“If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster/And treat those two impostors just the same”, wrote British imperialist and poet Richard Kipling. ‘If’ is the question of this article. What if it all goes wrong? What if the independence movement fails? And what if the morning after is even worse than the night before? It is not in the nature of utopian elements of independence supporters – within which I reside – to contemplate this. It is deflating to predict that the fields of milk and honey may in fact be sour, infested with bees, and enclosed by a high estate, barbed wire fence. Personally, I prefer to accentuate the language of the possible and the positive. I hope that plagues of locusts do not swarm onto Calton Hill. I hope that this is not 1979. I hope that progressives in Scotland across the constitutional divide can meet with both triumph and disaster. Yet I have my brief. This article is for dystopia, the triumph of fear and the disaster of Scotland without power.
Dystopia is a term coined by J.S. Mill – derived from Thomas Moore’s 1516 title Utopia. Dystopia, when the dream turns to a nightmare, has featured most prominently as a literary genre. Orwell, Huxley, Atwood and others constructed imagined horrors from the anxieties of their time. My own encounter with dystopia stems from a University of Glasgow module run by Professor Kevin Francis, entitled ‘Political Theory of Dystopia’. Francis constructs his own taxonomy of dystopia in response to J.C. Davis’ Utopias & the Ideal Society; while commending current Daily Mail headlines as evidence of the modern dystopian narratives. In Francis’ view dystopia rejects the common assumption that power is under popular control. Instead the world is seen or imagined to be a lot darker: ‘Born free, humanity is now in chains’.
Among polite company such fears are not commonly spoken of. The fact that in times of crisis, the state relies upon political violence is not a cheery thought. While food bank queues grow and the chants of the English Defence League rise, politicians spit out their immigration sound-bites for the cameras.
However, the fear and loathing of dystopia is an ancient one. Hesiod’s Works and Days tells the tale of society in decline. Hesiod writes of a polity at war with itself. As Thomas Hobbes echoes centuries later and as we witness only too vividly today in Syria, the dystopia is civil war.
“The father will not agree with his children, nor the children with their father, nor guest with his host, nor comrade with comrade; nor will brother be dear to brother as aforetime. Men will dishonour their parents as they grow old, and will carp at them, chiding them with bitter words, hard-hearted they, not knowing the fear of the gods. They will not repay their aged parents the cost nurture, for might shall be their right: and one man will sack another’s city. There will be no favour for the man who keeps his oath or for the just or for the good; but rather men will praise the evil-doer and his violent dealing. Strength will be right and reverence will cease to be; and the wicked will hunt the worthy man, speaking false words against him, and will swear an oath upon him. Envy, foul-mouthed, delighting in with, with scowling face, will go along with wretched men one and all.” (Hesiod, Works and Days, Chapter 2.)
If this was the depravity during the ‘age of iron’ for men, who knows what it was like for the women edited completely out of history and existence. Yet Hesiod’s account – and Francis’ taxonomy – resonates with fears of a post-2014 Scotland. While the greatest fears of a post referendum Scotland are repeatedly invoked by the No campaign and associated press (the economy will fail, services will collapse, nationalism will turn violent etc.) there is a dystopian tale to tell from the other perspective. As in Hesiod, social division and outside domination may await a ‘post-No’ Scotland; and that is only the beginning of the dystopian allusions that can be drawn.
Before considering the relevance of literary dystopia to Scotland, consider where Scotland stands on an emotional level. The mainstream debate on independence has often been dogmatic, aggressive, sour and sometimes traumatic to follow. Aspiration remains submerged within the brasher barbs of party political exchanges, although the Common Weal is a welcome exception. This is not healthy. It raises multiple concerns as to how the stagnation of a ‘No’ vote may impact the psychology of Scotland’s political future.
Regret. It may hang heavy in the air for years. The opportunity of self-governance will not readily emerge again. Domination. The feeling that decisions are being made without consent or support. Bitterness. The belief that false promises, the media or Ian Taylor’s funding have unfairly influenced the referendum. Apathy. The inevitability of unelected or distant government quells calls for radical action. Entrenchment. The constitutional divide deepens following a fraught campaign, with cooperation drying like desertification. Emigration. The young, hopeful and talented find a future elsewhere.
In the event of a ‘No’ vote, these emotions may be inevitable. For many, this issue cannot be relinquished easily. Furthermore, ill-defined proposals for further devolution may leave Scotland in a nauseous limbo for years to come. As it stands, this constitutional conflict without compassion may poison the well of good will in Scottish politics. That should concern us all.
However, this is not dystopia. Dystopia is horror – characterised as a rapid decline in democracy or an upsurge in social unrest. In an era of riots and financial crisis, can either be ruled out within the UK?
With that question hopefully left vibrating between your ears like shell-shock, consider Kevin Francis’ taxonomy and apply them to Scotland. The first is et in arcadia ego (Silent Spring, Lord of the Flies, The Revenge of Gaia) – where the natural environment brings disaster. Like all disasters – from Fukushima to Chernobyl – they are unpredictable. Does Scotland face the brunt of climate change or nuclear catastrophe? The timing of the 13th onshore round of licensing by the UK government – which opens up Scotland’s most densely populated areas to ‘fracking’ – is taken as a warning sign by environmentalists. The continued housing of nuclear weapons at Faslane – and their transportation six times a year on Scotland’s roads – brings no comfort. A recent accident simulation considered the consequences of a nuclear convoy crash that released a cloud of radioactivity over the central belt. (The Herald 17/06/13)
A second dystopian theme is ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ (Frankenstein, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sleep?, A Space Odyssey). Technological advancement spirals out of human control. For a UK example, look no further than the creeping surveillance state. The Edward Snowden NSA/GCHQ revelations continue to shine a light on state and corporate manipulation of information. In response to such reporting, UK security officials destroyed Guardian files in London and arrested David Miranda under the terrorism act. According to Alan Rusbridger and Iain MacWhirter, digital investigative journalism is no longer secure. This also applies to political activism. To take one public example, 2,337 Facebook information requests were made by the UK government in the first six months of this year alone. Outrage in Germany and Brazil contrasts sharply with UK public complacency. Once Frankenstein has created a monster it is difficult to go back; and that may well be the case for Scotland’s civil liberties within the United Kingdom.
‘The social and political dystopia’ is a third consideration. This covers the wide terrain from Brave New World, to The Handmaid’s Tale to Nineteen Eighty-four. Within such a society, freedom and civilisation are suffocated by an imposing ideology and an all-powerful elite. The Daily Mail social dystopia is symbolised by a ‘paradise lost’ and the erosion of traditional values. The liberal-left dystopia bemoans the rise of corporatism and the death of meaningful democracy.
While these views of the political system are detached from public norms, fear has foundation. A civic society sucked dry during economic turmoil is ripe for the rise of fascism. Europe must remember that. Greece must remember that. To the dystopian observer, Scotland remains resilient to such political turmoil; yet English cities have witnessed repeated incidents of social unrest. In 2011 amid a frenzy of flames and broken glass, the police drew their batons and commentators spoke sharply of a future with water cannons and ‘chemical deterrents’. Politicians know how to forcefully intervene but not how to heal the inequality of their own creation.
Among polite company such fears are not commonly spoken of. The fact that in times of crisis, the state relies upon political violence is not a cheery thought. While food bank queues grow and the chants of the English Defence League rise, politicians spit out their immigration sound-bites for the cameras. Where is all this heading? It often feels like the UK is governed by a vindictive clique, which grows more incestuous by the day. Where we draw the line between democracy and oligarchy is difficult to determine; yet the political culture in UK politics remains firmly hostile to notions of social justice. Besides the numerous versions of Scottish dystopia, with UKIP on the rise the Scottish social dystopia is clear:
A future Tory-UKIP coalition in 2015 or 2020 wipes away the last vestiges of the welfare state. The bloc grant shrivels and the gains of devolution disappear. ‘We have tough choices to make’, they say in Westminster. As the Trident fleet heads to Faslane for another generation, the Defence Secretary remarks, ‘There is no alternative’. Now thousands more in Scotland – once hopeful of a new beginning, now powerless and equally impoverished – think to themselves, ‘Aye, there really is no alternative’.