“The Past is unpredictable” (Russian saying).
Bertrand Russell was many, many things: polymath, philosopher, logician, mathematician, historian, writer, social critic, political activist and Nobel laureate. But however impressive a resume that it, there’s something else about him that, in terms of interest, takes him off the charts.
In an idle lockdown moment, I found a video of the great man recorded sometime in the 1950s in which he talks about the childhood conversations he would have with his grandfather, the former Prime Minister Lord Russell. He recalls being told stories about his involvement in the 1832 Great Reform Act and the Irish Famine. And then, almost nonchalantly, he mentions that his grandfather, being sympathetic to the cause, travelled to Europe to meet Napoleon Bonaparte. In 1814. It seems scarcely believable, until you do the maths.
Similarly, a friend in his seventies once told me a story about being at a funeral when he was wee boy, whereupon he met an old man who told him that, when he was small, he met a man who remembered as a child meeting a man who’d been at the funeral of Robert Burns – in Dumfries. In 1796. I’m not kidding.
We tend to mentally compress time when it falls within our own lifetimes, and extend it when thinking about past generations. In 1913, for example, tens of thousands of American Civil War veterans gathered at the battleground of Gettysburg, the shadows of the mid-nineteenth century looming large and long into the twentieth. Indeed, the last of the Civil War widows died during this century. The past is not another country, and it’s a often a hell of a lot closer than we think.
An example of this happened just this week, with the news that the world renowned Princeton University is to retire the name of President Woodrow Wilson from two of its institutions, Wilson College and the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, because of the twenty-eighth American President’s deeply racist views and policies (including segregating the civil service decades after it had been integrated, and fiercely opposing allowing black students to study at the university) which were significant and consequential even when measured by the standards of the time. The man died nearly a century ago, and yet the ongoing debate about statues and commemorations of racists as well as the Black Lives Matter protests have seen him become a major figure in the discussion. “The past is never dead”, wrote William Faulkner, “it isn’t even past”.
And it’s complicated. The reason the story caught my eye, I think, is that Woodrow Wilson has always intrigued me. There were many sides to the man, and he is generally considered to be one of the better holders of the office. He appeared to have no religious bigotry and welcomed Jews and Catholics to Princeton, and of course he famously brokered the Treaty of Versailles. That is not to excuse his deeply racist views, but it does demonstrate that it is quite possible for a person to be many things at the same time.
And, of course, he took America into the Great War despite having been re-elected to office on a specifically anti-war, isolationist ticket, after Germany started sinking American ships in US waters. He recognised that circumstances had changed and that his policies needed to reflect the different world America now found itself in. And he understood that the first priority of any leader, of any country, is the well-being of the people, and that that should inform every decision without exception.
And that, to me, rather succinctly describes the philosophy of First Minister Nicola Sturgeon during the Covid crisis. Despite the wearisome attacks from unionists that she is somehow diverging from a disastrous Westminster approach – and I wish we’d done it from the start – to score some easy political points, it’s obvious that her only concern is the wellbeing of the people of Scotland – and if that means re-introducing the five mile rule in Canonbie or making the wearing of facemasks to shops mandatory, then that’s what she’ll do.
You rather get the strong impression that she’s really scunnered with the line of questioning, not to say genuinely appalled that anyone would doubt her true motives. As she said yesterday, her one objective is “trying to stop this virus getting out of control – that’s all that drives this decision making process right now, and if you find yourself trying to turn any of this into a political or constitutional argument, go and take a long hard look at yourself in a mirror”.
What’s portrayed as politically controversial – an elected government making decisions for the people that voted for and making itself accountable for its decisions – is entirely normal just about anywhere else. The state of Illinois, for example, has legislated the quarantining of people from fifteen different states entering Chicago’s airports. Likewise, Australian states act virtually autonomously to central government, and it’s naturally considered a normal state of affairs. Only in the UK political basket case, where Alister Jack considered even the suggestion of limited quarantine “divisive” is the mundane considered problematic.
It occurs to me that one of the biggest faultlines in Scotland – and Britain – is one of identity. Is Scotland your country? Or is Britain? Yesterday, the increasingly deranged and irrelevant George Galloway tweeted: “I will enter Scotland from England. From one part of my country to another. Don’t dream of trying to stop me!” And it seems every Conservative, from Carlaw to Rees-Mogg to Johnson, are denying that a border between Scotland and England exists. Which must be news to the constituents of David Mundell – many of whom live next to the imaginary border. And it certainly existed in 1999 when they moved the border northwards so that thousands of square miles of water moved to England ahead of devolution. And it certainly existed in 1998, when it was defined politically, legally and geographically in the Scotland Act.
I believe there are a couple of dynamics at play here.
While the border-deniers are ludicrous, the gas-lighting is very real. I always felt that a No vote in 2014 would always be a stick to beat us with and would be taken not as an article of trust but as a betrayal of weakness to be exploited. How can you respect people that don’t respect themselves and vote against themselves in a wilful act of epic self-harm? I wanted to be wrong about this. I’m not.
And, secondly, it’s that Nicola Sturgeon has them terrified. Every time she gives a briefing she is informed, humane, empathetic and humble. The comparison with bone-idle, bored, bumbling Boris is unmissable, and she looks like what she is – a competent and compassionate leader of a nation. The unionist mantra is “use the powers available to you”, but when she does – and during Covid she absolutely has – then they tell her to follow another country’s policies. They cannot have it both ways.
But what’s really annoying them is not that Nicola Sturgeon wants Scotland to be independent: it’s that she acts as though it already is. And while the constitutional issues haven’t had much of an airing during the pandemic – apart from Brexit, which is of course happening in a matter months – an eight point lead in the polls without the oxygen of a campaign means that self-determination will be with us soon.
In the last few days, it was revealed that Scotland cannot borrow anything close to the £20b needed to aid the economy and protect itself from a second pandemic, because those powers are reserved and won’t be getting unreserved anytime soon.
And while we were all talking about Covid, the UK government passed laws to end free movement, passed the deadline to extend the EU transition period, politicised national security and made “build back Britain” exclusively about England.
We can build a better Scotland or we can stay in this most unequal of non-unions. But we cannot do both.
The Past is unpredictable , say the Russians. Scotland’s future however, as a newly independent, prosperous country, looks increasing secure.
Stay safe people. I’ll meet you further on up the road.