“It’s a thocht that wad gar our rottans,
Aa thae rogues that gang gallus, fresh and gay
Tak the road an seek ither loanins
wi their ill ploy tae sport and play”
Having a mind that is always keen to hook a thought onto the Freedom Come Aa Ye, it struck me, reading the Peat Worrier’s latest notes on the Scottish elite’s confidence in Britain, that his “well-heeled, black-coated gentlemen” who “feel perfectly chipper and self-assertive within the UK” are among those we would like to see removed from their place in an independent Scotland, and packed off to sport their ill ploys in some other places. But would, or could, a Yes vote precipitate the gradual eviction and replacement of Ye Old Incompetences at the heart of Scotland’s establishment?
The view that many of them fear the consequences of a Yes vote, and the popular confidence it would represent, finds evidence in the likes of Hugo Rifkind’s appeal to them to come out from their nice houses and public schools to save the union, and the forced and bitter reticence of representatives in the CBI and Law Society. This quiet fear fuels the ‘radical’ nationalist belief that Britain is for the Rich, but Scotland can be Ours.
Materially it is also true that “Edinburgh’s bourgeois tribes” enjoy many “wages of privilege” which incline them to favour the constitutional status quo – whereas, for the common Scot who does not share the “unselfconscious confidence in the exercise of power” enjoyed by doctors, judges, mandarins and so forth, “allegiance to the British state is – perhaps disturbingly – provisional”. A popular shift away from established institutions that a Yes vote represents does seem destined to weaken the elite.
So, although Lallands does not explore in depth the reasons for the elite’s fear of rising popular confidence, his argument does suggest that Scotland’s elite, content in Britain, would find no solace in a Scotland where the “overwhelming majority of folk, unsteeped in what can sometimes seem like the uncritical hive mind of the Scottish establishment”, decide to take things into their own hands. So far, so promising that Henderson’s ambition may be advanced if the many are confident enough to vote Yes in September.
Yet, as Roch Wind has pointed out before, while a No vote may be in the best interests of the rich, plenty of the Scottish elite believe an independent Scotland would suit them at least as well as the status quo. Edinburgh townhouses would remain the best places in Britain to live. And what kind of threat to their stimulating comfort could possibly be posed by a nation-state financially in thrall to London, under a government that has thinned out social democracy so it means little more than business as usual with social perks? The prospect for them to carry on in this new free Scotland with more power and money must seem ideal in some respects: to shed the galling robes and underwhelming titles that come with of administering a sub-state under London’s auspices, in an artery far from the beating heart, and for the Edin-burghers to rule a nation-state in their own right.
It is not as if their interests find no representation in the highest level of Scottish administration. The First Minister himself embodies these rogues. Smart Alec not only captures the confidence of this class about an independent Scotland; he convinces the masses that they, too, can be confident in the former’s quiet supremacy. Alec knows he has managed to reassure the elite there is no serious or unusual risk in his offer: on one hand exuding confidence in Scotland ‘with every fibre of his being’ (as he put it in an interview with Russia Today which has lingered uneasily in my mind) and on the other carrying out a project to put security of property in place of fear, especially for businesses and their owners. Just bear in mind, ye radicals, that our independent country would be founded by a former bank researcher whose consistent political belief has been the ability of Scotland to be a wealthy and prosperous country without any significant adjustment of its social structure.
This need not be an intractable problem so long as we are ourselves mindful that the enemy will remain within an independent Scotland. For after a Yes vote we would begin the enterprise of clearing away our cloistered places and exposing the hidden people’s incompetence and interests. Once the administration of Scotland is under independent scrutiny (which should be a priority of all authentic radicals) then their fallacies and indulgencies may be laid bare, and their undeserved rewards may start to be rebuked and ultimately be confiscated by a public that is more attentive to the spending of its monies and the potential of its own self-government. At this point, if we are swift, the elite will start losing the confidence that Alex Salmond has worked so hard to generate. For the privileged are confident in themselves as long as they believe their position is secure. But once the many start to challenge the few, and highlight their inadequacies, established confidence will begin to fail.
Such faltering resolve bears a curious resemblance to the Peat Worrier’s description of the moments when he says “the spirit of confidence deserts [him]”. This cloistered elite (with whom both he and I are all too familiar) are the kind of people who, despite insecurities and doubts about their abilities, know they are more equipped with copious words and arguments – not to mention money and privilege – than anyone around them. These bluffers easily can speak and impress people in the room; but as soon as doubt enters their minds, they waver and shake, and the warm confidence, about which they sometimes harboured doubts, evaporates to leave them in a cold sweat. And if ‘ordinary’ folk, who do not share their stage and status, begin to raise public doubts about their privileges, so that the elites realize that their own capacities are not much more extraordinary than those of the common folk criticizing them in the towns and cities, then these ruling tribes will find their time has come, and their rewards, hitherto concealed, will be in the open air. At that moment they’ll run to save their skins.
They will be allowed to go. For although the Freedom Come Aa Ye describes a revolutionary moment, it is clear all along that the elite are not to suffer much. The gallows are brought down, not wheeled to George Square for a different use.
Of course, some will fear this would start the process of a devastating capital flight – but short-term capital withdrawal becomes long-term capital replacement. In his account of his trip to America, Robert Louis Stephen determines that when we consider solutions to the social problems around us, we surely must lament poverty, but it is dealing with the self-serving and the undeserving capitalists that should concerned us first and foremost. Their removal may owe more to the capacity of the many for social organisation than to any challenge to their power per se. Social change and collective ownership threatens the rich, destroys exploitation on which alone they thrive, and thus drives them out – so they leave almost of their own volition.
It is elite confidence that keeps power with the few. Seeing the correlation between confidence and power, confidence is bandied around on the left in Scotland as if it is a first principle of radical politics. But although confidence follows power and protects it, the elite’s crisis of confidence will come not when the masses summon up the confidence to join the Scottish elite and share in rising expectations for every class, but when they assert their material demands against those who hold court.
At this point, witnessing the success of their reaction to unjust indulgence and incompetent power of others, the many can develop confidence themselves. This moves them to control themselves what others formerly controlled at a higher cost; and, finding they have more than the requisite ability to administer a society and economy and nation, the many start to build on solid ground the kind of institutions that in the past were built by an elite to satisfy the masses’ discontents. Finding these constructions solid and secure, the people gain more confidence to topple the old structures and institutions of the rogues, who, finding themselves bereft of work or wealth, begin to take their ploys elsewhere.
Of course, they rogues will find other lanes. But though the entire world revolves at once, the history of modern European societies suggests, for now at least, that revolutions will be national. Even that should gar oor rottans.