Did I really hear on the radio last night (BBC Radio 4, no less) someone enumerating the great advantages which had accrued to Scotland by joining the Union – and including among them Democracy? Did I really hear that? I had had a couple of drams with our neighbours, to be sure, but not that much: yes, I really do think I heard that…..
Well, I really think I must have heard it all now. This surely must belong into the category of what Laurens van der Post called the “standard imperial patter”, or something very like it. Van der Post used the phrase after a conversation he had had with a Russian bureaucrat or politician, presumably during the Soviet period, in which this chap was similarly enumerating the benefits of civilisation which the Russian Empire (or Soviet State, or however you like to call it) had bestowed upon its Muslim subjects in the south.
What I find fascinating about this kind of, still-continuing, narrative is the unquestioning assumption that before whichever-imperial-power-it-happens-to-be came along there was nothing but chaos and nastiness. In our latter days one of the things we consider nasty is not having a democracy, but of course there have been different equivalents in the past: for “undemocratic” substitute chaotic, impoverished, illiterate, cannibalistic, starving, take your pick. The imperial patter can be basically condensed into this little conversation:
Empire: this is a nice little place you’ve got here, you’d better let us help you look after it.
Native: thanks, we’re doing fine, we seem to keep things going pretty well on our own – not perfect, but then what is?
Empire: That’s true, but it can’t go on like this, can it?
Native: Oh? Why not?
Empire: Because someone’s going to wreck it, aren’t they?
Native: Who on earth would want to wreck it?
Empire: Well, we would, unless you let us look after you. Because we’re God’s appointed, you know. What’s more, as well as protecting you, we’ll let you join our little Family, as long as you prove yourself worthy of our family values.
It came to be called a protection racket, of course, but whatever you call it – Empire or Mafia – it has three defining features: 1 Unlike humanity in general, it is profoundly undemocratic, and rests on the maintenance of a ruling elite who consider that their access to life’s goodies should not be restricted; 2 The lengths of savagery to which it is prepared to go are always just in excess of what its opponents are prepared to commit; and 3 It rests on rigorous organisation, which means it produces tentacles everywhere, both visible and invisible, which makes it more or less invincible.
Of course the Power in the south of Britain which for centuries attempted to undermine and control the entity we call the Scottish nation, was not the “English”. It was a branch of the neo-Roman Empire which we now know as the Normans. The supposedly “decisive” battle of Bannockburn, for example, was followed by thirty years of unremitting attempts to regain the control which had slipped away from this coterie of Norman barons based in England, who at the same time were also engaged in an attempt to expand their ancestral territories in France.
While I think it’s not totally irrelevant to point out that even in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries it wasn’t unknown for a dynastic marriage to be consummated by an act of rape carried out on an unwilling girl with her father’s consent, so that I doubt if anyone was completely fooled by the civilised-sounding sobriquet “Act of Union”, I can’t in honesty really think in nationalistic terms, in terms of right and wrong, good and evil, in the process by which Scotland was eventually subsumed into the Greater Good that is the United Kingdom. Empire, as far as I’m concerned, is a virus of the human mind. The Normans and Franks got it from the Romans, the Romans got it from the Greeks (we’ve all heard that nonsense about how Democracy “began” in ancient Athens), the Greeks got it principally from the Persians, though I daresay with some input from Egypt, I don’t know who the Persians got it from – Assyrians, Hittites, Sumerians, take your pick, I get mixed up between the whole bloodthirsty pack of them. The aspect of rigorous organisation which I mentioned as a feature of this virus is what we generally call Civilisation nowadays, and we like to think of it as a good thing, even a blessing. We are all so thoroughly in the grip of this virus that it’s difficult to see outside of the terms of reference which it imposes.
I presume that, as with all viruses, humanity will either become immune to it, or it will kill us. I suspect that we might be getting close to the brink beyond which one or the other will start to happen. Hopeful signs? Not many. But I’m interested in a series of events which happened around what we, rather mythically, call The Great War, whose hundredth anniversary we are “celebrating” this year, when it almost looked as though the relentless northward surge of Empire from its origins on the Tigris or the Euphrates or the Nile was starting to run out of steam. Norway, after about 50 years of argy-bargy, became independent of the Swedish Empire. Nine years before that Finland, having been snatched from the Swedish Empire by the Russian Empire (I love the story of Little Black Sambo and the tigers, by the way, though it’s considered a bit Inappropriate these days), had also declared itself independent. As the war raged, the people of Ireland asserted their right to independence from Britain; and as it came to an end Iceland became unhooked from Denmark. I like to think that, just as the virus came to us from the south, so it might begin to be rolled back again from the north (for any who are interested in such things, something like this can be found expressed powerfully as a modern myth in J R R Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings); but who can say?
Anyway, I would like to think that our own little country might turn out to be part of this unhooking process; and it’s remarkable how much interest in our doings has been evinced in the heartland of our current Empire – Germany, Italy, France, even parts of Spain. Things of course have to be done in the proper order, if they aren’t going to provoke a dangerous reaction (Ukraine, for example?); but, again, who knows? Who knows?
Annie and Ellie and I – a little to our family’s discomfiture – have been helping a bit canvassing for the Yes Scotland campaign – not a thing we’ve ever done before, being not very politically-boned. It’s been an instructive experience, though I worry at some of my own reactions – like how the idea of Independence takes on the features of a Promised Land; and anyone one meets standing in its way becomes the Enemy. I’m profoundly upset at how many of the most aggressive (or defensive, let’s be fair ) “No” people are English – and I have heard troubling reports of English people receiving abuse on account of their origins, such that I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised to be called “racist scum” by one householder. I also fear that if we don’t manage to get a clear mandate now, things will be soured for the next time the attempt is made, as it undoubtedly will be. Meanwhile, would I trust a Tory government to honour its current hurried and rather opportunistic-looking pledges? Well, please – and of course, such important things are likely to come along and unfortunately push the Scottish Question into the background (sorry, guys, but you know, with these terrorists, and Putin, and all…..).
Anyway, that’s that for now. I’m throwing in my lot with the Independence lot not because my sentiments are Nationalist, or even Green, but because I don’t want my country to go on suffering the ache of Dependence – its torpor, and laziness, and lack of confidence, and poor initiative, and I daresay corruption too. We need a boot up the bum – maybe we can only get that if we let ourselves be led up the garden path by promises of greater prosperity, or maybe we will get greater prosperity, though personally I wouldn’t know what to do with it. Boot up the bum first, I’d say: then we can start to deal, maybe, with the really difficult issues that will undoubtedly follow.
I think this is going to be my last blog, though I might go on trying to build the Coldhome web page a bit more. Rachel says my blogs are “wordy” (what am I at just now? 1260-odd words? Hey, daughter, you ain’t seen nuthn); and Annie says I should concentrate instead on posting a poem every fortnight – I think she means a sonnet, or maybe even a haiku, rather than an Epic…..
So – good voting, everyone; and I daresay there will be junketings with our Pals, whether in celebration or commiseration, at the due date.