Fit the Eleventh – Notes From Nowhere

No doubt my listeners will have a variety of views regarding the recently-published White Paper on Scottish Independence, by the Scottish National Party.  Gone is any notion of “green” policies.  Instead, although Trident is to be expelled, corporation tax is to be slashed along with air passenger duty.  North Sea oil is to be fully exploited.  So, amoral “investment” and profligate travel are to be encouraged, spending is to be increased by the power of oil and Scotland is to out neoliberalise English and American governments – all this to buy votes in the independence referendum and to continue dependency on the amorality of corporate power.  Buying the present by selling the future has been the central “moral” of post modernity.  The present is real, while the future is an abstraction – Get real, say the powerful political parties.  Get real, say the self-serving, to those who’d voice an abstract moral constraint.  As they say, futuristic ideas will solve what ain’t their problem.

Well, my tale is told beneath the orderly stars and as we know, the future was not sold, but held as a common – to which the common good would naturally aspire!  The Scottish Declaration of Sequestration left oil untouched beneath Scottish waters.  High air taxes and the end of North Sea oil left airports redundant.  Corporations were taxed at citizen’s rates, while citizens chose an orderly future by living more orderly lives.


Many post-modern fantasies have vertical gardens, roof gardens and hydroponically-fed glass houses feeding the futuristic city.  It is not considered where the nutrients or the water are to be found.  Certainly the mixing of sewage with rain water to complete a minimalist human/plant cycle would be treated with a cholera/salmonella-induced horror.  Instead, it is dreamed that plant species and their needs will be perfectly-adapted to human needs.  Ideas will replace soil.

The drip, drip, dripping of human ingenuity will green our dreaming cities, combined with sunlight streaming through those vast acres of glass.  The elegance of photosynthesis seems so much like a human technology, that surely the dreaming mind of Man is a reflection of the creative god of nature….

Sewage (of course) will be fed into algae ponds for bio-fuels – & thus conveniently and hygienically combusted.


All cities have been grown from soil.  All cities are agricultures.  All cities emerge from husbandries of sea and soil.  Moreover, following laws of physics (of nature) towns can grow to the size of cities, only if they have had access to the trade routes of the sea.

After the great resettlement, ordinary trial and error soon came to reveal the marvellous cauldron of soil – through which all terrestrial life flows and ferments.  The spring issues from the lip of the pitcher to flow down to the city.  It overflows when it is re-filled.   The city resides on the ox bow of the flood-plain.  Unless Economy sends tribute, Ecology of the cauldron will send no economic return.  A hydroponic idea cannot refill a dry riverbed.  Easter Island, Oklahoma, Rome, Great Britain…… Empires have imported from their conquests – from distant soils and husbandries, just as the industrial revolution has imported from an invasion of the photosynthetic past.  Of course the United Kingdom’s post-imperial collapse was temporarily suspended by coal, oil and gas – from an invasion of time, rather than space.  The suspense is now over.  She runs crazily back and forth on the unstable cliff-edge, which holds the entirety of the developed world.  Don’t forget that the “developed” are so, firstly by conquest and the pillage of empire and secondly by pillage of the strata of fossilised years.  Development has not been by technology, but firstly by violence and secondly by coal, oil and gas.

Anyway, the great resettlement turned away in search of stable ground.  In short, large acreages of city soils were reclaimed by the large labour-force of cities as a major food-source – that process reclaimed function to its elegance and input to its output.

Havana had achieved the same during the American oil blockade for the same reason – a life without oil.  Ornamental parks; gardens; verges were turned-over to vegetables and fruit trees.  People grew for themselves, but commercial market-gardens also blossomed – often in ancient locations – for London along the Thames and Lea valleys.  Soil had lain beneath paving stones – beneath the laid-ideas of “civilised” conquest and empire.  When empires crumble, native soils must provide.  With that transition, comes another – from the masculine to the feminine – as masculine power returns to its natal fields.  Prodigal post-modernity shuffled home from the casino to its long-forgotten, but forgiving matriarchal cynefin.  Is cynefin the word to cradle what we mean by the commons? – that which has reared and cultured us and must be passed on to the culturing of generations of children – and which cannot be owned?  It doesn’t cost much in monetary terms – the conversation and story-telling of pub and corner shop – the way light travels across field and wood of the mountain – the places our identities were born – metropolitan or rural – the tender sureties.  Mirroring ancient understanding of the land, people belong to the cynefin, rather than the cynefin belonging to the people.

And what of the stranger’s search for a new home?  Migration can discover a foster-home, or a fostering cynefin.  After all, Homo sapiens did so en-mass in the Bronze Age.  What of defensive borders? – It is true that there were many, but there were also fields and workshops desperate for labour and cultures are perennially renewed by traveller’s tales.

This is from M. Newton, Warriors of the Word: The World of the Scottish Highlanders, Edinburgh, 2009, p. 306.

 In Gaelic culture people belong to places, rather than places

belonging to people. The phrase, ‘Buinidh mi do …’ meaning literally

 ‘I belong to …’ is used to express the enduring ties and associations

 of the place of one’s birth. Gaelic has several words with a common

 root which are used for the interconnected concepts of one’s heredity,

 identity, homeland, and inherited rights and duties: dù, dùthchaich

and dùthchas. The ineffable quality of these terms, and the matrix of

 ideas and feelings that they evoke, has been noted since the sixteenth


These passages are taken directly from James Hunter’s, Rights-based land reform in Scotland: Making the case in the light of international experience, February 2014.

The tuath [the basic territorial unit] of the early Gaelic world was

 not at all a communist society. Its farms, for instance, were

occupied by particular families whose tenurial position the law

tracts [of the early medieval period] guaranteed. But the people

of the tuath … made a marked distinction between what had

been artificially created and what existed naturally. Both a

cultivated field and the cultivator’s home were clearly in the

first category. Forests, mountains and the wild animals they

supported were clearly in the second. It was consequently

unlawful to take corn from your neighbour’s field. But it was

perfectly acceptable – provided that due attention was paid to

the need to ensure that long-term output was sustained – 

to take supplies of timber, nuts and other commodities from a

wood. It was equally acceptable for individuals to go where

they pleased in hill country and to take the game such country

supported – provided again that such resources were not

exploited to excess. Much the same sort of thinking was applied

 to watercourses – an important source of food. Thus a man,

though not entitled to take as many fish as he liked, was

certainly permitted to net or trap the occasional salmon for

his family’s consumption.

Anyone who knows the modern Highlands will recognise in

that last stipulation the remote origins of the enduring conviction

that, irrespective of our modern society’s remarkably draconian

 laws on poaching, there is nothing morally wrong in taking ‘a

fish for the pot’. Folk memory – not just in this instance but in

the still more generally applicable Gaelic proverb to the effect

that everyone has a right to a deer from the hill, a tree from the

forest and a salmon from the river – has both preserved the

ethics of the tuath and employed those ethics in such a way

as to provide a principled basis for actions which Scots law

nowadays places on much the same basis as theft.

J. Hunter, On the Other Side of Sorrow: Nature and People

in the Scottish Highlands, Edinburgh, 1995, p. 64.

Modern notions of property have not evolved from natural social behaviour.  They are the perverse expedients of power.


Meanwhile, what of the wilds?

Dog and stick pastoralism of the hills can continue without either oil, or fertilisers – provided it has markets for meat and wool.  However, a geographically-imposed self-reliance encouraged an initially-small increase in the growing of timber trees.  Then, as grain yields crashed in the lowlands, a huge market for food of any kind consumed the herds and flocks of the hills.   Impoverished arable soils provided the radical impetus to re-organise the inter-connections of agriculture.  So, the underfed and highly-populated lowlands stripped the under-populated uplands of an alternative food – meat.  People devoured the flocks, which, as Thomas More said, had once devoured the people.  The hills slowly returned to trees, which provided more employment than sheep had ever done.  So people and trees replaced not only sheep, but historical acts of enclosure.  Justice accompanied nature by reversing the clearances.  Workshops and timber mills grew as the trees grew – often powered directly by water.  However, wool was prized and mountain streams also came to power new looms – mostly for carpets and rugs.  Hill cultures of woodland, quarries, workshops and small flocks and herds began to find their functions in the larger economy.  The lowlands grew into a new culture – intensive horticultural-holdings and allotments surrounded settlements – and were embedded within them – while arable acreage spread across many old pasture lands.  The opposite was also the case – arable regions evolved patchworks of rotated grasslands for dairy herds and their followers and for laying hens.  Pigs were very much a backyard, or farmyard part of the culture – symbiotic to wastes and surpluses.

Today, patterns of land ownership have imposed a hopeless ennui on communities which could otherwise have sought the dynamic changes needed for our times.  Those with property have watched unperturbed, as land values have risen towards lunacy.  Anyone with new money can buy into the cartel, so inflating values still further.  Those within the cartel have grown richer without effort – rent has increased with property prices and “business” loans for further profligacy are handed copiously to the propertied.   Many people buy houses simply for their inflating values and rents.  “Buy to let” is thought of as a business venture, yet it contributes nothing and takes much.  That nearly all property has been stolen by violent enclosure, or purchased from those that did so, is not regarded in law, because acts of enclosure had been made lawful by the thieves themselves – and re-enforced by their now-comfortable and dignified descendents.  Protecting the state of inherited comfort overrides every other moral consideration.  Protecting particular property overrides protection of the whole…. Of course small particular properties can be fiercely-defended as hallowed ground where families have lived, loved and died.

The sanctity of the commons may also be handed reverently between generations.  But the naive cup has been spilled onto trading floors of ownership.   Trust, probity and curious concern have been liberalised, while law’s fences keep out ethics (and common values) from property transaction.  Property law, which considers only rights, has no need to consider the common morality of the common realm.  The more site value inflates, so the more it commands frivolous borrowing and so the more both it and the subsequent spending are defended by property owners.  Climate change, resource depletion and economic collapse have been seen by the propertied as fictions of the envious mass!  Trespassers will be prosecuted.  The Westminster Environment Minister and a high proportion of today’s cabinet (and their country supper friends) fall directly into that category.

It is not house-value which has inflated – nor the agricultural value of land.  It is the site value – the casino value, which bears no relationship at all to soil, construction materials – or to atrophy.  House values do not inflate, they depreciate.  Timbers rot.  Wiring decays.  What’s more this island set in a silver sea is not a property – it lives on the common.  A perversity of law has divided that common into property.  You say a common is owned by its commoners? – But what is owned by a commoner is not a right, but a responsibility.  The commoner has the right to be responsible for a specific common.  Her role is also defined – the maintenance of the common.

What if we place those hallowed grounds where families have lived loved and died – those home, sweet homes as castles – not on a site value determined in a casino, but on the common and set in a silver sea?  Well, so it transpired…. to an extent….

I must return to my narration of events.  When a community buys out its landlord, (as is happening now in the Western Highlands and Islands of Scotland) the property could be seen as held in common by the community for future generations of that community.  How do we treat my house and garden, because I see them as my castle?

How do we treat the common land of roads, harbours, town halls, market squares and so on?  Can this island’s jewels set in silver seas be owned at all?  If taxes are raised to build (let’s say) a new river bridge for the common good then the taxed must own it in common.  Taxes are raised for standing armies and nuclear submarines.  The taxed elect parliamentary representatives to oversee the commonly-owned army and nuclear submarine.  Members of parliament are supposed to represent constituencies of commoners in the House of Commons – where the common wealth is administered.

If a community buys its pub, village shop, wind turbine, quay, or sail-trading vessel then those with most bonds or shares may come to have an overly-large influence on the means to the common good.  So it has been in the past – property and Westminster vote have gone together.  Accidents of birth have determined not only the power which comes with wealth but democratic power.  We have been born, in or out of power by accidents of land or sex.  Property law has thus determined laws of the commons – Inheritance by primogeniture and sex – and worse – propertied power has enclosed most of the commons of these islands by simple violence.  An “undisputed” enclosure has been enough to establish it in law – and within a system of justice where only the propertied have had influence.

So the early, innocent excitement of community-owned shops, or harbour quays faced the ancient dilemmas.  The one person, one vote of today’s Welsh, Scottish, European and Westminster parliaments is by no means replicated in most of public life.  What is the larger part of post-modern public life? – I’d say ring roads, retail parks, super markets, corporate high street brands – and the means to supply them – the great corporations, Monsanto, Cargil – and the means to connect them – the energy corporations, motor manufacturers, the super market chains… The list can go on to your choosing.  Cabinet ministers often move straight from parliament to a seat on one or other – or more of those company boards.  Much of the common realm has been given away or sold cheap – health, education, policing, prisons, railways, roads, large parts of the commons of cities, such as Liverpool One and Canary Wharf…… Both handed common streets to private companies.

Common land has been enclosed in various surges of greed in medieval times but accelerated from the Sixteenth to the Nineteenth centuries until only unproductive moorland has remained.  Indeed, the central doctrine of the reformation was not to reform Christian understanding, but to enclose church and monastic properties.  Monasteries had administered refuge and Christian charity.  The reformation transferred that wealth from monastic responsibility to the exclusive rights of the few.  Now we have the last remaining realms of the common good sliding shiftily behind fences where wealth accumulates and men decay.  It has been the central doctrine of the Blair, Brown and Cameron/Clegg governments to “liberalise” the last of the commons – under the egalitarian theatre of consumer choice – that is to liberate responsibility from the constraints of its personal, catholic, convivial and inherited roles into a frivolous and careless mass-dependency on the new dukedoms – the brands.  This Earth; this realm this….and that is no more.  Don’t forget that commons define roles – how we behave on the common, whereas properties are defined by their borders.  So commons are cultural, moral and dynamic, whereas property is static, amoral and defensive.  Consumers have right to be irresponsible.  Commoners have right to responsibility.

How did the great resettlement recognise unequal, monetary contributions to the common good, while also maintaining the good as common?  Of course, Nineteenth and Twentieth Century communism had overridden the dilemma by holding (at least in theory) everything as common.

But working side by side on the great collective fields had not evoked the same pleasures as personal work on a personal allotment.  This story-teller recalls a rose-tinted, pre-reformation, medieval world of, on the one hand, defined responsibilities, trade guilds and devoutly-accumulated skills, and on the other of unskilled and helpless power firmly on a throne, which holds the defined roles of defence of the realm and the administration of justice.  Power administers a kingdom which is created by its people.  Without that creation it has power over nothing.

That structure was replicated in microcosm: the squire and his manor; the laird and his kinsmen.  Feudal systems had defined the roles of all, including the roles of the powerful.  Their weakness was the unaccountability of the powerful to a higher authority.  (Hence the value of Church & Kirk)  The lord could (and often did) administer a tyranny and forget his defined role.  On the other hand, the folly of post modernity is that power has no definition – in either ethics or physics.  It listens neither to ancestry, nor responds to descendents.  Nor does it respond to the social consensus of a ballot box – rather it manufactures one to its contemporary ends.  Naturally the manufacturing is in the hands of the powerful few.  The larger part is assumed – dependency on the brands, while a packaged democracy is provided as a distraction in which citizens can play at making choices between political brands.

Rose-tinting is a natural colouring to the histories we carry as security into contemporary adventures.  It is convenient for my picture to remove serf from my Merry Athens of a Midsummer Night’s Dream – which I have populated with idle lords who oversee the realm and ingenious and busy artisans, merchants and peasants who actually run it.  The Lands of Fairy (Nature) make natural mischief with them all.

Anyway, it happened that extra-ordinary demands called for extraordinary adventures.  A contagious rose-tinting suffused the dawns of most in the mass assimilation of that first wishful thought!

But as communities took economies into their own hands, so a rose-tinting of inequality became necessary for the common good.  After all, as consumerist dependency on the brands of corporate power was diminished, so the reliance of people on each other was increased.  My dependency on the provisions of others may be balanced by my provisions to others.  But because some provisions are larger than others, inequality is a natural outcome of different behaviours.  Ah well, that some are more equal than others is a reversion to natural behaviour and by no means undermines a pursuit of the common good.  Rather, it can be a part of the comic muddle that is ordinary, sad, funny, convivial humanity.  If commons are statutorily-defined, then property has limits and what’s more behaviour on the common also has limits.  The great resettlement blundered into its mistakes and so into its source-books for learning.  Orwell’s Animal Farm is by no means an inevitable progression.  The wild and unlimited behaviour of post modernity and the fantastical pronouncements of its commercial and political leaders had created chaos and so common limits to behaviour were generally accepted with relief, gratitude – and also with hope for a more orderly future.  Knowledge that Utopia was unattainable and acceptance of the make-do and mend promoted a charitable and generally forgiving state of society.

Basic income was provided by taxation, but what was to be taxed faced the same bizarre difficulties, which go with our comic humanity.  But the severity of some taxes passed almost without comment.  Anachronistic wealth: site value of property, money inherited from coal, oil, gas or biofuel businesses and so on could be taxed at such a rate that they evaporated or were re-distributed to remove their burdens.  Share holders who’d gambolled on the wrong horses faced the ancient gambler’s lesson.  There was a common sorrow; a regret – for the utter folly of the doctrine of economic growth from a fast-diminishing supply, which most had once accepted without thought.  It had been the promise of almost every politician and the accepted position of the BBC and the popular post-modern press.  The regret meant that most were eager to put the shame of such a past behind them.  Eagerness to deny our part in discredited history is human nature.  Fear of chaos and the knowledge that escaping it had been a very close-run thing, lead to an acceptance of the necessity for order – and for taxation to finance a better, but by no means perfect world.     

Three new opportunities: Basic income for all adults – collapse of the property market – the end of oil – all lead to the dynamic vivacity – to the romance of a human-scale economy.  Nations of new shopkeepers; new farmers and growers; new manufacturers; new sail-traders stirred the tired pot of human ingenuity.  Weary (self-satisfied) dependency on the extra-ordinary provisions of coal, oil and gas had diminished much that is truly extra-ordinary from the social imagination.  The return to ordinary nature; to human nature confined to laws of physics, made those things extra-ordinarily bright and new – particularly, because not one, physical thing can pass into the social imagination unless it has first passed through the senses of an individual.

The wheels of the stars rise and fall through the night in predictable east-west patterns, just as my story does to a preferred pattern of human behaviour.  Humanity may not behave as I prefer, but this, as I say, is a night-time tale, which is actually the only kind of tale that can be truthfully told.  The day is too complex for narration.  Its tales are told after they pass into history.  The way to manage a day is to live it – not vicariously by the advice of schooling, research institute, or accepted authority.  Lessons hide within the day and we discover them by collision – by bruised shins, punctured egos and sometimes by unexpected delights.  We know the night will come.  Then we can expound the adventures of the day and set our records straight.  However bad a day has been, we know that at nightfall we can laugh, pass the bottle, then sleep.  That a night-time utopia seems inappropriate for the day means that we’ve learnt some lessons from our fallibility.  That a night-time tale is held as applicable by peer-reviewed statistics means that it has probably been told at the court of the Naked Emperor.  How such a population as ours, which has been created by fossil fuels and fertilisers, can survive without fossil fuels and fertilisers is a question without an answer.  There are no data.  All answers lie in living without fossil fuels and fertilisers.  There is no other course but to do it.  What’s more, we have no choice.  My midsummer night’s dream is a night-time tale to re-set my course for the next lessons of the day.  No statistics, white papers, or research programmes can refute it.  There is not a new thought under the sun.  Only tools can change.  Human nature cannot.  Intelligence does not.   Circumstances change.  We adapt tools as we apply them to new circumstance by using the same intelligence possessed by our Bronze Age ancestor.  We’ve a long and unproductive wait if we hang about for the next intellectual mutation of our species.  However, if we consider that we have a highly-dramatic new circumstance then every one of us can become a character in the yet-to-be-written high drama.


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