08 April 2021
“Let ‘Em Go”
by J.R. Thomas
In times such as these, a man’s hand must inevitably reach for a Trollope. Politicians may preen and posture, society may shriek and strike poses, all around may be chaos and fantasy. But Trollope reminds us, again and again, that this is nothing new. Britain has a long history of democracy and participatory politics, but with that goes politicians, weird ideas, strange events, the unlikely becoming the normal becoming the unacceptable. And that master observer of society and its ways lays it all out before us, exquisitely described, and tells us that there is nothing new under the sun, or rather, under grey English skies.
“Phineas Finn”, written in 1866-7, was set at the beginning of a train of events which Trollope probably did not foresee, indeed of events where he was unlikely to have imagined the ultimate outcome. Phineas, a young Irishman, becomes a Liberal MP for an Irish seat. Young enough to be idealistic and a man of principles, of policy before party. Trollope did not know it, but we do, that a number of such principled men set in train the movement that led to full independence for the Irish Free State in 1922, the Republic of Ireland as it became in 1949. We will not rehearse it here, but the birth of that free Ireland, and the exclusion of the Six Counties, was a violent and painful path to independence, the aftershocks of which have not yet completely departed.
But Trollope understood that when men of principle, who are not willing to compromise, meet men of expediency, whose goal is to gain and retain power, then trouble will result. Do our present generation of politicians understand that? One hundred years after the negotiations which led to a peaceful settlement between the leaders of the embryonic Irish Free State and the British Government (although directly to a very nasty civil war within Ireland) the indications are that history has taught them nothing.
In Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of the Scottish Parliament and would-be first leader of an independent Scotland, and her would-be nemesis, Alex Salmond, who would have hoped that such a job might be his, would have us believe that they are the modern politicians of unyielding principle. Against them at Holyrood, a motley crew of Tories who seem wedded to the concept of a continuing Union, and a manoeuvring Labour Party which might prefer the same. And over the border, a Prime Minister of, for the time being, a still United Kingdom, who has the reputation of being a trimmer and a hedger, though whose record suggests behaviour owing more to risking all for causes. This indeed suggests that trouble may not be so far away. The conditions are alarming; in the squares of English cities the crowd rushes hither and thither, breaking windows, or the modern equivalent, policeman’s heads. Mobs make for the streets on great and small pretexts and for good and unlikely causes. Participatory democracy is in decay. In the cafes and drawing rooms, and if not in clubs, in their modern equivalent, chat rooms, the business of guiding the nation goes quietly on without seemingly much recognition that the people can get very angry, very quickly. Or at least, can be stirred up to anger very quickly by unseen types who can work social media systems in ways their inventors never dreamed off.
Which to be fair to her, is not Ms Sturgeon. Nicola is a politician of the most advanced skills. She has picked up a cause, polished it, stared into it until she knows every aspect of it. Her cause is Scotland’s independence, and she enlists every facet of political life to further it. She may have learned all this at Mr Salmond’s chunky knee, but the apprentice has become indeed the sorcerer. As Mr Salmond knows only too well. Mr S’s old fashioned male ways have been his undoing, even if not quite to the extent his enemies hoped, and Nicky, his not so loyal Nicky, after a few weeks when it looked as though she might have overdone whatever she was doing, has come out on top, once again. Alex is not done yet, but now the best he can hope for is to hold a bargaining chip after the election on May 6th. The chances are good that it will be electoral victory for those who want a second referendum, however the nationalist vote is cast. And if Ms Sturgeon delivers on her threat and calls one without the assent of Westminster, that will play just right for her; if Boris denies the people a say, then that must be worth thousands of votes to the nationalist cause. The Nats will win a referendum. Then what?
Boris Johnson may or may not be well acquainted with Trollope. But what he ought to be familiar with, as a student of history, a biographer of Winston Churchill, and a journalist of wide experience, are the lessons of the fight for Irish independence. There are differences of course. The leaders of the fight for an Irish state were from many and varied backgrounds, but they were great patriots. They loved Ireland and were prepared to fight for her to the death. Several of them were ruined socially or financially by their cause, and after the First World War some did die for her. Neither Sturgeon or Salmond shows that devotion to Scotland; or if they have, they keep it muted. To them it seems almost a cause for their own advancement, to becoming the first leader of a free Scotland. Ms Sturgeon is not Daniel O’Connell, and, before anybody familiar with the times suggest it, Mr Salmond is not Charles Stewart Parnell. True, they do not need to be great patriots; the Scots are a highly patriotic nation, or perhaps we had better say, people, enough to be an independent country.
But you might wonder if, given the fight almost to the death going on behind the screens of Holyrood, whether an independent state ought to be led by people who can announce the cause of independence, but whose attachment to it seem less secure. Ms S. has made no secret that when the independence ceilidh has ended she will be on the next plane to Brussels to seek Scotland’s admittance to the European Union. It seems a little eccentric to many observers that having gained independence, the Scots should give it away to a more remote and less democratic and listening institution. But that, no doubt, would be a matter for the Scots in yet another referendum.
What is a bigger issue, and a very serious one potentially, is how hard Boris Johnson, and indeed a Conservative government would work to prevent another (binding) referendum on Scottish secession, or how they would respond to an unofficial one which showed a clear majority for “leave”. To ignore it is to invite trouble; it is to strengthen the independence cause; it is to invite the creators of trouble over race and rights and all the causes which trouble the streets, now to pick up Scottish freedom. Most of all, it is to be accused of the rankest hypocrisy, having so recently “taken back control” for a freed United Kingdom. This could become very nasty; it is a fight which is almost unwinnable; and it is one, perhaps sad to say, which English voters might not want to take on anyway. “Let ‘em go” seems to be the English mood, and that might be the best solution.