When the Berlin wall came down, nearly everyone in Europe and, indeed, the world accepted that socialism didn’t work. Even the Chinese while keeping the form of the Party gave up the substance. Gradually, there were only really two places that continued to believe though in rather different ways. One was North Korea, the other was Scotland. But Scotland continued to believe in a rather odd way. It wasn’t as if we enjoyed the fruits of capitalism any less than anyone else. But somehow our socialism was what made us different even if we didn’t quite believe in it. How did we get to this position?
I remember enjoying the novels of J.M. Barrie set in and around the town of Thrums, which was Barrie’s name for Kirriemuir. In one of these novels ‘Sentimental Tommy’, there is a journey from London to Thrums. The difference between the two places was only a few hours on a train. But those few hours separated places that could scarcely be more different. The Londoner would have found life more familiar in France.
The language of Barrie’s Thrums was very different indeed from London. English was spoken, more or less and certainly understood, but there was a rich vocabulary and grammar that was not English. Moreover, the whole mentality of the people living in Thrums was quite unlike that of someone from London. It was a mentality and a morality that had been determined by the Kirk, or rather the kirks. There were endless disputes about churches that have now been forgotten. They were called strange names like “Auld Lichts”, or the rather contradictory “United Secession Kirk”. If you delve into Scottish church history, it is a history of continual secession, for reasons that today seem trivial. The question of how to govern a church was deemed as vital as were theological issues that today seem at best arcane and at worst irrelevant. The Marrow of Modern Divinity which was so endlessly debated in Scotland, hardly deals with the essence of the issue at all, but comes across today as rather silly hair-splitting about issues that are of no consequence, because no-one but a hair-splitter would think they were issues at all. In Scotland there were sometimes small villages with four or five kirks, which all more or less believed a variant on the theme of Presbyterianism. But the debates that kept splitting the churches kept everyone very occupied indeed. There was absolutely no need for Scots to assert their Scottishness in those days. It was apparent in everything they said and in everything they did.
Move on one hundred years and the language of Thrums has more or less died out apart from in some small pockets. It has been killed off by Scotland being less isolated. It has been killed off by people moving here from elsewhere, but above all, it has been killed off by television. Now the language of Scotland is English and nearly everyone speaks it with a somewhat different accent and occasionally a rather different way of saying certain vowels. The Church in Scotland is in retreat just as everywhere else in the UK. But with it the Scottish mentality has been struggling to maintain itself. Whereas the people of Thrums were fiercely frugal and careful about how others behaved, now like much of the rest of Western Europe, we preach the idea that anything goes. Whereas the people of Thrums believed in individualism and endeavour and above all, in sin, we believe in collectivism and that there should be no negative consequences for lack of endeavour.
Scotland in the hundred or so years since Barrie has become more and more like the rest of the UK. We have the same shops, listen to the same music and drink the same lager. We watch the same programmes and have more or less the same views about more or less everything. But whereas when we were really different, we felt no need to assert it, now precisely because we are the same, we have to shout so loudly about our difference. This is the emptiness that is at the heart of Scottish nationalism. It’s the same emptiness that people felt in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
A few months after the referendum result was not accepted by the nationalists I wrote something that likened them to a cult. I described briefly what I have described here at great length. I think I may have been the first person to have come up with the cult simile, but I may be wrong about this. All I can say is I didn’t read about it before writing my article. But it is an obvious enough connection to make, so others were, no doubt, thinking on the same lines at the same time.
In any such comparison it is important to realise that it is just that. I was saying that there were similarities, not that these things were the same. But I still think it’s worth exploring the issue, not as a means of insulting supporters of the SNP, but as a way of explaining a phenomenon that has been taking place in Scotland. The year or so prior to the independence referendum and the time afterwards has been like a revival meeting that has spread around Scotland. That’s great if you are part of the revival and want the revival to continue and to grow. But what if you stand on the outside of the tent and think it’s all a fake?
Why didn’t Scotland move on like everyone else in 1991? The answer I think is two words that still have extraordinary power. They are “Tory” and “Thatcher”. Thatcher has become the Wicked Witch of the West, the goddess Kali and Oliver Cromwell all rolled into one. The myth of Thatcher has been passed on to Scottish children who are too young to remember her and she is thought of as if she were General Sherman marching through Georgia destroying everything in her path. She was a Tory. Think of how Nicola Sturgeon says that word. Think of all the loathing that goes into her pronunciation. But not just Nicola, not just Scottish nationalists, most Scots pronounce the word ‘Tory’ in just the same way and with just the same intent. But it was Tories or those like them all around the western world who were proved right in 1991. The ideological struggle between left and right was won decisively by the right. The intellectual foundation upon which the left built its beliefs fell apart back then, and there was nothing much remaining of the old ideas to believe in.
Since then what has the left been left with? It has had protests about globalisation, it has had protests about banks, it has turned green and it has fought a battle to make everything permissible. The main successes of the left have been in forcing us to think carefully about the words we use and above all, the pronouns. They have successfully changed the meaning of certain words to make them more inclusive. At times it seems that we are ‘Through the Looking Glass’ in a world where Black can be White, Male can be Female and words can mean what we want them to mean. But this success has mostly been on the surface, because underneath ordinary people outside of universities, no doubt, believe just what they always have believed, only they are careful what they say in certain forms of company.
These victories of the left, however, have for the most part been trivial. They have made some people be careful about what they say, but they haven’t really changed how people think. But while the left has been playing with words, the right has won on the issue of how to run a country. On the fundamental issues of the economy no-one sees old style left-wing economics (apart from Mr Corbyn and friends) as a matter worthy of serious concern. The left may try to tinker around the edges of economics, but socialism as an ideology has been dead since the wall came down. It was an experiment tested to destruction and in the end, people voted with their feet.
But Scotland had to stick to the old religion, for without our hatred of Tories we scarcely would be Scots. But gradually as Labour moved into the modern world, as Tony Blair accepted some of what the Tories had said was true, people in Scotland more and more felt that the true religion was being tainted. How could we be against Tories (Nicola’s accent) if we agreed with them? So finally it was necessary to hew off Scotland from all taint of infection from the south. How could we keep Tories out of Scotland if they were already inside the Labour party? We had to root out the heresy in Labour. They weren’t in fact Labour at all, they were Red Tories. We had to revisit our old habit of secession and debate endlessly matters that were arcane.
What could have destroyed Labour in 2015? What force could have made Labour go from being a monolith of safe seats to being all but wiped out? The answer lies not in politics, but in religion.
There is a new religion in Scotland. It is called Scottish nationalism. There is a new promised land called independence, where all things are possible, where there will be no poverty and no inequality. What those of us on the outside don’t get is how joyous it is to take part in this dance of Scottish nationalism. Suddenly, you are surrounded by like-minded friends who all believe the same things that you do. You are forced to not think any negative thoughts. You must fill your life with hope and get rid of all fear. You must repeat “Hope over fear”, “Hope over fear”. You must repeat. You must repeat.
There are gurus who have vast numbers of followers. These followers believe every word the guru says and are willing to be sent to chastise anyone who questions the one true religion. They work for the guru, even though the guru has no particular qualities or qualifications that would suggest he was suited to the role. He is self-appointed, but then so are all gurus.
What use would it be if I could expose the guru? Another guru would come in his place. Anyway, no-one would believe my exposé, for the guru can do no wrong.
Just like a televangelist, just like the guru in Moscow, which I describe in great detail in my long story, the acolytes are willing to pay for the pleasure. The guru only has to say ‘Give me money', and it pours in. Well, why shouldn’t he be paid for his work? Why indeed? But it is precisely this, that he gives little and gets much, this fact that he can live off the payment of his followers that makes him a guru. It is the defining quality. It is also this that makes his cause religious, rather than political.
No-one on the other side of the debate could raise a penny in this way. We have no gurus preaching, precisely because our side is not a religion. It is both our strength: we use reason, and our weakness: reason is powerless against religion.
There are mantras that the acolytes are carefully taught to repeat and the repetition keeps them from thinking. That after all, is the purpose of a mantra. The most important mantra of all involves the repetition of the word “Tory”, always pronounced with that precise nuance of loathing, that also contains just a hint of self-loathing. “You’re a red, you’re a blue, you’re an orange Tory. Tory, Tory, Tory.” It’s like a playground chant. Other mantras involve words like “scaremongering”, others still involve “talking down Scotland”; one of the most repeated mantras is that opponents of the SNP think that Scotland is “Too wee, too, poor and too stupid”. But no-one, but a nationalist has ever said this about Scotland, precisely because this mantra is something that he must repeat endlessly in his head until it becomes an accurate description not of Scotland, but of the nationalist who has lost his ability to think because of the endless repeating of such mantras.
There are simplistic pamphlets that are produced with easily digested pieces of optimism. Anyone who comes up with a reasoned argument, pointing out the errors in such pamphlets is being negative. Above all, nothing must be allowed to damage the hope contained in our new religion. Pointing out facts cannot damage the hope. There are in fact no facts on the side of fear. The only facts are on the side of hope. Our hopeful facts will always trump your negative scaremongering falsehoods. The truth is in faith, and hope and the charity of foodbanks, which tell everything you need to know about Tories. There will always be foodbanks so long as there are Tories, not least because they are so desperately needed to remind us of the wickedness of Tories. The falsity of statistics and economics lies in its negativity and how it contradicts our hope. Hope over fear. Hope over fear. Repeat endlessly.
Defeat in September 2014 did not damage the hope, it made it stronger, but then the lions did not damage the Christians. The lions may have eaten the Christians, but shortly afterward the Christians ended up ruling Rome and whatever lions may have been left there. If they had wanted to, the Christians could then have eaten the lions.
Nothing else can explain the recent phenomenon that is Scottish politics than that it is a revival. The SNP keeps having open air meetings and rallies. Which other party in UK history has had quite so many open air rallies in quite so short a time? The mantra of the rally is always the same, but it gains a certain power by being repeated together in a group. We weren’t really defeated. That moment of grief when we expected to win, but instead lost, was not real. We did win. Don’t have any fear that we soon will win. Look around, everyone else here feels the same thing. It’s inevitable. Those unionists are doomed. They’ve already lost. We will bury you. It’s hope in the face of every set back. It’s a refusal to listen to the small voice of fear that must sometimes whisper doubts. But the way to quieten the small voice of doubt is to repeat the mantra. Thousands of voices join in unison to share the triumph of hope over fear. Any waverers immediately fall into line. Fear once more is banished. Hope once more triumphs. Hope over fear. Hope over fear repeats itself continually in the minds of the followers.
Which other UK politician than Nicola Sturgeon or Alex Salmond could pack out a venue with thousands of devotees? Could Clement Atlee do this? Could Winston Churchill? Could Margaret Thatcher or David Lloyd George? But then, they would not have wanted to. But then, Scottish nationalism isn’t about politics anymore and its leaders are not politicians at all, but rather gurus.
It isn’t as if the SNP have done such a staggeringly wonderful job of running Scotland. It isn’t even as if they actually want independence any time soon. I suspect many quite senior SNP politicians are secretly very glad indeed that they lost the referendum in September 2014. You see, the numbers just don’t add up. But none of this matters, because independence is no longer about politics, it is no longer even about achieving independence in practical terms. It’s an ideal. After so many incarnations and reincarnations we may just be worthy of a part in the national collective. At this point our individuality will cease. The Maya, that is our sense of individuality, will be merged with all the other Scots who have been journeying towards this loss of selfhood. Finally, we will merge with Alex, we will form a union with Nicola, or at least, we will be worker bees scurrying around the queen. When we die, or at least when we have achieved the requisite level, after perhaps many reincarnations, we will reach the end point, the goal and the τέλος [telos, goal] towards which we have for so long been tending. Some have described this as Nirvana. But in Scotland we have another word for it. We will live forever in independence.
I cannot rescue Scotland. How can I put half of Scotland on a flight and take it back home to its parents? And what good would it do anyway? Sometimes such rescues succeed, but frequently people are beyond rescuing. In the end, I learned that I could not compete with religion. I cannot compete with what repeating a mantra does to a mind.
But I’m not unduly pessimistic. A cult is always less powerful than it thinks it is. This is not least the case because it has lost its relationship to truth. When the foundation is a mantra that does not correspond to reality, it can easily all come tumbling down. The hysteria will cease, the emotion will quiet, the guru can always be exposed, and the leader shown to be not quite so perfect and indeed quite capable of error. One hundred years from now people will write about the oddness of the great revival that took place in Scotland.
How might the history of the years between 1980 and 2030 eventually be written? There might be something about the collapse of the old social structure of the Central Belt. When the heavy industry of coal mining and steel works ceased and when Christianity became more a matter of sectarian division than church going, there was an emptiness that needed to be filled. The old certainties whether they were provided by the Kirk or by the idea that you would do the same job as your father did became more and more uncertain. Finally, faith became a matter of weddings and funerals and few believed any of the words that were said at such ceremonies. It was the lack of faith that people had in the old religion that left the room for the new religion of Scotland. To fill up the emptiness in peoples’ hearts they were promised a new promised land where there would be abundance, where there would be enough for all and there would be equality. This didn’t require any sort of hard work, it didn’t require anyone, but the rich to pay higher taxes. It required one single word. You just had to say ‘Yes’.
When I compare the days I spent with the Hare Krishnas with the past years in Scotland, I see similarities. But it wasn’t the same. How could anything be quite like those dances we danced in Moscow where everyone had glazed eyes and minds full of only a mantra. But I have come across enough closed minds in Scotland to be worried. I’ve seen what nationalism has done to the Soviet Union, and I’ve seen what a closed mind could do to someone I once cared about quite deeply.
I had set out to rescue my friend Galina in Russia and I succeeded. I could not have done more, but I knew even at the time it was never going to be enough. My rescue failed. There was something close-minded about Galina,that hindered her thought. Finally, it became dull. She just repeated what she had been told, rather than discovering and thinking for herself. There would be flashes of her old self, when she ceased her mantra, when her eyes flashed instead of being full of dull clouds. But soon enough she would be her Hare Krishna self Garudi again, soon enough she would just repeat the same old mantra. It was boring. I meet this every day in Scotland. I endlessly meet those who simply repeat what they have been told from nationalist crib sheets. I hear the same old arguments endlessly, the same old insults and the same old pattern of hive behaviour. Nationalists on the war path, offended by something that I have written, buzz and try to sting, but it all becomes very tedious very quickly.
It rapidly ceases to be interesting when opponents are close-minded without even realising it. It gets to the stage when you begin to know exactly what they are going say next. There will be a point in a conversation when the usual clichés will be repeated. No matter how often you make a counterargument, it has no effect and is simply ignored. I find myself repeating the same arguments endlessly and to no purpose. The conversation becomes a matter of jabber jabber Trident, jabber jabber Westminster paedophiles, jabber jabber foodbanks, jabber jabber next part of the SNP crib sheet. It all became very glib, and I find myself tuning out as if I was watching a Gaelic programme on television and only heard words like “helicopter” that were not translated.
I worry about Scotland when so many people have lost touch with reality, when the relationship with truth has become something that is mediated by politicians and who treat the public as if they were infants unable to face the truth.
It sometimes scares me living here. There is something impotent about online abuse, but everyone who is attacked by a mob sometimes worries that it could become offline abuse. Even then it can be stressful and psychologically exhausting to be under relentless attack. So even if for the most part I find it boring, it does scare me when I am attacked for speaking out. It scares me when reasoned argument is met by hatred, for I worry about a cause that leads people to behave in this way. The nationalists take my criticism personally even if it is only directed against the party they support. It’s this identification of person with party and party with country that scares me the most. But then I reflect that I’ve been through much worse and faced much tougher opponents than any of these “gnats”. They simply can’t imagine. By comparison, Scottish nationalism looks rather trivial. So bring it on. I can take anything you throw at me.
But long term I won’t live in a country that has closed its mind. It would be too much like those few days in Moscow where all I could hear was people whispering their mantra. It’s all somehow like the worst aspects of life in the Soviet Union, but at least they didn’t vote for a one party state, they had it forced upon them.
In the end, my solution to every problem is existential. We always used to say that the solution to the problems of the Soviet Union is to leave. Sometimes this is the only answer. I will keep piling up stones in the river, but sometimes the dam just breaks. In that case I would recommend Russia. It’s relatively cheap now that the rouble has collapsed; you just have to spend a little while learning the alphabet and the grammar.
Hare Alex, Hare Nicola. It’s Scotland that needs rescuing now. I will continue to put forward the case for the UK. I will try to write reasoned considered articles and I may just be able to have some influence beyond those who already agree with me. I don’t expect independence any time soon if at all, because really the whole idea of independence in our ever more interconnected world is close to being meaningless. It all rather misses the point. But that, no doubt, is to look at the whole thing far too rationally. I’ve already realised that my arguments have no power, perhaps, even no point. That is one of the main reasons why I also write stories. Perhaps, just perhaps they will be able to get through to people in a way that argument can’t.
My powers of rescue have already been shown to be limited. My words have no power against those of the mantra. When I brought Galina back to her parents, they were delighted and surprised that I could do what had seemed to them impossible. I had brought back their daughter and during those moments I must have felt a sense of success. But I also saw she was too far gone. Only love could have brought this dark haired lady back from her dark lord and perhaps, no human love was strong enough to compete. So there will be no more rescues for those who are too far gone. This dance must continue or stop of its own accord. Even when the guru is a charlatan, his followers still follow.