The Future of History

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

The X Factor

I treated myself, the other day.  I bought a copy of Allan Campbell McLean's The Hill of the Red Fox.

It must be 35 years since I borrowed that book from my local library in Birmingham.  Time spent on holiday in Scotland had planted a deep-rooted fascination, bordering on thirst, for all things Scottish.  The Hill of the Red Fox, which sits comfortably alongside Stevenson's Kidnapped and Buchan's Thirty-Nine Steps, was one of the stories which allowed me to keep in touch, as it were, with western Scotland when I was back home in the West Midlands.  It also inspired my interest in the Gaelic language (there is a little glossary of Gaelic terms in the back, and this fascinated me as a kid - the Gaelic has a dignity, a romance, and a connection with nature that English seldom matches).  When the chance arose, I opted to take Gaelic Studies at the University of Glasgow, largely because of the glossaries I had previously found in such books as The Hill of the Red Fox.

Rooting around a charity bookshop in Evesham, a day or two after I'd read The Hill of the Red Fox, I came across an old copy of another novel by Allan Campbell McLean.  The Year of the Stranger.  I'm reading it now.

Like The Hill of the Red Fox, it's set on the Isle of Skye.  But whereas the former novel takes place during the Cold War 1950s and involves espionage, murder and nuclear secrets (all grist to my adolescent mill, back in the late 70s), The Year of the Stranger takes place in the Victorian era.  And it paints a perfectly clear picture of the gross injustices of aristocratic rule in the Highlands and Islands.

There's a referendum coming up.  The people of Scotland have a choice - do they want independence, or are they anxious to remain in the United Kingdom?  I don't have a vote, although I wish I did.  The vote will take place the day before my 12th wedding anniversary.  I married a woman who is half-Scots.  We were married on the Isle of Iona.  I can think of no more exciting anniversary present than a resounding YES to Scottish independence.

There are many, many reasons why it's a good idea.  Some of them are to be found in The Year of the Stranger.  It's a reminder that, after the Treaty of Union between England and Scotland in 1707, the people of Scotland pretty much lost every last one of their rights.  They were cleared from their native lands, forced out of their homes to make way for sheep (a lucrative business, but one that destroyed the ecology of the Highlands) or simply to provide an absentee landlord and his wealthy friends with even more empty land to call their own.  Servile deference was demanded by the anglicised gentry.  That deference was not just demanded - it was imposed by force.  While the aristocracy turned Scotland into their own exclusive playground, those to whom the land had belonged were shipped off to America, Canada, Australia, in their thousands.  Those who remained behind had no choice but to tug their forelocks and grovel to the latest outsider who called himself their landlord.  A terrible punishment awaited those who resisted.  The fish in the rivers belonged to the aristocracy; the deer on the hills were theirs.  They owned - or believed that they owned - everything.

The spirit of the Highlanders was all but broken.  Many went off to fight in Britain's wars (sustaining a disproportionate amount of casualties, compared with the rest of the UK).  Those at home found themselves oppressed, not just by the aristocrats, who could buy the law, but also by religious extremists, who forced their neighbours into ever more demoralised forms of mental straitjacket.  As always, aristocracy and religious zealotry went hand in hand.  The once-proud people learned to live in fear of their outlandish landlords and their crazy preachers.  They had become little more than slaves.

It took the 20th century to pull Scotland - and the rest of the UK - out of that moral, political and economic insanity.  Votes for all, regardless of income and gender; universal education; welfare; healthcare; collective bargaining.  Gradually, civilisation dawned.  But all that has now been undermined.

Tom Devine, probably the most respected historian in Scotland, explained why it was time to vote YES to independence.  The union was of benefit (he feels) from the Jacobite rebellion of 1745 up till the Thatcherite revolution of 1979.  But that's when union with England ceased to be of any real advantage to the Scots.  The neoliberal agenda being so ruthlessly pursued by successive British governments is nothing more than a determined attempt to turn back the clock.  While the stark picture of gross economic, political and legal inequality as presented by Allan Campbell McLean in The Year of the Stranger strikes us today as quaintly barbaric, be in no doubt that to those who currently hold power in Westminster, that sort of rampant injustice makes perfect sense.

Social and economic progress was turned around in 1979.  Margaret Thatcher's simplistic economic policies were an absolute disaster - and yet the receipts from (Scottish) North Sea Oil and Gas propped up the nation's finances, so that things didn't look quite as bad as they really were (and there was always the press to mislead us as to what was really going on).  But if the natural wealth of Scotland bailed out Thatcher's failed experiments, it was the Scots who paid the greatest price - their industry practically destroyed.  Nuclear weapons?  The English wouldn't want them anywhere near their coastal towns.  Put them within 25 miles of the most densely populated area in Scotland.  Oh, and the poll tax that nobody wanted?  That was visited on the Scots a full year before they tried it out in England.  Scotland's wealth subsidised Westminster, but rather than show the slightest gratitude, Tory commentators chose to brand the Scots "scroungers" and "subsidy-junkies".  That is what colonisation looks like.

If Scotland chooses not to free itself of the shackles of aggressive, patronising, condescending, grasping Westminster rule, it will live to regret it.  Scotland is one of the richest countries in the world, and yet hundreds of thousands of its children are falling into poverty as a result of Tory ideology (there is only one - ONE - Tory MP in Scotland).  A person from Aberdeenshire, when asked to explain why she is voting YES, said, "When I look out to sea, I see nothing but oil-rigs.  When I look inland, I see nothing but food-banks."

And that, folks, is your warning.  History is repeating itself.  A corrupt and self-serving aristocracy is seeking to take us back to those dark days in which we all had to doff our caps to the idiots who lorded it over us; that, or we starved.  They could take our homes, throw us out into the cold, send us overseas, deny us our rights and use lethal force against us.  Their obscene wealth was stolen from the millions who actually earned it.

England can, if it chooses, wrap itself up in the Downton Abbey lies about the past and carry on down the road towards government by half-baked toffs and their vicious minions, or the only apparent alternative, which is arse-about-face UKIP-style fascism.  But if the Scots want to avoid the iniquities of history being revisited upon them, they need to take the chance that is now on offer.

For one thing is clear.  Those who cling to the idea of the union do so for one of two reasons.

The first is that they are the very aristocrats who believe that they own Scotland (and its people, and its natural resources) and who insist on maintaining their privileges, no matter what it takes.

The other is that they have some vague hope that somehow, the Scots and the English and the Welsh and the people of Northern Ireland will someday turn the neoliberal juggernaut around and get us back on the road to democracy and decency.  But that ain't gonna happen.  The English are too busy blaming everybody else in the world for their mistakes to wake up to the very real trouble they're in.  The Scots are already awake.  The YES campaign is by far the biggest, broadest, most inclusive and engaged grassroots campaign I've ever seen: a genuine movement of the people.  It's not about nationalism.  It's about reality.  They know that the union is finished, and that Thatcherism killed it.  They see democracy slipping ever further and further away, as the gentry comes marching back to lay claim to what it never earned.  The NO campaign has behaved as the defenders of privilege always do: telling lies about what is in the people's best interests and issuing one threat after another.  A conniving minority is also out there, doing the gentry's dirty work, like the hated factors of old.

There's still time to read The Year of the Stranger before the referendum.  Which means there's still a chance to remind ourselves what rule by those-who-believe-they're-born-to-rule tends to mean.  It wasn't always thus in the Highlands and Islands.  But the Treaty of Union imposed the worst kind of patrician government-by-force on a proud and independent-minded people, and those people were worn down, beaten, cheated by magistrates, bullied by a greedy gentry and terrorised by paranoid ministers.

And that's where we're heading again, unless the Scots display their natural courage, intelligence and sense of social justice, and set themselves free.  It only takes an 'X' in a box to rid the land of the fear of the landlord and his factor, and to show the world the way forward again.

Alba gu brath!!

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