“The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims, have been born of ernest struggle….. Power concedes nothing without demand. It never did and it never will”. Frederick Douglass, 1857.
In a recent edition of the excellent “The Big Light” podcast, co-presenter Eamonn O’ Neill related an anecdote of being in the hallway of number ten Downing Street with many other journalists. This was in the spring of 1998, and the occasion was a meeting between Prime Minister Tony Blair and other prominent figures as they thrashed out the details of what would become the Belfast, or Good Friday, Agreement that would see an imperfect but, so far, lasting peace in an Ireland that had been devastated by three decades of sectarian violence.
Central to the success of the treaty was persuading those on all sides that a breakthrough required thinking what had been until quite recently unthinkable – holding negotiation talks with the IRA and getting them to agree to a be principles of democratic process and the continuation of the ceasefire. Incredibly, that was now a central part of the process, hence the historic sight, witnessed by the assembled journalists, of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness walking into the highest office in British politics. Blair was often mocked for his soundbite about “feeling the hand of history on my shoulders”, but actually, this time, he was bang on the money. The negotiators could see the finishing line and a stunning result was the prize. Peace had never felt closer. Whatever your opinion, you’d have to have had a heart of stone not to be moved by what you’d just seen.
And then it happened.
As Adams and McGuinness headed for the meeting room, there was a stage whisper from a journalist. A familiar, very posh drawl.
“What a ghastly business this is”, said a youngish, tousle-haired hack. And the name on the press accreditation card on his lapel?
His father, of course, once said that the best way to deal with The Troubles was to let the Irish shoot each other. Sometimes the apple doesn’t fall from the tree, and everything that we’ve witnessed from Johnson since then – a spike in hate crimes after comparing Muslim women to letterboxes, failing to condemn a fellow MP for blaming ethnic minorities for being reckless about Covid, calling gay men “bum-boys” and black people “laughing piccanines with watermelon smiles”, telling the Hillsborough families to get over it – is all the evidence you need that far from undergoing a Damascene conversion he is every bit as entrenched and reactionary as ever. He’s in his mid-fifties and despite his appalling handling of a global pandemic he has an eighty seat majority and won’t be going anywhere soon. And neither will his deeply entrenched and abhorrent reactionary political worldview.
And it isn’t just him. It wasn’t that long ago that Michael Gove authored a paper attacking the Good Friday Agreement, likening it to the appeasement of the Nazis and describing the peace process as a “moral stain,” a “humiliation,” and a “capitulation to the IRA”.
I’ve long subscribed to the theory that things go in seventy year – the three score and ten biblical lifespan – cycles. Big financial crises do follow that pattern, and I often think that seventy years is the outer limit of collective folk memory and we forget why we did big and progressive things for all our enrichment only a lifetime before. In today’s context, it would explain why we have moved from the enlightenment of closer European integration to the darkness of a no-deal Brexit; and it would provide context to the shift from a free NHS to one being traded away to secure a zero-leverage deal with Trump’s dystopian America. These are the bad times.
All of which and more passed through my mind this week when I learned of the passing of the great Irish humanitarian and Nobel Peace Prize winner (he was the man who got Adams and McGuinness to the table and accelerated the journey to peace), John Hume, in his native Derry at the age of eighty three. He led the SDLP for twenty-two years and was central to delivering peace in his native land. Tony Blair described him as “a visionary who refused to believe that the future had to be the same as the past”, but my own favourite quote from him is the one when he described the post-war European project as “the greatest anti-war mechanism ever invented by mankind”. His dementia meant that he would not have been aware of what had happened to that project, and maybe there is a small blessing in that. He leaves behind a different, more troubled world, and the passing of a political giant should make us weep at the Lilliputian snake oil salesmen he leaves behind.
And here lies Scotland’s problem. These are the deeply reactionary constitutional vandals and neoliberal groupthink that we will have to overcome if we’re to protect ourselves from the certain damage of, for example, Westminster legislation on the UK internal market. And these aren’t people who respond to being asked nicely.
Never mind a seventy year cycle. In the space of just over two short decades, devolution is being reversed, Scotland’s powers are being neutered and our democracy itself faces an existential threat. What we are witnessing, with the publishing of the internal market White Paper, is a brazen attempt to re-assert Westminster supremacy over that of Scotland Wales and Northern Ireland. For all his blether about equal families in a precious union, we can take it as read that Boris Johnson sees devolution – like the Belfast Agreement – as a “ghastly business”.
What it means is that the UK government will set up an unelected body to oversee all future trade negotiations to ensure that the entire UK is open and available for a US trade deal. That means that we must have mutually recognisable standards. In reality, it means that if London says it’s ok, then we just have to suck it up – even if that means having to accept hormone treated beef, chlorinated chicken, pork stuffed with highly dangerously asthma drugs and GM foods that Scotland doesn’t want. Even if that means less clear labelling. Even if it means that we longer have minimum pricing of alcohol and free tuition fees – which means that standing, as well as proposed, legislation is up for grabs.
In short, they will demand an effective veto over Scotland’s parliament regardless of whether the matter in hand is reserved or devolved. The original concept of devolution was that a power was Scotland’s to exercise unless it was explicitly reserved. Indeed, there existed a convention – Sewell – that stated that if legislation by Westminster in reserved areas affected Scotland then Holyrood had to give – or withhold – its consent. What is being proposed is the ending of that agreement on the premise of a Brexit rejected by Scotland, and a parliament subject to a veto by another country’s parliament is in truth not a parliament at all. In truth, it is barely a country at all.
So I’ll leave you with this.
Firstly, Scotland requires the borrowing powers enjoyed by normal countries to work its way out of the Covid damage and to mitigate against a second pandemic which many learned people believe is inevitable, and yet under the devolution straitjacket we can only borrow a fraction of that.
Secondly, Scottish Independence is becoming the settled will of the people who live here and in any normal universe we’d have the wherewithal to call a plebiscite to formalise the wishes of the electorate.
Thirdly, the idea that the most ideologically entrenched, neoliberal, reactionary British Establishment will grant the power to do these things even if support for independence rises (it will) and the SNP wins by a street again (ditto) is for the birds. We need to make May 2021 (or hopefully and necessarily before) a de facto indyref two. We can’t achieve independence without a parliament to deliver it, and the future of that parliament has never been so precarious. Let’s get it done.
And, finally, the passing this week of a great Irish humanitarian reminds us of the high levels of hard work, intelligence, diplomacy and sheer bloody mindedness we’ll need to deliver us the Scotland that our children deserve, and that I’d like to live the rest of my life in.
I don’t often give credit to Tony Blair. But, man, that thing about John Hume refusing to believe the future had to be the same as the past? It had me in tears.
That’s as great a legacy as any human being could leave behind.
Let’s make it ours, too.
Stay safe good people. I’ll meet you further on up the road.
PS – I’m in Orkney this week. If you fancy a socially distanced blether, gie’s a shout.
Excellent piece as always, Alec. I agree completely. I bumped into John Hume a couple of time. A quiet, unassuming man as historical giants seem to be. I agree with your premise for the need for Holyrood elections next year to be a de facto Indyref 2.
Here’s a wee detail I hadn’t known. John Hume’s prize money from his Nobel Peace Prize was £250,000. He gave away every single penny to amongst other things the Salvation Army and the Omagh bomb fund. A true colossus.
Alec. You first drew my attention to the ‘seventy-year cycle’ a few years ago, and being born in 1945 this has resonated with me ever since. Like you, I struggle with Blair but in this he, and you, are absolutely right. Johnson does not merit mention on the same page as John Hume, but for comparison purposes it is a must. If only people will take this moment to consider the options.
The film, which I had not seen, is very moving, and I hope will be widely viewed. Thank you.
Excellent piece. Since Heard the news of his dying I’ve had a prickling in my eyes. He truly was an exceptional human being.
I worked with Hume in the E.P. I never met a more honest, compassionate , humble and humane man. I am very sad that he’s no longer with us. It’s such a loss .
Good article. Lilliputians however, have every right to be aggrieved… 😂