The Political Priesthood
"It is the privilege of the common people of England to be represented by the greatest and learnedest and wealthiest and wisest persons that can be chosen out of the nation." - The Earl of Clarendon (seventeenth-century constitutional royalist).
The capitalist con-trick is played at its most audacious by the political priests, the MPs. Their exemplar was Richard II who rode fearlessly into the midst of the Peasants' Revolt shouting, "I myself will be your leader!" Six centuries of being taken in has hardly diminished our credulity. Pitt was the great Commoner. Gladstone, we were told, was one of us. (I was really surprised to discover, late in my education, that he was a product of Eton.) He was followed by Asquith, also knocking out his pan on our behalf. Richard II all over again.
But then came the Labour Party. There was a new world beginning. In the North Kirk in Aberdeen the Rev James Barr, a Labour MP from Glasgow, giving a Christmas sermon, said, "A new star has risen in the east, the British Labour Party." Here at last.... But when Ramsay MacDonald insisted on wearing knee-breeches on the occasion of presenting the first Labour cabinet to King George V (although the king said it wasn't necessary) there was a jolt to our credulity. And when MacDonald over-stepped the limits by collaborating with Baldwin in a national government, Labour made a fresh start. In post-war Britain, Major Attlee stepped forward to be our leader. He had integrity and he was better than most of them but he finally couldn't escape from his inexorable public school upbringing.
Slowly the gleam faded, like the almost imperceptible dimming of lights in the theatre. It was a drama of slow decline and fall, of strange characters prowling about in the wings. In his book, No Shining Armour, the Labour MP for Blyth in Northumberland, Eddie Milne (an Aberdeen plumber) described how the fixers were taking over. It might have lingered on like that for a long time, but Wilson's honours list laughed the characters off the stage. The Party was over.
The political movement that fills the vacuum left by the Labour Party, whether it is an offshoot from the present party or a new regrouping, will have no great future unless it understands clearly why the Labour Party failed. It failed because it was cradled in a capitalist system of education. Most of its members believed what they were taught at school and were unaware of the profound influence that their schooling had on their philosophy of life.
From random sources of information they are beginning to know better. In spite of its exotic background the television serial, The Jewel in the Crown, was uncannily familiar to Scottish watchers. It was bizarre for us to view the British raj anaesthetised on an Indian table and dissected, because the comparison of the conquerors of the Indians with the conquerors of our own people at home was inescapable. The film showed the rajah whose English-public-school-educated son spoke posh English, the British army officers who kicked the Indians around, the Indian NCOs who had been brain-washed into an attitude of contempt for their own fellow Indians. In Scotland, the English-public-school-educated sons of the former highland chiefs speak the identical posh English of the rajah's son, an alienated gentry in St. Andrew's House in Edinburgh push ordinary people around, their NCOs both in the services and in civilian life have been brain-washed into an attitude of contempt for their fellow-Scots. The comparison is not surprising since for two centuries the Indian people and the Scottish people endured an identical pattern of conquest under the Hanoverian kings. Cumberland conquered Scotland at the Battle of Culloden in 1746 and Clive conquered India at the battle of Plassey in 1757. Like the rajahs, the Scottish chiefs collaborated with the conqueror for the sake of not forfeiting their estates. They became insensitive to the feelings of their own countrymen, uncaring, unkind, lacking the warm feeling of kin, and associated with the alien oppressor. They dragooned their countrymen into service in the conqueror's armies.
But in the Scottish classrooms there was no clear market-report of this take-over. Working-class pupils in Scotland are not taught the facts of political life. They are fed a romantic story of noble characters outwith their ken, heroes whose excellence contrasts with our mediocrity, who are fearless when we would be scared, selfless when we would be selfish, who show initiative beyond our imagining. The basic failure in education in western schools is that it perpetuates romantic fibs. Recently a Moslem bewailed the ease with which centuries of Islamic tradition disintegrate before the temptation of material self-interest in the Arab countries. It is no new phenomenon. The Indian rajahs and the highland chiefs alike sold out to the Hanoverian kings. In Scotland the noble folklore about the clan and its caring chief went for a Burton. Probably most people would have done the same if they were confronted with the same dilemma. But the schools owe it to their pupils to give them a sober, unromanticised account of how most people react to temptation. It is not the function of education in a democracy to propagate the lordly account that the conquerors put out about their conquest, or to conceal the apartheid that they created, on the one hand the Hanoverian aristocracy abetted by rajahs and chiefs, on the other hand the ordinary people of India and of Scotland who bore the brunt of the defeat. The conquerors imposed on India and on Scotland the same richly-detailed pattern of control, a beautifully orchestrated symphony. The artists were brought in, Kipling in India, Barrie and Buchan in Scotland, to weave a romantic tapestry, the colourful clothes of the Indians and the pawky speech of the Scots adding a vivid patch to the glorious pattern. In lavish ceremonials, theatrically presented and backed with trumpets, they decorated the Gurkhas and the Jocks with ribbons and medals. Coronations and durbars, like Nuremburg rallies, confirmed our emotional attachment to the grand design, hiding the sober realities. In both countries the conquerors brought the NCOs, both in army and civilian life, into competition for advancement in the service of the overlords. The grand policy in India and Scotland, as in South Africa, depended on apartheid.
It is against these two centuries of alien rule and the imposition of alien values that politicians have to view any programme for the establishment of a different kind of society, alike in India and Scotland. We might reasonably have expected Tory and Liberal MPs to be part of this policy of conquest, but we thought the Labour MPs would be different. We underestimated the powers of sophisticated persuasion employed by the conquerors. They were able to recruit into their service ambitious Indians and ambitious Labour MPs in Britain, keeping them waiting tantalisingly in the anterooms to fuel their ardour. In turn these junior officers of the establishment recruited their equally ambitious NCOs into the maintenance of apartheid. Many Scottish teachers (the civilian equivalent, in the eyes of their overlords, of NCOs) who have come from working-class homes look down on their working-class pupils, shout at them like sergeant- majors, preach about discipline, hit them with leather belts, dissociate themselves from them and their speech and customs and attitudes, lack kindness, kinship. The Labour MPs have been part and parcel of the imposition and maintenance of this apartheid. The comprehensive school did little more than make the traditional Tory curriculum and view of society available to a larger number of working-class children. In the headlong rush to get examination marks, as few questions about our society are raised in the comprehensive schools as in the traditional grammar schools. Handed down from generations in Scottish rural life is the story that the laird said to the priest, "I'll keep them poor and you'll keep them ignorant." The advent of the Labour Party caused scarcely a hiccup in the priestly tradition. For the majority of working-class pupils the schools are still cold, forbidding places.
The Indian parallel helps us to get into perspective the nature of our own Scottish society and the continuing roles allocated to us by the alien masters. Working-class pupils in Scottish schools still feel that it is they who are the aliens in their own land. School and theatre feed into them attitudes of contempt for their own origins, their broad accent. Even the words of our daily language, noble, common, high class dye our thoughts and attitudes. Double-speak came into English centuries before Orwell's 1984. Our total immersion in the values of capitalism has coloured the deepest pools of our minds. Many working-class Scots, particularly in rural areas, are brain-rinsed true-blue. We are not different from the Indians who were brain-washed into collaboration with the British raj. Political change must begin with the nourishment with which our children are fed.
It was inevitable that the majority of Labour MPs should collaborate. Few of them had read Browning's long poem, A Leader of Revolt. They are essentially defenders (as the Russians are) of the system which makes a chasm between officers and other ranks, academic and non-academic, managers and workers, MPs and voters. They are amenable to authority, and marching in step and saluting. They wouldn't deviate from the Westminster rules of decorum. They see civilisation through Lord Clark's eyes and themselves through the eyes of the Earl of Clarendon. They have accommodated themselves to the system that we thought they were replacing. They have taken upon themselves the traditional characteristics of the old priesthoods, - the discouraging of independent, amateur enquiry; the retention of policy-making within the official ranks; respect for hierarchy and obedience to its decrees. (Wilson and Kinnock spoke with obvious approval of "the smack of firm government".) As a result they have become ossified in their thinking. The higher you go in the echelons, said Galbraith in a study of power, the less is the original thought. A cabinet minister, like a chief priest, has to believe in his creed and defend it. The political prelates can hardly be regarded as research workers, following the truth. Galbraith refers to 'plausible myths' with which people in power delude us, and themselves. For example the tycoon says that the consumer is sovereign and that he (the tycoon) can prosper only by giving the consumer what he wants. In the same way, I suppose, the inner circle of a political party does the same. "This is what the People want," they say. They are both like the ecclesiastical priest who controls his congregation by saying, "This is what God wants."
Studies such as Galbraith's are reaching a wider audience and more people are asking more questions about the pronouncements of the high priests of politics and the law and education and literature and economics and finance. But there is still a feeling, even among Labour MPs, that if we all get into the act and begin asking questions, things will get out of hand. Their caution is understandable. If the demystification goes on, and especially if it is attended by glints of humour, the political gurus will be seen to be just ordinary sinners like the rest of us. Some years ago, for example, social anthropologists reduced the political crisis in Britain in 1916, in which Lloyd George replaced Asquith, to a leadership squabble conducted according to tribal rules similar to those which govern such squabbles among the Swat Pathans of Pakistan. We had been accustomed to regard as quaint those practices of natives tucked away in remote valleys somewhere in the region of the Hindukush. Now our attention was drawn to the similarity of quaint Westminster customs. There is the same advancing and retreating, the priestly rules, the speech patterns, the concealing of raw ambition under the required noble posturings, the belief of combatants that spectators are watching reverently, the noble Asquith and the noble Lloyd George re-enacting the duels of the Iliad. What is reassuring about the work of the social anthropologists who are coolly reassessing these historical tournaments is the absence of anger. "This mode of enquiry does not deny the existence of altruistic action or the fact that men have ideals."
The discussion of such things is appropriate to the secondary schools. Democracy is still at the string-and-safety-pin stage and there are many more things to discuss than my schools and university led me to believe. I did think that it had all been sewn up long ago. Some of the unresolved issues reach to the foundation of our society. There is this emphasis, in the schools, on leadership. Maybe we could look into that. Is it an obsession to be expected in a society divided into leaders and led? If an inferiority complex drives people to publicly-acclaimed achievement, is the emphasis on leadership a symptom of seeking escape from a general climate of? I don't know. What I'm saying is that we could work out the answers to many of these questions in the classroom, and not accept the say-so from the politicians, who are? Youngsters are notably forgiving towards teachers who have relinquished all pretensions, and treat the teachers' shortcomings with humour and generosity. We need tribunes of the people who have, like these teachers, shed their claims to superior wisdom and who, rejecting apartheid, accept that we are all in on this political scene together. A healthy society needs the participation of everybody. It needs the sanity of the majority to redress the occasional imbalance of the minority. The words health and wholeness are closely related. A whole society (as distinguished from an apartheid society) is more likely to address itself with energy and competence to all its problems than a divided society. The Chinese have lately discovered that if people are convinced that they count, each one of them, and can make changes in their society, they develop greater confidence in coping with the ordinary problems of everyday life. There is a release of potential. As a schoolteacher I'd like to testify that those of my associates who have given freedom to pupils to think and develop their own thoughts and trust their intuitions have become aware of the potential of ability scattered widely throughout the community. I have to put on record my own experience of the gleams, the insights, the ingenuity and initiatives, the goodwill of those who are patronisingly referred to as ordinary pupils as well as their longing to be fully accepted and to co-operate fully.
In his book, Children of War, Roger Rosenblatt said that children, "remind us that... we never lost any of the virtues of childhood. The acquisition of size, power, zeal, authority and territory may have pushed our best feelings aside or below, but we did not really lose them.... The trick of living satisfactorily as an adult lies in being able to unearth that gentleness and to then apply to it a more complicated life."