The Arc of the Combination bends towards…a conclusion

Maurice reflects on the four years of The Combination, and begins to bring things to a conclusion.

The first blog-post on the Combination site was posted on Christmas Day 2016, and the first video, largely shot with my pocket camera between sessions of a two-day training course in Brussels, was posted on 31 December of that fateful year.

Fateful, of course, because, as I said in that film, Brussels was still recovering from the terrorist attacks that killed over 30 people earlier in the year; it was the year of the Brexit vote; and it was the year Donald Trump ascended to the US Presidency.

Four years on, the Brexit process is now stumbling to its uncertain conclusion, and the chaotic tenure of Mr Trump, deny it as bombastically as he likes, is now coming to its tragi-comic end. It seems an appropriate time to look back and reflect on the ideas we have published on this site, and to bring it, too, to a sort of conclusion.

One of the reasons we started the site in the first place was that there seemed to be a pressing need for a space to think through what the rise of Trump and the appeal of the Brexiteers meant. That is, we set out not to follow the ins and outs of the Brexit process, or to think about Trump himself as such, but to think about the causes of Trump, and of the upwelling of a strong current of xenophobic politics that produced calls to ‘take back control’, ‘reclaim our sovereignty’, or ‘make America great again’.

The Combination was envisaged as a space where we could think these things through from a Green, left-of-centre, social justice perspective (a combination we came to call the Red, the Green and the Rainbow in, for example, After this, the Great Revaluation), and from the perspective of our corner of the world – Northern Ireland, or the north of Ireland, or…whatever you prefer.

There is, today, no shortage of such spaces for thought across the island of Ireland. Trademark in Belfast have hit a new and productive phase with their ‘Workers Guide to Everything’ podcasts, and a range of others from across the island are now digging deep into ‘red’ and ‘green’ issues – for example, with podcasts such as the ABCs of Green Politics; the Echo Chamber; and the Week at Work team. The Greens in Ireland, north and south, can now look to the Just Transition Greens for a blend of red and green, and there has been an upsurge in interest in issues like community wealth building and the cooperative movement over the last few years.  And of course, in the wake of the global pandemic, innumerable organisations are thinking about how to ‘build back better’, rather than go back to a ‘normal’ that caused the problems in the first place.

So, some 80,000 words later (to say nothing of the videos and podcasts) this seems as good a time as any to bring the arc of The Combination to ground.

My Combination colleagues Stephen Baker and Tanya Jones will have their own last reflections, but I think it is fitting that my last contribution to this phase of The Combination (other than this post) is The Spirit Cellarman, my most personal film yet, shot on a slightly better camera, and even using a tripod and lapel mic this time.

Fitting not just because it is personal, but also because of the subject matter. When I went to Skye in September, it was primarily to look into the history of one branch of my family, something I knew very little about until a year or so ago, when we began to look into the records. But in doing so, I also began to learn about the context – specifically, the context that might help explain why a lad born to Gaelic-speaking crofters of two acres in a remote village on the Isle of Skye might go on to raise a family in Belfast.

Not that he went to Belfast directly: Neil Lamont, my Great Great Grandfather, left Skye in the 1870s to move to Glasgow, where he would learn his trade as a distillery storekeeper (or ‘Spirit Cellarman’ as it is given on his marriage documents), and where he would marry another Skye emigrant, Mary McLeod, and start a family. It is not until 1890 that we can definitely place them in Belfast.

This was not the first example of migration in the family: both Neil’s Grandfather and his Father in turn had been born in the Parish of Bracadale on Skye, the former, John, in 1769, the latter, Donald, in 1814. But by the time Donald gets married to Mary MacKinnon in the 1840s, the family has moved to Lorgill on the west coast of the Duirnish peninsula; and by the time Neil first appears in the records, in the 1850s, they have moved again, to Unish, at the northernmost end of the Waternish peninsula.

It is impossible to say precisely why they moved twice within a couple of decades, but it is perhaps significant that Bracadale was cleared of its tenants in the 1820s, and that Lorgill is also known to have been cleared a little later. This, after all, was the era of the Clearances in the Highlands and islands; a period in which those who owned little or nothing – the crofters and cottars who paid rent to the landowners – were moved, sometimes forcibly, off the land they had tended sometimes for generations, in order to make way for more economically efficient sheep farms, and other more commercially viable uses.

You can watch the film here, but I’d like to draw out three elements to bring this phase of the Combination towards a conclusion.

1. The Bridge to Scotland

The idea of building a bridge to Scotland, perhaps from Larne in County Antrim, perhaps from Donaghadee in County Down, has been kicking around for some time, and seemed to pick up steam around the beginning of 2020. If the Government do find the tens of billions necessary to build it, and can overcome the considerable technical difficulties, they might just finish it in time to bridge the gap between Northern Ireland – or the north of Ireland – and the Scottish Republic, or whatever an independent Scotland chooses to call itself. Perhaps not quite what some Unionists, who support the plan as a way to consolidate the Union, might have in mind.

But the connection to Scotland I have in mind is not that of a (literal) bridge. Rather, the thread I draw from what I have learned in and around my trip to Skye is that the connection between the two areas is more complex, and rather richer, than the reductive binaries that dominate our politics allow. Richer, for instance, than the vision of ex-Councillor Jolene Bunting, who recently fundraised for a trailer to be towed around Carrickfergus proclaiming ‘Ulster Scots For Trump’ (and also Ulster Scots against the Black Lives Matter movement and ‘Climate and Covid Alarmism’, not coincidentally).

It’s one of the most extreme examples I can think of, but it’s not the only attempt to bind ‘Ulster Scots’ to a particular, exclusive, politics. It is not particularly controversial to note that the ‘Ulster Scots community’ tends to be associated with the ‘Protestant, Unionist and Loyalist (PUL) community’, in rather the same way that the Irish language tends to be associated with Irish nationalism or Republicanism.

For me, the discovery even within my own family history of bilingual children of Gaelic speaking crofters (themselves given as ‘Gaelic’ in the 1881 census) who came as economic migrants to live in the Connswater area of East Belfast, rather complicates the idea of the ‘Ulster Scots’ – or should that be the Scots-Irish? – as anything like a monolithic, homogenous ‘community’, let alone one with anti-migrant politics.

Could we explore the possibilities opened by those complexities now, in a way that does not get squeezed out into essentially one of an opposing pair of pre-existing, conceptual shapes by the binary reduction machine that still dominates our political discourse? Could we begin to expand and explore the sense of the complex weave of our common heritage, towards which we may all be set at different angles, but which is nevertheless a common plane upon which we could all stand?

This may be particularly urgent given that the binary reduction machine will be working overtime in this coming year, marking, as it does, the centenary of Northern Ireland, or the partition of Ireland, again, as you will. It’s a safe prediction, by the way, that you will be able to tune in and hear the gears of that machine grind, live, on the Nolan show on the BBC.

Just as significantly, a metaphorical bridge to a perhaps newly independent Scotland, among other places, may help us learn to adjust to and rise to the challenges of life beyond the era of Empire and of the 19th Century Nation State, to find new ways of relating to our neighbours – wherever those neighbours happen to be, geographically, in the world.

 That is one thread I would like to tease out.

A second has to do with the concept of the Clearances, or clearance itself.

2. Clearance as key mechanism of the crank economy

Throughout the four years of the Combination, I have returned again and again to the concept of the ‘crank economy’. This is an image intended to sum up all the cogs and mechanisms operating on the dynamic flows of the global political-economy such that power and wealth tends to be cranked vertically upwards, to a relatively small number of people at the top, getting purchase to do so by putting pressure downwards, both on the people with the least wealth, and on the living planet itself.

 Learning about the Clearances while looking into the history of the Highlands and Islands, I could not help but conclude that ‘clearance’ is a fundamental mechanism of the crank.

It’s not just about moving the people bodily off this or that stretch of land – though politics is always, in the end, about bodies. It is also that along with (and as a bid for justification of) the bodily clearance goes a conceptual clearance, a shift from a relation between clan chef and clan, along with the land to which they all belong, to the relation of property owner to disposable property; from relating to my neighbour as a neighbour – one whom I ‘bide near’ – to relating as landlord to tenant, one to whom I owe no obligations beyond those inscribed in the contract.

Once you have established those relations in your mind, it is not all that hard to countenance turning your land over to sheep instead of people, or to creating a deer shooting range, conveniently free of crofters, to which you can invite people of your own class for purposes of recreation.

3. Democratic Dùthchas

 That said, the clan system that was largely cleared out of the way, overturned by the processes of modernisation and commercialisation cranking up throughout the 19th Century, was nothing to romanticise. It would have been a pretty tough existence, wintering out in the hills and valleys of Skye, for a start; and moreover, the clans were forever fighting each other, claiming and ceding territory like small-scale empires.

But there was something about the way, within each clan at any rate, the people related to each other and to the land that I think has rich lessons for us today. The Scottish Gaelic concept of dùthchas is said to be untranslatable, but as I understand it, this term for the way people were set towards each other speaks of a sense of belonging and of mutual obligation. A belonging together, and to the land; a set of bonds that are distinctly different from – to use Angela Carter’s evocative phrase – the cold white meat of contract. ‘Belonging’ and ‘property’ are two very different modes of relating to things.

Thinking about all these threads, I can see that they stretch right back through the films and posts of The Combination, like ligaments through a body. Perhaps appropriately: after all, we have been talking all along about bonds and binding, ways of tying ourselves to each other – religion, obligation, allegiance. In short, ways to combine.

All history is the history of combinations of one sort or another. The trick is to work out what it is that binds people together in this way rather than that way – into mutually hostile clans, say, or any other form of mutually exclusive denomination, rather than as people who, for all their differences, can more or less nonviolently share the same place, living on the same plane as one another, or even working together towards a common goal.

What prevents people from combining in common?

One answer we have already touched on: denominations whether of clan or creed, which like vertical blades come down to cut ties, severing the horizontal bonds between us – you and I.

Because a ‘denomination’, or a nation, or a race, or a civilisation, or any other apparently natural, simply given group ‘identity’ is produced by processes of identification, by processes of denomination which project ‘a denomination’ (a collective ‘identity’ as if it were already there, and as if you already simply either belonged to it or not, were either one of ‘us’ or one of ‘them’, and as if the question of allegiance had therefore already been decided. You simply are one of ‘us’, so you owe this (your denomination) your allegiance. Any act we, the community representatives, perceive to be against the community will be treated as an act of betrayal.

Policing the borders of such a purportedly self-identical group always takes a lot of work. A lot of signs, a lot of flags, a lot of graffiti perhaps, a lot of reiteration, and a lot of implied or explicit threats of violence against outsiders or (worse) traitors.

All that work is only necessary, however, because it is in fact possible to form bonds of allegiance in other ways. You don’t need to share an identity with someone to form a bond with them. In fact, it is only because the two (or more) of you are different that you can come together as a combination in the first place – otherwise you’d just be a collection (it’s tempting to say troupe) of clones, with nothing to say to each other you didn’t already know.

Let’s go back to the Highlands and islands.

Interestingly, it was not this clan or that clan that was cleared from the land, nor even clans as such who were cleared: it was the commoners, whatever their clan, the crofters and cottars; and it was the common from which they were cleared.

It is possible, I would argue, to conceive of a democratic dùthchas, one which restores the bonds that had to be severed to produce the disposability of disposable property, by learning to see at last, in the face of a global environmental and inequality crisis, that we are all commoners, and on the one common.

To conceive of it is, of course, just the first step. After that comes the hard work of building it.

That’s at least one possible starting point for an answer to the question that has shaped my reflections, at any rate, throughout the four years of this site:

How do we best learn to live together, for all our differences, as nonviolently as possible on this our one and only planet, and in this our corner of it?

There are other possible starting points, and other paths, but as we bring this period of The Combination to a close, I intend to take that path and see where it leads me, in an attempt to bring all these thoughts together in a longer format.

The Combination won’t go away. It will still be here as a repository; I’ll still be posting on Twitter; and we may even pop up from time to time to publish an occasional blogpost if the need arises.  But we won’t be posting regularly or frequently.

I hope that at some point next year I will have collected my thoughts sufficiently to set them all out at length, and in some semblance of order – so there will at least be a post about that.

But this, finally, is the ante-penultimate Combination blogpost as such, to use a bit of a Sir Humphreyism. My Combination colleagues Stephen Baker and Tanya Jones also have some last words to add, and I’ll post those shortly to bring things to a close.

For now, though, I hope you have a great Christmas; I hope that 2021 is a distinct improvement on its predecessor; and I thank you for your company.


Maurice Macartney

22 December 2020