For Scotland today, idealism like Ireland 1916, or be careful of what you wish for?

Guardian columnist Martin Kettle makes a bold comparison between the generational change in Ireland 1916 and the “energising “ impact of the Scottish independence referendum of 2014. He’s inspired by Roy Foster’s marvellous new book which I’m only just into: “Vivid Faces.” In his review Maurice Hayes quotes Holywood’s Bulmer Hobson who faced house  arrest by his own compatriots who feared his dissent from the countermanding order.

Those who began the great adventure with high hopes for social and political change, for the liberation of women and the loosening of clerical control, were either dead or disillusioned, especially the women who had contributed so much in the struggle. They saw new conservatives move in to take the spoils and to reinforce the parental values they had rebelled against, and the reinforcement of the hold of right-wing Catholicism on every aspect of Irish life.

It is all sadly summarised by Bulmer Hobson, a Belfast Quaker who was a tireless worker in the cultural revival and in forming the Volunteers, but was brutally written out of the script for his opposition to the Rising in a memorable phrase: “The phoenix of our youth has fluttered to earth a miserable old hen. I have no heart for it.”

But he also wondered: “How many people nowadays get as much fun as we did?”

From Martin Kettle:

In Foster’s account, the revolutionary generation underwent a crucial change of mentality in the years before 1916. Foster calls it “the quiet revolution in the hearts and minds of young middle-class Irish people from the 1890s onwards.”

These young radicals were alienated not just from British rule but also from the values, lifestyles and ambitions of their parents. They disliked the forms of schooling, entertainment, writing and politics of the previous generation

Ask yourself nevertheless whether Britain today is marked by generational political ruptures that in small ways echo aspects of the Irish nationalist revolutionary experience of the last century as described by Foster and the broad answer, without pushing the parallels too far or too crudely, is surely yes. Those ruptures are particularly striking in the onward march of Scotland’s nationalist movement. In some very different ways, they are also discernible in England, in the rise of phenomena as apparently diverse as Ukip, Occupy and homegrown jihadism, and in the juvenile culture of Russell Brand’s narcissistic anti-politics.

No one who spent time in Scotland during the referendum campaign was in any doubt that they were witnessing something new..

Well possibly. Or is it too soon to tell? Note the fears of permanent splits in Scottish opinion as emotions surged. After  Day One of the Smith of Kelvin talks yesterday, all was four square sweetness and light. But read the SNP’s document. . How can it be compatible with anything the pro-Union parties can agree on? The betting is that at some point over the next few weeks the SNP will walk out . Will public enthusiasm survive wrangling about taxation powers? Or will the SNP recover the initiative and blame the Brits if their bid for unaffordable devo max goes belly up?  Some might call that idealism.  I’d call it something else.

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  • SeaanUiNeill

    I’ve been severely tempted to send a full review of ” Roy Foster’s marvellous new book” ‘Vivid Faces’ in to Slugger. A friend from the ROI, a noted historian, had alerted me to the contents of the book with an email saying “More disgraceful representation of Bigger in new Roy Foster book.”

    The book yet again shows Foster’s inability to look beyond the surface of the current superficial scholarly “buzz” on many of his subjects. The sections on F.J.Bigger repeat all the old “rather interested in boys” canards which Bigger’s Unionist enemies spread maliciously after his death, even though his relationship with his housekeeper Brigit Mathews was well known to any who actually knew him, and I’ve recently found pretty clear written references to this (“covert embraces at castle Séan”) among correspondence from some of Bigger’s friends.

    This is not to say that many of the artists at Ardrigh and castle Sean were not gay. Bigger was a broad minded liberal imagination who stood against all the bigotries of his day, but as a point of historical detail the intended slurs of his homophobic enemies should be outed for the historical record. Roy Foster often repeats such gossip as fact, an unforgivable lapse in standards for any historian and in the work of as reputable an historian as Foster, something which can only be seen as culpable distortion.

    I, myself, found the book most informative, as Roy has collected an enormous amount of useful material, but all of it needs to be filtered carefully to sift out Roy’s rather irritating tendency to colour his writing of history with a rather rigid revisionist political agenda. This is all becoming a rather old fashioned approach today, when younger historians have absorbed its lessons and are beginning to clearly see the threadbare nature of the previous generations uncritical rejection of the non-Anglocentric versions of Irish history. It is useful in this context to read “Vivid Faces” alongside his colleague Senia Paseta’s recent book on the same period, “Irish Nationalist Women” where considerably more care is taken to present an objective analysis.

    Unfortunately, anyone going to Roy’s book in search of solid fact will need to have been studying modern Irish history at postgraduate level for the last twenty years to effectively carry out the degree of close scrutiny necessary to evaluate what is gold and what is dross. For the general reader the book will prove rather a minefield of misinformation and slightly askew interpretations.

  • Scots Anorak

    “But read the SNP’s document. How can it be compatible with anything the pro-Union parties can agree on? The betting is that at some point over the next few weeks the SNP will walk out.”

    Although it’s worth bearing in mind that the party has nominated the bridge-building John Swinney to negotiate. There is of course a gulf between what the SNP and the Scottish Green Party have proposed and what has come from the Unionists. Click on the link below for a graphic representation of that difference.

    However, there is no such gulf between the Yes parties and the people of Scotland.

    “Devo max had majority backing from supporters of all parties, with 59% of those who voted LibDem in the 2011 Scottish election in favour, 60% of Tory voters, 62% of Labour voters, 71% of Green voters and 79% of SNP voters.

    It was backed by 71% of men, 62% of women, all age groups and all socio-economic classes.

    Asked about individual powers, 75% said the new powers should include control of the welfare and benefits system, 71% said “all taxation”, 68% said oil and gas revenues from Scottish waters, 68% said the state pension, and 54% wanted the vow to include broadcasting policy.

    In addition, 72% of those polled wanted a guaranteed consultation between the Scottish and UK Governments on the UK stance in future negotiations with the European Union.”

    Seems to me that the Unionists have a choice. Either they get a whole lot more in touch with the people, or they pay the price at the ballot box. Everyone knows that, barring changed circumstances, there will be no second referendum soon. That means that a whole new swathe of Unionist-minded folk can vote SNP as the party best able to stand up for Scotland, safe in the knowledge that doing so will not, of itself, make Scotland independent.

  • ShuggyMcGlumpher

    There’s been various comparisons made between Scotland and Ireland during the independence debate and they are by no means absurd but often overdone. In terms of how the vote broke down, there’s been too much made of age. I think it was 25 to 39 year-olds were the group that registered a positive for Yes but it should be noted that they were the only ones. Those younger than that said No. Women said No and English-born voters said No. And having a go at the elderly for voting No in a country with a population ageing as fast as Scotland’s is electoral suicide. I think one of the remarkable features of the post-indy debate is the refusal of the Yes camp to not only acknowledge defeat but to understand the *scale* of their defeat. It wasn’t an overwhelming victory for No but it was convincing and resulted in the Act of Union having something the Nationalists used to claim it would have never have got in 1707 – a democratic endorsement. Unless they get beyond sitting in a trench called ‘the 45’, they are going nowhere. This will become increasingly obvious as the months roll by.

  • Scots Anorak

    It may or may not be true that there were (narrow) defeats for Yes in most age cohorts — it’s difficult to say given the obvious tightness of the figures — but what is beyond dispute is that the only group to vote *emphatically* for No were the retired, i.e. those most likely to have personal memories of the Second World War or its immediate aftermath and least likely to access online alternatives to the mainstream media. Those are not factors related to the kind of wisdom that comes with advancing years; rather they are permanent cultural changes that will not affect younger people as they age.

    I’m not sure that it constitutes news that English-born people mainly voted No. What might constitute news, however, is the unexpectedly high proportion of English-born residents who voted Yes.

    As for the “electoral suicide” part, I wasn’t aware that any party had been mounting a sustained campaign of vilification against the elderly. Negative electoral impacts would depend on someone being able to adduce the requisite evidence to convince voters that such a campaign had actually taken place. It would be rather easier, of course, to prove that all three main Unionist parties had mounted a campaign against the poor, since MPs from all three recently voted to cut their benefits in real terms — in the case of the Liberal Democrats and Labour, as a direct result of the electoral arithmetic of Union with England.

  • ShuggyMcGlumpher

    The proximity to the war doesn’t wash. It’s been over for nearly seventy years. As people.age, they become more conservative – that doesn’t have anything to do with ‘culture’. It should be noted that the only firm evidence we have of how people voted is by district. The rest is from opinion polls and reasonable assumptions about the age profile of postal voters. My point is that with this we can be pretty sure that, despite what you say, English-born voters were also emphatically No, areas like the Borders were emphatically No. Focusing on age suits the Nationalist narrative of Yes being the choice of a new generation but as the allusion to the soft drink suggests, it’s marketing bullshit. Keep believing it if you want: believing your own propaganda is, after all, one of the reasons you lost.

  • Scots Anorak

    I’d assume that English-born voters were solidly No, too (my “groups” referred to age groups). But all the same, perhaps one in four of them voted Yes, and I think that that’s a surprisingly high number, particularly when one considers that an important part of the No narrative was to paint the Yes camp as violent racists.

    I’m not sure that a high No vote in a single, not particularly populous region such as the Borders really tells us much at all — certainly nothing that would invalidate the headline 45% figure for Yes, statistical proof that although there was a No victory, Scotland is relatively evenly split.

    And if there’s anyone who believes their own propaganda, it’s those people in the Labour Party who claim that there is no appetite among No voters for massive constitutional change. We are about to see evidence for that at the ballot box.