7 March 2015

Wherefore art thou, Honest Abe?

Not many folk read Thomas Carlyle these days.  Although we hear quiet echoes of the Scottish historian and critic in our folk histories of the French Revolution, with his pungent prose, Carlyle's high Victorian style can seem hopelessly windy and overwrought today. But it would be wrong to see Carlyle's collapse into obscurity as a question of style only. The basic assumptions informing his approach to understanding history, society and social change have been hotly contested, not least his argument that "history is nothing but the biography of great men."

In his time, Carlyle was not alone in conceptualising history as a succession of charismatic individual leaders and kings, warriors and tyrants, whose choices shaped the lives of the tongueless legions of the silent dead, who went about their lives in the shadow of these collossuses, shaped but not shaping their fates. Hegel famously described Napoleon as "the world spirit on horseback." As critics from Herbert Spencer onward have pointed out, the great man theory of history is simplistic nonsense. Leaders have their impacts and their influences, for sure, but life is much more complicated, more collective, and agency more socially distributed, than a mighty roll call of caesars and conquerors admits.

In academic history, the approach may be a dead letter, but it remains alive and well in UK political commentary, which tends to personalise successes and failures, focussing relentlessly on personalities and perceptions, conceptualising and understanding politics from the top down, rather than the bottom up. But it remains something of a surprise to discover Martin Kettle, giving us a vintage draught of great man theory in the Guardian, arguing that "To save the union, Britain will have to find its own Abraham Lincoln."

What Britain needs, he contends, is a charismatic uniter, able to articulate a new unionism in a compelling, soulful way. 

"What is clear, though, is that someone somewhere in British public life has to make a Lincoln-like effort to inspire the better angels of our own nature and to try, again and again, to halt the current fissiparous abandonment to our worse ones." 

Kettle concludes:

"Unless this happens, our house may not stand for long. The chances of that producing a “more advantageous or more satisfactory” outcome are tenuous at best. Who can give believable voice to what needs to be said? It is hard to think of the statesman or woman with the standing to speak for our union. Perhaps an archbishop can attempt it. Perhaps a poet. Where, and who, is our Lincoln?"

The idea that the American civil war was won with words, rather than bodies, blood and Springfield model rifles, is sufficiently daft not to detain us -- but for Kettle to see the challenges for our union in these terms is hopelessly analytically thin and naive. If anything, this emphasis on missing, charismatic leadership can only distract Kettle's unionist fellow travellers from an honest, clear eyed analysis of the complex, deeper problems of British political affect and loyalty which the referendum campaign revealed.

Like the New Labour prophets who told us that Jim Murphy would fix the party's Scottish problems single-handed, the idea that the challenges for the Union can all be answered by a lyrical but homespun Great Emancipator of our own is beyond comic. This is the politics of the West Wing, where the tough, often slow work of social and political change can be done by delivering a splendid speech, as if compelling statements of principle make the world turn. Remind me to ask Barack Obama: how did that work out for you, Mr President?


  1. Lincoln's speech was an effort to answer a question, as well as an attempt to reach out to what he called his "dissatisfied fellow-countrymen". The reaction while favourable in the North was denounced in the South. No great words of healing or reconciliation could avoid the conflict. That anyone thinks we need a leader of Lincolns great rhetorical skills is being somewhat childish. However there is real danger that the Union will (out of some dread terror of Scotland having an independent voice in Westminster) lead to the union tearing itself apart.

    Colin Kidd said in "union and unionisms" that the great success of the union was that it was banal. Banality is not a word I would associate with the Great Emancipator. The union was instead built on a pragmatic approach to government. It recognised the differences and tried to accommodate them, while trying to strengthen the areas of convergence. When the two nations start to diverge to any great degree then the tension starts and the call for home rule goes out.

    This pragmatic approach simply does not exist anymore. This is evident in the latest article by Max Hastings and another by John Major. Major himself concluded his own fear laden rant, demanding that Miliband refuse any deal with the SNP, effectively locking Scotland out of Westminster.

    Reducing Scotland to an existential threat to the UK, is hardly the approach that would encourage Scots to feel more emotionally attached to Britain now is it? Yet this deeply disturbing viewpoint has been reinforced by the stupidity of labour and the tories, implying that an SNP vote is in fact a vote for their rival. By extension that argument suggests that if Scotland voted for either labour or the conservatives, it would impose a government that the UK did not vote for. In other words, no matter what Scotland votes for, it is in fact a vote for the SNP. It is an absurd argument to make, and it paints Scotland's electorate into a corner not of its making.

    The only thing that would make Britain sleep better at night would be for Scotland not to vote. But even that would be painted as some devious plot by the evil Scots. I can see the daily record/mail/express headline now

    "Scotland to opt out of vote to ensure *Labour/Conservatives* win General Election [delete as appropriate]

    Pragmatism would suggest that acknowledging the contribution of Scotland was the way forward. Somehow they convinced themselves that Scotland was never a true partner in the Union, and by extension not really British.

    I was going to close it there, but have since learned that Miliband made a speech saying that if Scotland spurns labour it will condemn the UK to 10 years of Tory rule.
    This is stupid and dangerous on so many levels I simply don't know were to start. I also know that it is a flat acknowledgement by Miliband that he cannot win in England on his own. Even when the chips were down, Lincoln never made a speech as bad as that.

    I think this union is beyond the help of the better angels of our natures.

  2. Andrew: 'Hegel famously described Napoleon as "the world spirit on horseback.” '

    Walter de la Mare turned that into a magical wee poem -


    'WHAT is the world, O soldiers?
    It is I:
    I, this incessant snow,
    This northern sky;
    Soldiers, this solitude
    Through which we go
    Is I.'

    (Marx of course had his own view on inverting Hegel.)

    Andrew quoting Kettle: "To save the union, Britain will have to find its own Abraham Lincoln."

    Yes I agree this is dreadful, indeed I said on the Guardian thread that this was a terrible analogy. For in fact of course - quite apart from the total irrelevance to Scotland - the ‘peace’ that followed the Civil War in the south was won by the Confederates, a victory that lasted at least until the 1960s and is still being fought out today in the south.

    Back to the real world, Murphy has - from my pro union hillock - been a real disappointment I feel. The baloney about voting to keep the Tories out only makes some sort of sense if you advocate voting SNP to defeat David Mundell in the south west, but of course we are not going to hear that from Mr Murphy.

  3. What we are seeing from the British establishment,which now appears to include HM Press(and probably always did),is their view of the nature of the "union".
    Not a union of equals,for sure but an incorporating union where Scotland was absorbed into Greater England and whose identity was subsequently extinguished..
    This is at the heart of English/British thinking and the idea of Scotland as an independent entity just does not compute on any level.
    No amount of oratory can bridge the gap between Scottish aspiration and British conservatism and will only be solved when the establishment take on board fully our right to self determination.

  4. I suppose you're right and that a Lincoln (or, to put it in more suitable terms, a Trotsky) is no longer adequate. What we need is a really inspiring committee.

    1. that's what the smith commission was supposed to be right? Perhaps they should form a committee to look into a committee for inspiration.

      Joking aside, Westminster can form all the committees and commissions it wants. You still have to get an increasingly sclerotic parliament to do anything with the findings.

    2. Thank you for another piece of excellent writing. Human society, as collectives/communities/nations have directed "state" policy from the earliest times.

      Sometimes these groupings have a leading mouthpiece to promulgate their message, but that's all they are. It is the majority of the people in the group/community/nation which decides what the message is, and not the mouthpiece.

      Fortunately for Scottish Independence, the Unionist mouthpieces are well less than competent, and appear to be delivering many conflicting messages at the same time. Phagocytes.

  5. Apart from all the other problems with Kettle's thesis, his call for some providential archbishop to save the union suggests a deep ignorance of the Presbyterian attitude to bishops. This is almost on a par with John Major's spinsters cycling to evensong. It points to one of the tectonic faults in unionism: most Scots have a fair understanding of England, thanks to the BBC et al., while most English people are profoundly ignorant of Scotland (and Ireland and Wales).