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Politics and society
Should the English also have a right to decide on Scottish independence, asks Roger Scruton.
BBC News Magazine
In all the complex changes leading to the Scottish bid for independence the English have never been consulted. The process has been conducted as though we had no right to an opinion in the matter. It was all about Scotland, and how to respond to Scottish nationalism.
As an Englishman I naturally ask why my interests in the matter have never been taken into account. When the Czechs and the Slovaks achieved their amicable divorce it was by mutual agreement between elected politicians. What is so different about Scotland, that it decides everything for itself?
The Union of England and Scotland was formally declared in the Act of Union of 1707. But it had been an emerging reality throughout the preceding century. In the conditions and conflicts of those days it was impossible for the two nations to regard themselves as fundamentally distinct. They shared an island, a religion, a language, and a monarch. And both had espoused the Protestant cause.
It's true there was a border between them. And things on one side of the border were not always replicated on the other. Scots law was, and remains, a separate system from the English. Styles of dress, architecture, popular entertainment and speech were for a long time quite distinct, in part because of the striking difference in climate. And, since the Reformation, organised religion has taken a very different form in the two countries, the lowland Scots opting for the Calvinist and Presbyterian version, and remaining largely hostile to the elaborate episcopal offices that appealed to the English. But the differences were less important than the history and geography that held the two nations together.
It is true that the union was resented by the highlanders, many of whom had retained their Catholic faith, their Gaelic language and their loyalty to the deposed Stuart kings. The cruel suppression of the Jacobite rebellions, the forbidding of the tartan, the persecution of Catholics and the expulsion of the crofters from their homes - all these things are well known, and don't cast credit either on the English or on the lowlanders who principally benefited from the union. Nevertheless during the years of empire building, merchants from both countries combined to reap the benefits of British naval power, and to explore the far corners of the earth in search of profit. And in their wake they brought the imperial government that they shared. Moreover, empire building had to be backed up by military force. The Napoleonic wars sealed the union between the Scots and the English, who happily adopted Great Britain as the name of their united country.
Neither people could have survived the wars of the 20th Century had they not fought side by side and with total commitment to the union. As a result of those wars, however, the empire was lost and an entirely new political landscape emerged from beneath the smoke. It is no longer possible for us to see the union as it was seen throughout the course of the 19th Century - as something natural and unquestionable. The enterprise that joined us has vanished, so too (we hope) have the military threats. Each nation is, for the time being at least, wrapped in its own internal problems.
It can be said the Scots are still reeling from the effect of Margaret Thatcher's radical economic policies and her introduction of the poll tax.
They are bound to ask themselves whether they have had a fair share of the prosperity that is visible nearly everywhere in the south of England. And the English tend to blame the migrations that threaten to overwhelm them on a succession of Labour governments.
By allowing mass immigration into England, and refusing to confront the European Union's commitment to the free movement of peoples, the governments of Blair and Brown seriously undermined the English sense of identity. At the same time, through the creation of a Scottish parliament, they gave a new identity to the Scots.
The effect of the Scottish Parliament, however, was not only to ensure that the Scots would govern themselves, but also to make it more likely that they would continue to govern the English. The Labour Party did not want to lose those Scottish MPs, since it was thanks to them, and to the Scottish vote, that the Labour Party had achieved such a large majority in Westminster. Scots were disproportionately represented in the cabinets of both Blair and Brown. Tony Blair was born and partly educated in Scotland, and owed his position in the Labour hierarchy in part to the networks that had grown in that country.
Elections to the Scottish Parliament show that the Scots have shifted their allegiance from Labour to the SNP. But they still want the English to be governed by the Labour Party. Hence they vote to place Labour politicians, whom they don't particularly want at home, in Westminster.
As a result of this the English, who have voted Conservative more often than Labour in post-war elections, have to accept a block vote of Labour members of parliament sent to Westminster by the Scots. The process that brought this about was one in which the Scots themselves were given the final say, in a referendum from which the English were excluded. In other words the process of devolution can be seen as a piece of gerrymandering, the effect of which has been to secure a Labour bias in the Westminster Parliament, while allowing the Scots to govern themselves in whatever way they choose.
And the process continues. In response to Alex Salmond's bid for independence the people of Scotland have been granted another referendum. But again the people of England have been deprived of a say. Why is this? Are we part of the union or not? Or are the politicians afraid that we would vote the wrong way? And what is the wrong way? What way should we English vote, given that the present arrangement gives two votes to the Scots for every vote given to the English? Should we not vote for our independence, given that we risk being governed from a country that already regulates its own affairs, and has no clear commitment to ours?
The Scottish economy is subsidised by the English. But this does not mean that England would be better off without Scotland. You give subsidies to your dependants because you depend on them. Subsidies are also investments, which have returns in the long run that may more than justify the cost.
On the other hand, it could be that the Scottish economy has suffered from the union overall. Boswell attributes to Dr Johnson the remark that "the noblest prospect that a Scotchman ever sees, is the high road that leads him to England". Johnson's purpose was to ridicule the romantic adulation of the Scottish landscape, which was all the rage at the time, except perhaps among those who had to live there. But he touched, without intending it, on the principal cause of Scotland's economic problems, which is the loss of human capital.
Educated Scots have constantly taken Dr Johnson's high road to England, carrying with them their knowledge and their energy, and investing it outside the borders of their homeland. In just the way that the EU today is siphoning away the young middle class from Poland and the Czech Republic, so has our union served to deprive the Scots of some of the people their economy most needs.
The security that we have enjoyed in Europe since the collapse of the Soviet Union has brought with it a certain complacency in the matter of defence. During the Cold War the Scottish landmass was absolutely fundamental to our strategy. Our nuclear deterrent is housed in Scottish waters, and the Scottish airbases were constantly called upon to deter Soviet violations of our airspace. Scottish regiments are at the forefront of our campaigns today, and without them we would be much less capable of defending ourselves in a serious crisis.
In my opinion defence is the sole reason for thinking that the breakup of the union might be bad for both our countries. The union would have to be replaced by a strong and committed alliance. But I think this would happen, just as the colonial administration of America transformed itself, in time, into the Western alliance, which brings the British and the Americans together and fighting side by side in every major crisis.
Suppose then we English were finally allowed a say in the matter, which way would I vote? I have no doubt about it. I would vote for English independence, as a step towards strengthening the friendship between our countries. It was thanks to independence that the Americans were able at last to confess to their attachment to the old country, and to come to our aid in two world wars. Independence is what real friendship requires. And the same is true for those, like the Scots and the English, who live side by side.
Peter Watson The Age of Nothing
Reviewed by Roger Scruton
February 14, 2014
Peter Watson has written an intriguing and challenging book, which surveys the response of modern Western societies and their intellectuals to the decline of religion. To introduce the reader to the main currents of post-religious thinking, from Nietzsche, who started it with a bang, to Rorty, who tried to end it with a whimper, is no mean achievement. Hardly an important school of thought is missing: all the 'isms' that have contended for attention during the 20th century are there, and Watson's interest in what they have to say is unflagging. I recommend this book to anyone who needs to know what the loss of religious faith has meant to the high culture of our civilisation and what, if anything, we might do about it.
Nietzsche wrote Thus Spake Zarathustra in the early 1880s, but it was only after the philosopher's death at the end of the century that its influence began to be felt. By the time of the First World War, Zarathustra had become the most popular work of philosophy in Germany, the book most frequently carried into the trenches by literate soldiers, and one printed for distribution to the German troops in a special durable edition of 150,000 copies. Today Nietzsche is at the heart of the university curriculum in the humanities, not simply on account of Zarathustra's slogan that God is dead, but more importantly because of Nietzsche's view that 'there are no truths, only interpretations'.
With the death of God, Nietzsche thought, comes the loss of the objective world: all that remains is our own perspective, and we must make of it what we can. From this it was a small step to the philosophy of the Superman, who would spend life expressing his 'will to power', through weight-lifting, rudeness and – who knows? – the occasional life-affirming murder.
Watson has a lot of time for Nietzsche, while acknowledging that his influence is due more to his gifts as a writer than his capacity for argument. He moves on through the whole range of literature in French, German and English, taking in the post-impressionist and modernist painters along the way, and discovering in all those whom he discusses some interesting and idiosyncratic reaction to the news of God's death. The range of Watson's knowledge is amazing. There are things missing that might have been there, of course: music is conspicuously absent, which is a pity, since it was Wagner and not Nietzsche who first made the death of God central to the understanding of our condition, and it was the modernist composers – Schoenberg and Stravinsky in particular – who tried hardest to breathe life into the corpse. But there is a limit to what you can expect from a book like this, which covers a whole century of intellectual endeavour as lightly as it can.
The loss of God has been experienced in many ways: as a challenge to place humanity on the empty pedestal from which God had fallen; as a call to give up on the grand narratives and rest content with our nothingness; as an invitation to therapy, drug-taking, artistic exhibitionism or some other way of making the Self into the centre of attention. All those come under Watson's eager microscope. In the end, however, he concludes that there is only one available stand-in for God and that is the intense moments of experience. Many writers have touched on these moments, presenting epiphanies in which the world is replete with a meaning that needs no God to explain it. That, Watson implies in his somewhat rambling conclusion, is all that we have.
The sacred moment is described in many ways and with many artistic embellishments. In Rilke it is an exchange of kisses between the earth and the observing consciousness; in Virginia Woolf it is a long sweet languish in a bubble bath of refined susceptibilities; in Lawrence and Nietzsche it is a Dionysiac encounter with life; in Proust it is a door into a space where the unseen eyes of Mother keep their unceasing vigil. And all those accounts are intriguing and suggestive. But they describe experiences that somehow fall short of what we are looking for, and Watson never really tells us why.
According to Watson the most important influence in shaping this search for the sacred moment was not Nietzsche or Proust but Husserl, the founding father of phenomenology. Husserl is widely referred to, but not widely read, since he wrote in an inspissated jargon that doesn't translate easily out of German, or into it for that matter. But Watson is right to acknowledge him, since he was part of a highly influential movement of thought in the late Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Husserl turned the attention of philosophy towards the structure of consciousness. He held that the concrete, contingent and immediate experience has precedence over the abstract generalities of science, since experience is the reality against which theories are tested. This idea was given literary form by Robert Musil and Karl Kraus; it was given philosophical form by Martin Heidegger, who should be credited with the extraordinary achievement of writing worse than Husserl. And the sections on Musil and Heidegger are among Watson's best.
However, the God-hungry atheism of the mid-twentieth century has a slightly quaint air today. The life-cult of D.H. Lawrence, the socialist progressivism of H.G. Wells, the naïve optimism of John Dewey, the existentialist nihilism of Heidegger and Sartre – all such religion substitutes have lost their appeal, and we find ourselves, perhaps for the first time, with a gloves-off encounter between the evangelical atheists, who tell us that religious belief is both nonsensical and wicked, and the defenders of intelligent design, who look around for the scraps that the Almighty left behind from his long picnic among us. What do we make of this new controversy? Watson gives a well-informed account of it, but he has no comfort to offer, other than those moments of meaning into which we stare and from which the face of God has vanished.
Or has it?
Politics and society
Bernard Williams, Essays and Reviews, 1959-2002
Reviewed by Roger Scruton
February 16, 2014
This collection of reviews from a lifelong involvement in the intellectual life, show the late Sir Bernard Williams at his engaging best: lucid, cultivated, and entirely serious in his determination to extract the essence from the matter he is discussing. Williams's style of relentless interrogation, which permits neither vagueness nor evasion, invariably deepens the reader's understanding not only of the question at issue but also of the intellectual networks in which it is embedded. Despite his busy life as professor in prestigious universities on both sides of the Atlantic, Provost of King's College Cambridge, and vociferous member of the old Labour establishment, and despite his own immensely important contribution to the subject in books that are on the shelves of all professional philosophers, Williams found time to study and review the works of his contemporaries, leaving all of them, it seems to me, with serious criticisms to answer, and at least one of them (Richard Rorty) with no hope of doing so.
Reading these essays was a wonderful intellectual journey, back across the years of my own intellectual formation, revisiting the philosophical monuments of our time in the company of their acutest critic. Many of the significant post-war figures are called into the witness box: Austin, Ayer, Rawls, Nozick, Nagel, Rorty, Chomsky, Parfit, Skinner, and many more, there to be cross-examined with consummate skill. Williams's aim is not to score points, but to discover what these people are saying, why they are saying it and whether we should be saying it too. For readers without a philosophical training some of the essays will be uphill work. But they are never more difficult than the subject requires, and are written with a lightness of touch and a lack of solemnity that are a joy in themselves.
Williams's great and in my view unmatched talent as a philosopher was to perceive and expose the hidden assumptions in every argument he came across, while understanding the goal that the argument is seeking to achieve. He brilliantly unsettles Thomas Nagel's attempt to find a perspective beyond the reach of relativistic ways of thinking; he elegantly confronts Hilary Putnam with the possibility that his defence of 'internal realism' is the defence of nothing in particular, or everything in general, depending how you look at it; he neatly ties Derek Parfit in a contradiction between his sceptical idea of personal identity and his thoughts about 'a life worth living'. In these and a hundred other ways, he touches the monuments of analytical philosophy and they spring to life with shocked expressions that suggest that, after all, they may not be immortal.
But where did he stand himself? What exactly was Williams's position on the philosophical issues of the day? It is possible to think, though this would not be fair, that Williams was too clever to have a position, since he was able, as no other thinker was able, to see through every position on offer. I tend rather to the view that Williams, like Hume, was a minimalist. He saw the impossibility of the systems and the grand narratives, and yet at the same time wanted to uphold our ordinary ways of thinking. He shared the trust in scientific advance and liberal morality that had shaped the post-war consensus. And he remained committed to the egalitarian agenda of the old Labour Party – a commitment that infected all his discussions of political philosophy, several of which appear in this book.
I like to think that it is not only because I am a conservative that I find Williams's treatment of political philosophy unconvincing. In his discussions of Rawls, whose books on justice and political liberalism have done so much to establish the agenda of the subject, Williams is uncharacteristically reticent. He assumes with Rawls that the question of justice is a question of how the goods available in society are to be distributed, and – like Rawls – never asks the question 'by whom?' Like so many socialists he assumes that goods come into the world unencumbered by any claims of ownership. He is hastily dismissive of Nozick's attempt to remind us that, in our ordinary dealings with each other, justice is not about patterns of distribution but about who has honoured his agreements and who has cheated whom.
This intellectual favouritism goes with a tendency to sneer at 'the other side'. The word 'conservative' appears in Williams's essays as a term of abuse, and is always connected – sometimes rightly, sometimes wrongly – with the worst tendencies of capitalist exploitation. And he never misses a chance (as in his review of Paul Johnson's Intellectuals) to give vent to his underlying belief that conservatives just don't get it. Like John Stuart Mill, Williams deeply believed that, when it comes to politics, the conservatives are 'the stupider party'. He was, perhaps, the last fully self-confident representative of a very English class of intellectual snob, whose principal concern (in the eyes of its critics) was to destroy the social and intellectual privileges that it had enjoyed before the next generation of upstarts could get hold of them. As one of those upstarts I was bound to feel somewhat peeved.
The imaginative power of Williams's mind was wonderfully revealed in his late work, Shame and Necessity, in which he brought moral philosophy and Greek literature into relation with each other, and cast the kind of light on both that Nietzsche had cast in The Birth of Tragedy. Those who think that analytical philosophers are all logic-chopping philistines should take a look at that book or, failing that, they should immerse themselves in the penultimate essay in this collection, on 'Wagner and the Transcendence of Politics', which conveys Williams's deep awareness of what matters in music, and how. In these reviews and essays Williams achieves something that philosophy always promises but seldom delivers: a view from the perspective of reason, on a cultural landscape where reason is only one of the landmarks.
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