Thursday, 9 May 2013

It's time tae rise as levellers again


If you follow this blog, you know already that I am an essayist; you know I'm not a poet. So here is an essay. It's an essay that has been boiling up in me for weeks, and I've been trying to do the background research I need to support it. I haven't fully succeeded in that. There hasn't been time. But now the iron is hot, and I must strike. So here it is: an essay.

The wicked witch is lately dead
The tower clock is silenced 
That else had toll'd her to her bed
Ding Dong. Yet when all's said
Her hagiographers are read
She's cast a saint, her people led
To 'freedom', a land promised -
Her people, not us lesser bred
It's time tae rise as levellers again

Margaret Thatcher. I remember her - many people of my generation remember her - with great bitterness. I am not good at hating, I think she may be the only person I have truly hated in my life. Her first - purely ideological - recession was intended to create a 'leaner, fitter Britain', so she said. The business I then owned with my then wife, Auchencairn Pottery, didn't fit in Thatcher's leaner, fitter Britain. We were a small craft manufacturing business, selling mostly to the discretionary income of the middle classes. Came the recession, and the middle classes didn't have any discretionary income. In 1981, nine of thirteen craft pottery businesses in Dumfries and Galloway went to the wall, and ours was one of them. We weren't Thatcher's target, of course. We were young entrepreneurs, the people she claimed to support. But we, and tens of thousands like us, were, to her, acceptable collateral damage.

Margaret Thatcher set out to smash the unions, and provided the unions were smashed, the cost to the rest of the community need not be counted. So, we lost our business, as I've said. We also lost our marriage and our home, in the turmoil of that crash. It was a good marriage - one that could have lasted. I lived for some months on bread, eggs, mussels from the beach, and the occasional rabbit that a friendly farmer would leave on my doorstep.

It wasn't just small businesses that Thatcher's ideological blitzkrieg destroyed, of course. All across Galloway, all across Scotland, good viable businesses collapsed and thousands were thrown on the dole. I went with hundreds of others on buses from Dumfries to demonstrations in Glasgow, Manchester, London. There was a good feeling on those buses. A camaraderie. We weren't all of one party - there were anarchists, trotskyites, Labour party members, nationalists, and people of no discernible affiliation. But faced with this assault on our community, we made common cause, and that was good.

I picked myself up, dusted myself off, got myself highers and went to university. While I was a student, Thatcher took on the miners. I joined a student group which set up holidays for the children of striking miners, and so I gained an honorary life membership of a branch of the National Union of Mineworkers at a pit that's long since closed. But that's beside the point. I succeeded at university, went on to do research in artificial intelligence, and founded a high-tech company selling advanced software into industry.

Just in time for Thatcher's second recession.

While her first was ideological, her second was pure incompetence. I remember doing a sales tour of our major customers in 1989, and every person we were trying to sell to took me aside after the presentation and asked if we had any jobs, because their research budget had been cut and they feared they would lose theirs... and so I lost a second business (and a second house) to Thatcher.

Of course, I was one of the lucky ones. I had intelligence, self confidence, entrepreneurship. Millions of people had none of those things. Millions of people did not have the talents to create their own jobs, build their own businesses. Millions of people were dependent on industry to provide them with employment, with income, with dignity, with hope. And Thatcher destroyed industry. She destroyed the lives of millions.

I have waited decades to dance on her grave.

Yet, when she was dead, the government - the Tory government - decided to give her a funeral worthy of the Nuremberg rallies. The BBC - our BBC, which we the people own and pay for - dignified that funeral with servile and fawning coverage. The Chancellor - George Osborne, a man who treads eagerly in Thatcher's footsteps from recession to recession - wept crocodile tears. Now, a fortnight later, the BBC is still tripping over itself to give airtime to her hagiographers. The Tories are clearly trying to seize the narrative, to make it a hegemonic truth that Thatcher's deliberate decimation of Britain's manufacturing industry, her wanton selling off of all our nationalised industries and utilities, her destruction of the collective institutions of working folk, was a 'reform' which is 'irreversible' and somehow made Britain a better place.

The truth is, Britain is - still - a better place than when she left it. It's a better place because we, the people, have had twenty years to clean up the mess she made, to gradually rebuild Britain from the ashes of her scorched earth. But where now is our industry? Jaguar and Landrover, like the steel mills of Wales, now belong to the Indians. Mini, Bentley, Rolls Royce, to the Germans. Lotus, to the Malaysians. Rover, to the Chinese, and they've already moved the production home. I've concentrated on the car industry, because Britain (not Scotland) still has a car industry. But what of our computer industry, here in Britain where the computer was invented? Where now is the IBM plant at Greenock, the Sun plant at Linlithgow, Hewlett Packard at Queensferry, Marconi in Edinburgh, NCR in Dundee? Well, to be fair, NCR still are in Dundee, by the skin of their teeth. But they no longer make anything there. Our sewing machines have sung their song. The Hillman Imp is dead and gone. Our strength in engineering's done.

And shipbuilding? Remember shipbuilding? All that's left is British Aerospace, building on the Clyde two aircraft carriers for which we'll have no planes, and at Barrow submarines which don't work and can't steer.

But that's industry, big industry, and big industry is essentially urban. This is a rural rant. Let's come home to Galloway.

Ilk' pauper pays their Vee Aye Tee
On aa they need tae live or dee
Fae whilk the lairds aa dip their fee
Their 'agriculture subsidy'
On land they lang syne stole fae ye
Land they hae cleared o sic as we
Land that they haud, whit's mair, scott free
Sall we bide douce, an let this be?
It's time tae rise as levellers again

So. Now. Here. In this wet green land of Galloway. What livelihood is there here for our young folk? Damn little. But worse, what homes are there for our young folk? None. And why? We have all this good, well watered, productive land, and there's no work for people, nowhere for their housing? Back in the second war, Britain subsidised farmers to produce food to feed the population. Later, when the European Economic Community came into being, the Common Agriculture Policy was set up to help keep the rural poor on the land - to make small farms viable.

But Britain, by and large, doesn't have small farms. All our land has been enclosed, long since. Runrig and common has been swept away, cottars driven off their land, to make way for large farms. So the funds from the Common Agriculture Policy are paid largely to the owners of large farms - who are (of necessity) already hugely wealthy people.

In France, in their revolution, one of the major grievances of the people, one of the primary sparking points for revolt, was the fact that the taxes on the poor went to pay for the subsidies of the aristocrats. Now, two hundred and thirty years later, what do we have?

Everyone pays VAT. We pay it on practically everything we purchase, things which are essential to life. And because it's levied on consumption not on income, it's hugely regressive - the poor, who live from hand to mouth, pay out far more as a proportion of their income in VAT than the rich. And for what does this tax on the poor pay? Yes, you guessed it. Inter alia, it pays for the EU, and, among other things, for, yes, the Common Agriculture Policy.

I'm told, and do believe, that my neighbour across the dyke happily trousers a million pounds each year, paid for out of the taxes on the poor. Taxes on you, and taxes on me.

Meantime, on the land they hold, they pay no tax. Not a penny. Land they hold as theirs, as the basis for their inflated claims for subisdy; land on which you may not grow your food, on which you may not build your house. For the privilege of excluding you from that land - you, me, all of us - they pay into the public purse precisely nothing.

Where now will we find lamp-posts for these aristos?

Nae dykes stood when this land was new
An when enclosit for the few
On ilka barn the red cock crew
The new big't dykes we overthrew
I tell ye, swear ye, this is true
And though thae dykes are raised anew
As we did then sae we can do
It's time tae rise as levellers again.

Levellers. Levellers are part of the tradition of Galloway, part of our proud history of resistance, of popular politics. Because Galloway was the first province of Scotland in which enclosures took root.

Let's give that some background. Until the invention of the cheap, reliable firearm, the aristocracy were able to provide a 'service' to the peasantry  in the form of a protection racket. You pay us the rent we demand, and we'll protect you from the depredations of our neighbouring aristocrats. But in the aftermath of the civil war, many peasants had fought, and had muskets, and weren't in the least bit afraid of horsemen in armour, and so didn't any longer need protection. But the aristocracy still controlled the parliaments, and they still controlled the courts, so they controlled the law; and they used the law to cement their control over the land, and dispossess those tenants who were no longer so willing to pay any rent demanded.

In England, enclosure of common and in-bye lands was clearly and unambiguously illegal. But the aristocracy used their control of parliament to pass their local enclosure acts, on an 'I scratch your back, you scratch mine' basis. This was 'justified' on the basis that the new, enclosed farms practised more intensive agriculture, which was more productive - it produced more food, and, as the peasants weren't there to eat it themselves, the new 'land-owners' were able to sell a higher proportion of it; and, as the dispossessed peasants didn't have any land of their own to grow food of their own, they had to buy food from the 'land-owners', or starve. So they had to make money in the cash economy. So the 'land-owners' were able to construct manufacturies in which the dispossessed could be exploited as wage slaves to earn the money to buy the food they were no longer able to produce themselves. And this, of course, was immensely profitable. This, of course, was progress.

In Scotland, things weren't anything like so clear and unambiguous. Enclosure wasn't certainly against the law. It was certainly against custom, because it hadn't been done before, but as to law? Law is decided by judges, and judges are drawn from the aristocracy... Be that as it may, the soi-disant land-owners of Galloway didn't trouble with legal niceties. Patrick Murdoch of Cumloden started enclosing land in Galloway for extensive beef ranching. Other 'land owners' quickly followed, evicting cottars and whole villages from their homes and lands. But Galloway - our Galloway - didnae stand for that. The new barns burned, the new dykes were thrown down. And so the land-owners sent out for the army, and the army came and crushed yet another of Galloway's popular, radical revolts, and now the walls stand.

But let's be clear about this: the soil of Scotland was not created with title deeds attached. No single square inch of Scotland has passed peaceably from parent to child over the twelve thousand years since first it was settled. Rather, every grain of Scotland's soil has been seized, stolen, conquered, embezzled, fought over - not once but dozens of times. No land in Scotland - not even my own ten acres - is held with any moral right. Not even estates granted by kings, for wherein lies the source of their moral right? If there's any right in this, the Levellers were right. It is not right to take the livelihood of the many to provide a surplus for the few.

The model army, tired of war
Sat doon wi Cromwell, days of yore
There wis yin grief at irked them sore
If maisters rose still as before
If folk weren't equal 'fore the law
One vote for each, though rich or poor
'Twas but mercenary arms they bore
It's time tae rise as levellers again

But Galloway's levellers weren't the first people called so - and not the first to claim the title. At the end of the first phase of the English Civil War, the new model army hadn't been paid; they refused to disband until they had been paid, and had received indemnity for crimes committed during the conflict. But they had another grievance which, as time and discussions went on, became increasingly the focus of their negotiation.

The civil war - the English civil war, although there was also civil war in Scotland and the two intertwined - was a bloody business. The military elite were aristocrats, and very largely took the side of the king. The parliament needed to raise a new army, a professional army which would go anywhere, rather than the rather undisciplined local militias who would only defend their own home areas. Because this army was not recruited along feudal lines, promotion was on merit, not on social class. So poor men rose through the ranks. More, folk mixed; and, as this was a time of great religious ferment, folk discussed religion, and morality, and why they were fighting. They discussed what they were fighting for. And so, as in the two great wars of the twentieth century, the army became radicalised, became a force of the Left.

They were, they felt, not mercenaries fighting for pay, but a citizen army, fighting for the freedom of all. That meant, critically in those days, freedom of conscience - freedom to believe and worship as they would. But it meant something more. It meant the right to equal vote. It meant, most of all, that there should not be new masters. That there should not be a new privileged class. They were levellers not of dykes, but of men.

Of course, the Left lost the Civil Wars, both north and south of the border. We - we the people - lost. It was in the aftermath of that defeat - a consequence of that defeat - that the land was enclosed. Seized  Stolen. We lost the war, and so we lost the land.

But - is the Civil War really over? Will we sit here and let this be?

The Queen sits in far London toon
(Dunfermline's lang syne tummelt doon)
Yet owns the pairks for miles aroon
Her cronies, tae, in hose and shoen
Haud lands fae here tae Castletown
An siller, aye, round as the moon
That's taen fae ilka honest loon
Its time tae rise as levellers again

Because in the settlement we achieved - when we were all too weary to keep fighting - there was still a king. There is, now, still, a monarch, so called. She and her immediate cronies own 12% of all private land Scotland; just 608 people now own half of Scotland - and most of them aren't resident. This ties back to what I said earlier about the taxes on the poor subsidising the rich. Of course not all private land is agricultural land; of course not all of that land attracts public subsidy. But nevertheless, a very large proportion of Common Agriculture Policy subsidy - the first of whose objectives is 'to ensure a fair standard of living for farmers' - goes, in Scotland, directly or indirectly, to further enrich those 608 mostly absentee individuals.

But land is not the only property wherein the few have arrogated the commonwealth. Wealth itself is extraordinarily concentrated. And it's getting worse, fast. 10% of the population of Scotland now take 30% of the total income, so they're getting richer faster. Furthermore, the share of income going to the richest tenth is also increasing rapidly, so the rate at which they're getting richer faster is accelerating. This inequity accumulates over time, of course, through successive intermarryings and inheritances of the wealthy classes. Our generation has seen the largest transfer of wealth from the poor to the very rich in human history.

The myth of capitalism is that by hard work and enterprise, a child from a poor background can rise to join the wealthy elite. Andrew Carnegie is frequently cited as an example. And the reason he's so frequently cited is this: he's practically unique. The children of the wealthy have all the advantages. They have the connections. They have, within their family circle, the mentors and advisers  Most importantly of all, in these days when the banks won't lend, they have the seed capital. Wealth, in Scotland, is locked into a very small proportion of families, and if you weren't born into one of those families, you will never share in the wealth. Worse, in a land with a hugely overvalued housing market, you're likely to find yourself in debt - through student loans, housing debt, negative equity - through most of your life.

Debt makes people docile. They dare not revolt, for fear of losing what little they have.

Noo Scotland's free! Watch in amaze
The Queen still in her palace stays
Across the sky the rockets blaze
The bankers gang their greedy ways
An ilka working karl still pays
Tae line the pokes o lairds who laze
On Cote d'Azure, Bahama keys
It's time tae rise as levellers again

And now at last, we have a referendum on independence. Scotland has it's chance, it's opportunity, to rise, now, and be that nation again. That nation that wrote:

'Yet if he should give up what he has begun, seeking to make us or our kingdom subject to the King of England or the English, we should exert ourselves at once to drive him out as our enemy and a subverter of his own right and ours, and make some other man who was well able to defend us our King; for, as long as a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be subjected to the lordship of the English.'

Think about that. It's a claim, fundamentally, of the sovereignty of the people. By us, the Scots. As long as a hundred of us remain alive, we will not submit to a government which does not represent our interests.

Good.

So.

What, actually, in this damaged, fragile world, does independence buy us? Is it merely a distraction, which takes our focus away from the real problems we face - the problems of global inequity, of climate change, of ecocide?

If independence means the same old same old, it's a distraction.

If it means we pump and burn the same oil, and emit the same carbon dioxide, it's a distraction.

If it means we tolerate the same inequities of wealth and income and land, it's a distraction.

There are three totems in this. There's the Queen. There's the pound. There's NATO.

The Queen stands for the old system of aristocracy which fossilises the inequities of land and power. The over-valued pound sterling represents the greed of the usurer class, the concentration of wealth into the hands of the money-men. And NATO is the alliance, now, of the rich world against the poor. And the Scottish National Party, the party which I have supported these forty years, now stands for an independent Scotland which retains all of these things.

As Maggie Thatcher said: "No! No! No!"

An independent Scotland that continues the destruction of the planet's life support systems is not worth having. An independent Scotland that continues the belligerent fostering of conflict across the world is not worth having. An independent Scotland which preserves the unjust and inequitable power, status and wealth of the elite is not worth having.

But it doesn't have to be like that. Scotland has opportunities which allow us to make a real difference to the world.

We have nuclear weapons, so we're in a position to set a world lead by voluntarily, unilaterally disarming - and, actually, we're quite likely to do that. That is a big win, and could be used to apply moral pressure on other nuclear states to follow our lead. That would contribute significantly to world peace.

We have oil, so we're in a position to set a world lead by voluntarily, unilaterally limiting or ceasing our production. The SNP won't do that, but the SNP won't necessarily be the party in power after independence.

It would, of course, make us poorer in the short term, so it might be a hard policy to sell. But, frankly, there's really no point in having independence if the whole world is going to go to shit within a century. Living in an independent Scotland would be a big win; watching Scotland (and the rest of the world) die, not so big. If we cannot put a brake on the world's headlong rush to destruction, independence is a sideshow, a hollow joke.

So once again, Scotland has the possibility of taking moral leadership in the world. We can do this. We should do this. We must do this. And if we do do this, it's an enormous win.

Finally, elites, wealth and power. This isn't tacked onto the end, it's the foundation stone of the whole piece. The current elite are intimately linked into the banking systems, the oil and gas companies, the agrochemicals businesses which are destroying the planet. While they are the elite - while they have the power - no significant progress will be made on ecocide. Power and wealth must be wrested from them, not merely because it is equitable to do so, not merely because it is just, but because unless it is done we all die.

Of course, it must be wrested from them worldwide, not just in Scotland. But once again, Scotland, with its democratic, Presbyterian traditions, with its doctrine of the sovereignty of the people, can make a start. Can provide the lead. Can be a beacon to the world.

We can do this. It is worth doing. But it's going to be a fight.

It's time tae rise as levellers again.

We Scots were ae a motley band
Wallace, Inglis, Erse, Normand
Cam fae ilk pairt intil this strand
But Scotland. noo, is whaur we'll stand.
Sall 'indy' be oor sole demand
While six hunner haud half the land
An aa the siller in their haund?
Aye right. That's no whit we hae planned!
It's time tae rise, it's time tae rise, it's time tae rise, it's time tae rise
We're here tae rise as levellers again!

Addendum

This is a rant. It's a rant for Scotland, but it's also a rant to Scotland. It's a rant to use. Take. Modify it - my text isn't perfect, it isn't fucking angry enough - add your own bile, your own venom. Verify my claims, do your own research. Rip the verse out of it, fix the duff lines, set it to your music, sing it, shout it. Spread it. I don't want money. I don't want fame. I want change.

This rant is for Scotland. It's for Scotland, because this is our Scotland. Our land. The land we inhabit, that we can change. Scotland shall be free - but freedom means nothing if we don't take charge of it and change it. Scotland free must be Scotland equal. Must be Scotland green. Must be Scotland the peacemaker. If we cannot make a just Scotland, if we cannot make an egalitarian Scotland, if we cannot make a peaceable Scotland, then Scotland itself is not worth the candle.

Rise now!
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