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Ghosts of 1968 (March 2008)

This article was first published on The Guardian's Comment is Free

Remembering 1968 means rather more than several ageing rockers-turned-millionaires getting knighthoods


Tariq Ali didn't get to Paris for les evenements and didn't find much going on in Britain. Almost like poor Louis XVI writing ‘rien’ (nothing) in his diary for 14 July 1789.

Rien - and in Northern Ireland protests against Unionist misgovernment mounted throughout the summer.

Rien - and the Scottish National Party became, albeit briefly, the country's largest party.

Rien - and the looming investiture of the Prince of Wales at Carnarfon galvanised an unusual nationalist militancy in Wales.

Remembering 1968 means rather more than several ageing rockers-turned-millionaires getting their Ks. It was when Britain started to break up. In France the Hexagon continues; Germany is bigger than it was. In the ci-devant United Kingdom nationalists sit in the governments in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast. While in London two dour complacent Scots, teenage radicals of a sort back then, watch the Empire of Financial Services crumble before their eyes. Rien?

Tariq Ali gets one thing right by bringing a football commentator on stage. He thus summons up a raucous ghost from the British past whose writing created the reporter. Read this:

"See Huissier Maillard, the shifty man! On his plank, swinging over the abyss of that stone Ditch; plank resting on parapet, balanced by weight of Patriots, - he hovers perilous. The Swiss holds a paper through his porthole; the shifty Usher snatches it, and returns. Terms of surrender: Pardon, immunity to all! Are they accepted? - "Foi d' officier, On the word of an officer." Sinks the drawbridge, Usher Maillard bolting it when down; rushes-in the living deluge: the Bastille is fallen! Victoire! La Bastille est pris!"

Thomas Carlyle in his French Revolution (1837): half-way between Burns and Marx, inspirer of Dickens and Ruskin, Whitman and MacDiarmid, critic of economism, coiner of ecology - incidentally creating sports journalism and, according to Henry Booth Luce, the breathless style of Time.

Tariq Ali isn't alone in forgetting this extraordinary talent: not a Scot in a thousand would recognise Carlyle's writing now. Wayward, yes. The insights later became the nightmares of Shooting Niagara, the tedium of Frederick the Great, Engels's image of a great talent ‘beached by history’. But the folk that forget him won't forget ‘dandies and drudges’, ‘the cash nexus’ or ‘the dismal science’ - or those flashes of insight which transform photos of famine victims or refugees:

"The Sanspotato is of the selfsame stuff as the superfinest Lord Lieutenant. Not an individual sanspotato human scarecrow but had a life given him out of Heaven, with Eternities depending on it; for once and no second time. With immensities in him, over him and around him; with feelings which a Shakespeare's speech would not utter; with desires as illimitable as the Autocrat's of all the Russias."

Unpick the rhetoric and under it you find the commonsense philosophy of the Scottish Enlightenment, of Thomas Reid and Adam Ferguson, tangled up with historical memory, the fierce radicalism of Burns in The Two Dogs and the packed, contested commonality of David Wilkie's paintings:

"Call ye that a Society ... where there is no longer any Social Idea extant; not so much as the idea of a Common Home, but only of a common overcrowded lodging-house? Where each, isolated, regardless of his neighbour, turned against his neighbour, clutches what he can get, and cries 'Mine!' and calls it Peace, because in the cut-purse and cut-throat scramble, no steel knives, but only a far cunninger sort, can be employed?"

Behind the British 1968 was Raymond Williams' Culture and Society (1961) which effectively recovered Carlyle's reputation. Williams ended up in Plaid Cymru. Old Moral Desperado's Scots successor, Tom Nairn, of The Beginning of the End: France, May 1968, preached on March 5 on globalisation and the (good) chances of small, radical states, to the Edinburgh literati: first minister Alex Salmond as a very active chair.

Gordon Brown has had a full and frank exchange with David Beckham in Downing Street. That is where we are.

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