Toward Democracy? : Part One

Toward Democracy? : Part One
The National, By Alasdair Gray 
25.02.15

 

Weeks before last year’s referendum remarkable events happened in Scottish homes, pubs, trains to and from football matches. No matter which team won, folk discussed politics as if their opinions mattered and might change things.

 

This should be normal in a democracy. It is normal in the world’s oldest true democracy. Swiss constituencies have polling booths in working order throughout the year. Referenda on government decisions are held several times a month so people vote on them before going to work in the morning. In Britain and the US four years can pass between general elections and those who bother to vote have been shrinking to a minority. Until last September there had been no widespread Scottish communal debates since the Upper Clyde Shipyard work-in of 1971-72 and the referendum of 1979.

 

The Upper Clyde work-in did not halt the removal of capital from our industries, and the 1979 referendum did not get the Scots parliament most who voted had wanted, because Westminster had ruled that non-voters be counted with those who voted against.

 

Have a majority of common people ever changed a government? And for the better? Cynics give the French and Russian revolutions as examples of strong communal action making things worse, but I agree with Goethe: “It is bad governments, not bad people, who cause revolutions.”

 

Later French governments at least knew that, elected or not, enough angry citizens could get rid of them. This may explain why most French now have a higher standard of living and (despite recent racist aggression on all sides) France has more national unity than our United Queendom.

 

In Scotland two protests had better results because housewives backed them. In 1884, even with a British gunboat offshore, crofters in Lewis, North Uist and Skye resisted eviction so firmly that in two years Westminster gave them security in the Crofters Holding (Scotland) Act. In World War One wives of Glasgow servicemen united to refuse paying increased rents, and got Westminster to freeze them. Yes, ancient history.

 

In television years so is the Poll Tax, which Westminster in 1989 decided to test first in Scotland. Many here peacefully protested. Tommy Sheridan was jailed for refusing to pay, by a Labour Council which said it opposed the tax but must enforce it to keep the law. In England a year later the tax provoked arson, riot and looting so Westminster repealed it. It seemed that Scottish opinions could change nothing decided by Westminster.

 

Have a majority of common people ever changed a government? And for the better? Cynics give the French and Russian revolutions as examples of strong communal action making things worse, but I agree with Goethe: “It is bad governments, not bad people, who cause revolutions.”

 

BEING 80, I am obsessed with the past. In my teens and 20s voting seemed important. Labour and Tory policies were debated in parliament, at work and at home. My father and my mother’s father were both Labour voters but had furious political arguments. Grandpa was a strong trade unionist, which in those days was on Labour Party’s right wing. Dad was further left. In 1938 when Czechoslovakia and Britain’s Prime Minister signed a peace treaty with Hitler, Dad joined the Communist Party, but returned to Labour in 1939 when Hitler signed a peace treaty with Stalin and invaded Poland.

 

I now know that by 1960 the difference between our Labour and Tory Parties was then chiefly rhetorical. Both maintained the Welfare State, supported public ownership of what had been nationalized in World War Two, with the addition of our health and social services. In 1960 Britain had hardly any millionaires with foreign tax havens and we knew of none in our government.

 

The international money market was not a global industry that had taken over all others, because the Communist bloc still existed.

 

The policies of Thatcher, Major, Blair, Brown and Cameron have steadily damaged the British two-party system, which in England may depend for survival on Ukip. It exists in the north because Scots who want political independence have had the services of Alex Salmond.

 

Since entering parliament in 1987 his growing influence proves him Britain’s most canny politician. No others have survived in the public eye for nearly three decades while constantly denigrated by all the British publicity machines. This may explain his frequent amused expression. His strength comes from having one strong idea.

 

That was also the strength of Margaret Thatcher. Her one idea was PRIVATISE. She was supported by the money market with its banks, news media, and a united Tory Party. The only opposition was a Labour Party keen to forget it had been founded by Socialists, Trade Unionists, Irish and Scottish Nationalists.

 

Thatcher may have lived to be alarmed by results of her success. She declared that privatisation would turn Britain into a democracy of small shareholders, but the big capitalists were smarter. Before her election 40 per cent of British company shares were owned by individuals. When she died in 2013 the number was under 12 per cent.

 

Did she anticipate that 38 per cent of British industry and resources would be owned by foreign firms and investors, some of them state-owned European companies? British Telecom, once our communications industry, is divided between Spanish Telefonica, France Telecom and Deutsch Telekom. Thames and Mid Kent Water is owned by an Australian bank. A Dutch firm owns London and Surrey busses and ScotRail. The Financial Times will tell you which other bits of the UK are owned by foreign companies.

 

Did Thatcher ever know she had undermined the independence of the British Isles? Privatisation may go further if gated communities are allowed to buy their own part of the police force, or Westminster sells it entirely to an American company. Impossible?

 

Meanwhile Alex Salmond’s strong idea is not yet realised, though Scotland has at last the foundation for a new start, which may happen without the violence Westminster used to obstruct the Irish Republic.

 

THE No campaign’s victory of 55 per cent depressed me at first. I could not quite shrug my shoulders when some of these campaigners danced a (Scottish?) reel in George Square singing, “You can stuff your independence up your arse!” I now believe a nearer 50/50 per cent result would have been a worse outcome. Imagine the headlines:

 

“SCOTLAND – A NATION DIVIDED AGAINST ITSELF!”

 

Similar stories explaining that result made independence impossible were used after the 1979 referendum, and most Scots seemed to believe them. Not this time.

 

I am cheered by remembering the huge monetary and political clout used to get that 55 per cent majority. That Scottish independence was ridiculous, unworkable, would plunge Scotland into poverty had been news stories since the SNP was founded in 1934. In the two years before the referendum these tales came so thick and fast that even economic “experts” were forced to admit some had been lies. (What incompetent experts! Their “think tanks” had failed to predict the 2008 financial crash and bank failures.) Just before the referendum opinion polls showed the No campaign losing so many votes that leaders of Westminster’s three main parties came north to promise the Scots that their parliament would have more independence if it stayed in the UK. They did so without even threatening us.

 

Afterwards Cameron thanked the Scots majority for their support, repeated his promise, and said this would require a change in laws governing the whole UK. So now more than the main owners and controllers of Scottish properties and business know they can influence the Westminster government.

 

In the two years before the referendum these tales came so thick and fast that even economic “experts” were forced to admit some had been lies.

 

EVEN No voters must be keen to see how this promise is kept, or dodged, and to what effect. We need not wait for a referendum in five, 10 or 20 years to learn if Scots can have independence. A large, steady majority of independence-minded MPs in Edinburgh and London could declare themselves a Scottish government under existing European laws. And be arrested for it? By the police or by the army?

 

Since September 2014, membership of the SNP has so grown that local branches with 20 members last summer now have more than two hundred. Many movements sprang up with slightly different agendas such as National Collective, Radical Independence and others with names ending in for Independence and for Yes: women, youth and students, pensioners, farming, English Scots, Scots Asians and Africans. I believe none is xenophobic, like Ukip.

 

Two young strangers I met separately told me they mean to stand as MSPs. Our best hope is in young active minds, by which I mean folk below the age of 35 and new to politics.

 

I never joined the SNP because A: I’m too old. B: My wife was a strong enough member for both. C: I will never be so loyal to a party that I will not criticise it.

 

Scotland under Labour was a one-party state for far too long. Let those we elect in future discuss how to improve things in law, land use, industry, and find good grounds for agreement without splitting over differences: a left-wing vice.

 

This is the first article in a series which I hope will damage my reputation as a genial eccentric. Two years ago I wrote that those who
come to one country from another are either colonists or settlers, a definition supported by English dictionaries.

 

That caused such an astonishing storm of protest that in his book, Another Country, John Herdman said that in a week it had changed me from being called “a national treasure to a grumpy old man,” which is certainly a more respectable title.

 

I hope these articles may get me Hugh MacDiarmid’s title of being a disgrace to his community, but I probably lack the guts to achieve that.