“The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past” (William Faulkner)
“The hearts aye’s, the pert aye, that mak’s is richt or wrang” (Robert Burns).
It’s been said that Scotland doesn’t have history; it just has a longer memory for current events.
I often wonder if there’s a bit of that in me. I always find it useful and enlightening to put today’s events – like the “debate” about free school meals – in their proper historical context. The inverted commas are deliberate, by the way. The very fact that feeding hungry children should even be a bone of contention tells you everything about the moral vacuum at the diseased heart of the UK Government
But we need to have a longer memory for current events.
The great tragedy of the Irish Famine of the mid-nineteenth century is that it didn’t have to happen. Potato crops failed all over Europe but the hunger was specific to the Emerald Isle. Then, as now, helping people (or not) was a political choice. Millions died because what little relief was provided was too late and informed by the deadly fusion of ideology and colonialism.
The harsh truth is that the poor were sacrificed on the altar of free trade and economic neoliberalism. At a meeting in Cork in 1847, a man declared that people had died from an overdose of political economics. And yet there’s an argument that the Russell Government of the time did everything they could do within the narrow parameters of their hardwired political worldview. Ideologically blinded, they were unable to see the real issue – starving people – far less provide solutions to the catastrophe confronting them. Indeed, when a delegate visited Lord Russell in London, he was told that relief would actually make the situation worse. Instead of bread, Ireland got lectured on the economic theories of Adam Smith. Meanwhile, Irish grain and cattle continued to be exported to the colonies.
The great historian AJP Taylor summed up the situation insightfully. “Russell and Trevelyan were highly conscientious men, but they were guided by the belief that principles and doctrines are more important than human lives”, he wrote.
This isn’t ancient history. Ireland remains unique amongst Western European nations in having a smaller population today than it did in 1841. And there are people among us who were alive at the time of the Bengali famine of 1943. Despite eleven million people dying, the directors of the East India Company managed to make a profit. They celebrated this good news by paying themselves a healthy dividend.
In historical terms, the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree. Late last week, an Orcadian pal posted an encouraging story about local councils in England ignoring the Conservative vote to deny food to hungry children during the holidays. There’s still a lot of good in the world, and it got me thinking.
And it occurred to me that the stooshie over a footballer lobbying a government to do what is clearly should do – keep people healthy – is one of those things that come along ever so often that separates people into two completely diametrically opposed categories. The former – the vast majority – who feel a sense of pride, admiration and perhaps a little guilt that they aren’t doing all they can to help their fellow travellers. And then there’s the latter, mercifully much smaller group who mock a guy with personal experience of real hunger for what they disgracefully call his “virtue signalling” and blame perfectly innocent parents for their self-indulgence and fecklessness. And what really grates is that Matt Hancock – whose party brought about the problem in the first place through years of needless austerity – began in the pandemic by telling footballers to do their bit. And when one them went a million miles beyond that? Know your place. Stick to playing football. Back in your box, son. We’re voting against feeding hungry children because it’s their parents fault. Let the market decide. Here’s an MBE, by the way.
The worst of it all is this. The former group is being governed by the latter.
And I now realise that blaming your Alister Jacks and Jacob Rees-Moggs for this is kind of missing the point. Enriching themselves, stealing from the many, keeping power and money in as few a number of hands as possible: this is exactly the point of them.
When we witness the cognitive dissonance of people who would deny square meals to hungry children whilst enjoying taxpayer subsidised foix gras; when you witness the brazen hypocrisy of people lecturing us about benefit fraud and doing our bit while hiding their wealth in the Cayman Islands; when there’s twelve billion pounds available for Serco but the food cupboard is bare – then we must conclude that we are asking the wrong questions of the wrong people.
It’s a dangerous empathetic fallacy to expect a sympathetic ear from a political class with a worldview and life experience diametrically opposed to our own. And it not only informs their policy on feeding people – it also underpins their hatred of devolution and explains the gleeful vigour with which they go about the Brexit enabled power grab of Holyrood and the rolling back of a devolution settlement that has always been anathema to their hardwired centralising instincts and their neoliberalism. By the same logic, our elected representatives in Westminster are wasting their breath in blaming the British State for their flagrant abuses of power and constitutional outrages. You might as well blame Scotland’s midges for biting you. It’s what they do. It’s what they’re for.
I suspect that when the inevitable enquiry into this handling of Covid comes about – probably sometime after 2030 when the dodgy donors and people behind the untold misery that made a gilded few even richer are safely ensconced in ermine – it will be headed up by Lord somebody or other who will make a few recommendations and things will go on pretty much exactly as before.
Now, as ever, the establishment’s answer to the failure of capitalism is always more capitalism. People die. Nobody goes to jail. Children stay hungry.
For me, freeing a Scotland guilty by association from a political culture we don’t recognise has long been a moral imperative. Recent events have made me more determined ever to ensure that my children will enjoy their lives in a normal independent country.
In the end, people needs only three things.
Food, water, and energy.
Scotland, serendipitously, is replete in all of them. With self-determination, antithetical thinking and political will, Scotland will I believe be, within a few short years, be one of the happiest, wealthiest and fairest newly independent nations on the planet.
Let’s finish this, good people. I’ll meet you further on up the road.