ONE 10 • The Sense of an Ending

The Sense of an Ending
–MSP Christopher Harvie

I have been grateful over the past few years for the hospitality of the Guardian’s ‘CommentisFree’, until its self-editing system was changed and new-style gatekeepers made it clear that freedom stopped around Watford Gap: not just my contributions but anything from too-far-north of London would not be welcomed. I wrote to other Guardian illuminati, but in Germany they say ‘Keine Antwort ist auch eine Antwort.’ – ‘No answer is also an answer.’ The terms of the New CiF dialogue were all too clear: liberty for vox metropolis, let the rest twitter in the wings.

Not unlike the Policy Forum style which replaced boring old Labour conferences. A month ago a book called What went Wrong, Gordon Brown? arrived from London, about Brown in office: effectively a chronological anthology of Guardian writing about the man. I looked up Scotland in the index, as I tend to do, and got ‘Scotland, Lady’. Another reference to ‘Salmond, Alex’, and that was that. I don’t think this was intentional, and that only makes matters worse. What chance of survival has a consciousness so palpably disordered? A question answered after a fashion by news of financial problems and divestments.
Bus pass to hand, draw breath and look back. Since the 1970s I have as an academic in both the UK and German systems, run an empirical analysis of the making of contemporary Britain: going out from the Open University and Tuebingen in the shape of a sequence of books and articles – more logically planned as time went on. In chronological subject-order this began with a doctoral study of politics in Victorian academia (The Lights of Liberalism, Allen Lane, 1976), examined by the formidable Noel Annan. I then turned to national and regional identities within Europe (Scotland and Nationalism, Allen and Unwin, 1976; The Rise of Regional Europe, Routledge, 1993); the political novel (The Centre of Things, Unwin Hyman, 1991), and the culture of the Western industrial littoral (Floating Commonwealth, Oxford, 2008). Contemporary Scottish history (No Gods and Precious Few Heroes: Scotland since 1914, Edward Arnold, 1981), the oil boom of the 1970s which postponed the reckoning (Fool’s Gold, Penguin, 1994) and bringing things up to date was the post-industrial ambitions and economic record of New Labour (Broonland, Verso, 2010). Three Political Quarterly survey essays ought also to be taken into account: ‘The dog that did not bark: English regionalism’ (1991), ‘Was there a British moment?’ (1999) and ‘Bad history’ (2004). These appeared from metropolitan publishers, were well reviewed and, though far from ‘No. 1 Best Seller History’, two have run into four editions. They shape up into a critique, the structure of which can be inferred from my first paragraphs. But now, when more or less complete, its audience – that clever, adaptive clerisy represented by Lord Annan – seemed to dissolve.

The sequence had not been, any more than Carlyle, Ruskin or more recently Raymond Williams and Tom Nairn, a Celtic dismissal of the common identities within these islands; rather, an attempt to update and reinterpret them. But now it seems to be acquiring, without any prompting from me, what Nairn had said The Centre of Things still needed: ‘the sense of an ending’. For there was a political parallel. In 1986 the BBC asked me to revive the Scottish devolution issue in a TV documentary ‘Grasping the Thistle’ which inaugurated their Scotland 2000 project. This helped lead to the Scottish Constitutional Convention of 1989, which in turn brought in 1999 the Parliament where I now sit as regional MSP for Mid-Scotland and Fife. But the hope of federalism in ‘Grasping the Thistle’ had vanished. We were on Tam Dalyell’s ‘motorway to independence’ and I thought this right.

In 1999 some still regarded Scottish autonomy as a retreat from British reality. But what prevails after the financial crash is a sense of interlocking collapse: of economy, of constitution, of party politics, of morality and media. But, most penetrating of all is the failure to treat it as interlocking. The result of febrile academic specialisation and robust careerism from the metropolitan media greenhouse – when ‘best-seller history’ turns occasionally from war: you can guess the names. Since the crash the UK political world seems to have realised that it’s rooted in nothing: so rapidly has the dissolution of industrial membrane and post-industrial hype taken effect.

No king will heed our pleadings,
No court will hear our claims.
Our king and court, for their disport,
Do sell the very Thames.

The criticism of a nationalist right in the Kipling-Eliot tradition ought to come from a consciousness of continuing British identity, but that has departed the earth. The Guardian we have met. These days the online Times presents itself, rather usefully, with a contents list, which cuts down the short time one needs to review it. The Telegraph has a certain ‘best brute vote’ charm – clever Matt and swinish Alex – but takes leave of its reason over Europe. Ukip or the BNP may make some populist running over immigration. Enoch Powell was wrong – the Kenyan Asians gave as sharp an entrepreneurial boost as the Huguenots or Russian Jews. In Scotland we desperately need immigrants if we are to re-industrialise and exploit renewable energy; as well as reliable finance after our banks were looted, and efficient transport for industry and a 70% urban population. We can find these – and probably (given our energy resources) the necessary investment – among the European industrial powers. Which is where our version of Matthew Arnold’s ‘one thing needful’ effectively finds itself: the Financial Times.

Why not look to London? Here, however, the anthology of ancient ressentiments which is Anglo-Britain intervenes, refracted through a fissured London establishment. An analysis which is rational in Edinburgh will not make waves down south. Our remaining reserves of heavy engineering capacity and trained manpower are not going to build wind- and wave-power plants, but new Tridents and giant aircraft carriers: thus serving BAe, the UK’s corrupt merchants of death, and the Whitehall forces which long ago evicted Robin Cook’s ‘ethical dimension to foreign policy’.

In early 2010 Ukania faces not a decisive election, but a car crash. The traditional parties which underpinned David Butler and Robert McKenzie’s ‘British political homogeneity’ in swingometer days (1945-1974) are now quite adrift from any ideological meaning, and beginning to look like something out of South America: Blancos versus Colorados. A hung parliament will mark a political suicide attempt, to be redeemed only with great difficulty, if at all.

The laughing savagery of the tabloids has smeared itself like warpaint over the values of Michael Frayn’s herbivore middle classes: supermarket booze, footie, ‘Guardian soulmates’ in place of nonconformity, co-operation, free-thinking. In benign mood, the result resembles that rather touching portrait of conservative Russian youth in Bulgakov’s The White Guard, oddly a great favourite with Stalin. More realistically, the evidence coming in from European exchange students shows up a pitiful cultural wasteland. ‘Post-modern irony’ – giggling at the semi-literate – marks the ‘remnant’ of a society which no longer makes anything worth trading, and no longer owns the technical pillars of the state. British nationalism would need the concentrated, lunatic venom of a Swift or a Saki to convey the irony of buying insurance from Santander, electricity from EDF, or having Dieter the big red engine from Deutsche Bahn haul your train.

Thirteen years ago New Labour came in on a landslide, and never has there been greater constitutional change: devolution, diminution of hereditary peers, creation of a supreme court. Yet was this born out of confidence? Did attitudes and expectations change? Something of the sort had happened in 1909-1911, driven by David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill, urged on by C P Scott and J A Hobson from Cross Street, Manchester. And now? The tenantless Dome, the melting of Cool Britannia, the politics of dismay. ‘Never glad confident morning again’ was Robert Browning on Tennyson’s sell-out on becoming Poet Laureate, but the empty wealth, the trashed ideals, need the heartbreak of his ‘Youth and Art’:

But you meet the Prince at the Board
I’m queen myself at bals-pares
I’ve married a rich old lord,
And you’re dubbed knight and an RA.

Each life unfulfilled, you see,
It hangs still, patchy and scrappy:
We have not sighed deep, laughed free,
Starved, feasted, despaired, – been happy.

And nobody calls you a dunce,
And people suppose me clever;
This could but have happened once,
And we missed it, lost it forever.

Nobody these days reads Browning – just as nobody can recollect more than the title of ‘Things can only get better!’ Misha Glenny now tells us in McMafia (2008) that what happened in east Europe in 1989-91 wasn’t liberation by gallant cultivated democrats, as in his The Rebirth of History (1991) but corrupt oligarchies reshuffling and cashing in, protected by hit-men from the former secret police. The difference was that, with the Iron Curtain shot to bits, ‘illegalism’ spread westwards, and London and New Labour were up for it, risks be damned. There are ways of explaining this: the collapse of cabinet government, of responsible finance, and of a culture concerned with civic morality, set against the resilience of the imperial residues of global corporations, third-world oligarchies operating from tax havens, and the delusive boosterism of cultural capitalism. Altogether too formidable. As that honest Tory David Davies MP said in an aside at the Banking Commission: ‘We’re all against socially-useless finance. But look who’s bankrolling our party.’

Just as I entered Holyrood as an MSP, the writer Angus Calder was dying in a nearby nursing home. Alcohol destroyed the hope of more great historical projects like The People’s War (1969) and Revolutionary Empire (1983) but now it’s possible to see him – in the clarity of his late poems – as someone who, like the ‘holy drinker’ Joseph Roth, similarly self-destructive in 1930s, grasped the articulation of personal fate and history. The socialist satirist also saw the Habsburg Empire on skid row, and mourned it to death. Angus’s refuge was in Walter Scott’s Croft-an-righ: the ‘King’s field’ or debtors’ sanctuary in his last great tale, the prelude to the Chronicles of the Canongate (1827), in which Scotland’s future under capitalism is unhopefully sketched out. Coming from a small country whose economy and society were lastingly crippled after World War I, which it had enabled the Allies to win, our wariness is to be expected. What we see in London isn’t that exhilarating metaphor of Philip Larkin’s ‘Whitsun Weddings’: ‘an arrow-shower, somewhere becoming rain’ but a centripetal, oligarchic force that means us – and indeed London – no good.

Our future, if we have one, lies beyond. In a confederation of the islands? In some variable-geometry outfit that will sort out energy, transport and banking issues in ways that will cope with the looming, far greater menace of Peak Oil? As a European actor – or troupe of actors – vivifying the acronym-cluttered corridors of Strasbourg and Brussels? A hung parliament may open up such options, end the illusion of world power, and compel a rational European future. But in negotiating it we have to be alert to the separate histories and congruencies of family and community, capitalism, the state at its various levels and what Adam Ferguson called ‘the bands’ of civil society when benign, and of luxury and corruption when not. At 65, to have provided these ideas and hopes with a history and tested them against political experience is as much as one can do.

Herman van Rompuy, the first Europresident, says he was propelled into politics by John Buchan, another personal preoccupation. I edited The Thirty-nine Steps for Oxford, and Peer Steinbruck, the successful German finance-minister, said that the likes of Buchan and Eric Ambler were better guides to the economic disorder than any number of Nobel prizewinners. The quote van Rompuy offered was high-sounding, but Buchan survives through a Sancho Panza, or in Scotland Bailie Nicol Jarvie, view of politics: just like the real Adam Smith. One of his stories was of a Scottish squaddie, captured in Mesopotamia, who escaped and made his way into pre-revolutionary Russia. He found himself in a town where a huge Orthodox procession was choking the main street, laden with gold and icons. A big bearded man, as gorgeously dressed as the rest, came towards him, swinging a censer, and chanting ‘If it does ye nae guid, it’ll dae ye nae hairm!’ That’s enough moralism to be getting on with. But Buchan, Gordon Brown, Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson and temporarily Carlyle and myself, share the burgh of Kirkcaldy, on which the media will train its gaze in coming weeks. It could learn something from the place.

Christopher Harvie is Member of the Scottish Parliament and author of
Broonland – The Last Days of Gordon Brown, a witty, scathing indictment of New Labour and its ill-fated leader. Harvie is visiting professor at Strathclyde and Aberystwyth Universities and serves on the board of the European Centre for Federalism Studies, Tübingen, Germany. His many books include Scotland and Nationalism and Fool’s Gold: The Story of North Sea Oil.