by George Gunn
When the Houses of Parliament in London burned down on 16th October 1834 it was a great event in British history which, although it has been captured in several paintings by Turner, has been largely forgotten. The current buildings and tourist landmark, which appear ever-permanent in the public imagination and are advocated to be the best of all possible institutions in the best of all possible worlds and in no need of reform by those who sit in it, were only finally rebuilt in 1870. What is also little known is that the fire was caused by the burning of redundant tally sticks, which were an ancient memory aid for counting, The mathematician Tobias Dantzig in his book of 1930, “Number: The Language of Science”, remarks how ironical it was that a counting device had brought about the destruction of both the Houses of Parliament. The present political incumbents are not much better at counting as the financial crash of 2008 has proved and they may yet – unless there is a political miracle in England – burn down the house once again. Since the late 1960’s they have continually burned the benefit of North Sea oil.
Another little known episode concerning the Great Fire of 1834 was that when Westminster was well a-blaze a crowd had gathered to witness the spectacle. Whenever a gable toppled or a roof beam collapsed a great cheer went up from the assembled people. The point here is that government, by its very nature, is never popular. So how hard is it to sell to an already governed people that your version of governance will be better than what is currently in operation?
The answer is that it is extremely difficult. Everyone concerned with the launch of the White Paper on the 26th of November was well aware of that. However significant the actual media event in Glasgow and unprecedented the constitutional changes it advocates, plus the sheer political theatre of it all, every seasoned politician knows that the mob are just waiting to cheer when their great construction goes up in flames. That is the problem with having big ideas – people with none are delighted when they fail.
In Scotland as 2013 heads daily to 2014 and as each new political fire Westminster puts to our rights and freedoms informs us: we cannot afford to fail. The White Paper wasn’t called “Scotland’s Future” for nothing. So it was understandable that both Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon both kept a calm sough as they launched their government’s ambitious programme for a post-referendum Scotland. It will remain a working model for our future even if the nation votes No next September. It was also predictable that the Unionists of Better Together would dismiss the White Paper as “fantasy”.
What is fantastic is the increasing division of wealth under this Westminster regime – for in Scotland that is what they are – from those who accumulate it (the few) and those who produce it (the many). The rich are encouraged to become richer and the poor are attacked and bullied. In the document which is “Scotland’s Future” methodically, page by page, paragraph by paragraph, a counter philosophy to London’s avarice and austerity was laid out for those with eyes to see. At the centre of it is a proposed revolution in child care whereby by 2024 all children from the age of one will be entitled to full time state funded childcare of 1,140 hours – the equivalent of the hours spent in primary school. This will release a generation of women back into work. This is one of the basic tenets of the Nordic-style civil religion of the welfare state the SNP plan to introduce in an independent Scotland. If this were to come into being it would also be the basis for a revolution in our educational system where children would start school later, are not tested until they are sixteen and are encouraged in socialisation rather than conformity and specialisation. For schools this would also mean more autonomy where curriculum issues would be solved in the school as opposed by ministerial diktat. We could begin to reconcile the individual and the state. A new more progressive, less angst-ridden Scotland would emerge from such a process over time, more at ease with the world and confident enough to deal with the boisterous pyromaniac tendencies of our massive and chronically socially divided Southern neighbour.
Is that a dream? If it is then it is one I believe in. I am like Aengus in W.B. Yeats’s poem “The Song of Wandering Aengus”; “I went out to the hazel wood/ Because a fire was in my head”. It could be argued, and many subsequently have, that the White Paper did not contain “a vision”. That it did not contain much in the way of Yeatsian rhetoric is true, but it did contain almost everything we presently know or can think about what a post-independent Scotland would look like. In many ways at over 650 pages it was far too big a vessel for its opponents to see and understand – it was both too specific and homogenous – which is why they attacked the things they recognised such as monetary union and Trident. However serious these matters are I did find it hilarious to hear Alastair Darling talking to the media about finance as if, with his track record, he knew the first thing about economics. In 2008 his tally sticks caught fire in a major way.
As it is written in that other book of dreams and fantasies, The Bible – Proverbs chapter 29, verse 18 – Where there is no vision, the people perish. So if the White Paper, “Scotland’s Future”, did not send us out to the hazel wood with a fire in our heads it does not mean that the fire is not in our heads. What it does give us, as Alex Bell so perceptively noted in the latest Scottish Review, “is a map of the visible Moon – the dark side owned by Whitehall remains out of sight.”
As Yeats reminds us in his poem the Moon has silver apples and the Sun’s apples are golden – both of which Alastair Darling and his boss Gordon Brown would have sold off if they could have plucked them – and it is with this metaphor of human experience as capital that perhaps we can begin to understand just what is going on within island British politics at the moment. What the Unionist politicians and English media political commentators cannot quite comprehend – or publicly refuse to recognise if in private they see it – is that what Scotland plans to do constitutionally and subsequently politically is to turn Britain on its head. I have absolutely no problem with this project. Indeed I have a further suggestion that once Scotland achieves her independence we should then turn Scotland on its head. If we desire to begin to invest in social capital as opposed to relying on and being exploited by financial capital then we had better explore this alternative view sooner rather than later.
Why I welcome with open arms the Scottish Government’s proposal for chid care is because it is a facilitationary measure: it allows a society to open itself up to change. Only through education will we preserve our liberties and create new ones. If you live in the far North of Scotland you grow used to being told that you live on the edge, the periphery or even Ultima Thule where monsters swim in the sea. On the BBC our weather forecasts come with a vague wave of the weather presenter’s hand. Our seas are indeed infested with monsters, at worst they are nuclear submarines, at best oil and fields and soon, in the Moray Firth, hundreds of giant wind turbines. All our power lines head South. All our electricity and fuel is sent to us from the South and controlled and owned by a cartel of utility providers who charge us more the further North we live. In almost every aspect of modern society – whether it is food, health, housing or postal and tele-communications, we are penalised for our geography. If Scotland is to progress this has to change.
The recent debacles of Grangemouth and Govan show that big industries render the people of Scotland vulnerable to both belligerent private ownership and hostile state control. In the North of Scotland, as it is often quoted, we are resource rich but energy poor. The revolution in energy would come when the people, as citizens, produce their own energy. Why does tidal stream energy in the Pentland Firth belong to the Crown Estate? Why does the wind blowing over Caithness belong to Scottish and Southern Electricity and a few other big firms? Why does the profit go to those who own the land the turbines stand on and why does land cost so much when it is taxed so little? Why does Norway not spend the money it earns from the North Sea and the British Government spend money it does not have? Why are the people of the North of Scotland constantly bypassed when these issues are raised and when answers to these questions and solutions to these problems can be achieved locally by the deconstruction of power generation and ownership so that the consumer also becomes the generator? If schools will improve the education of our children by more autonomy and resources so can industrial deconstruction improve the quality of the lives of the people of the Highlands and Islands and by extension the rest of Scotland. We have the ability to produce sustainable wealth in the North but at the moment we are denied the necessary means.
The relationship the new emergent state of Scotland has to have with its newly empowered citizenry has to be one of flexibility. Freedom to make our own political choices must mean that we have freedom to change our world. Like the tins of baked beans which hold the ghost of socialism on the shelves of the Co-op supermarket so it is that within the pages of the recent White Paper are the thought out but as yet unrealised Moon-maps of our new country. If the Government is truly of the people then the people will be able to shine light on “the dark side” and reclaim it as our own. This must not happen despite our Government but because of them. If they restrict the potential of human ingenuity and the investment in social capital then their house of power will burn down eventually and we will be right, as they did in London in 1834, to cheer. Indeed, that would be a fire in the head.
However, there is many a slip between the cup and the lip, but I for one am glad the Scottish Government had the courage to give their plan to the nation. There are many doubters just as there are believers. To both I would direct them to the end of Aonghas MacNeacail’s powerful poem “Craobh A Chuir Somhairle/ A Tree Sorley Planted”*
“a-nise dhèanadh sinn danns’ air bhàrr snàthaid, a’ suaineadh a-mach is a-staigh tron chrò, le gàire, le teagamh mar dhùbhlan a bhiathas ceann-fàth now we could dance on the point of a needle, weaving in and out of the folds, with a laugh, with doubt as challenge to nourish intention”
© George Gunn 2013
* Aonghas MacNeacail, New and Selected Poems, Polygon Books
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