I should lay my cards on the table: I did not vote in the last UK General Election. Nor the one before. Nor the one before that. I never take part in any UK elections. I enjoy a game of charades now again but preferably with my grandchildren.
It is presumed that those who hold my position have no politics. People say: But you must vote! Men and women died for your right to take part! This can be true or false, depending on the argument, but such statements typically indicate an ignorance of radical history. Anti-parliamentarianism is the forgotten strain of the socialist movement in Scotland. Most people know nothing of this. They wait until somebody like myself stops talking then they switch topics. Those who hold views similar to mine are isolated unless directly engaged. Popular history focuses on obsequious warriors in tartan kilts who idolise chieftans and monarchs, lay down their lives for these glorious leaders, and consign for eternal subjection their children and children’s children.
There is an irony somewhere, given that the Scottish Enlightenment is premised on the inherent value of the individual perception. Young people were encouraged to ask questions. Nowadays they learn intellectual deference if not obedience; our education system has lost its own foundation, in favour of the Anglo-American model.
Philosophy represents the intellectual history of humanity and its study should be elemental. It takes us to where we are and can reveal to us the basis of some of our former errors which might help us avoid these and related errors in future. It is consistent with so much of what is happening in the contemporary world that such elemental study is no longer available to the majority of our students.
Descartes’ rationalism was fundamental to the Scottish intellectual tradition and eventually, by different routes, taken a step further. His method began from introspective judgment, but did not get beyond the subjective. The ‘Scotch philosophy’ advanced from there. It was not enough to observe their own thought processes individually, people sought to enlist the introspective observations of others; “to see the world as others see it”.
Scottish children grow up in ignorance of our own culture and traditions. Our literature is a ‘specialist area’ even in Scotland. Those who control the arts bureacracy for the most part share that ignorance. Whether they are born in Scotland or not is irrelevant. They are fully assimilated to the English perspective and cannot evaluate art from a Scottish aesthetic.
The Supreme Authority – the new Chief Executive – for the arts in Scotland was in ignorance of the arts in Scotland when offered the post earlier this year. Neither he nor the upper managerial staff who hired him considered knowledge of our art and cultural traditions relevant to the post.
One of last century’s most important Scottish poets was Norman McCaig. For his centenary it was advocated that the BBC produce a programme on McCaig’s life and work. The BBC agreed on condition that the comedian Billy Connolly presented the programme. The establishment cannot distinguish between our artists and cannot recognise artistic merit. They do recognise that one Scottish man is more widely celebrated than another; the substance of the celebration is not important.
For many years mainstream Scottish drama had at its cutting edge the Citizen’s Theatre in Glasgow. No one thought it odd that the Citizen’s publicly avowed policy was to produce nothing by Scottish dramatists. By definition local art was not simply inferior, it did not exist as ‘art’. The establishment accepted the Citizen’s position as evidence of the company’s ‘international outlook’, which is synonmous with merit.
As adults we encounter radical history by accident or hearsay. I was in my late 20s and a published writer before discovering there had been a Scottish insurrection in 1819. I was overwhelmed. I wrote a play and passed on ‘the news’.
The reality of political struggle rarely enters the public domain. Most believe that to engage in politics means ‘taking part’ in the electoral system, or joining a party. Some argue that voting be made compulsory which would institutionalise ruling authority’s suffocating grip on society. People stare blankly at the mention of alternative political strategies that the State will adopt whenever necessary.
What of the brutality perpetrated on the miners, the people of Northern Ireland, on immigrants and asylum seekers? What of deaths in custody, institutional racism and the collusion with capital that allows the continuing deaths of working class people through industrial disease and injury? What of the welfare cuts that lead to the rise in illiteracy, infant mortality and the suffering of elderly people? What of the degradation of our young people, dressed in uniforms, trained to humiliate, to torture and to murder, and sent overseas to safeguard and strengthen the interest of capital and the ruling class?
Nowadays these issues are not necessarily ‘political’. There is little or no ideological difference between the parties of government. The basic questions are managerial.
In a war business corporations require to survive, no matter the outcome. They maintain links with each of the opposing sides and attempt to direct matters to maintain security and greater benefits to itself. The State is like this. It tries to access and control all shades of political opinion. Change is possible but revolutionary change is uncontrollable and cannot be allowed. The State is alerted by changes in the social order that affects its own situation and reacts by strengthening the existing order. The primary business of the State its own survival and the government operates on its behalf.
We enter and depart intellectual epochs. There are constants. One is ruling authority. The State represents ruling authority and consists of an upper managerial class operating alongside the ruling elite and on behalf of capital. The right to mass exploitation is preserved and given hereditary status, personified by the so-called ‘royal family’ and wider aristocracy. Their existence sets the seal on social inequalies of such a vast scale that the reality is passed over in silence. The ‘royal family’ is sold to the public as a fabulous collection of distant relations. Snippets of personal information concerning their existence are relayed by the mainstream media on a daily basis. The subject is less newsworthy during General Elections. Hereditary riches and privilege, notions of permanent inequality, are not required when the public discourse is premised temporarily on another notion, that structural change is possible via parliamentary means.
Two parties alternate in the provision of government. These are Labour and Conservative who occupy the centre-left and centre-right of ‘our’ political system. The general public is encouraged to confuse the Labour Party with the ‘left’. Occasionally left-leaning individuals make it within the Labour Party but their leftism stops short of what is traditionally termed ‘socialism’. The Labour Party machine is geared towards suppressing such dangerous tendencies.
It is true that once upon a time citizens with left-wing views were able to make their voices heard within the Labour Party but that was a while ago. In the early days the Labour Party was not a party at all but a formation for left-wing representation, allowing a variety of working class and socialist voices to be heard, including trades unions and fringe left-wing groups such as the Communist Party. This changed from the end of the 1st World War and the State’s escalating assault on the authentic left, and republican movement, as the people of Ireland discovered when electing Sinn Fein to form a government in 1918.
Much else changed from this period, throughout Europe and the world. The socialist movement had experienced the collapse of the Second International in the face of nationalistic fervour and blinkered patriotism which led to the slaughter of millions of working class people. From this and the arguments of Lenin and Comintern, sanctified by the success of the October Revolution, socialists were persuaded to set aside ‘local agendas’. A semi-official route to socialism now existed that included participation in State-organised elections. Other ways of moving were ignored, marginalised or abandoned altogether.
The struggle for social justice alters as time passes. Better to look at where we are in terms of where we have been, always moving forward. But ninety years later socialists of one hue or another continue to participate in the charade.
Of the 78 parliamentary seats contested in Scotland at the General Election only ONE was won by a Conservative candidate. However, granted the support of the minority Liberal-Democrat party, a Conservative-led coalition government is now in place at Westminster. It will have helped that the leaders of both parties are roughly the same age, that their educational background is roughly similar, both attending private schools favoured by members of the ruling class. The Conservative leader is a distant cousin of Queen Elizabeth II of England while the leader of the Liberal Democrats has family links to the Imperial Russian aristocracy.
This coalition has a striking resemblance to the original ‘third way’ aided and generally advocated by British and US State interests for the latter half of the 20th century. Support ranged through infiltration into the labour and socialist movement, the use of propaganda via magazines and publishing enterprises, the modification and manipulation of intellectual discourse within the public domain. Crucially too was the recruitment of leading figures from ‘all walks of life’: industrialists, capitalists, military hierachy; religious, cultural and political activists; trades union and student leaders. They may have had ‘political differences’ but shared a founding principle grounded in the so-called ‘Christian way of life’, a God-centred ethical capitalism, and an anti-communist political commitment geared towards securing its permanence.
Every four or five years some of our elected managerial staff are obliged to reapply for their positions at Whitehall, some are re-elected, some are not. Meanwhile the real business goes on. As I said at the outset, I prefer playing charades with my grandchildren.