By Alec Ross
“Before 1707, Scotland’s political classes could not entirely disregard the mood of the people. During the debates over the fateful treaty, members of the pro-union Court Party had to be smuggled into the Parliament via underground tunnels to protect them from the wrath of the masses. But with the politicians now living in a distant city, there was no trace of public accountability for deciding anything of any significance”
(Alan McCombes & Roz Paterson – “Restless Lands, a radical journey through Scotland’s history”)
“History never repeats itself but it often rhymes” (Mark Twain, attributed)
I had the pleasure last week of having coffee with a lady who is currently re-doing my business artwork. After concluding the business quickly, and having never met before, we discovered a shared interest in politics and history, and I told her about something I’d seen on Twitter a year or so back.
A farmer had posted an article about the benefits of “min-til” (minimum tillage) – the way of growing crops or pasture from year to year without disturbing the soil through tillage. It’s an agricultural technique that increases the amount of water that infiltrates into the soil, the soil’s retention of organic matter and its cycling of nutrients, and it’s naturally been a highly topical subject of discussion in an era when we are more aware than ever about climate change and our relationship with the environment.
But here’s the thing. The article wasn’t lifted from a recent industry magazine or discussion paper. It was a contribution from a farmer from Norfolk in a local journal.
And it was dated 1910.
“The vanity of each generation”, writes the brilliant Andrew o’ Hagan in his essay ‘Scotland Your Scotland’, “is to believe that we are living in the greatest period of history. Each generation imagines it is germinating a brand new world, that the times are glorious, that their period is the most interesting ever to occur, that earthly progress would turn around now for a thousand years and their names would be written on water. The Romans believed it, and their civilisation is now a heap of lovely ruins and a dead language”.
Our relationship with the past has always fascinated me. We tend to mentally compress time when it falls within our own lifetimes, and extend it when we think of events that happened in the age of those who came before us.
In 1913, for example, tens of thousands of Civil War veterans gathered at the battleground of Gettysburg, the shadows of the mid-nineteenth century looming large and long into the twentieth.
It’s also wrong the assume that the curve of progress is constantly upwards. What we’re seeing now – Trump, Brexit, Farage – represents a sizeable bump on the road.
Yet my surprise at the Norfolk farmer’s knowledge confirms the ignorance and a prejudice about those who paved the way for us that O’ Hagan speaks of. Modern farming techniques that predate an age of war in which things we think as modern and hi-tech – like globalisation, communications, package holidays – were already firmly established. The discovery of Skara Brae in 1850 revealed evidence of perfumes, clothing that was for show and not just survival, and games. This was clearly a highly sophisticated society. Maeshowe predates Stonehenge and the pyramids but has features that serve no architectural purpose – they just pleased the guy who designed it. There is nothing new under the sun.
I’ve long subscribed to the seventy year theory; the idea being that the classic biblical lifespan also represents the outer limit of folk memory. In other words, we forget why what we did before we were born was a good idea. Like forming closer alliances with our European friends and neighbours because it meant we wouldn’t starve and would be unlikely to want to shoot each other.
I said this to my designer friend. I was eight years old when Margaret Thatcher came to power. Now, in the week of the departure of another female Prime Minister, it appears we have come to a sorry pass when one feels nostalgic for a woman who wreaked such harm to Scotland’s communities, but I will say this: at least she believed in stuff. I don’t believe anyone could make that claim for Theresa May, unless we include the obvious hatred of immigrants that led to Windrush and the disenfranchisement of millions of EU citizens. This is what she calls “British Values”. We should never rush to make historical judgements in the immediate aftermath of events, but in this case we are entitled to make an exception. I don’t buy the narrative that she was handed a poisoned chalice and did her best under trying circumstances. Instead, she took a difficult situation and make it much, much worse. She was an appalling Prime Minister, probably the worst ever.
Thatcher came to power just over three decades after the Second World War. She and virtually all of her cabinet lived through it. Some of them probably saw active service (and Denis Healey, the Shadow Chancellor, most definitely did). Harold MacMillan was still around – and he’d fought at the Somme. Despite pockets of scepticism, notably from the late Teddy Taylor, they understood the essential truth spoken by the great Irish Humanitarian John Hume. That the European project is the greatest anti-war mechanism ever invented. For all the grumbles, the idea of actually leaving the thing wasn’t close to getting on the agenda.
But it is now. I could be generous and say that, because the current generation of English political leaders were born well after the war, and in some cases after the emergence of Thatcher, they fall outwith the seventy year wave and therefore weren’t to know. But ignorance is no defence so I won’t be. David Cameron gambled the economic prosperity of the UK and a hard won fragile peace in Northern Ireland to shore up his party’s support in a round of local elections that barely anybody can now remember. His successor could, and should, have sold a vision of Brexit – soft, EFTA-like, with free movement secured – that had the support of between twenty and forty percent of the Leave vote and, presumably, most of the remain vote as well. If she’d essentially run with the proposals tabled by the Scottish Government, rather than call an unnecessary general election, losing her majority and ending up bribing the DUP and essentially ripping up both the Barnett Formula and the Sewel convention, I’d be writing an entirely different article. But instead she decided that ending immigration was an end in itself. She tried to neuter UKIP by being UKIP, without realising that it was a beast whose appetite could never be sated. And now it cries betrayal over a Brexit that it itself didn’t even promote. These are the worst of times.
So what does this mean for Scotland?
Actually, if anything, it provides clarity. On Sunday’s Andrew Marr Show, all three of the potential next leaders of the Conservative Party (and, under the insane rules of the United Kingdom, Scotland) ruled out any extension to the 31st October EU departure. As there isn’t actually any time left to bring and pass new Brexit legislation before that date, and given that the EU (quite rightly) considers the matter closed, the reality is that we are leaving without a deal in the hardest way imaginable. Unless you believe that Brussels can’t wait to re-open negotiations with a tussle haired mendacious buffoon who compared the EU to the Third Reich. And who genuinely believes that the best way to fund Scotland is to centralise funding in London.
Increasingly few people in Scotland believe that their country is best served by a narrow political class that, like the leader of British Conservatives in Scotland, sees us as a drain on the state, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Not that it stops her taking a salary paid for by the people whose parliament that she actively votes against, mind you.
I started writing this article on Saturday whilst watching a rather ordinary Scottish Cup Final between Celtic and Hearts. It was clearly an emotional occasion, coming so soon after the passing of Billy McNeill and Stevie Chalmers. But I found myself recalling the words of Fergus McCann, the Canadian / Scots owner of Celtic in the 1990s. “The primary responsibility of any organisation”, he said, “is the continuing wellbeing of that organisation”.
In 1917, President Woodrow Wilson made a speech to Congress in which he made a compelling case for America’s entry into the Great War. This was significant in itself, but doubly so given that he’d been re-elected to the Oval Office by a wide margin only twenty months earlier on a specifically anti-war, isolationist ticket. There is much about Woodrow Wilson that is to be shunned – he was an ardent segregationist, for example – but it is admirable that he noted that circumstances had changed and so must he. By the time he made his speech, the Lusitania had been sunk and Germany had made it clear that no merchant ship servicing the UK or continental Europe would be safe from U-boat attack. Wilson understood what we seem to have forgotten: that politics is a process, not an event, and that leaders have a moral duty to adapt their policies for the greater good when there’s a material change in circumstances, and to recognise that they have a responsibility to adapt accordingly.
Wilson knew that he was making the case for war to a country that had recently expressed its democratic wish to plough a lone furrow in isolation from the bitter conflicts of the Old World their recent ancestors had left behind. He also knew that by calling for America’s intervention he was effectively signing the death warrant of thousands of his fellow citizens. And he knew that he had to put the interests of the country first and ignore the possible damage to his own political reputation. But he also knew that he was right – and both houses agreed with him. In the end, the vote wasn’t even close.
Woodrow Wilson understood that the wellbeing of the nation superseded the narrow interests of his party. By prioritising the interests of party over people, Theresa May is history. And history will not be kind to her.
I genuinely feel a sense of detachment from a country and a party that is tearing itself apart. I engage with the debate about who will be the next Prime Minister of the UK in the same way as I might engage with the election of a new leader of France, or Australia. Fascinating, for sure. But nothing to do with me. One thing seems certain – the next Prime Minister will be governing a United Kingdom that doesn’t include Scotland – or, possibly, Northern Ireland.
The primary responsibility of any organisation is the continuing wellbeing of that organisation. It is therefore the primary duty of Nicola Sturgeon to remove Scotland from this existential threat most appalling of arrangements – this most disunited of kingdoms – immediately. It’s worth remembering that when Theresa says “country”, she means “England”. Her successor will care for Scotland even less. Leaving the UK is now Scotland’s moral imperative. Scotland’s continuing membership of the UK is an existential threat.
I was reading an excellent book this morning and these lines describing the aftermath of the Scottish wars of independence fairly jumped out the page.
“Locked in a cold war with its larger, more powerful neighbour, Scotland reached outwards, to Scandinavia and the Low Countries, and south, beyond England, to France and mainland Europe. Independence was secured by internationalism”
It was a timely reminder, in the week of crucial elections, that just as Scotland’s heritage is proudly independent and European, so must be its future.
Everything is possible with independence. The First Minister has a triple locked mandate to achieve it. And she must use it immediately.
Because it’s later than you think.
Thank you Alec, for another thoughtful piece …
Excellent article, thank you.