Tuesday, 6 March 2018

What Does Brexit Mean for Independence? What does “ Independence” mean in the context of Brexit?

The period from 2011 to 2016 might be characterised by future commentators as the Independence Moment in Modern Scottish History. 
The experience was a little how I imagine surfing to be…catching a wave of what felt like unexpected then irresistable momentum that carried its passengers towards a golden shore that seemed so close we could touch i Even defeat in the referendum in Sept 2014 scarcely seemed to dent the euphoria for long.  Through the 2015 SNP electoral landslide we went, scarcely even noticing that something beyond our ken was stirring elsewhere in the pond, a corresponding yet very different, diffuse wave of English Nationalism…with Jeremy Corbyn riding one surf board, and Boris Johnson another. 
Then all the waves crashed at once.  Like Wile E Coyote, we looked down and saw that there was nothing holding us up, and we plummetted into the confused, confusing wash of a brand new reality.  Brexit was happening, and Donald Trump was in the White House.  And as we tried to stand up in the surf, spitting out a mouthful of seaweed…with a jelly fish trapped down our Speedos, we had lost all sight of the beach.
There are those among us who claim to still see it.  That all we need to do is get back on the surfboard and another wave will come to lift it home. But most people aren’t so sure. We look around like we don’t know the rules of tides and gravity yet…and we hesitate.
To attempt to escape the metaphor in which I seem to have trapped myself as completely as Scottish Constitutional politics is stymied at the moment, let me suggest that the political hesitation is purely pragmatic. We had an election in 2017 in which the result was multiply equivocal and confused on both sides of the border.  We have a Brexit process that is itself mired in the strange feeling, even now, with a year till we are supposed to be leaving, that it’s not really going to happen. The electorate are nothing if not nervous of change.  At this moment, if anyone came along with a claim that they could make it all go away, they might win a couple of by-elections.
Like the Trump presidency, none of this was supposed to happen. There was a much cleverer and more lucrative scenario where Trump and Farage could shout “Treason” and “Fraud” after they lost...and go on to nice, comfortable careers on Fox News. Even now, nobody leading the Brexit campaign in 2016 or the shambolic sham negotiations over the divorce that have been going on in a pretendy kind of way for the last year or so is acting like any of this is actually real. I think that from the perspective of the helpless and futile periphery (to which status the 2014 vote condemned Scotland as a political entity) of a process that is quite so surreal, “hesitation” is not only natural as a political strategy, it is unavoidable.  In an era of Red Lines being invisibly drawn all over the place, the Red Line that the Scottish Government have drawn around the transfer of powers and the principle of the Single Market make exactly as much symbolic sense as anything else going on.
But here and in Wesminster, a sense of unreality prevails.  The Scottish Government are trying to finesse a rider to a UK Deal with the EU that still doesn’t feel as if it is really going to happen.  In these circumstances, to try to summon back into being some nostalgic reboot of a previous epoch in the shape of “IndyRef2” seems chronologically inept as well as politically dubious. There is no sense in the air that anyone beyond the Faithful are remotely interested in that wish attempting to become real.
“But if we wait till after Brexit happens, it will be too late!” comes the anguished cry.  To which I can only respond, “It IS too late. The vote in 2014 was a vote to put the decision out of our hands.” The helpless rage this makes us feel is quite real.
Because undeneath the layers of unreality with which the Brexit Slippage is encircled, still feeling like an “if” rather than a “when”, something real is nonetheless happening.  The EU are responding to reality rather than the vague and impossible wish list which is still the only available (and quite hopeless) articulation of what Brexit might look like from the UK point of view - the picking of cherries from the cake that the unicorns are baking somewhere in Empire 2.0 – by producing legal documents for the divorce.  “You told us you are leaving, “ they say. “So sign here.” And Westminster howls with outrage that the Eurocrats would dare to introduce anything so vulgar as “consequences” to an entirely imaginary decision - a decision that they simultaneously insist is “sacred” and must be “respected.”
The very use of terms such as “respect” and “democracy” is a dead giveaway, perhaps, that none of this, as with Trump’s Tweets, is meant to be taken literally, that nothing is real. In such a context, there is nothing to be done specifically in Scotland but to defend devolution, which is our local political variant on the theme of “You can have Brexit or reality, but you can’t have both.”
The upshot of all this is that we are condemned, like it or not, to a long game in which we have little practical say.  This was the “Old Normal” of Scottish politics before 2011.  Trying to finesse whatever situation the UK got itself into, for good or ill, for Scotland’s benefit, or at least to minimise harm. Devolution itself started as such a gambit, before the SNP's victory and the blithering response from London made it into something else, maybe...
It was a game played with a mixed record of success and humiliation from Whigs through the Unionists through Labour to the present: a sequence of local hegemonies in constant negotiation with where the power REALLY lay.
Buit these are not those times.  This is not the Old Normal no matter how hard Scottish unionists pretend to believe that it is.  Because one of the things that is REALLY happening with Brexit is the discovery, by the English, of what the limitations of “Independence” are in the 21st Century.  And our corresponding future discovery, perhaps, that power doesn't really lie where we thought it did.  That the very nature of power is changing.  That the very meanings of "Nation" and "Independence" are in flux.
The crashing disappointment of Brexit both now and in that future, for the English, is something of which those of us who still perversely cling to the expectation of serious constitutional change somewhere in Scotland’s near if not foreseeable future must most carefully attend. The "moment" is going to change again...in a way that is as hard to see into now as it was in say, 2008, to foresee a Scottish Independence referendum getting pretty close to a Yes vote in 2014.
My guess, for what it’s worth, about the NEXT few years, is that there is no avoiding the realities of Brexit, despite the concerted efforts of Corbyn on one side and May on the other to clamp their hands over their eyes as they walk us off the cliff. My second guess is that we will have another UK General Election which will elect one more UK government to try to “make a go of it” no matter what “it” turns out to be.  And that meaningful constitutional change, a decisive transfer of sovereignty from London to Edinburgh, which may or may not be called “Independence” will happen as part of the recovery from this catastrophe, and not, as we hoped, as Nicola Sturgeon hoped, in its anticipation. 
In short, I think that we are going to have to wait for the wave, for the reality, AFTER this one.  And that it is quite impossible to anticipate exactly what that moment will look like.  My hope is that that when that time comes, it will be ALL of the historic nations who are asking themselves questions about what "nationhood" might mean in the future...and that the answer will involve as few torchlit parades and as little broken glass as possible. but which will nonetheless be as near as that 19th century concept comes to meaning what we think it does in the here and now…
In short, that all this will come, if it does, will not come as part of the UK’s exit from the EU in 2021, but as part of the process of getting back in somewhere around 2028. And it will seem as natural as did the referendum to establish the Parliament in in Edinburgh in 1997 that the UK will be reconfigured.  As natural as rain. There will be people on the fundamentalist wing of Scottish Nationalism who will complain that it’s not the Real Thing.  But as with Brexit, one of the things we have learned in the New Normal is that the “Real Thing” doesn’t exist.
This is a counsel of hope , by the way, not of despair.  The Break Up of Britain is coming closer faster than anyone could have anticipated on September 19th 2014, let alone after the 2017 election.  But it will not look like the past.  It will not look like yesterday’s dream no matter how fervently some of us might wish. It will look like something wholly new, something that is already happening in Scotland, and Ireland…and London, actually. Reinventing nationhood is one of the real things that is happening to all of us. Brexit is an attempt to use nostalgia and hatred as a template for that change. We can do better.  We already have.  We may be restricted to holding action for the moment…the 2014 vote saw to that…but change is underway. It is up to us to be inventive as we go through it, and to insist on a principle of Scottish Popular Sovereignty as a rock to cling to.
Whatever else the vote in 2014 meant, it established that our future, in the long term is up to us, even as it condemned us to a present tense of helplessness and apparent stasis.  The chance will come again, but it won’t look like any of us think it will.  Prepare for fancy footwork. Reality is bound to make a comeback sooner or later.

Sunday, 21 January 2018

Janis Joplin is Seventy Five

Janis Joplin would have been seventy five years old on Friday. It seems impossible to think of her as ever being that old.  It also seems impossible that all this time later, she would still have been that young, that all that was effectively only yesterday. She died, as everybody knows, as the great wave of “the sixties” broke, leaving the debris of those whose vulnerability as well as talent seemed to define that still extraordinary era. 

Even at the time, there was something of an air of ritual inevitability about it. First there was Jimi…then a few weeks later there was Janis…then Jim Morrison a few months after that. All damaged, all publically bearing their wounds to the hungry world, all burning out with a rapidity contiguous with the brightness of that burning. All 27, of course, famously, and all, too, in the process of renegotiating the congruence of personal, cultural and world history that focussed on their unready persons, and devoured them raw.

In Janis’s case, there was never anything private about what was happening to her.  Heart on her sleeve wasn’t in it. The whole basis of her sudden fame had lain in what she had represented as female, freaky and young.  Bewildered hurt was what she did, it was her schtick. In the way she sang, tearing at herself to find and display her damage, in her rambling but poetically focussed monologues in between songs on stage, in her alternately reckless and needy personal relationships, at any time and place, Janis Joplin would have been a troubled soul, dangerous to know, or know too well. But it took a very particular time and place to take her out of the provincial, hip coffee bars of Austin, Texas, and make her personal pain into the global cultural commodity that it was…and still is.

What happened, basically, upon the discovery by corporate America that there was money to be made out of “rebellion”, was that the outcasts and losers…they self-identified as freaks…who have always and will always be on the failed fringes of home owning consumerism, were handed guitars and money and the very best of them conquered the world.  Whenever you watch film of them, something like the Band’s great, elegiac concert movie, The Last Waltz, for example, you find yourself thinking, “would any one of these funny looking fuck ups have been signed to a record label at any other time in history?” The answer is probably “no.”  It was a particular moment of cultural dislocation combined with economic expansion that brought these culturally dislocated people into the economic mainstream.  For a giddy year or two, in their early and mid-twenties, still children, really, with the Beatles at the top of the pyramid, these glorious inmates had the run of the asylum…and produced what are still some of the most arresting and brilliant “moments” in the history of popular culture.

The version of Big Mama Thornton’s “Ball and Chain” on Janis’s “breakthrough” album with big Brother and the Holding Company is one of the musical highlights of the century for me, never mind of the decade.  A voice breaking into chords over Sam Houston’s visceral, tearing guitar, reinventing the personal in the appropriation of a black woman’s blues by a young white woman that, for me anyway, transcends a later era’s cross-cultural queasiness through the sheer force of that individual witness. It couldn’t have happened before the moment that it did happen.  And it sure as hell couldn’t have happened afterwards.

The dumb accidental tragedy of her death, which is brought to mind by thinking of her as alive today - a cackling, life affirming firebrand of a certain age, on her fourth marriage to a younger guy with a hell of a stock of memories and who can tell what other achievements - is that like all the icons born in the first half of the forties who burned brightly in the sixties, she was in the process of re-negotiating her own life.  They were all doing it, that whole generation who suddenly found themselves nearer to thirty than twenty…

Some reinvented themselves as corporations in their own right, some found a niche in the rather quieter, less dangerous world of jazz or country rock (Janis was heading in that direction). But every change, as in the case of the Beatles, had a price of breaking something.  Perhaps it was easier if you in a group, that you had to break up the gang…or turn it into a brand… in order to survive into adulthood.

And maybe somewhere in there is where we find the real link between members of the 27 club. Not so much in their numerology as in their singularity, their isolation. Janis changed bands three times in three studio albums, but it is in her unaccompanied “Mercedes Benz” song that she most wistfully yet definitively sang to us of her plight. Unable to fit in with what she had been, and with her very existence defined by her being estranged from herself, she called herself and her last Album by the name of a black prostitute, , “Pearl.” 

That her she destroyed herself just at a time when she had put the worst of her self-destructiveness behind her, and that her lonely death on a hotel room floor is so synonymous with her very real achievements as a musician is every bit as much our tragedy as much as it is hers. It would have been better for all of us if that remarkable person still lived on, rather than what we do have left of her…the comparatively cheap currency of a legend. 

Monday, 18 December 2017

A Lesson from History

By any measure, the Battle of Britain stands with the October revolution as among the most historically decisive few weeks of the 20th Century. Little wonder its spirit is evoked so often in our national mythology  and popular culture.  It really was, bu any reasonable measure, “Our Finest Hour.”

As a playwright I try very hard to look at historical stories in the present tense, as if we didn’t know how it was going to come out.  Because that’s what it must have been like at the time.  And in the late summer of 1940, what had happened in the past year, from a British point of view, was not going to fill you with confidence.  

True, the Chamberlain Government, which would have almost certainly have made a deal with Nazi Germany rather than fight on alone, had been replaced by Churchill leading an unlikely coalition (still forming) consisting mainly of the Labour Party and a few Tory rebels. The most dangerous potential Quislings had either been interned, like Mosely and the Tory MP for Peebles, Colonel Ramsey…while other less immediately dangerous but untrustworthy individuals, including the ex King, were being put out of harm’s way.  True, the British Army and a good chunk of the French had escaped from capture and death at Dunkirk…but even a successful retreat is still a retreat.  

To the shock of the world and the Germans…and the French…Churchill had recently ordered the destruction of the French fleet at Oran …with the loss of 1500 French lives…partly to keep the ships from being added to the German navy, but also to show the Germans…and the Americans, crucially, that he wasn’t going to mess about, that he could be as big a criminal as he had to be to win. At this point, the Germans were forced into serious preparation for invasion of Great Britain…the prerequisite of which was, of course, air superiority, without which an invasion across the Channel was unthinkable. (As it was in 1944.) 

So the RAF had to be bombed and blown out of the war. 

Had we lost the Battle of Britain, then, the Germans would almost certainly have invaded the South of England before the bad weather came in October 1940…Roosevelt would likely have lost the Presidential election in November.  And the King...or his older brother... would have shaken hands with Hitler on the balcony of Buckingham palace. The Americans could never have supplied the Russians when the Nazis inevitably turned on them and the Americans would have had no forward base in Europe from which to launch the invasions of North Africa, Italy and France.

A close run thing.  At the time, entirely unpredictable 

So far, excepting with a few minor details of interpretation, I imagine I’d be in agreement with Boris Johnson and William Rees Mogg…at least in the summary of what was at stake when “we” took to the skies over the South East of England to take on the Luftwaffe in August and September 1940.  Where we might differ is in recalling the details of who “we” were…who WERE the “few” to whom so much was and is still owed by so many.

Nearly three thousand pilots – fought in the Battle of Britain. Nearly 600 of them, 20%, were not born in Britain. Around 300 came from the Commonwealth…Canada, New Zealand, Australia…Jamaica, India… Nearly 300, however, came from future EU countries. France, Belgium, Ireland…and from Poland and Czechoslovakia. The most "kills" by any Squadron during the fighting was 201...by 303 Squadron. Who were ALL Polish... 

They don't just do kitchens, you know.

So the only REASONABLE conclusion from the Battle of Britain...and of the fact that 20% of the few weren't British...and that 10% of them, including the single most effective group of them...were from Europe... is that it was a jolly good thing they were here.  And that Britain was saved from Nazi Invasion in 1940 not by standing alone, but by welcoming immigrants...

Sometimes history doesn’t quite teach the lessons that everybody thinks it does.

Saturday, 16 December 2017

Speak for England, Jacob!

On September 2nd 1939, as Neville Chamberlain sat down in the House of Commons, his speech having delivered distinctly equivocal support for Poland, invaded the day before by the Nazis, despite all the previous promises of solidarity, Arthur Greenwood was rising to his feet to reply for Labour when an angry voice came from the Tory Government backbenches, and shouted possibly the most famous and most spine tingling set of four words uttered in that Chamber during the Twentieth Century : “Speak for England, Arthur!”

The words were spoken by Leo Amery, an anti-appeasement Tory MP in a moment of angry shame that, in his judgement, his Conservative and Unionist colleagues were preparing to bow the knee to the Nazis, that the terror of another war with Germany was about to push The United Kingdom into further acquiescence in the Nazi take over of central Europe that had begun in earnest with the unopposed invasion of Czechoslovakia in March that year. Those words were spine tingling for a reason not usually part of the story we tell ourselves about Our Finest Hour…that right from Munich in 1938 until the Battle of Britain in the summer of 1940, it was by no means a settled certainty that the hour in question would have been anything other than one of shame, betrayal and collaboration.  It was, as the Duke of Wellington observed on another European occasion, "a close run thing."

I’m thinking of this pivotal moment in our national history (as the UK of GB and NI) partly because I am dead certain that Leo Amery’s defiance of a weak and vacillating Tory Prime Minister is not ever far from the thoughts of Jacob Rees-Mogg as he characteristically - and not without the courage of his own convictions - identifies so clearly what is at stake as we go into “Phase Two” of the Brexit negotiations.  Jacob Rees Mogg, in his heart of hearts, knows he is speaking for England, and that what is at stake is what “England” and the “UK”…mean. 

This second stage of talks with the EU will focus on the so called “transition” after the UK putatively leaves at the end of March 2019.  The Chancellor , Phillip Hammond, confirmed yesterday that during this period, the UK will follow EU Trade Rules…even though it will no longer have any say as to what those rules are. Rees Mogg, and the rest of the “Conviction Brexiteers”…still a minority in the Tory party in the Commons, if not in the country, are horrified.  Rees Mogg has described this transition status as being equivalent to the UK being a “colony” of the EU. (Able and highly educated though he is, irony seems to be entirely lost on this scion of a newspaper dynasty and the 18th Century.) 

Mildly absurd though the rhetoric is, it does point us to the beating heart of what Brexit means to its advocates, both consciously and unconsciously: The Independence of England.  If that Independence is sacrificed to expediency and pacifying the Irish, why then, Old England really is Done…as the song nearly says at the beginning of Dad’s Army.

When Amery used the word “England” in 1940, he meant Britain, of course.  An England equivalent to Britain…and Britain a Greater England… was as natural for him as it was for George Orwell, who in his own defining statement on the war in 1940 had to add a rather irritated footnote to the effect that Scottish, Welsh or Irish readers might object to the lumping together of the four nations under the name of one of them , but that he thought they were being a bit silly about it. Thing is, that in 1940, and for some considerable time afterwards, most Scots would have agreed with him that the differences between us added to our cultural richness and “diversity” (to use a later term) but were of no real political account.  This was and remains the opinion of those who campaigned most coherently for a No vote in 2014.

 What has changed in the last couple of weeks, I believe quite by accident, is that Ireland’s refusal to contemplate a hard border with the North, and crucially, that refusal being comprehensibly and unequivocally backed by the 27 countries of what we will need to get used to calling the rEU, combined with the risible mixture of incompetence and arrogance that somehow persuaded the Tories that the DUP would ever contemplate a functioning border between Holy Protestant Ulster and the Motherland, has catapulted us into UK wide “Soft Brexit” territory quite without plan or expectation…to the manifest relief of the Remainer majority on the Government benches.

Ireland has saved England from itself.  I always thought that was our job!

Anyway, Farage is quite openly spitting out his own teeth with rage, while in rather more civilised tones, Rees Mogg, on Newsnight last night, drew the battle lines for the next stage in the Tory Civil War that has landed us all here in the first place.

“We cannot be a colony of the European Union for two years from 2019 to 2021, accepting new laws that are made without any say-so of the British people, Parliament or Government,” Jacob Rees Mogg said on Newsnight last night. “That is not leaving the European Union, that is being a vassal state of the European Union, and I would be very surprised if that were Government policy.”

With Rees Mogg, as with Enoch Powell before him in the story of the break Up of Britain, the choice of language is fascinating. But I want to concentrate on the word “we.” 

 “We” are “the people”…to coin a phrase. And the people are being betrayed and hoodwinked by what Nigel Farage, despite more than twenty years salary and a fat pension on its way from the European Parliament, calls “professional politicians”  - involved in a conspiracy against the nation.

But that nation is not the place Leo Amery wanted Arthur Greenwood to speak for in 1940, it is not not the place with a Global Empire that decided to create the Welfare State in a moment of nation defining solidarity when the Labour Party, fired with a sense of British National certainty and purpose it has not had before or since, (despite “White heat” in the Sixties and “Cool Brittainia” in the 90s) swept to popular and political power in 1945. That Vision of Britain held itself together while begging to join the EU from the late fifties till the early seventies when it finally succeeded. But one part of that Britain was never comfortable with subsuming itself into the greater whole, was never comfortable with the diminution of its “place in the world”, clinging onto past greatness through folk memories of the 1940s as much as to its seat on the UN Security Council and a “special relationship“ with an increasingly bemused and indifferent United States - ALL, of course, products of that war and it's victorious but complicated conclusion. The complications of that Victory came crushingly home to the UK (and France) in Egypt just ten years after that part in a World War that came out more or less right.. I believe that "Brexit in 2016" will have the same resonance for future historians as the words “Suez in 196” do now…as a self inflicted slap in the face to British Exceptionalism based on folk memory more than current reality. And will stand with the same symbolic certainty for the difficult acquisition of self-knowledge.

Part of this learning curve is that you cannot simply pretend that the other three nations of the UK don’t exist, or rather, that they only exist when they’re being “silly” and annoying. The debacle over the Irish border saw to that. But to KEEP Northern Ireland and maybe Scotland and Wales and, crucially, LONDON, within that Greater England…then England will  have to KEEP the Single Market and the Customs Union and quite possibly Free Movement as well.  (Ask the 27...you can't have the first two without the third) 

So to keep the Kingdom United, England can’t leave the EU, in any terms that Rees Mogg and his like would accept, at all. England can’t leave the EU without leaving the UK as well.

As has been observed before, England cannot abide being “just another country in Europe.” “We”…in the Rees-Mogg sense of “we”…stood alone and unique in 1940. What Rees Mogg and his fellow Brexiteers insist upon is that once more “we” can stand alone despite the traitors and equivocators of appeasement among us. But “we”, in my view, isn’t what it used to be. “We” no longer convincingly mean the same “us.”  For example, I don’t think that even Unionist Scotland, here and now, has a problem with being “just another country.”  In fact, in Nationalist Scotland, I think a considerable number of us rather aspire to being “just another country.”

But we learned in 2014 that Breaking Up Britain was too big a job for the hesitant, equivocal Scots.  Breaking Up Britain was always a job for the English  - who went ahead with Brexit without, really, a second thought....  This despite the warnings (not entirely delivered with conviction, admittedly) that a Brexit vote in 2016 was a decisive step along that road. 

But now, as we move into the next phase of the divorce, the question of English Independence that was implicit in 2016 (Farage didn’t use the word till the next morning) is going to be explicit as the “transition” (to what?) is negotiated not just in Brussels, but in the Cabinet room, the pubs and the Parliament of England.

If Rees Mogg inter alia do decide to “speak for England” in the way I describe (though they will still call England “Britain”)…and insist that a hard, clean break with Europe is what “the people” voted for in June 2016…they will likely bring down their own government, of course.  But they will also, I think, do something else of rather more historic significance.  They will declare that the English Independence they believe in, is not only a “liberation” from the EU, and from its daily insult to English Exceptionalism. Brexit is also, in effect, an English Declaration of Independence from the UK.  

Are they really ready for that?  Because the light will dawn in the course of 2018, that Breaking Up Britain is the price of a meaningful Brexit. 

Fasten your seat-belts and pass the popcorn.

Friday, 1 December 2017

Speech During Wartime

What this is about, after the 48 Hour news rumble which I'm sure Trump loves, is the degradation of public speech. Of the defeat of evidence by noise.
Trump and his people are inviting us not to care about whether a Britain First video is "real" or not because Trump retweeting it "elevates the conversation." This elevation is clearly not intended in any sense that Jane Austen or Henry James might have recognised elevated dialogue. No. What Sarah Huckabee means by "elevates" is "make louder." In Trump world, in what is increasingly "our world," all that matters is that an opinion be loud. That it garner re-tweets and follows. Britain First understand this principle of the new media, which is dragging the old media along behind it like your "other" Grandad, the one who isn't the boorish, embarrassing one who rants about women and immigrants and Muslims over Christmas dinner. Nice Grandad goes along with the distasteful crudity of the boor who carves the roast simply because he no longer has the conviction or energy to tell the man to shut up.
Why does the degradation of public speech matter? What is wrong with the loudest voice being the most important? With there being no agreed standards of ,if not "truth" then at least ethics in what people in positions of power carelessly chuck onto social media because it gives them a warm feeling in their tummy as their own worst, weakest most bigoted instincts are confirmed? Or indeed offers the opportunity to sneer loftily at the idiots on Twitter, one of whom happens to be Dipstick In Chief? Isn't it all just a bit of fun, reduced like all consumed news product to titillation at one level or another? Does it really matter if Rupert Murdoch was right all along? That the most cynical, bleakest view of all human conduct, elite or not, turns out to be right?
What matters to me, I think, most...is that The Triumph of Energy that Trump represents is also the Death of Hope. The triumph of prejudice over evidence, of the triumph of loudness over intellectual process is the Triumph of the Will over Reality. Reality itself gets bent out of shape so that stuff which was unthinkable a year ago is normal times now. God knows about five years from now when he's in his second term.

It isn't just Trump. It's the making of the machinery of government into his echo chamber. The reduction of government itself into loud, cheap lie machine to protect the hatreds and stupidity of a cheap crook. That a White House staff would calmly dismiss the promotion of a Neo-Nazi Hate Group as "elevating the conversation" is more than absurd: much more dangerously, it is what you have come to expect. As each line of decency is crossed, as each decline and fall of what it is publically possible for the President to say and retweet is crossed and normalised, the more we really are, as a civilization, handing over our future to the successors of the Trumps and Farages simply because they seem to have more get up and go than we do.
In the same way, cherished liberal elitist notions of "Balance" - that the media can offer a neutral platform for the debate of ideas within a commonly agreed window of responsible disagreement - are blown out of the water when you interpret this to mean giving equal time to climate change deniers and fascists on an equal footing with actual scientists and ...well, let's just say Nicola Sturgeon, or Vince Cable, or Hillary Clinton. Whatever complications one may have about any or all of these, surely we can agree to recognise that there is a qualitative difference between them and Nigel Farage and Donald Trump? "But what can we do?" bleat the newsminders. "We can't be Reithean Policemen of the Public Good anymore! This is what the democracy has chosen, it is what the new media has thrown up, this is what the market wants!"
The apparent energy of the faux authentic...of the "good bloke in the pub" Nigel Farage, and of the "No nonsense Man's Man" Donald Trump seems to just floor the equivocating, desiccated toffs who have lost all conviction about their role as "keepers of standards." Even the fact that I am putting so much of this little lament into inverted commas tells me that I too am hidebound by deadened language, crippled by quotation, unsuited by my own civilised, pussy footing irony to properly face of the enemy. It feels like dereliction of duty even to try to explore an idea rather than reach for a baseball bat.
Of course, one reaches for past parallels. One is gaining from the present debacle a tremendous insight as to what the 1930s must have felt like at the time as we drifted in apparent hopelessness towards war and genocide. But what requires no retrospection or gazing into a crystal ball is the observation that right here and now we are in real trouble. That if we continue to hand over the field of public speech to the boors and thugs then maybe will get the future Trump, the Future Farage that such equivocation deserves. Maybe it really is time to finally abandon ideas like "balance" and "truth" rather than simply imprison them in quotes. We need a new set of weapons to take these people on. Right now it feels like life during wartime. And only one side is suited up.


Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Boris, Brexit, England and Reality

England, Their England – 20th September 2017.

In The Lion and The Unicorn, his great 1940 essay on the nature of Englishness, George Orwell, in Hampstead, as the German Bombers flew overhead, was trying to define the identity of something that was in real and present danger of being lost. Perhaps this is why it is the definitive statement of identity that it is, why it had to be definitive. The very survival of England was at stake.

(It wasn’t just England whose survival was in question, of course…the survival of Europe and of civilisation was up for grabs…but we’ll get to that, and Brexit, in a minute.)

Among Orwell’s most memorable observations was that the support of the “average Englishman” for the British Empire was expressed by being barely conscious that it existed, and that this blithe disregard for the complex reality that supported “his” simple way of life was one of the things foreigners found so maddeningly incomprehensible about the English. It wasn’t a wholly new thought.  The essayist Sir John Seeley in a book of 1883 made the famous and connected observation that the British had “conquered half the world in a fit of absence of mind.” Absence of mind had extended to historical matters nearer home too, of course.  The name of the book in which Seeley had made this observation was “The Expansion of England.”

Orwell, in a rather irritated aside, addresses the anomaly, when he acknowledges that readers in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland may object to the expansion of Englishness to include them in his essay on identity.  He argues, with some justice, that to the rest of the world, the differences between us are insignificant to the point of invisibility, and moves on, having dealt with the absorption of the minor Celtic nations into the big one purely as a matter of identity, and not as a series of political, historical and cultural events.  Rather in the way he fondly accused his countrymen of their not knowing that the British Empire existed, Orwell treated the Expansion of England as a fact of nature, rather than as a political process that could, as is the nature of processes, be reversed.

This is all in my mind this morning as we approach what future historians of identity in these islands may, (or may not, depending what May does in Florence on Friday) identify as a defining moment as much as 1940 – “Dunkirk and All That” – was definitive for the relationship of 20th Century Britain to itself and to everybody else. It seems to have been on Boris Johnson’s mind as well.  Not only is he ferociously, personally ambitious, he is also rather a gifted and passionate writer on English history and identity. Churchill is his hero and role model in this as well as, he hopes, finding himself summoned to the Palace to assume the office of Prime Minister in Our Darkest...and Our Finest Hour.

May was being widely trailed as finally making the statement of British Intent on Brexit that the aforementioned Maddened Foreigners had been waiting for. Finally, it was promised, more than a year after voting for it, they would be told definitively, what the British wanted out of Brexit.  There would finally be clarity in the negotiations because there would finally, actually be a real and conscious policy that Britain was pursuing.

And this is where we get back to absent-mindedness. The entire historical success of Britain, or England, has been in not really being conscious of what Britain, or England, was doing. The famous preference for “muddling through”, “buggering on” and so on, is not just a charming cultural trait like warm beer and cricket on the green.  It’s actually at the heart of how Britain, or England, gets things done.

The centre of things, the way things are, must not be challenged. The way to deal with change is always, ALWAYS to act as if nothing had changed. The Scots, Welsh and Irish may have been conscious of the particular circumstances of their absorption into greater England, but it is the genius of England barely to have noticed. The British Empire was not only absent-mindedly acquired over two centuries, it was as inconsequentially and easily abandoned in two decades in exactly the same way, as if it had never been.

The perennial question, since 1950, of “why are all these immigrants from India and the West Indies coming HERE?” is testimony to this sound cultural policy of forgetting. In a similar way, the consequences of the End of Empire on the immediate borders - the slow and differential self- assertion of the previously quietly absorbed peripheral nations of Scotland, Wales and Ireland over the last century or so - has been equally irritating and inexplicable.

As for Europe, and what is or is not going to happen on Friday, Greater England joined the EC in 1973 with exactly the same strategic self-persuasion that “nothing has really changed” with which she has been attempting to leave the EU.  “Britain” – the economic and administrative oligarchy that bestrides Greater England like an invisible colossus – may well have known that joining the EC was absolutely essential, if politically inadmissible, as a SUBSTITUTE for Lost Empire in connecting to the imperative yet invisible wider world. But England, like Ireland, Scotland and Wales, is inevitably, as the Empire fades from memory, asserting a distinct identity, and will be having none of it.

It turns out that Britain understood “England” just as poorly as it understood its other colonies, and with catastrophic results.

What the other Europeans, the foreigners, may have failed to understand is that unconsciousness, NOT having a fixed policy on Brexit, was absolutely essential not just for holding Britain together, but for Theresa May holding her cabinet together.  David Davis was never specific in his negotiations with the EU because he and the Cabinet had never been specific with each other.  They had never even really discussed it outside of algorithmically isolated cabals of Europhiles and Eurosceptics who only ever talked to people they already agreed with.

All that, by force majeure, was due to change on Friday.  The Prime Minister was going to get specific in Florence on a phased transition deal that once again try to keep the cracking edifice of Britain, and the cracking edifice of Her majesty’s Government together, that once again, would change everything, while changing nothing at the centre. And Boris Johnson, on Saturday in the Daily Telegraph, spoke for England, and said he and England were having none of it.

This is only Wednesday, as I write. Not, like Orwell, with German Bombers flying overhead, but just before what might be the next moment of crisis in Britain’s long, more or less managed post war decline.  Boris has drawn a line…the moment we get specific on Brexit, hard or soft, one way or the other, the Cabinet and Government split like an over ripe melon. It is entirely possible, even probable, given past precedent, which Theresa May will follow in the grand historical tradition of putting off till tomorrow the reality that she would rather not face today, and that her speech on Friday will be as gutted of content and specificity as almost everything else she says. But if Theresa May screws her courage to the sticking post and goes ahead with Speech A, make no mistake, the Tory Party Conference in Manchester in the first week of October is going to be a bloodbath that it is hard to see her Minority Government surviving.

As for the Labour Party, every bit as split on Europe, every bit as dependent for unity on “not really talking about it”, they must be thanking God and the Ghost of Clement Atlee that their conference isn’t the week after, but the week before. They will be able, if it happens, to fully enjoy watching the Tories explode into acrimony and accusations of treason while pretending to be unconscious of the thought “there but for the Grace of God…and the traditional scheduling of Conference Season…go I.”

As a footnote the subject of reality, it has just occurred to me that the name we might give to England leaving Europe on its own might be just "Exit"...but that's a thought for another time.

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

"To Govern As If"

I won’t be the the only person to say this, on this blog-site and elsewhere, but the Programme for Government set out yesterday by the First Minister is far and away the most progressive and ambitious that the chamber has ever heard. An awful lot of it makes welcome reading to an awful lot of people involved in the broader Yes coalition over the last few years. From a primary to tertiary strategy on education, to a positive and manufacturing and export based vision for the economy - all underpinned by a publicly owned and run investment bank - from an unashamedly optimistic, joined up programme going from infrastructure to green targets to taxation and welfare, this PFG represents nothing less than an aspiration to transform this small country.

That this is being done in the doomed, minimal expectation atmosphere of Brexit is to dissociate Scotland from the UK without even mentioning the Constitution, and it left opposition parties floundering, responding to the speech that they were expecting, not the speech they got.  Within the narrow confines of the Holyrood Bubble and it’s attendant commentariat, it was something of a game-changer.

We’ve had a few months now since the election of denial and wound licking.  And the document produced yesterday is of course still ambition rather than achievement.  The question of how it will play in the wider world of Scotland, let alone the wider world beyond will probably come down to what the “story” is.  And that may comer down to nuance and feeling as much as the very firmly holistic and grounded “culture of government” that the PRG sets out. It unashamedly looks to a Scottish State to coordinate and shape a holistic vision of what a country can be. In the contemporary context, this is almost thrilling in its heresy. It is also entirely, unashamedly, optimistically European.

It is a Programme for Devolved Government with the ambition we’d look for from Independence.  In fact, in many ways, it is far MORE ambitious than was the White Paper produced for the 2014 Referendum Campaign.
And this, to me, is a sure sign that the Sturgeon Government has moved on. In retrospect, the perpetuation of the “Indy Mood” BEYOND September 2014 and through 2015 and 16 (until the Brexit vote, in fact) , that sustained and promoted the fortunes not just of the SNP, but of the rather more numinous “mood of optimism” in our political culture, was bound to come to cultural if not arithmetical grief in the unexpected election of 2017.  The wave had been stoked up and kept going by a mixture of stubborn ineptitude and arrogance in the Cameron government, and charisma in the person of Nicola Sturgeon…and the wave was bound to crash at sometime.

But what was clear yesterday was that the twin realities “external” to the aforementioned Holyrood Bubble of the increased uncertainty of Brexit on the one hand and the mercurial rise of Corbyn on the other may well have taken the immediate constitutional campaign of “IndyRef 2” off the front burner, but they have also opened a space for a far more specific and identifiable “left” programme of government by the SNP.

Thanks to an astonishngly positive response to the new circumstances that seems to be very much led from the front, the SNP government have hit the ground running in a New Normality that I, at least, was slow to see coming.
Buit make no mistake.  This degree of radicalism in government is only possible if the political priority of building a referendum coalition which includes, (as Salmond so cautiously did) a very Not-Radical proportion of the Scottish Electorate that is simply arithmetically essential to a Yes vote, has been decisively dropped. Ironically, we and Nicola Sturgeon may be being afforded this vision of Scotland’s future only because The Independence Campaign - as we have understood it up until now - is off the agenda.

The “Indy Moment” of 2011-2016 is over. We are in a new phase now. There are things happening over which we have control, as evidenced by the leaking yesterday of a Home Office paper on future UK Immigration policy as suicidal as it is illiberal, as oppressive as it is impractical. The contrast of confidence that was displayed yesterday between Edinburgh and London is absolutely stark. .  For my money, it is exactly what needed to be done to positively change the story we need to tell ourselves as a culture.  The way to prove to ourselves our fitness to govern ourselves…is to do it.  

To govern "as if "