Here you come upon the important fact that every revolutionary opinion draws part of its strength from a secret conviction that nothing can be changed.George Orwell – The Road to Wigan Pier
George Orwell can always be relied on for a thought-provoking quote. It’s many, many years since I read The Road to Wigan Pier, so I can’t claim to have any recollection of this little aphorism. I encountered it in some corner of the web that I wandered into on one of my virtual sojourns. Don’t ask me where. But it must have made an impression because it was still rattling about in my head a couple of days later. Almost as if it was nagging me for attention. So I’m giving it some that was going spare.
Having given it some thought I think I now know why these words lodged so stubbornly in my mind. It will hardly surprise anyone to hear that for “revolutionary opinion” I immediately read “restoration of Scotland’s independence”. I reckon advocating the abolition of the Union counts as a revolutionary opinion. Unionists certainly seem to think of it as such. But it was this idea of such views drawing strength from futility that I found simultaneously intriguingly counter-intuitive and strangely familiar. The feeling that it should be wrong, but isn’t.
I know it isn’t wrong because it relates to something in my own experience. Something I’d been puzzling about in some nook or cranny of my cluttered mind for some time. When no less a figure than George Orwell urges you to drag a thought out into the light for a bit of scrutiny, what else can you do?
In fact it didn’t take much scrutiny to figure out why this quote spoke to me as it did. For some time there’s been something curious going on in the minds of some Yes activists. I refer to the people who believe they are part of something which has the power to transform Scotland having defeated the efforts of the British state to preserve the Union. People, moreover, who reckon they can manipulate the voting system so as to win list seats and do something useful for the independence campaign once in Holyrood. These are people endowed with an uncommon belief in themselves. People convinced that they possess powers extending to the borders of the supernatural.
However, suggest to these people that they might usefully apply this power to restoring the essential political arm of the independence movement and mighty is the scoffing. Can’t be done! They won’t listen! They’ll never change! The only thing that distinguishes their conviction that nothing can be changed from that referred to by George Orwell is that it is far from secret. They’ll proclaim the inherent incorrigibility and innate immutability of the SNP leadership at the drop of a Tweet. They will reject outright any possibility of altering by so much as the proverbial bawhair the SNP’s approach to the constitutional issue. And do so at the same time as insisting they can take a new party from a standing start to somewhere over 10% of the vote in a single election. All as part of a project which aims to do nothing less than save an entire nation from the scourge of rabid British nationalism.
Am I the only one who sees a contradiction here?
What Orwell’s insight did was start me wondering whether there might be some kind of positive, constructive tension in this contradiction. Even if it was no more than the kind of cussed contrariness which bids people of a certain character to defy the odds. Could the ‘cunning plans’ of the list parties be drawing strength from a conviction that nothing can ever change the SNP? Or is it more likely that they have found it necessary to convince themselves of the absolute intransigence of the SNP leadership in order to rationalise their ‘cunning plans’ to game the voting system? Plans which only make sense if the SNP isn’t part of the calculation.
I think Eric Blair (George Orwell) was on the right track, but slightly wide of the mark. Revolutionary opinion draws part of its strength not from the conviction that nothing can change, but from the expedient conviction that alternatives to that revolutionary opinion are infeasible. If one has set upon a particular position or course of action – or ‘cunning plan’ – then it is rather convenient to hold the view that competing positions and alternative courses of action are unworthy of consideration.
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