From the sophistry of the Saorstat to the solecism of Saor Alba – what, if any, are the parallels between Irish Revolutionary relations with the UK, and the relations between the current crop of Scottish and UK politicians? Owen Dudley Edwards addresses an independent question.
Poor vaunt of life indeed,
Were man but formed to feed
On joy, to solely seek and find and feast:
Such feasting ended, then
As sure an end to men:
Irks care the crop-full bird? Frets doubt the maw-crammed beast?
— Robert Browning, ‘Rabbi Ben Ezra’, Dramatis Personae (1864)
‘How they’ll greet us!’ — and all in a moment his roan
Rolled neck and crop over, lay dead as a stone;
And there was my Roland to bear the whole weight
Of the news which alone could save Aix from her fate,
With his nostrils like pits full of blood to the brim,
And with circles of red for his eye-sockets’ rim.
— Browning, ‘How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix’,
Dramatic Romances and Lyrics (1845)
The nineteenth-century American lexicographers George and Charles Merriam defined ‘Crop’ as ‘a plant that can be grown and harvested extensively for profit or substance’.
Chambers English Dictionary when still Scottish called it ‘The top or end of everything’.
Comparative history is great fun, but treacherous. The opposing dictionary definitions of ‘crop’ offer us engaging, not to say swampy or thin-iced, vantage-points whence to notice the crop sought by the Lloyd George Coalition government to be reaped from the Irish Question in 1921-22, and the crop the Tory government in power since 2010 may dream to reap from the Scottish Question.
Do you remember the tune of ‘The Ash Grove’, Welsh harp its origin strengthened by varieties of ancestor stretching from John Gay’s ‘Beggar’s Opera’ to Beethoven? 101 years ago it was given new words by an unknown satirist as the Irish debated the Treaty offered to the then Sinn Fein, by Prime Minister David Lloyd George, text rediscovered in 1971 by the musicologist Bill Meek who died last year, ‘THE IRISH FREE STATE’ its probable title:
I went to see David,
To London to David
I went to see David
And what did he do?
He gave me a Free State,
A nice little Free State,
A Free State that’s bound u
With Red, White, and Blue.
I brought it to Dublin
To show to Dail Eireann,
I brought it to Dublin,
And what did they do?
They asked me what class
Of a thing was a Free State,
A Free State that’s tied up
With Red, White, and Blue,
Three quarters of Ireland
A nation I told them,
Tied on to the Empire,
With Red, White, and Blue,
An oath we must swear
To King George and Queen Mary,
An oath we must swear
To the son-in-law new.
I‘m teaching them Irish
And painting their boxes
All over with green
And what more can I do?
Yet they say all they want
Is an Irish Republic,
That’s free from the Red,
And the White, and the Blue.
The height of this mockery of the guerrilla leader Michael Collins’s acceptance of the Anglo-Irish Treaty signed on 6 December 1921 is the obviously barbed but subsequently obsolescent allusion to the son-in-law. Bill Meek found the first printed text in the National Library of Ireland among others reflecting the Sinn Fein internal struggles in 1921-22. The new son-in-law was Henry George Charles Viscount Lascelles, destined to succeed his father in 1929 as sixth Earl of Harewood: after due publicity he married Princess Mary, sole daughter of George V and his Queen, Mary, on 28 February 1922. It was the first marriage among George’s children. It was clearly intended to rally post-war public sentiment around UK monarchy, first Royal wedding in Westminster Abbey since that of Edward I’s daughter Joan of Acre (born when her parents were in crusade in the Holy Land; her marriage in the Abbey to Gilbert de Clare in 1290 resulting in one son, killed at Bannockburn). The Lascelles’ eldest son George was sixth in succession to the throne when born eleven months after their marriage. Protestant husbands for UK Royal Princesses were now chosen from persons no higher than English noblemen since most if not all the eligible European Princes had supported the German Empire (sometimes in arms) during the Great War.
Henry Viscount Lascelles was a prominent Freemason who would be Grand Master of the United Grand Lodge of England 1942-47. The rising Irish Roman Catholic bourgeoisie were forbidden by their Church from Freemasonry, they widely suspected Freemasons of constant anti-Catholic conspiratorial discrimination, and many quickly told one another who was who in the supposedly secret order. Edward VII had been Grand Master of the United Grand Lodge of England until becoming King in 1901. Freemasons were rumoured to be in close alliance if not common membership with Orange orders, and Viscount Lascelles had stood (and lost) as a Unionist candidate in the by-election of 11 November 1913 (Keighley) when the UK seemed on the verge of a Unionist armed Rising against the Liberal Government’s enactment of Home Rule. The Irish were festooned throughout English journalism and would have disseminated the ribald particulars rumoured about the son-in-law’s private life, and his imminent acquisition of the Knighthood of the Garter would be taken as proof of his future force in political life. Dark mutterings anent the dissolute Viscount would have buzzed amongst Irish priests and people, enriched by anecdotes from London. The real Treaty oath did not mention Viscount Lascelles, but satirists ignored that: it was too demeaning for pro-Treatyites to discuss, and too gratifying for anti-Treatyites to ignore. When devised it did not mention Queen Mary, but did promise ‘fidelity’ rather than ‘allegiance’ to George V, and to his successors potentially eventuating in Lascelles’s eldest son (who in fact had to content himself with the Directorship of the Edinburgh Festival in 1961-65). The Irish proficiency in gossip about the Royal Family, good-natured or otherwise, lasted long after 1922.
Today’s equivalent might satirically imagine a belief — or at least a song — that Prince Andrew (who still remains Counsellor of State) is about to be made Viceroy of Scotland while Prime Minister Rishi Sunak abolishes the Scottish Parliament. No doubt King Charles as Defender of the Faith could then proclaim that, in view of the need to secularize society, St Andrew’s Day will now be Prince Andrew’s Day. To encourage urban renewal the city and university of St Andrews would thenceforward be known as Andropolis, and the Church of Scotland as the Church of England.
This satire-song entitled ‘The Irish Free State’ seems most likely composed between 6 December 1921 and 7 January 1922 when the Treaty was passed in Dublin. Many songs of varying integrity and intensity were written against the Treaty and some in its favour. This one claimed the Treaty was opposed by a majority of Dail Eireann (the illegal assembly of Sinn Fein MPs originally elected for Irish constituencies in the UK General Election of 1918). Its hint of unanimity was an ancient political trick to convince local populations to support decisions by asserting they were already doing so: the US Declaration of Independence, passed by the thirteen British colonies represented in Congress in July 1776, intended its rhetoric to convince wavering colonists that it already spoke for a majority. (Probably one-third of the colonists wanted independence, another third supported the Empire, and the rest wished the disputes between Empire and colonists would go away.) The precedent was no accident: in rebelling against the UK the Irish insurgents of Easter 1916 were led by some persons with previous American domicile, notably the rebels’ surviving commandant American-born Eamon de Valera, subsequently nominal President of the illegal Irish Republic until he voted in the Dail in 1922 against the Treaty which a majority of his former followers reluctantly accepted. But the songsters would have known that to claim in prose that the Dail had rejected the Treaty when it had actually voted for it, would be self-destructive. However, the customary political rant of our day perpetually announces that the people are in favour of whatever the Government proposes. Perhaps Prime Minister Boris Johnson paraded it at its most brazen: he would stigmatise some near-universal criticism of himself as not being what the British people wanted to hear, what they wanted being his own latest nostrum. But the Rt Hon. Alister Jack Secretary of State for Scotland (for the moment) has brought to his work the tradition of the Vicar of Bray: alone amongst his fellow-Tory office-bearers he has consistently declared the people of Scotland virtually united in support of whatsoever king may reign.
The song called ‘The Irish Free State’ correctly prioritised arguments against the Treaty. The proposed partition of Ireland put about three million (mostly Catholic) in the proposed Irish Free State, leaving Northern Ireland (mostly Protestant) as established in 1920 with 1.25 million, decidedly less than the quarter implied in the song. Very few of the Dail‘s elected parliamentarians made much of partition in the course of the Treaty debates. Most who mentioned it had Ulster birth or former domicile. Michael Collins (himself a Corkman) in defending the Treaty did discuss partition, but continued secretly sending weaponry to rebel Catholics in Northern Ireland regardless of his Treaty commitment. This was known to some of the more bloodthirsty Dail deputies and may have won him a few votes in the final tally, 64 for the Treaty as against 57.
The real divide turned on the oath of fidelity to the King and his heirs demanded of members elected to the Irish Free State Parliament. Tory Unionists might dismiss rebel acceptance or rejection of such an oath, assuming that Irish Catholic nationalists freely committed perjury in what they saw as Protestant-created courts of law. David Lloyd George as a formerly dissident Welshman (and a former solicitor) knew that oaths among religious minority groups were likely to be respected more than state demands and that the oath he demanded of future legislatures was likely to conflict with some of those regarding themselves bound by any previous oath to the principle of Irish independence. He or his devoted sidekick Thomas Jones — with whom he spoke Welsh to ensure secrecy from his cabinet colleagues — should have been aware that ‘fidelity’ in the oath might be more disturbing to Irish Catholics than ‘allegiance’: Welsh Baptists like Lloyd George and Calvinistic Methodists like Jones would remember that in John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, ‘Faithful’ is the Pilgrim who is martyred by the wicked state in Vanity Fair. Previous oaths of allegiance to Dail Eireann or to the Republic might divide Sinn Fein, as well as dividing leaders of the illegal Irish Republican Army whose military campaign had only been authorised by the elected Sinn Fein parliamentarians two years after it had begun killer ambushes in early 1919?
The lingering suspicion that the oath to the King might become an oath to Freemasonry may not have been articulated, but for some Catholics that could have been all the more ominous. Such thoughts were sometimes fed by Irish Catholic quasi-Masonic organisations chiefly the Knights of St Columbanus with cousins in the Knights of Columbus (USA) and in Scotland (Knights of St Columba). Some Dail deputies may have been very fervent Roman Catholics, not simply observant, dutiful and pious, but readers of the Bible conversant with frequently repeated texts, notably Hebrews vii.21:
The Lord hath sworn an oath and he will not change.
Their oath of allegiance to Dail Eireann would therefore forbid any oath conflicting with that primal allegiance. Folk-memories and private prayers reminded them that their ancestors had abominated oaths to Hanoverian kings enthroned to outlaw the Catholic Stuarts, and that the Protestant Parliaments of the Hanoverians legislated to destroy Roman Catholicism.
‘The Irish Free State’ was a constitutional song. It firmly avoided justification of possible future rebel violence. It was in fact a very English song in the gossip and rumour on which it relied. It was clearly constitutionalist as the Irish had been when winning their real political victories. The global slaughterhouse in 1914-18 had engulfed Ireland with the blood-bath continuing beyond armistice, but nineteenth-century Irish nationalism’s achievements were constitutional, specifically in democratising the UK parliament, allying with social movements in Scotland and Wales, and winning allies in the Great British towns headed by Liverpool where T. P. O’Connor was constitutional Irish Nationalist MP from 1886 till his death in 1929.
The rejection of the Treaty would have renewed the slaughter in Ireland perpetrated from 1919 by the IRA and by Government ‘reprisals’, and in any case the Treaty became a means of total independence for the 26 counties in 26 years by firm constitutionalism under pro-Treatyites and then under their former opponents led by de Valera. That the Treaty once passed was followed by civil war among the former Irish rebels, was the bastard child of a world which had sacrificed peace to war in 1914-18. It was further proof that resort to war was the product of chimera, illusion and murderous masculinity. Ireland had done so much in non-violent politics that its liberation followed negotiations among men in both islands who now knew they owed their credentials to war violence or to its administration, however politically they had begun.
The oath became fixed in the proposed Treaty through the socialist Harold Laski and the still Liberal Winston Churchill, then adopted by Lloyd George. The three of them were among the most intelligent humans in UK public life. Lloyd George himself, from much more popular roots than the others, had instinctively grasped an unexpected bonus from his preliminary discussions with de Valera, for all of ‘Dev’s’ subsequent rejection of the Treaty. He remarked that there was no word in Welsh for ‘Republic’, and what of Irish Gaelic? De Valera, always the dutiful teacher, observed that Gaelic scholars appeared somewhat divided, some favouring ‘Poblacht’ while others, finding that word excessively derived from English, had preferred ‘Saorstat’ although that was open to the criticism of being more directly a translation of the words ‘Free State’. Lloyd George happily accepted that, there would certainly be a Welshness about a Free State. He could indeed remember from his youthful sympathies with the Boer republics at war against the British Empire twenty years earlier, one had been the Orange Free State. He may not have cited the exact antecedent: de Valera would hardly have welcomed an Orange precedent. But oath and Free State might respectabilize votaries of the Irish Republic in search of an honourable peace. Northern Ireland was put under a future boundary commission to negotiate its frontiers. Michael Collins and his fellow-delegates lacked the memories of Parliamentary life in the UK absorbed by Charles Stewart Parnell and his merry men: Royal Commissions were forever proposed by UK governments in search of pacification of one kind or another, and while often impressive in personnel and proposals were also conspicuous in postponement. Specifically such an answer to the Irish Question could shelve it. Collins’s assassination the following August removed the most obvious person who could make or mar the Irish settlement. Enough people were killed when the Irish Civil War broke out amongst the former republican ranks to make the demand for peace overwhelming, and partition shrank into an election-time grievance in the south and a degrading establishment of Unionist-rule apartheid in the north. The peace in Ireland lasted for nearly 50 years.
Credibility however formulaic is the prize at stake in such negotiations, and today Alister Jack sacrifices it at the start of the Sunak premiership by saying that nobody — or at least nobody who is anybody — in Scotland wants the removal of Brexit, swears that Scottish legislation liberalizing the law on personal choice of gender violates Westminster jurisdiction, and that however long the Scottish Parliament deliberated before voting for it Westminster can snuff it out when it likes before King Charles III can Royally Assent. Mr Jack hardly imagines that so unprecedented an intervention after a quarter-century of undisturbed Westminster acceptance of Holyrood legislation will be taken as his personal whim, while his Prime Minister beams indulgent concurrence. Would Mr Jack normally think of gender beyond memories of Latin grammar at Glenalmond, his public school? The intended veto of Holyrood legislation is Mr Sunak’s decision: Mr Jack is hardly the man suddenly to take it on himself to tell his Prime Minister that he should now boil a tempest into his teapot. There is also a touch of wit beyond Mr Jack’s capacities. To veto on the plea that equality is reserved to Westminster is as good a constitutional joke as present-day Tory intellects can accommodate.
Mr Sunak has two years’ seniority over Mr Jack as an MP, although Mr Jack is seventeen years older than his Prime Minister. Politically speaking, they were born yesterday. But the relevant seniority probably lies with seasoned seniority. The Prime Minister shows little sign of rivalling David Lloyd George as a political trickster of genius or indeed as anything else, but some supposedly slumbering seniors may fancy themselves as elder statesmen, such as Michael my Lord Forsyth, or indeed the Rt Hon. Boris Johnson himself.
My Lord Forsyth hated devolution from the first, and despised any English attempts to win Scottish goodwill. He observes H. L. Mencken’s analysis ‘democracy is the theory that the people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard’. When in power 30 years ago he would explain Scottish Tory electoral disasters as proof that the Scottish people wanted more Thatcherism, not less, and could at least count on one appreciative auditor, viz. Mrs Thatcher. Boris Johnson wants power, and probably sees his best means of recouping it — or recropping it — by riding high on some grand chauvinist wind, such as saving the Union by abolishing the Scottish Parliament. Latter-day Thatcherites remain ready to be reinflated for appropriate prices, notably Mr Andrew Neil who tried to overthrow the Scottish Parliament by reversing the Scotsman’s support for it, thereby halving the paper’s circulation: some minions he hired and fired as editors still babble his policy to anyone within their diminished earshot. Few Tories still believe in themselves, but are aware that with judicious tactics they can manipulate Labour’s belief in them.
If the Tories had any decency they would enthrone Sir Keir Starmer as the next Tory leader, for which he is far better fitted than any other candidate. He is now championing the Gender-benders by admiring Prime Minister Sunak’s demolition of the Scottish Parliament’s enactment, while explaining he supports the Sunak policy without necessarily supporting or opposing the degradation of the Scottish Parliament it entails. Sir Keir has thereby made clear he values his own judgment on Scottish affairs more than the judgments of his Holyrood legislators, indeed more than he values his Scottish legislators themselves. This is grist to the mill for Mr Sunak and for whoever will take his place: by the game-plan Westminster will abolish Holyrood and SNP together, while Sir Keir commits hara-kiri among the ruins. In the meantime, he is making semi-state visitations to the provinces, regions or nations, in a Caesarian proconsular style: I came, I saw, I think I conquered.
Behold the contrast with 1921-22! Lloyd George, Winston Churchill, Michael Collins, Arthur Griffith, signatories of the Anglo-Irish Treaty were in many ways morally deplorable, but intellectually formidable: it is hardly surprising that today’s Tory intellectuals headed by the Rt Hon. Michael Gove want history downgraded or dismissed. They worship competition, but dimly perceive they cannot compete with the past, whose main value for them is to accuse their opponents of having been in the Labour party when it was headed by Jeremy Corbyn. Sir Keir may hardly be everyone’s answer, but he has a brain and a presence, and towers over the current Downing Street road show whose inadequacies leave Shinners and DUPpies competing in contemptuous wisecracks, notably at the latest envoy, the Rt Hon. James Cleverly, probably the most limited Foreign Secretary in UK history. It is unfair to argue that Mr Cleverly was sent on his Northern Ireland mission because of his obvious inability to understand it: he was sent because of the inability of the successive Prime Ministers who appointed him to understand it. He sports an almost endearing frankness: his defence of any Tory minister or placeman under scrutiny is to say they have a lot of money, or at least used to have. His tenure is merely farcical, and Mr Sunak’s probably little better: the tragic case was Theresa May who understood Northern Ireland so well that she campaigned there against Brexit on the very eve of the 2016 referendum, saw her own England succumb to the demagogic press dictated by foreign plutocrats, and saw Northern Ireland reject Brexit by 56% — and then ‘took back control’ as Prime Minister, pledged herself to the Brexit she abominated, and maintained her government by dependence on the only Northern Ireland political party to have supported Brexit. Mr Cleverly is but the logical consequence. Sir Keir, so much more intelligent, has declared Brexit an irrelevant mythology. Like Michael Gove, for him the important thing about history is to know where, when and how to lose it.
The Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921-22 was a desperate, brilliant attempt to settle the Irish Question whose outcome has lasted a hundred years and whose UK government fell in ten months. The Sunak government attempts survival by a reverse strategy: it seeks to settle the Scottish Question by destruction rather than creation. It implies its liberation of Scotland necessitated by the overwhelming demands of the Scottish people to abolish the Scottish Parliament. It may even find rival Tory leaders squabbling for the rank of destructor-in-chief.
It can beguile innocents like the Observer’s Sonia Sodha (22 January 2023):
The culture wars frame suits Sturgeon because it positions her as defender of minorities against a dastardly Tory government. But it doesn’t fit the facts.
To lazily adopt it — as many of the government’s opponents have done –- is to subsume a delicate rights conflict into a blunt political attack. If anyone is guilty of waging culture wars it’s the politicians misleading the public about the effects of their reforms who, a few years ago, were rightly quick to call rightwingers out for spreading misinformation about how much leaving the EU would free up funds to spend on the NHS.
The rights at stake — protections for women and girls that remain a Westminster matter — mean the government was correct to trigger section 35.
Passing rapidly over the thought that, deep down, Ms Sodha feels that a male Prime Minister is really, really better to deal with such matters than a female First Minister, Ms Sodha may at least remember that the UK government is largely composed of rightwingers. If she applauds those who called rightwingers out, she has returned the call. The government and its rightwingers will no doubt be grateful for her new support. She is not a wholly surprising convert. Some years ago when Alex Salmond was acquitted on all criminal charges, she brazenly wrote up the case asserting his guilt. She evidently meant that a Scottish court was incapable of justice. We are clearly retarded creatures up here who necessitate destruction of Scottish law and Scottish Parliament, turning the Scottish future into infantile paralysis and cultural obliteration. She has little difficulty in suddenly discovering the enlightenment of the Tories in power, once they show their priority — ‘rebellious Scots to crush’ (as the English national anthem exhorts). Possibly she may conclude (or at least applaud them when they conclude) that women are reserved for Westminster on the ground that Margaret Thatcher was one, once.
Mr Sunak may twist slowly, slowly in the wind of some other Tory intellectual (a term rapidly becoming oxymoronic). But Scotland’s nationalists should wisely prepare for icy winds blown to freeze the Scottish Parliament into death or inanition.
An old Irish maxim is that the first item on the agenda of any newly-formed Irish political party is the split. The Scottish National Party suffered several in its time and sometimes repaired them. The late Gordon Wilson as party leader expelled Alex Salmond who ultimately became his successor. Mr Salmond is a passionate opponent of war and its apologists. The SNP at all times expelled advocates of violence, and unanimously demands rejection of TRIDENT and other weapons of mass destruction. That holds good today, and any betrayal of that policy would split the party asunder, even on the lunatic assurance by the Rt Hon. Philip Hammond during the 2014 Referendum Campaign that if Scotland became independent it would still have to retain TRIDENT. He may have confused TRIDENT with the Loch Ness Monster, perhaps briefed by a Scottish Tory think-tank. The division between England and Scotland is the most basic of all culture wars, the warfare state against the welfare state. The nationalism of the SNP demanding victory without violence automatically repudiates the nationalism of the IRA, that of the Black and Tans, and that of the politicians who profited by their murders. In its career the SNP has also confronted and rejected alleged votaries of violence supplied by government secret services. It wants its Scotland to welcome immigrants from across the world ready to be glad they are in non-violent Scotland.
The present crisis demands that Scottish nationalists hold the moral high ground. This means that all non-violent advocates of independence for Scotland must close ranks. Any personal feuds and antipathies must now be discarded. Their origin is all too likely the work of enemies of independence. The architect of the prosecution of Mr Salmond on criminal charges in 2020 was clearly a person hating Scottish nationalism, exploiting the global condemnation of Holyrood sexual predators, and assuming that juries (like Pavlovian dogs) would automatically find prisoners guilty on indictments alleging predatory abuse of women.
Internal nationalist party feuds and external feuds against fellow-nationalists must be ended. In past months we have seen impressive Parliamentary tactics from Alba MPs with no aid or support from SNP MPs. This conduct is all too reminiscent of the Communist parties in Stalin’s reign, when your fellow-socialists were marked down to be your dearest enemies, marked down for oratorical or actual assassination. The more venomous the ideological civil warriors, the greater the likelihood of their secret Unionist identities.
As I write, news comes of Tom Nairn’s death. Like Stephen Maxwell he was a far-seeing prophet of the integration of nationalism with socialism. He made music of Marxism, passionate in his convictions but with the vocabulary of laughter the high point of his evangelism. He was courage incarnate, ready to risk socialist popularity rather than coexist with destructive superstitions. Thus he grasped the nettle of socialist anti-European attitudes, exposing its parochial chauvinism and forcing it to seek wisdom from European teachers. He turned back to his native Scotland, forcing rethinking of instinctive Labour rejection of nationalism. He made sense of anti-monarchism which previously consisted of self-gratifying rudeness akin to schoolboys’ chalking four-letter words against schoolmasters. He was a reincarnation of Scottish enlightenment without its complacency. It is not easy to love prophets: it was very easy to love Tom, if you knew him, listened to him or read him.