Chartism, Chartists, Democracy, EU Referendum, History, John Knox, Nationalism, Opinion, Politics, Popular Sovereignty, Revolution, Scottish Independence, Scottish Nationalism, SNP, Sovereignty, The Declaration of Arbroath, The People's Charter, Tom Devine
On 21 May 1838, at least a hundred thousand trade union members and supporters gathered on Glasgow Green, to listen to a host of speakers from around the country. Today we have the technology, the microphones and loudspeakers, to render any large open-air meeting of this kind a user-friendly affair. Back then, however, it must have been nightmarish. I have heard some historians theorise that these meetings could have only functioned through a process not unlike “Chinese whispers,” in which information was constantly relayed back from the platform by word of mouth. Perhaps most “moral force” Chartists were sermonising piously at the front of the crowd, and most “physical force” Chartists were receiving mangled revolutionary overtures at the back. In any case, when Dr Arthur Wade, a delegate from the London Working Men’s Association was seen brandishing a piece of paper, few on Glasgow Green could have known what it was. Certainly the journalists in attendance almost entirely neglected to report its appearance.
Nonetheless, the demands which were written in Wade’s document would singe society down to its roots, like lightning blasting an ancient oak. This was the People’s Charter, a radical blueprint for transforming a ruinous society into a mass-participatory democracy. It was unveiled for the first time in Glasgow.
The working class was tired of faraway leaders who were unelected or barely elected. They wanted to take control for themselves. Naturally the entire political establishment stood against them. As Thomas Attwood MP told Glasgow’s multitudes, “We have against us the whole of the aristocracy, nine-tenths of the gentry, the great body of the clergy, and all the pensioners, sinecurists, and bloodsuckers that feed on the vitals of the people…”
If the Institute For Fiscal Studies had been around back then, it would have no doubt chipped in too.
On 7 April 2016, an audience of political activists gathered in Glasgow’s Hunter Halls, to listen to Grassroots Out’s politicians and trade union leaders. The cry was to now “take back control.” The Hunter Halls have a maximum capacity of six hundred, but I cannot find a photo of this event which shows more than a hundred people present.
Tychy is, as regular readers of this website will know, not a nationalist. I find nationalism to be the most banal and futile of all ideologies. My gravestone will no doubt feature, in this order, my name, the dates, and the words “Not a nationalist.” One year in every three, a dog-walker will surprise this rock in the corner of some secluded country churchyard and they will puzzle over its epitaph. “Not a nationalist” – so what’s the story behind that then?
Still, if I am not a nationalist, you have to wonder what many Scottish nationalists are. The EU referendum reveals them to have abandoned assumptions about democracy which had once a distinctly Scottish dynamic and parameters. Nationalists characteristically take a conceited, even insolent pride in their “national” values, although these values are often, upon inspection, universal and quite unremarkable. Scotland, on the other hand, has a relationship with democracy which is for once unique, with events in its history advancing and legitimising the concepts of political representation and popular sovereignty.
Scottish history is in effect a racing river of rebellion. Unceasing cries for kings, queens, bishops, and parliaments to not govern without the consent of the masses can be found running all the way down from the days of the Bruce to… well, down to 2016, when Scottish nationalists are suddenly insisting that the wisdom of unelected legislators be obediently accepted. The more that you step back from this dizziness, to try to acquire sufficient historical distance, the more that you grasp the violence of the wrench in history. That racing river has unexpectedly become a stagnant bog.
Tychy has previously and quite lazily assumed that the Left in Scotland had abandoned its progressive ideals for nationalism. Whereas once the Left had fought generation after generation to win power for the people, the Scottish national revival of 2014 saw many on the Left attempting to walk out on a mass democracy.
Why couldn’t left-wing intellectuals persuade the working class to support socialism? Well, these same intellectuals taught themselves and each other, it was because the working class in the UK was overwhelmingly English. The Scottish nationalists Tom Devine, Ludovic Kennedy and Lesley Riddoch have all paraphrased the Canadian Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau to lament that the Union is, for Scotland, like “being in bed with an electorate.” Or maybe it was an elephant, though it is easy to get in a muddle here. Devine chronicled how in the 1980s “the English ‘elephant’… moved to the Scottish side of the ‘bed’, with the imposition of hugely unpopular social and economic policies by the Thatcher governments.” This elephant was apparently too big and thick to be turned around in any democratic process. Devine and his ilk had thus retreated into a denial that the UK afforded an authentic demos; for them, the UK electorate had somehow degenerated into an unworkable hybrid which was made out of social-democratic and elephant DNA. Nationalism, usually seen as worthless by the Left, had just become ideologically indispensable.
Freedom of speech, that load-bearing pillar of democracy, had become correspondingly expendable whenever defending it meant challenging the Scottish National Party. The SNP’s Offensive Behaviour (Football) Act (2012), an extraordinary piece of legislation which criminalises sectarian chanting and singing at football matches, has been widely supported amongst Scottish nationalists. Wings Over Scotland, the most plebian of Nat websites, concluded one analysis by declaring, “So let the debate end here. Every single demographic in Scotland, without exception… backs the Offensive Behaviour (Football) Act.”
So here we have it. Latter-day Scottish nationalism is expressed in its purest form as a distrust of democracy, as a fear of ordinary people and their unconstrained choices, rather than as a heartfelt love for traditional Scottish values. Of course, love for your country – a passion which admittedly runs dry in my own veins – is meant to be unconditional. In this respect, the Scottish patriot would still have to love Scotland even if all of its historical heroes were a collection of cutthroats and bumpkins. But the disregard for popular sovereignty from the Remain-supporting SNP mainstream, the constant, dogged evasion of democracy from people who call themselves Scottish nationalists, is richly enjoyable. Their hypocrisy is writ high across the heavens.
For Scottish nationalists, Brexit sparks an internal war between two competing traditions. The first is the age-old heritage, however fanciful, of Arbroath, of elected kirksmen, of bishop-booing conventicles, of John Knox and Robert Burns, and of the intimate, local representation and accountability which could be traditionally found throughout Scottish public life, either as a reality or as a virtue. The second is a comparatively infantile narrative in which Scottish progressives have tried to hide from the UK’s working class in Scotland.
If the Scottish Left had abandoned mass democracy for nationalism, the EU referendum reveals Scottish nationalism to be horribly, and quite treacherously, democratic. A terror of the working class had led many on the Left to rejoice in the EU, where the voters are always kept at a suitable distance, where the voters’ representatives are always lost in a powerless multinational “parliament,” and where the voters’ demands always have to be traded and compromised out of existence.
So now everything must go. Scottish nationalism has been dumped out in the street, in boxes, for bargain prices. The Declaration of Arbroath has had to be rewritten:
…for, as long as but a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions oppose being under EU rule, because of the benefits it brings in terms of jobs and investment. It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, and it certainly isn’t for freedom either — for that every honest man gives up in order not to put our prosperity, and our Scottish jobs, at risk.
The armed rabble who had once followed William Wallace and Robert the Bruce about have been finally fired from the annals. The American historians Alexander Klieforth and Robert Munro are responsible for a work of silly Royal Mile nationalism which contends that the Arbroath Declaration had influenced the writing of the US’s “We hold these truths to be self-evident…” These authors try to link Bruce’s hordes to America’s own right-to-bear-arms. They claim that unlike in European kingdoms which were dependent on mercenaries, “virtually every male in Scotland became a more-or-less trained fighter. When Scotland fought a war, it fielded a peoples’ army, the only European nation to do so…” This vision of people power is the very last thing that is needed nowadays.
John Knox has to go as well. In an age when the Kirk held supreme power over people’s lives, Knox wanted all of its ministers and elders to be elected. Moreover, he wanted a national system of schooling so that Scots would be sufficiently educated when it came to these elections. Whenever he was confronted with Mary, Queen of Scots, an aloof, French-accented schemer who was perhaps the nearest thing that the sixteenth-century had to a European Commissioner, he would erupt into Farage-style ranting.
Burns gets away with it because his warblings do not contain any direct appeals for democracy, and he seemingly confined his own democratic radicalism to private remarks. “Holy Willie’s Prayer” is not written in a proper spirit of respect though. The Covenanters and the conventicles, by clinging to the idea that consent was superior to patronage, are out. So too is a lot of subsequent history. The historian John Brims has observed that, “The appeal to and identification with the covenanting tradition is a motif which runs throughout the modern history of the Scottish people. It can be traced back from the home rule national covenant of 1949 to the Red Clydesiders of the 1920s, the Chartists of 1838-1848, the political unions of 1831-1832, and the radicals of 1816-1820.”
The Chartists, even when calling for working-class representation at Westminster, had defined themselves as stoutly Scottish. Two bestselling Chartist newspapers were called the True Scotsman and the Scottish Patriot. The huge public meetings on Glasgow Green by Chartists and, over thirty years later, by Suffragists, anticipated the emergence of Red Clydeside and the messianic success of the Independent Labour Party.
This model of mass participation is incompatible with our membership of the EU. It is simply not what democracy is meant to be like these days. Indeed the daylight of Scottish democracy has almost wholly dwindled away, prospectively according the EU referendum the status of a sunset. As Michael Keating, professor of politics at Edinburgh University, has recently noted of the referendum, “This obsession with sovereignty, you don’t find that in Scotland.” Once upon a time, this would have been like news arriving from the Sahara that they had run out of sand.
I fear that the title of this article might be considered misleading. To call democracy “the spirit of Scotland” makes it sound like the nation’s core or essence. “Spirit” can also mean an apparition, something which has faded to virtual invisibility.