Scotland’s Future

As an undergraduate I used to regret that people in history seemed so ideological while my generation were so cynical. Yet, suddenly, dozens of my contemporaries have been fired with the great ideological cause of Scottish independence – and it terrifies me. It is a disaster.

My problem is not the cause per se. I like the principle of subsidiarity – that people control their own affairs – although I believe this requires a level of political engagement which Scotland does not yet have.

My problem is now is not the time. The environmental crisis is not one of a list of important issues. It is the issue we must deal with, globally, immediately. The recent report about global temperature rise of 4 degrees by 2100 does not mean ‘things will start getting really bad around 2100’, it means, ‘things will get worse, faster, from today onwards, and within 85 years it will all be over for most of life on earth’. Mass extinction of life in the oceans is not an interesting piece of marine science: it is the most important event in world history since the dinosaurs died out, and life on land will not escape.

If Scotland votes for independence this year, what will happen?

1. Scotland would spend the next decade or so establishing institutions, realigning parties, finding its economic feet and its diplomatic place in the world.

It may or may not be too late to avert catastrophic environmental crisis. By the time we have spent years learning to be an independent country, certainly will be. Who do we expect will lead a global turnaround in environmental destruction in the meantime? America? Denmark? Kenya? England? To expend all our energies on political restructuring in a world which is all sliding to disaster together seems to me to be the opposite of heroic, idealistic freedom: it seems to me to be a gross misuse of Scotland’s talents, influence and (as the country that produced James Watt!) considerable historical responsibility.

2. All Scottish influence would be withdrawn from Westminster.

I can’t believe that the English Tories don’t know what they are about, with their appalling ‘Better Together’ campaign which, at every turn, drives more Scots to vote for withdrawal from Westminster. Because, make no mistake, that will be by far the most significant shift in power. The Tories must be rubbing their hands with joy. Scotland already has control over most of its internal affairs (education, NHS, law, banking, religious and ethical issues, etc), and control over economy and foreign affairs will in reality be marginal given our small size and the strength of international forces. The global economy will go down with the environment. English floods are far from the worst environmental disaster in the world today: look up California and Alabama, for example, and watch out for food prices going up.

Do we really want to pull out of Westminster and lose all our influence over a country which is on our borders, far larger, far richer, of dubious prevailing political principles, equipped with a large army, and already beginning to suffer major environmental catastrophe in its most densly populated areas? If Westminster is bullying Scotland now over the pound, how might they bully us when they have an army, a refugee crisis, and a government over which we have no influence, and are under dire environmental stress of their own?

Since the SNP have brilliantly appropriated the word ‘yes’ for their campaign for Scottish withdrawal from Westminster, it is very difficult to oppose them without sounding like a negative nay-sayer. It is doubly hard when politicians who know themselves to be obnoxious to Scottish sensibilities have hijacked the opposition. Yet I do not believe I am calling for a vote for ‘Negativity and the Tories’. This yes/no thing alone is a very powerful piece of manipulation: don’t fall for it.

The delusion of Scottish independence is like the delusion of heaven keeping peasants in their places in pre-industrial Europe. The only people who will unquestionably gain – the fat wicked clergy in the Marxist fable – are the English Tories and their friends, who will be rid at last of two hundred years of tremendous, world-changing, irritating, persistent, Scottish influence in British affairs. A yes vote is an unequivocal yes for English Toryism: for everything else it is a vote for uncertainty.

There is a bit of me that is, still, excited to see you get idealistic about something. Yet I think you are chasing a dream. In the environmental crisis, there can be no social justice or economic growth. This is not negativity or pessimism, it is simply the reality. If you don’t believe me, please spend some time reading some of the latest science on the environmental crisis. If you don’t want to know, maybe your hope and optimism is really a covering for fear?

What do I want instead? I want you to realise we are not just at the dawn of a new nation: we are at the dawn of a new geological era. There has never been a more terrifying or exciting time to be human, because for good or ill, our decisions will shape it. Nothing will ever be the same. All your future life, and the future of all life on this planet will be determined by our actions in the next few years. It sounds unbelievable: it is unbelievable: but unfortunately it’s true.

Today is the day, and you are the person, to change the discourse of fear and denial around the environmental crisis: to begin to stop burning fossil fuel and destroying ecosystems, and to begin sequestering carbon and fostering biodiversity, to begin making the noise, twittering, facebooking, graffiting, vox-popping, article-writing. Get engaged in politics: really engaged, joining things as well as protesting. Join our thing @earthbeglad or start something of your own. The technology, the science, the political mechanisms: everything is all there: all we need to do is stop being afraid, and turn into the hope.

Scotland cannot have a future in a world of environmental crisis. But it could do what it has done before: be the catalyst that changes the global discourse: that changes the world. And that, to me, is the idealistic, exciting, heroic, courageous course.

If we succeed – because we’ll succeed or fail in the next couple of decades – then let’s discuss Scottish and English self-government. And, then, I will support it.

St Michael’s Longstanton: a Gothic Revival role model

I read about St Michael’s Longstanton on Friday, and found myself in the next Cambridgeshire village on Sunday. And the sun was out. And there was moss! I wouldn’t like to discourage Serendipity by ignoring such opportunities presented by her to test my ability to explain the principles of gothic revival. There’s a great deal I don’t say in this very short summary, but I hope it sparks your interest.

West end of St Michael’s Longstanton, with its ancient well and churchyard wall.

St Michael’s is important in the gothic revival because in about 1842 the Cambridge Camden Society’s journal The Ecclesiologist identified it as perfectly embodying the principles of gothic architecture as set out by Pugin in the ideal form for small village churches — such as were required in countless colonial settlements. As a result, St Michaelses popped up all around the world.

What gives a gothic building away is the windows: the revivalists called it the Pointed style. They divided the gothic into three phases, easily identifiable by the window tracery: 
  • early, with simple tracery, regarded as full of energy but underdeveloped
  • middle, decorated or flamboyant, regarded as the high-point of the style
  • late or perpendicular, in which the vertical bars go all the way to the top, regarded as degenerate and enervated

The early thirteenth-century St Michael’s was built in the decorated style which the Ecclesiologists liked best.

Decorated tracery in St Michael’s nave. The pulpit and lectern are on either side of the nave, at its junction with the chancel.

Whereas the earliest gothic revivalists, such as the writers of gothic novels in the late eighteenth century, were interested in the romantic and sublime possibilities of the appearance of gothic decoration, Pugin and the Ecclesiologists were interested in structure. St Michael’s fits Pugin’s principles of architectural authenticity. Firstly, he appearance of the building should show:

  1. how it is engineered
  2. what materials it is made of. 

There may be plenty of decorative carving and painting, but no veneers or, for example, a plaster ceiling imitating a stone vault, or sandstone pillars veneered with wood painted to look like marble.

Secondly, carved decoration is not gratuitous but ornaments structural features, such as the window tracery, or the alternating rounded and squared pillar heads below: it is decorated construction, not constructed decoration. Pugin observed that this was the case for all gothic decoration. A larger building than St Michael’s, such as a cathedral, had a more complex structure and therefore more opportunity for ornament: foliated pinnacles, for example, add important weight to a flying buttress, while grotesque gargoyles are decorated drainpipes.

St Michael’s is an honest building: you can see its pillars and arches holding up the roof, decorated pillar and window heads, wooden ceiling, tiled floor, stone walls, and thatched roof.

What made St Michael’s really ideal for the Ecclesiologists, however, was that it incorporated, in pocket-sized form, all the features they considered essential for the proper liturgical ordering of a church. For Christians of the Enlightenment it was the intellectual content of worship which was important, if the sermon argued the truth persuasively and the prayers expressed the right petitions, worship could take place in any convenient hall. But for Christians influenced by the Romantic movement, this was too dry. As physical, emotional beings, people needed to worship in sensory spaces which appealed directly to their feelings and physically embodied their spiritual principles. The shape of the space was therefore very important. They made a list which included such items as:

  1. a clearly separated nave and the chancel, with more ornament in the chancel
  2. a porch to the south
  3. a bell tower suitable to the scale of the church
  4. three steps up to the altar
  5. an east window with three lights, to represent the Trinity

St Michael’s had all these and many other essential liturgical details which made it the perfect model of a small church. It was copied all around the world. 

St Michael’s has a south-facing porch, bell tower, clear separation of (larger) nave and chancel (in the foreground), and buttresses supporting the walls.

The modern visitor’s eye might be more likely to be caught by the imposing key you borrow to get in, which goes in and turns the opposite way to modern keys, and the ancient, perhaps pagan, well, with its stone cross cut into the rear wall: the local tradition is babies can only be baptised when the morning sun shines from the east through the cross and into the well:

But if you visit St Michael’s — or any church built in the Medieval thirteenth century, or the Victorian 1840s, have a look for Pugin and the Ecclesiologists’ principles of gothic: visible engineering and materials, ornamented structure rather than constructed ornament, and liturgical ordering in the architecture. For them, this wasn’t just a pretty, interesting, or convenient building, it was, like the faith it was built to house, intended to be a true one.