Waiting for the Barbarians

Empire is emerging today as the center that supports the globalization of productive networks and casts its widely inclusive net to try to envelop all power relations within its world order — and yet at the same time it deploys a powerful police function against the new barbarians and the rebellious slaves who threaten its order.
Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire

I’m a big fan of Texan author Robert E. Howard, who is best known as the creator of Conan the Cimmerian, a barbarian adventurer who becomes king by his own hand. The Conan stories are infused with Howard’s philosophies on life in a Texan oil-boom town: the tension between barbarism and civilisation, the liminal status of frontier dwellers, man’s relationship with nature and the cosmos. They are truly fascinating stories that told me a lot about politics, even when I thought I didn’t know anything about it.

Right now, the London-centric media are absolutely apoplectic with the apparently apocalyptic prospect of the SNP propping up a New Labour government. “If Scotland rules England, I can foresee the Thames foaming with much blood!” “Seeds of tyranny being sown in Scotland!” “The terrifying prospect of the Scots ruling England is now all too real!” “I could see people taking to the streets in protest if this were to happen – DOOMSDAY! MAYHEM! TERRIFYING!” Nicola Sturgeon has been depicted crashing the UK’s economy into smithereens with a wrecking ball. A gargantuan Alex Salmond holds a bewildered tiny Ed Miliband in his front pocket. And the desire for Scottish self-government is frequently derided as “backwards,” “atavistic,” and even “deeply uncivilised.” What are we, barbarians? I fully expect one newspaper or another start calling for a rebuilding of Hadrian’s Wall any minute now, complete with Alex Salmond leading a Highland Charge (and not Nicola Sturgeon, because, of course, nobody would take a woman leader seriously…), perhaps with a few New Labour Legionaries.

It’s pretty clear now that to these commentators, the SNP pose a clear and present danger to the UK establishment, using language that’s little different from that they use to describe terrorist organisations or rogue states. Even following the referendum, the SNP are treated as the gravest threat to Westminster in decades.

They don’t know how right they are.


Night has fallen and the barbarians haven’t come.
And some of our men who have just returned from the border say
there are no barbarians any longer.
Now what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
Those people were a kind of solution.
~ “Waiting for the Barbarians,” Constantine P. Cavafy

You could be forgiven for immediately thinking: maybe that’s another reason the British Establishment campaigned for a No vote? After all,  without the Scottish Separatists with which to threaten the English, who would the New Barbarians be? They can’t do what they did with Ireland: it was a question of unification. Scotland’s independence meant exactly that: no partitioning, and no subsequent Troubles. Plaid Cymru isn’t at the level where it could seriously jeopardise New Labour in Wales like the SNP have demolished New Labour in Scotland.

But let’s be very clear: the SNP present quite possibly the greatest threat to Westminster of all.

The Reverend has an amazing article over on Wings talking about what he perceives to be the real reason New Labour fears the SNP:

So why are Labour so terrified of it that half the party is furiously urging the leadership to categorically and pre-emptively rule out any sort of co-operation with the SNP? The answer is simple: because it would reveal Labour’s soul.

When you have a free pass to enact whatever laws you like while also being able to evade responsibility, everything you do reveals your true nature in a way that having a majority doesn’t.

Oh, but I fear it’s far, far deeper than that. To allow the SNP into the government would do more than reveal the soul of New Labour – it would drag the vampire corpse screaming into the merciless light of the sun. This election is bigger than redefining Scotland – turning what used to be a New Labour haven into a hotbed for Separatists. This is bigger than the SNP replacing the Neoliberal Democrats as the Third Party of the United Kingdom. This could be nothing less than a cataclysmic event for the Westminster establishment.

All the main Westminster parties are embroiled in scandal. Everyone has dirt on everyone else. If Clegg tried to whistleblow the recent scandals, then the Tories could have outed Cyril Smith (as well as anyone else whose crimes have not yet been revealed). Likewise, New Labour haven’t attacked the Tories for Leon Brittan or Thatcher’s blind eye to Saville because they have their own skeletons in that particular closet. You could extend that to anything – the HSBC, financial irregularities, arms dealing, NHS sell-offs, you name it, they’re all involved. And if anyone has problems keeping quiet, they’re bought off or knocked off.

The SNP? You can’t buy them off – they have a cause. You can’t buy off or knock off all the MPs of a single party, or even one to “send a message.” Not now, after everything that’s happened, after everything we as a people have been through.

Frank Frazetta - Icon - 01b

… the Southerner goes north, at any rate for the first time, with the vague inferiority-complex of a civilized man venturing among savages, while the Yorkshireman, like the Scotchman, comes to London in the spirit of a barbarian out for loot.
– “North and South,” George Orwell

That is why Westminster are terrified of the SNP – because they’ve realised they’re dealing with people that cannot be bought, cannot be bullied, cannot be silenced. They are facing an 80-year movement which has not only survived its most crushing defeat, but surged in the aftermath. They are facing a cause which all the forces of the Westminster establishment could only knock down to 45% in a referendum. The SNP are not New Labour, or the Neoliberal Democrats – they don’t have leaders who will betray them for ermine or peerages. If the SNP get into government, then they could blow Westminster wide open as surely as Guy Fawkes planned. And this is the number one reason why I fear we’d end up with a Labour/Tory “working deal” before a Labour/SNP one – because bad as that may be, it would not be as bad for Westminster than for the revolutionaries to get into government. Why else do you think everyone’s going on about the SNP wanting to “break up Britain” – it’s not independence they’re talking about.

When Conan became king of Aquilonia, he was an outsider in multiple respects. He was the son of a blacksmith, a foreign barbarian, and gained the crown not through succession or divine right, but by his own efforts and the support of the people. And the first thing Conan did was change the laws. He reduced taxes, he forbade religious discrimination, he patronised the arts – he was a reformer. The landed gentry, the barons, the nobility – they hated him. He could not be bought off – he already had a kingdom. He could not be intimidated – he has faced down monsters, demons and gods. He could not be knocked off – assassinations, coups, rebellions, outright invasions all ultimately failed to usurp him, because the people of Aquilonia supported him – because without them, he would not be king at all.

The SNP already shook things up at Holyrood. They managed to take a system that was designed to stop majorities, and got a majority. They managed to take a system designed to supplement and support the Labour party, and took it for themselves. They managed to get a parliament that was meant to “kill nationalism stone dead” and got a referendum within their second term in office. Imagine what they could do if they held the keys to the Kingdom of Westminster.

It’s as the former First Minister said: “If they think I’m as big a danger to the Westminster Parliament as Guy Fawkes, they’re right.”


If the battle for civilization comes down to the wimps versus the barbarians, the barbarians are going to win.
– Thomas Sowell


4 thoughts on “Waiting for the Barbarians

  1. Wee Jonny says:

    “Why else do you think everyone’s going on about the SNP wanting to “break up Britain” – it’s not independence they’re talking about.”

    Never thought about it like that before.

    Excellent piece.

  2. almannysbunnet says:

    Great article. I tried to say something similar although not as eloquently over at the Huffington Post. Sir Gus O’Donnel has warned that an SNP surge will call into question the legitimacy of the voting system. First past the post is all of a sudden not fair. Naturally I agreed 100% pfft.

  3. macart763 says:

    First class reasoning and couldn’t agree more. They are terrified of that over which they have no control. They may as well try to intimidate a force of nature for all the good it will do them and they know this only too well.

    Love the use of the Howard analogy and the Frazetta plates by the by. Huge fan here too. 🙂

  4. Paul Wilson says:

    In this case it is the Barbarians from the North who are civilized.

What're your thoughts?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.