BY HAMISH GOBSON
Robertson is no Charlemagne
One of the pleasures of living on an affordable island like Great Todday is that you have time to read for pleasure beyond the river of woke fiction that flows out of the Edinburgh Book Festival these days.
Older readers will recall that Peter Cook once referred to the event, in a perfectly clipped “Moarrningsaide accountant” accent, as “The Edinburgh International Farting Competition”. Fortunately, here in the peaceful world of the mythical Hebrides, one does not have to put up with the gull-like screeching of self-righteous liberated vegans in plimsoles with noirish, Uddingston-based crime novels to sell. Instead I was able to read a book by one Sam Ottewill-Soulsby, a genuine writer who is therefore not to be confused with the tent-based, bottom-drawer farting community.
Ottewill-Soulsby’s book is called The Emperor and the Elephant. It consists of one guy you’ve never heard of arguing in print with other guys you’ve never heard of about theories concerning an aspect of early medieval history which you know next to nothing about—and yet, the text is strangely compelling. That is true art, in that it successfully communicates enthusiasm for a subject which you would otherwise take no interest in.
It is not only that for all its hyper-pixelated complexity the book is clearly written, but it tells a tiny but important story, namely that of the interaction of Christians and Muslims in northern Spain and southern France during, and for some time after, the reign of Charlemagne—i.e. the late eighth and the ninth centuries.
That is where Angus Robertson, the man who discovered Vienna, comes in. Ottewill-Soulsby’s story alternates war with diplomacy, and the diplomacy part throws into high relief the insubordination of the External Affairs wallah in the current Scottish Cabinet, and his nefarious activities abroad.
Angus Struan Carolus (was he named after Charlemagne?) Robertson has been in the news recently due to the unaffordable cost of one of his Party’s strategies for undermining the government of this country, namely the misuse of fake diplomacy. About £9 million is spent annually by Herr Robertson’s department in maintaining superfluous but status-aping offices and staff in Germany, France, Ireland, China, the US and Canada. The offices in Brussels alone cost over half a million Euros to rent each year.
You can fill quite a few potholes for that kind of money, and the dualling of the A9 would not take long on £9 million a year. But the nationalist priority is not to help Scotland so much as to injure the United Kingdom—a negative, Putinish attempt to extract some schadenfreude from the pain of unexpected defeat in the 2014 referendum. That, at least, was what many commentators have assumed to date. Mr Ottewill-Soulsby’s book suggests, however, a far more plausible theory for this aggressively wasted public expenditure.
The interaction of Muslims and Christians before relations were embittered by the Crusades was no more negative than that between most large proto-national groups in Europe at the time, with the exception of the Vikings. The northern march of Spain, roughly from Zaragoza (the Moors’ palace pictured below and in the title) to the Pyrenees, and the southern march of France, known as Septimania (roughly the Languedoc writ very large), were areas of mixed population and power structures. Charlemagne, who was based in Aachen (or Aix-la-Chapelle as his successor in spirit, Napoleon, would have known it) spent much of his time trying to reduce Muslim power over what he considered to be rightfully Christian lands. This involved both war and diplomacy, and it is the diplomacy part which sheds so much light on Robertson’s subversion.
There were two types of diplomacy practised between northern Europe and Al-Andalus, the Muslim name for the Umayyad emirate of Cordoba which, at its height, covered most of the Iberian peninsula. It was either “practical” or “prestige” diplomacy. The former involved war and its origins and consequences, though preferably its complete avoidance. That was a question of keeping dangerous external enemies at bay, while prestige diplomacy was aimed at an internal audience. That is where Robertson comes in.
Charlemagne wanted to show to his restless Frankish barons that he was taken seriously in high places elsewhere. Likewise, the purpose of Angus “Air miles” Robertson’s endless foreign trips is to show to a Scottish nationalist audience that the big smells abroad take him seriously, and by implication the rest of his tent-friendly Party. This is the politics of posturing.
We know from the brush-offs that Sturgeon received from Michel Barnier, the Danish Prime Minister (who refused even to meet her) and countless others that foreign leaders do not take the nationalists seriously. But that is not the point. “The point is that by simply mentioning their names, the story can be spun in such a way that the Scottish domestic audience can be tricked into thinking that their importunate leaders are important figures on the world stage.
Charlemagne wanted “a display of respect from a distant ruler [which] could be presented to overawe domestic audiences.” (p. 288) In other words it was empty show for political reasons. How very SNP of him!
So why has the Secretary of State for Scotland allowed Angus Robertson to imitate the founder of the Holy Roman Empire by indulging in cross-border illusioneering for purposes of self-promotion at home? With £9 million a year at stake, it is disgraceful, weak and offensive to all constitutionalists that Alister Jack appears to have done nothing to put a stop to such expensive insolence.
How long will this ineffective guardian of the community of the realm allow those who seek to undermine that community to continue to operate at taxpayers’ expense? Robertson has sworn the Privy Councillors’ oath, and to act against the integrity of a state to which you have given allegiance is a form of betrayal. That is what Vladimir Putin accused Evgeny Prigozhin of. I am not suggesting that Alister Jack should have Robertson’s next plane bombed, but he might have his motorhome tented over while Scotland Office functionaries apply superglue to the door locks, stretch invisible clingfilm over the lavatory bowl and apple-pie the master bed. If Robertson refuses to take such gentle hints, then stronger action might have to be considered.
Better still, Jack could take a leaf out of the book of the Abbasid caliph in Syria, Harun al-Rashid, who responded to the Frankish request for an exchange of diplomats in 799 AD by sending Charlemagne the elephant mentioned in the title of Ottewill-Soulsby’s book. It was called Abu Al Abbas, which is an unusual name for an elephant, most of whom in my experience are called Jumbo, Magnus, Fiona or Sleepy-Cuddles.
Better still, Mr Jack should send Robertson a white elephant, with a copy to Humza Yousaf, who doesn’t like “white” creatures, and a blind copy to the Scottish Executive at Victoria Quay for general distribution. The favoured animal could splash happily in the basin there, hosing civil servants with its trunk as they file out for lunch at 1.01 p.m., and file back in again at 1.59 p.m., to begin planning another of Robertson’s’’s vanity safaris to the flyblown fleshpots of embittered nationalism. Civil servants when properly trained are so insensitive they’d never notice anything, while the elephant, being a more intelligent creature, would doubtless get the joke.
Better still: if fed creatively, an adult elephant can be relied upon to fart like a liberated crime novelist, only on a much more opulent scale as it is not only vegan but vast. Perhaps one should be entered for the Edinburgh competition next year? That would really put the “gust” into August. Given that half the audience for these events is usually Scottish civil servants foxing off for the afternoon on taxpayers’ time, some fun could be expected.
If Abu Al Jumbo were to get his timing right after the tent flaps were shut for the beginning of his performance, he could knock out all the bureaucrats with a single invisible cloud. After coming to, the dazed civil servants would doubtless plead “nasal health issues” and take the rest of the day off, perhaps longer if the noble beast had been fed exclusively on thistles and flowers of Scotland. Subversive foreign trip planning would come to a standstill. That might be the cheapest way of keeping Robertson at home and getting the A9 finished.
Republished by kind permission of Think Scotland.
Hamish Gobson lives on the isle of Great Todday (Todaidh Mór) and features in Hating Tories: How Nicola Sturgeon Got into Government (1970-2007) – A Citizen’s Biography of a Driven Woman in a Drifting Parliament (Ian Mitchell, 2023) – available on Amazon.co.uk and also reviewed here by Tom Gallagher.