular.) Quite how a real fall from that state will affect a polity which is used to strutting its stuff on the world stage is now being rehearsed in a compelling but worrying way, as a farce presaging a tragedy.

Dare to Call it Treason

There was an interesting article in Friday’s Guardian about the thought processes that led to some people – English people – seeing the EU as a domineering menace. Written by Fintan O’Toole, it was headlined The Paranoid Fantasy Behind Brexit with a subheading saying, “In the dark imaginations of English reactionaries, Britain is always a defeated nation – and the EU is the imaginary invader.” It’s well worth reading.

O’Toole argues the misguided logic of the Brexiteer mindset seems to be that Britain somehow actually lost the Second World War (or both World Wars if you will) as the European countries did much better than us economically after it. Thus it is that Brexiters come to make comparisons of the EU with Hitler as the EU is conjured to be a dark, disguised continuation of a project to subdue the UK, a delusion in which they revel. Invasion fantasies such as Len Deighton’s SS GB and Thomas Harris’s Fatherland (even though that was set in Germany) can also be seen as manifestations of the idea.

The piece reminded me of an article in The New European from January last year which states that the English aren’t team players; they just don’t like having to take other poeple’s views into account. Insouciant dismissals of the imminent Irish border problem on Brexit are only confirmation of that sort of attitude as is the Westminster Government’s lack of acknowledgement of the concerns of the devolved administrations in Wales and Scotland.

The avid Brexiters like to characterise those who have views differing from theirs as traitors and enemies of the people.

They have it arse-backwards.* They are the real traitors, they who are the real personification of treason as their prescriptions and nostrums are neither in the interests nor the well-being of the country. They it is who have cultivated the seeds of dissension, stoked anger and proposed an entirely spurious remedy for the ills which beset the UK; a remedy which will only exacerbate those problems and, far from increasing Britain’s influence and standing in the world, will only lead to their diminution – a process which is now well under way. And their fantasy of a minimally regulated polity would be nothing but a complete disaster for those they claim to be championing.

(*Shouldn’t that phrase actually be arse-forwards? As in arse-about-face. Surely an arse already points backwards?)

The Threat to the British Constitution

Britrain doesn’t have a constitution.

Not a written one anyway.

The unwritten one contains the single provision that Parliament is sovereign.

Yet a former holder of high office in the UK government has pronounced that a “suicide vest” has been placed around it.

The language in which he articulated this – of a piece with a previous outburst about “letterboxes” – is clearly intended to speak to a certain kind of inhabitant of the UK – those who have been primed to believe that the British way of life is under attack by people with “un-British” belief systems.

If that way of life is indeed under attack it is not by people from foreign shores (or even by those from Britain who have been brainwashed by terrorists into believing their faith is persecuted here and worldwide) or with alternative belief systems. There is at present no direct threat to the fabric of Britain, either from foreign powers or from agents of inhumane ideologies inimical to independent thinking.

Possible threats to individual citizens from individual terrorist outrages (but that was also true of the IRA without them being demonised in the way we see of “Muslims” now) or actions tacitly approved by foreign governments, yes; systematic undermining, and takeover, of the institutions of the UK, no. Anyone who says there is is guilty of hyperbole and their motives for making such a claim ought to be questioned.

But if anyone did put a suicide vest around the British constitution it was not the present, but the previous Prime Minister, David Cameron – Mr Irresponsible striking again!

He it was who undermined Parliamentary sovereignty by calling a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU without the certainty of winning it.

That vest was detonated – along with his accomplices – by none other than the same man who makes the “suicide vest” claim against the present PM.

The EU referendum result implicitly placed the populace at large – or at least that minority of it whose votes prevailed – as being more sovereign than Parliament. There is nowhere to go after that.

Parliament – despite the present one being elected since the referendum and so technically, under the (admittedly non-existent) constitution, more sovereign than the referendum result as it is subsequent to it – cannot act in any way that ameliorates the consequences of that result. Too much anger would be stoked thereby – and there’s enough about as it is.

In the seventeenth century the English – and Scots and Irish – fought a war (several wars actually) over principals like this. The least we must demand of actors in the present constitutional crisis – becaue that’s what it is – is that they use language that does not stoke any fires.

America City by Chris Beckett

Corvus, 2017, 365 p.

 America City cover

Twenty-second Century USA. The sea-level has risen, superstorms regularly batter the eastern seaboard, drought ravages the southwest. Resentment from within northern states towards those fleeing the environmental disasters is building. In the wider world polar bears, giraffes, blue whales, rhinoceroses and dolphins are extinct. Right-wing Senator Stephen Slaymaker, a former haulage contractor who pulled himself up by his bootstraps, worries that the country will fall apart under the strain of internal migration. Meanwhile a wall keeps out Mexicans and other possible migrants from the south.

Nevertheless some seem still to be welcome. Holly Peacock is an immigrant from Britain who has left-wing beliefs. She works in affecting public opinion via the whisperstream – a kind of updated internet accessed via devices known as cristals which contain AI personalities called jeenees. Think of her job as nudge politics and fake news taken to altogether different levels. She is attracted by Slaymaker’s desire to accommodate the internal refugees in the north. They meet and Slaymaker convinces her to work with him on his plan to bring about accommodation between the states, some of whom have begun arguing for border controls within the US.

Beckett tells his story mainly via the viewpoints of Holly and her husband Richard but occasionally intersperses their views with those of some of the people displaced by the storms or the drought. The Britain Holly has left seems a particularly dark place but isn’t much fleshed out as Beckett’s focus is on the happenings in the USA. He only alludes to British conditions via references to her family back home.

Air travel in this future is by machines called drigs (I assume a shortening of dirigible) but they seem no slower than jet aircraft. The political parties in the US are supposed to be different from our day – an (unelaborated) event called the Tyranny lies between now and then – but Slaymaker’s Freedom Party might as well be the Republicans and the Unity Party the Democrats. At the start of the novel the incumbent President is a woman from the Unity Party. (Is a woman US President perhaps the most Science-Fictional thing about this?)

Beckett’s scenario speaks to our time as Slaymaker was a climate change denier – he even argued against Williams’s ameliorative efforts to construct machines to remove carbon dioxide from the air as being pointless – and the topic of influencing voters in non-transparent ways acquired even more resonance during the novel’s writing during 2016. However, the time-scale appears a mite elongated. The problems Beckett describes may be upon us in far sooner than one hundred years.

Holly is instrumental in Slaymaker’s successful campaign, it is her idea that swings voters behind him. The unexpected consequences of its ramifications are less to her liking but it still (unlikely in my view) does not prevent her from continuing to work for the new President. Slaymaker is supposed to be charismatic and persuasive but more detachment might have been in order.

I note that Beckett seems to have adopted Connie Willis’s habit of narrative deferment. Here it is not so irritating as with Willis but the gaps before fulfillment of the teases are still too long for my taste. In addition I found most of the characters not to be as rounded as in Beckett’s Eden trilogy. But this is a different sort of book with more of a narrative drive. It might serve as a good introduction to Beckett’s work though and find him new readers.

Pedant’s corner:- the novel is written in USian (but this is a British edition, published in Britain,) “Slaymaker lay down his fork,” (laid, though I suppose most USians use lay for lie,) the president (President,) ditto presidency (Presidency,) “‘every times he gets the chance’” (time,) zeros (zeroes,) “an entire web of consequences are flowing out from it” (a web is,) “a squadron of bombers somewhere were attacking a flooded town” (a squadron was attacking.) “None of these were” (none was,) “a steady stream of these stories were put out” (a steady stream was,) Williams’ (Williams’s,) “feeling that suddenly been blowing toward them” (that’s,) “after been shown” (after being shown,) with men and woman (women,) “a coup[le of time” (times,) Mephistopholis’ (Mephistopholis’s,) “‘I need do stuff’” (to do stuff, ) Holly says ‘different than’ (I know she’s supposed to have been in the States for 20 years but would she really have stopped saying different from? And later, in the text, we have maths, not math,) “with the other forty-eight states in a vast bloc” (land-based states,) care about things about things” (only one “about things” required.)

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