The thoughts of Chairman Momus.
Note to Self: The problem is, we were thinking of Scotland as an art project.
Ugh. Another inexplicable, idiotic and humiliating episode to fit into the national narrative alongside “Frittered away all their money and autonomy by investing in the South Sea Bubble”. We’re now also the nation which rejected the offer — on a silver platter, drizzled with free black gold, locally-sourced — of an independence others would have died for.
No-one has ever regretted the independence we just rejected, and yet we apparently regretted it in advance. We got cold feet. We failed to summon even 50% revulsion at the most rightwing, putty-faced, ex-Etonian government in decades, a government (not even properly elected itself, continuing the creaky neoliberalisation of a land without a written constitution) which has now said that independence is off the agenda for us forever.
Note to Self: Back to voting with your feet.
Note to Scots: Back to being a nation with a ghost-shadow, a diaspora of 50 million expats, people who drift back like ghosts to haunt the little homeland of 5 million and float around exhibitions about ghosts, or about the very persecutions, expulsions and atrocities which made their ancestors leave in the first place.
Note to Self: Exhilarating though it may feel to be in tune with a popular movement, politics is not really your thing. Significant majorities of people are never going to feel the way you feel about things. You are always going to be disappointed by the awful things ordinary people buy, or believe, or vote for.
Note to Self (and also to Alec Finlay and all the rest of us): You’re an activist, an artist, an educator, a provocateur. This means that you take popular ideas and twist, stretch, tease, stress and worry them. You are the experiment they may not survive. If you accept popular ideas, it’s your role as activist, artist, educator and provocateur that won’t survive. You won’t be doing your job.
Note to Self: Back to art, statelessness and endless restless movement.
Note to Self: The Book of Scotlands is there as a reminder that we once dreamed of Scotlands.
This week I avoided all the rallies, the blue faces and blue banners. I’m not a fan of exuberance, even for causes I agree with. Instead, I lurked at the mosque, nursed a cold, and, above all, immersed myself in art, that quiet thing that astonishes by seeming to inhabit, already, parallel states of mind arrived at after long struggle and expense.
Note to Self: The art piece I came back to again and again, during this tense, sickly, grey week in Edinburgh, was Luke Fowler’s hour-long film about Marxist historian and activist EP Thompson. The Poor Stockinger is on display in the Queen Street National Portrait Gallery. Unlike the rallies up in the Meadows, there was mostly just me in a big empty room, looking at footage of adult education centres, libraries, working mens’ self-improvement clubs, scenes of provincial British towns estranged by unusual composition and editing.
Dramatised extracts from the Marxist educator’s diaries show him often disappointed by the seminars he’s holding around the country for the Workers’ Educational Association, a somewhat Kafkaesque organisation with no official educational status, which uses empty rooms in public buildings to gather interested locals into discussions of history and social movements.
Thompson is heard regretting the descent into personal anecdote, or the fact that more passion is aroused by the disappearance of certain craft techniques than by the closure of a factory. Discussing Blake in Marxist terms, Thompson (who died in 1993) strikes a titanic and Blakean figure himself, with his big lion head and his doggedness. Fowler — who uses subtle electonic washes of sound by Alvin Lucier to estrange the images of classrooms and stained glass institute windows — is attracted to him because he represents something other and lost in British culture today: something as earnest as the working class he documented in his The Making of the English Working Class, with as much sense of lost revolutionary potential.
Like the Scottish independence movement, this revolutionary potential was not lost accidentally, it was deliberately shaken off. Cameron killed off the bolshy Scots just as Thatcher had killed off the bolshy working classes. But — like all sublimated energies, all ghost experiences — these forces may be more dangerous dead than alive. Certain ideas may wreak more havoc as culture than they ever could as politics.
Edinburgh. It’s dreich, of course. Pissing down on dead leaves. My shoes are slippery, they’re not made for this weather. The No Thanks posters peer out from damp Georgian and Victorian terrace houses with black SUVs parked outside them. Inside, there are glimpses of wood-panelling and sensible lamps.
It’s the cautious, affluent over-60s who are mostly voting no. The young and the working classes and the artists, writers and intellectuals are mostly yes voters. There are far more of them in Glasgow, Scotland’s creative city. Fervent yessers are people like Alasdair Gray, Angus Farquar, the poet Alec Finlay, my ex-Berlin Scottish friends Emma and Joe, and musician friends who left Scotland then came back, or didn’t. Many politically disaffected Scots did what I did, and left. Leaving Scotland is one of the most characteristically Scottish things you can do, unfortunately.
For me, this is the most important political event of my lifetime. I had to be here to witness it. I’ve felt disenfranchised all my adult life. I’m a socialist, but my adult life has coincided with a period of neoliberalism which has seen my views rejected and contradicted by just about every political decision made. No votes I could cast could ever count in Britain, because of the Thatcherite project and because there were enough conservative home counties English to outweigh any parties I might support. Even blips of apparent hope, like the 1997 Labour victory, turned out to be cruel delusions.
The referendum is the one chance people like me have to deliver a killer blow to a system which has slowly and methodically ground us down, making us internal exiles if not actual expats. Unable to vote successfully with our ballots, some of us voted with our feet. But that doesn’t mean we won’t come back to Scotland one day, and don’t have an interest in seeing this nation go in the right direction.
For now, I’m lying low. The flu and the anxiety are making me feel sick and unreal. I want the whole thing to be over with, one way or the other. I don’t know which Edinburgh friends to contact, because I don’t know they aren’t no voters, and how could you hang out with nos the day before what you hope will be the big yes?
Walking around Edinburgh, I sense tension beneath the superficial calm. The innocuous local history sections of Waterstones on George Street seem suddenly politicised, dangerously radical. On a table a shabby cluster of books about the referendum (“Scotland decides: Aye or Naw?”) has been slashed to half price. By Friday, these speculations and imprecations will be old hat.
A conspicuously kilted Englishman on Rose Street is stopped by a canvasser and explains his position: we English should have a vote too, he says (rather pleased that I’ve stopped to listen), especially those of us with Scottish blood. An old man waving a union flag poses for tourist photos on Princes Street.
I’m struck by how much of Edinburgh is organised around “atrocity tourism”: Scotland has, we learn outside the Edinburgh Dungeon on Market Street, a “murky” past. That murk is apparently our strongest selling point to tourists. The massacres, the clearances! Up on the Royal Mile you can take tours entitled “Doomed, Dead and Buried” or “Hidden and Haunted”.
These tours of underground cities and nocturnal graveyards explicitly package past bloody rebellions against English rule, savagely repressed — those of William Wallace and The Covenanters, for instance — as ghost stories. “He was hanged, drawn and quartered… The Covenanters had their corpses beheaded, but on a quiet night in the Greyfriars Kirkyard they say you can still…” Like Berlin, Edinburgh now has a vested interest in these buried atrocities. It’s unclear how a future in which such things don’t happen could be made appealing to bloodthirsty tourists. “On a stormy night, they do say the wind farms utter unholy shrieks…”
Jim Lambie at the Fruitmarket Gallery is at least proving that you can be Scottish and also colourful, upbeat and optimistic. At the Talbot Rice I’m more uplifted by a group show featuring mysteriously utopian satellites and beehives. Here’s where the people who think like me are hiding (in this case it’s the poet and artist Alec Finlay).
I don’t know what’ll happen tomorrow. It could go either way. Perhaps the scare stories will work, and people will “do a Quebec”, backing off at the last moment. Even if yes wins, it’s sad that families will have been split, that we’ll all trust each other a bit less, like East Germans who’ve discovered they were all cliping each other up to the STASI.
I’d be delighted if a new nation could emerge from all this, but I don’t guarantee that it would be enough to make me return to Scotland. After all, my Book of Scotlands exists because of a Berlin publisher, not a Scottish one. I have flourished elsewhere. I will probably stay on the move. One country, even one world, isn’t enough.
The referendum was clearly cooked up to “kick the independence question into touch”, but it has brought up a lot of sore points, picked at old scabs, reopened scars. The mass politicisation might bring a power of good, but it’s also a source of discomfort. But it’s all worthwhile when you see the Scots being offered — without bloodshed, beheadings, or mass graves — the right to full self-determination. Yes, the past was murky and dreich. No, the future doesn’t have to be.
Let’s think like adults. Let’s think realistically, because an independent Scotland is now an entirely realistic possibility. Let’s think, in fact, like Niccolo Machiavelli, the 15th century Florentine writer and strategist whose name has become a byword for bold pragmatism and realpolitik. Independent Scots, I’m both sorry and happy to say, will need to start thinking like Machiavelli. We should be filling the windows of Princes Street bookshops with copies of his bold, sly masterpiece The Prince, the book from which I’m filling this essay with sly and bolded quotes.
"I’m not interested in preserving the status quo; I want to overthrow it."
It’s perhaps the only disadvantage of a successful yes vote on Thursday: an independent Scotland will have to assume full responsibility for self-interested acts. Cynics who say that Salmond is just a politician like all the rest and think that’s a reason not to vote for independence aren’t being cynical enough, by which I mean they’re not thinking enough like Machiavelli. Of course Salmond is a politican like all the rest. He’ll strike deals with powerful business leaders, he’ll rattle sabres and offer tit for tat, he’ll dispatch spies, he’ll arrange clandestine renditions and proffer secret handshakes in smoke-filled rooms. The important thing, though, is that he’ll do these things, for a change, in the interests of Scotland. They’ll be our deals, our renditions, our spies.
"Never was anything great achieved without danger."
For three centuries we’ve been able to outsource evil, lay it at the feet of that hub of administrative and corporate evil, London. Scots have famously been faithful administrators and footsoldiers of the great military and capitalist enterprises — the East India Company, the slave trade — which allowed evil institutions like the British Empire to flourish. Our relatively humble role as functionaries executing someone else’s orders allowed us to keep a relatively untarnished self-image: we were decent people, just getting the job done. The evil was secondhand, inherent in someone else’s great strategy, conceived in someone else’s interest. Our share was salary, postings abroad, the feeling of being needed, the satisfaction of being on the winning side, the trickledown that typically never does more than drip.
"Anyone who would act up to a perfect standard of goodness in everything must be ruined among so many who are not good."
For too long Scots have been the thankless apparatchiks of a realpolitik which serves others; it’s time for a realpolitik which serves us. We must learn to be evil. By “evil” I mean getting things organised, getting people working, transporting stuff from A to B, exploiting natural resources, wielding the whip, dangling the carrot. Evil is logistics, it’s peace-as-war, the daily struggle. There is no “nice” way to get the job done, though there are more or less fair ways to distribute the fruits. By separating from England and particularly London, the hub of historic evil in these isles, we will be making ourselves a lesser evil (but more evil than we were before) while also making the English a lesser evil (and less evil than they were before — less able, for instance, to poodle around after America brandishing missiles and threats).
"Wisdom consists of knowing how to distinguish the nature of trouble, and in choosing the lesser evil."
We Scots must cease to be the kilted, kowtowing henchmen of evil geniuses. We must discover our own inner evil genius, our own Machiavellian Prince. We don’t need to wage war or resurrect slavery, just act effectively in our own national interest rather than someone else’s. The political evil of realpolitik always serves a higher purpose: not the pittance of trickledown or a pat on the head from Daddy, but our objective collective benefit and the furtherance of values we actually believe in. Responsibility does not mean doing good in the service of an empire which might ultimately prove to be evil, it means doing some evil — of the logistical, realpolitical kind — in the interests of a higher, more widely-shared good.
"It is necessary for a prince wishing to hold his own to know how to do wrong, and to make use of it or not according to necessity."
Here’s the final batch of Scotlands from my Book of Scotlands. Visit the Scotland of the unco blackitt ochtacho-ochter Restauracion. The Scotland built on basic strangeness. The plagues that befell independent Scotland (to the delight, no doubt, of the Better Togetherers): a plague of horned toads, wasps, Thai lemon grass and peanuts, after-dinner monologues from lepers, low consumer confidence, Tunnock’s Tea Cakes, sado-masochistic animals, and dung. The Scotland I prod sexually “between the slender lowlands of her firths”. And finally the Scotland destroyed by six gigantic babies.
The Book of Scotlands has a whole page in Korean graphic design magazine Graphic this month as part of a feature on Sternberg Press.
My creepy loungecore cover of the Buzzcocks’ Orgasm Addict: one Devoto song I won’t be performing at tonight’s Cafe Oto show.