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The Right to Withdraw

We have the right to turn our backs on the whole rotten charade.

Sunday, June 23, 2024
5 mins

James Kelman on Self-Determination

James Kelman talking at the 17th Edinburgh Independent Radical Book Fair. 

This is a transcript of a clip taken from a recorded public discussion James Kelman had with Alasdair Gray, hosted by Word Power Books, 23rd October 2013

James Kelman on Self Determination (youtube.com)

‘My politics belong in an alternative tradition. I stand with the anti-parliamentarian Left. It’s simple, straightforward and a solid part of the socialist movement, not only in Scotland but throughout the United Kingdom and beyond. In other words, I am not alone. A great many share this position.

Unfortunately, most people in Scotland appear unaware of this alternative tradition. It’s not surprising - state propaganda pushes the anti-parliamentarian Left somewhere to the outer limits. It’s rarely referred to anywhere within the Establishment, the mainstream media and mainstream political parties. We’re indoctrinated by the State to assume that every shade of opinion is included in its own political process. This suggests that we can all be accommodated within a political framework that is so extraordinarily hierarchical that it includes a large extended family each of whose members we must address as ‘Your Majesty’. 

One day I’ll be offered one of these medals of Empire - Alistair’s already been offered one - the OBE or the MBE or whatever it is artists, sports stars and social celebrities are offered. Maybe I’ll accept the offer. Who knows? I’m guessing. Then I’ll discover for myself whether or not we’re allowed to break the monotony and use a synonym. When Prince Charles presents me - no, forget that - when one of the nephews of a third-cousin to Prince Charles presents me with the medal, instead of addressing him as ‘Your Gracious Majesty’ I’ll go for a synonym just to show I’m a genuine wordsmith: ‘Thank you, Your Benevolent Magnificence’, ‘Thank you, Your Benign Radiance’,  ‘Thank you, Your Merciful Glory’.

Each of these are synonyms by the way, from the word-processing, that’s synonyms for ‘Your Gracious Majesty’. When we play about with these synonyms we land in a territory usually associated with ‘Almighty God’. This territory is fundamental to the elitist hierarchical load of shite we know as ‘British Democracy’. 

Of course it is farcical but the crucial factor is that within this political framework there is no place to go. Here we have a political system that forces us to call other human beings by figures of speech commonly used about God. Within such a framework we’re supposed to ‘exercise a right’ - the right to vote.

The idea that such a system is capable of allowing the public to ‘exercise a right’ is laughable. The very language you must use to these figureheads of the British ruling class is designed to assert their God-like attributes and qualities. 

In 1918 a majority of the Irish people voted for Sinn Fein and won independence through the British ballot box. They set up an Irish government in an Irish parliament. What happened a year later? The British State sent in the army and shut down the Irish parliament. One thing demonstrated by this is that the Irish people did not ‘exercise a right’. If they thought it was a right the British State soon showed them the error of their ways. If it was a ‘right’, what happened? The British State withdrew it. How can a ‘right’ be withdrawn? It’s a contradiction in terms. The Irish people were not exercising a right - no such right existed as far as the British State was concerned. The ballot box provided the people of Ireland an opportunity to exercise a preference. They exercised that preference. Their preference was independence. 

Let me repeat - it was not a ‘right’. A year later the British State exercised its right - they sent in the tanks. They alone had the right and their right was might. Any force other than might is humbug: ethical right, moral right, human right, civil right, citizens’ right. No-one is given freedom. The Irish people who didn’t already know that in 1918 had learned it by 1919. 

We assume it as a right and we take it as a right. How do we do it?

Anybody with experience of the Labour movement should know of at least one method: we withdraw our labour. We withdraw from the process. We reject the ballot. We turn our back on the ballot box. We don’t participate - that is a start.

Withdrawing from the electoral process may appear a kind of weak sort of passive engagement - is this true?

How do we explain the deep-rooted hostility towards this position? If it is such a weakly passive act, why does it anger and aggravate so many people? 

We are threatened: ‘If you don’t vote you may lose the right!’

I beg your pardon? How can you ‘lose’ a right? Either you have a right or don’t. No-one gives you a right, you have it. 

‘Oh, but our ancestors fought and died for the right to vote! You owe it to those who fought and died for the cause!’

No. Their cause was freedom. The freedom to exist as human beings. Don’t confuse the means with the end. People die in the cause of freedom. They don’t die to take part in a political process owned by the State. 

It’s even more interesting to consider the extent to which the British State encourages us to engage in the system. So far they haven’t managed to make it against the law to not vote but always and throughout the last hundred and more years we hear powerful voices crying that that should be the case: ‘The public must vote! The public must exercise the right to vote!’

Imagine that - they want to force people to exercise a right. It already happens in Australia. 

As we speak there are powerful voices within the Establishment calling for the criminalisation of those like myself who refuse to involve themselves in their intellectually corrupt and morally debased form of so-called ‘democracy’. They want to make us criminals.

When the public are forced by the State to engage in a political process the one thing demonstrated clearly is the power of the State.’

(Transcription by Rab Clark - ‘I couldn’t find a published version of this so the capitalisation and paragraphing, italicisation etc is all mine. Apologies to James Kelman if it’s not precisely as he would’ve preferred it to appear.’)

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