Tom Morton surveys the state of Brexit Britain and nationalist Scotland through the medium of dystopian sci-fi. This article was originally published on Tom’s own blog and is reproduced here with permission.


I don’t think I’ve ever felt so powerless.

I’m living under a dangerously incompetent UK Government. But worse than that, it’s weak, at war with itself, beset with lies, half-truths and cynical self interest. It has permitted some really toxic elements in British society not just to express their opinions, but to weaponise them online through unaccountable spending, to engineer the electoral process for their own nefarious purposes. It has encouraged an atmosphere where vicious, violent crime against people, even elected members, whose opinions are not shared by the bullies and bigots, can be promoted and perpetrated. And all of this in a technological context where control, surveillance and manipulation of the public is being allowed to run rampant.

I live in Scotland, a Scotland which even a year ago seemed capable of taking a different path. Which had, in the European referendum, voted – if not as resoundingly as one might have hoped – for cohesion, inclusivity, co-operation and openness. I felt embarrassed by my previous campaigning, in the far-off days of the Scottish independence referendum, confidently asserting that a vote for independence would remove us from Europe. I shifted my view towards what seemed a possible solution – Scotland in Europe, separate from a UK which seemed to be slipping towards an appalling mixture of brutal stupidity and tyranny.

But since then there has been political stasis in Scotland, with an SNP leadership uncertain how to proceed and a Labour Party apparently intent on savaging itself from within into irrelevance: And I understand the problem for Nicola and her cohorts: everything indicates that in the current climate of abject terror about the future, any second referendum for Scottish independence would bring defeat for and possibly a major fracturing of the SNP.

The last thing the EU or this tottering Westminster administration wants now, as negotiations on Brexit range from flailing idiocy to dumb intransigence, is for that to be complicated by events north of the border. If there was a determined push for indyref 2, I could see London taking really drastic steps to stop it, moves that would make events in Catalonia seem like an episode from I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here. Apart from anything else, the UK cannot afford to lose Scotland – it’s oil and gas, its whisky, its strategic geography, its nuclear weaponry – in the face of exit from all that Europe is and represents. For the time being, Scotland will simply not be allowed to secede.

But Nicola has the Braveheartian elements within her party to consider. The anti-tax rise tartan Tories. The immigrant-hating element of escapees to ‘pure’ Scotland. And those who despise England, along with all who sail or sailed in her. There’s realpolitik. And there’s a need to keep the saltires fluttering and the bagpipes inflated.

Meanwhile, Labour is in the grip of romantic leftism – to which I am not immune. I mean Jeremy Corbyn, like me, once owned an MZ motorbike and rode it to Portugal and back; no-one else in politics, aside possibly from the legendary Hugh Kerr, can say such a thing. But come the crunch of yet another general election, can Labour, hopelessly compromised on Europe and beset with ugly internal conflicts ranging from anti-semitism through  sexual harassment to the shameful vilification of Kezia Dugdale (but not by the beloved Jeremy), actually win? In this torrid atmosphere of hate crime and the ruthless, moneyed exploitation of social media by so-far unidentified forces of the extreme right?

And whither Scotland? The SNP government seems to be desperately pushing for the retention of Holyrood powers that could easily be sacrificed by Boris, ‘Red Mike’ Gove and their chums, while facing a meltdown in public services, notably health, which can only be addressed by tax increases. This is a route it is poised to take, but it understands it could alienate yet another element of nationalist support.

I am writing this after finishing Nick Harkaway’s hugely disturbing, vastly entertaining and – let’s be honest – quite difficult and very long book Gnomon. On the face of it, and to simplify drastically, Gnomon is a doorstop of dystopian sci-fi which reads at times like a brainstorming session involving Neal Stephenson, William Gibson and the late Iain (M) Banks. But it’s really a book about Brexit Britain, about the surveillance state, about how we ignore digital manipulation by government at our peril, and about how the evil in our society lurks, waiting to assume control. It’s also about nationalism, dictatorship and how, worldwide, we are reaping the whirlwind of identity politics.

Which of course brings me back to Scotland. Is the unutterable mess in which the UK wallows right now a result of Scotland’s kicking against the Westminster pricks? Did Scotland’s drive for independence, all starry-eyed and moral, liberating and socially liberal, unleash the poisonous forces of brutal, racist, skinhead Little Englandism?

There was undoubtedly an element of reaction. But amid the Greek gods and Ethiopian art, the demons, sharks and books (because Gnomon is about books as much as politics, including arcane pulp references such as the word ‘Forsythean’ as in Frederick, and a submarine called Rebus) Nick Harkaway identifies a worldwide retreat into parochialism, fuelled by the ever-encroaching power of the internet. Scotland’s wee story is more symptom than cause.

What to do now? What can we do? My faith, I have to say, is in the power of words. Not this book, or not only Gnomon, but the fantastic journalistic work being done to uncover the way the Brexit referendum was corrupted and manipulated by those who stand to gain most from it. And I don’t just mean the Russians.

There are sharks everywhere.

“What’ll I tell the kids?”

“Tell ‘em I’m going fishing…”


Gnomon, by Nick Harkaway. Published by Heinemann. £14.99

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39 thoughts on “Living in Gnomon’s land

  1. Always unionists associate the desire for Scottish self determination with those who “despise England” but “immigrant-hating” is a new line of attack. Both are blatantly false for the overwhelming majority of nearly half of this country that support Independence. I’m proud that I campaigned for Yes in 2014. We campaigned for an outward looking country that welcomed immigrants and wanted to be part of the EU. I guess you missed the message. And the White Paper. And that so many of us, including myself. were born in England and have family in England. We could see the direction that England was dragging the UK. We didn’t like it and tried to do something about it. People like you stopped us.

    The schadenfreude that Scottish Labour wants to distance itself from UK Labour leaves such a bitter taste. We didn’t want a one party state. Many wanted a Labour party standing for Labour ideals in Scotland without having to suffer the repeated regular bouts of unelected Tory governments in Westminster.

    The dark forces that manipulated the Brexit result also interfered in the IndyRef result. This is exactly what they wanted. A weak UK, a weaker EU.

    I still believe that we would have negotiated our way into the EU and Brexit would then have never happened as a result.

    Britain is broken. Both Labour Parties are doing nothing to rectify that.

  2. I strongly object to the mention of secession. Scotland cannot secede from the UK because it is an integral founding member state and the UK is nothing but the Joint Parliamentary union between the Parliament of Scotland and the Parliament of England Wales. There is no UK without Scotland.
    What will be left may very well try and call itself the UK but it cant legally nor legitimately claim the same status as the original.
    To try and claim otherwise is also to say that the UK can exist without England.
    The UK is Scotland England Wales and NI. It is not and never can be England Wales and NI.

    1. In 1707 the UK was the United Kingdom of Great Britain. In 1801 it became the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. In 1921 it became the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Things can change.

      Happily there’s no need to worry about whether it could still be called the UK if Scotland leaves, because we had a vote on it and decided to stay.

      1. Thanks for clearing that up, Duncan. I’m glad you’ll still have your notional UK to cling on to when Scotland leaves.

          1. No, I’m pointing out that your comment is pretty stupid since I live in Scotland.

      2. As you rightly say, things can change and usually do when deemed necessary. The drive for Scottish independence / self determination is still topical despite silly views to the contrary.

          1. I have had two referenda on the EEC/EU in my lifetime., and since I’m not quite dead yet, there is time for another —indeed many people in different political parties and none, want a new EU vote, and quickly.

            Why is THAT OK, but a new Scottish vote is not, when many of the “promises” made to Scotland have not been kept?

          2. Who’s lifetime Duncan? I don’t know anybody anywhere who is committed by obligation to never change a decision they’ve made in a lifetime.
            Bit moronic trying to pretend there is.

          3. It would appear that about half of the population don’t agree that it was once in a lifetime, and in Scotland sovereignty rests with the people.

          4. Labour held 2 devolution referendums for Scotland within the space of 18 years. I’m not sure that amounts to a ‘lifetime’ or ‘generation’ either.

          5. I think that is actually a generation. Nonetheless I don’t think there was any undertaking given in 1979 not to hold another referendum for a lifetime or a generation.

          6. The Good Friday Agreement has it in writing that any referendum held for Northern Ireland over reunification with the Republic of Ireland can only be held once every 7 years.


            So there is a legal precedent there for another part of the UK, albeit under unique circumstances.

            But personally I don’t think the UK Government of any colour will ever grant a second referendum for Scotland.

            1) Because they can legitimately say the question has been asked and answered

            2) The UK don’t want to risk losing a third of the landmass including strategic important MOD sites such as Coulport, Luce Bay, Cape Wrath, Hebrides Range, BUTEC and Glen Douglas, along with direct Atlantic access to the GI-UK gap.

      3. When you say ‘Happily there’s no need to worry….’ is that as in, ‘we avoided one long complicated set of negotations with potentially dire economic consequences and through no fault of our own jumped straight back into another long complicated set of negotations with potentially dire economic consequences’?

        1. Well to be fair there was a second half of that sentence! I wasn’t suggesting we had nothing to worry about. I agree Brexit is a catastrophe. But the sentence you partially quote was about what the UK might be called in the future.

          1. Fair point. I think the fact we have the word ‘United’ in our name is possibly a tad unfortunate right now and must be provoking polite guffaws around the dinner tables of Paris, Berlin and Brussels.

            Of course one key difference between Brexit and the Scottish independence debate is the nuclear bases at Faslane and Coulport.

            Can you imagine David Davis, Boris Johnson or Michael Gove trying to negotiate a deal with the Scottish Government over a transition deal to safely remove Trident and find a new location in rUK?

      4. “Things can change” Indeed! Which was exactly the point I made. The SNP is the party of change its Labour who is the party of the status quo. The party to prop up Tory authority over Scotland.

        When Scotland ends the Union of Parliaments it ends the Joint Parliament of the UK leaving nothing but the separate distinct full Parliament of Scotland and the Parliament of England Wales. NI is in a treaty of Union with the Joint Parliament of the UK so when that is abolished so will any treaty obligations NI has with it.

        NI will become Independent by default. You cant have a treaty obligation with a Parliamentary institution that no longer exists.

        I wouldn’t want you to worry Duncan in fact I would want you to embrace your future with hope not fear with ambition not deprecation.

        Get off yer knees man be all you can be not something you think somebody else wants you to be for 30 pieces of silver.

        1. So you believe that a decision made by Scots alone would force Northern Ireland to become an independent state? I knew you were thick, Mike, but I didn’t quite realise how thick you were.

          1. That’s a bit of a pitiful effort at avoiding the issue Duncan. At least it would be for anybody else but for you its just standard.

          2. You’re getting very cranky these days. Are you ok? Is it the prospect of change that’s unsettling you?

  3. It used to be easy. Left or right, Tory economic competence V Labour social caring.
    Then we came to realise that the Tories were only “clever” for their own, and too many Labourites were not interested in the “commanding heights of industry” unless they were ensconced in the plush boardroom, wrapped in ermine. The workers became the “enemy within” and Labour looked the other way.
    Scotland had a bad 20th century. A collapse of indigenous industry (but unable to devalue the currency), an outpouring of our best people to foreign climes, and a branch factory mentality from our politicians who ran everything from London.
    This led to the SNP, and “why don’t we run our OWN country”? But nothing is that simple.
    There appears to be no escape from Brexit, a calamity in the making, which I suspect will impoverish us all ( we are already on the longest run of a declining standard of living since the 19th century) even more.
    There is an exception to this. Those with funds stashed abroad, the REAL elite—they will can use their stashed dosh to purchase land/property/assets at a knock down price when the crash comes along.
    So Brexit will enrich the already rich. The poor will grow in number, and life will be that bit grimmer.
    I hope Scotland has the good sense to escape as soon as it can. The SNP are daily under the cosh of slanted/slewed tales of woe from certain newspapers—-newspapers which make RT look like the Beano, when it comes to propaganda.

    1. Oh spare us. The life of the average Scot today is immeasurably better than was the life of the average Scot 100 years ago. “Scotland has had a bad 20th century” my arse. The SNP were an irrelevance for most of it, while Labour were creating the welfare state and the NHS.

      1. And after Thatcher destroyed the mining industry in Scotland, what did Labour do about that when in power in both London and Edinburgh?

        The people in these industries were left on the scrap heap by Labour.

      2. While it was a Labour Government that actually put the welfare state into practice, it was of course a Liberal economist William Beveridge that wrote the original report after another Liberal Lloyd George had laid the ground work in the early part of the century with his social reforms.

        While the SNP from an electoral point of view had been largely unsuccessful due to FPTP until the creation of Holyrood, it is hard to imagine without their influence and pressure, the Labour party would have pushed so hard the case for home rule in the 1970s and 1990s. The Hamilton by-election in the 1960s and the shockwaves this sent through the British establishment was a case in point.

        It is hard to argue against the fact life is better for the average Scot now compared 100 years ago but the same could be said for Ireland and a host of countries that left the British Empire during the last century.

      3. Oh really? There is no doubt things have advanced in a hundred years (don’t know about your arse), that would be normal and has happened pretty much everywhere. But between 1900 and 2000 Scotland had lost most of its indigenous industry, we had huge migration OUT of the country, which has left us with an aging population. The welfare state and NHS are not the jewels in the crown they used to be, if other countries systems are looked at. YOU have been abroad, I take it?
        Labour have suffered a tad in Scotland, but hey, there is still time for play for Kezia—reminds me of my old MP, George Foulkes who was lucky enough to be a member of select committees that took him to exotic places round the globe—while Cumnock and Doon valley were going down the industrial tubes..
        But I stand by my assertion that Brexit will impoverish the working people of this country, while the rich elite get richer.

      4. That “irreverence” as you call it has raised the profile of Scotland far in advance of anything labour has done in the last fifty years.

        I remember how irreverent Scotland was during the Thatcher/Tory era, it was one of the most depressing times my country ever went through.

        And the fifty useless labour Scottish MP’s did nothing to stop Thatcher’s trashing of our country, and then we had the Blair, Brown era.

        Boy did that end well, economy trashed, country trashed and guess what it’s still trashed.

        Under a SNP government our country finally has a voice, it has a presence, it has a future.

        Under labour Scotland has nought.

      5. That Labour has gone Duncan. What is left is members such as yourself who have more in common with English Tories than with Scots Socialists.
        Life for many today is no better than it was for most people 100 years ago Duncan. Those who go days without eating those with nowhere to live those with no hope of making a decent living. People debilitated with mental illness depression physical handicap a combination of all of the above.
        Depravation and poverty is as bad today as it has ever been because people like you turn a blind eye to it and promote the idea that all is rosier than it actually is in reality under the boot of patronised and privileged Government for the few at the expense of the many.
        People like you will always be part of the problem never a trier for a solution.

      6. The life of the average Scot may be better than it was 100 years ago, but there is no doubt thst it has been in steady decline for the last 40, and Westminster/Whitehall are doing nothing about it.

  4. Well Tom, no one could ever accuse you of being “happy go lucky”, that’s for sure!

    You sound a bit like Private Fraser out of Dad’s Army.

    You should try to cheer up a bit, accept the democratic EU referendum vote, and make the best of things.

    Life’s too short to be so bitter.

    1. Refreshing to hear Brexiteers have moved on from the predictions of wealth and prosperity after we leave the EU and have settled for ‘make the best of things’. A step towards reality biting.

      1. In the 2016 European Union Referendum, the people of the UK were asked a question; did they want the UK to remain in the EU or did they want to leave?

        The choice was more or less:

        Did you want the UK to return to being a sovereign nation state?


        Did they want the UK to stay in the EU as a semi detached partner, with the option of moving towards a United States of Europe?

        The people chose by a narrow majority to leave the EU.

        This may have been a good, bad or indifferent decision, no one knows for sure, only time will tell what the future will bring.

        However, there is a major difference between not being happy about a referendum result and not respecting the actual result itself.

        Tom Morton, who wrote the article, is no democrat, he respects neither the result of the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum, nor the 2016 European Referendum.

        If you do not respect the outcome of a democratic vote; what do you respect?

        1. Maybe Tom Morton will start respecting the result when the £350 million a week starts flowing into the NHS as promised.

  5. Brexit is a disaster for example as I have said before I was in Cross house hospital for 3 weeks in the high dependency ward in 2014.
    I nearly died on the first night my brother got a phone call at midnight from the hospital, to say I might not get through the night.
    It was a Greek locum and her team who saved me. At outpatients I had an Asian Consultant . In Gartnavel in August 14 I had Asian doctors and Nurses . In 2015 I had Asian junior doctors 1 of whom was in training to be a brain surgeon .
    My surgery Asian and Chinese staff have all been involved with me .Does anyone think I asked them where they came from they saved my life . They are still looking after me .In October at the Ayrshire and Arran health review a member of staff from Spain told the public meeting that having worked in Crosshouse Hospital near Kilmarnock for the last 18 months he does not know what will happen to him after brexit.
    And this in a Hospital and board area where due to staff shortages there is a shortage of in their words key hospital staff. GPS nurses and dentists and due to staff shortages they cant man the chemotherapy unit in Ayr hospital its closed .
    I voted remain on brexit for that and other reasons . But if there is a 2nd Indy ref I am now a don’t know leaning heavily towards yes
    I will make my own mind up and I am already 99 per cent there .
    When I got out of Gartnavel it was 4 weeks before the vote . I was asked to help the no campaign . The only thing I could do to help was phone polling .Now this was nothing to do with the SNP but on the phone English born people told me they felt ostracised for being English
    I told them its your country to next time we will have to stop this.
    I actually thought yes could do it .
    On the day I thought on the worst political day of his life Alec Salmond compared to David Cameron was the only one who showed dignity and leadership that morning .
    I did not agree with Alecs decision to go but it did nip in the bud the public dissension that people like Gordon Wilson and Jim Sillars were beginning to show
    On Brexit leading up to the vote I heard people on the bus as I went to the surgery on the bus pointing to road works and complaining that Polish workers were taking our jobs there was no one there .I Thought with that Scotland might vote to leave and I heard that kind of comment again last week
    It never got past immigration for me .I never heard the brexiteers leaders talking about issues like jobs workers rights etc .
    It was take our country back we never lost it and where are all those countries who would be lining up to give us trade deals etc
    The pm should dig up Nigel where ever he is and appoint him to lead our brexit team and deliver the promises he made
    Oh I forgot Nigel is still an MEP and taking the money from the organization he wants to leave or is it our money
    PM Cameron he only held a ref on brexit to see of UKIP and the crew presently in control of the Tory party
    PM May she held a general election she did not have to call . Allegedly to see of Jeremy and the crew she is stuck with in her Cabinet that went well didn’t it
    Jeremy Corbyn was the 1 who was supposed to resign a after the election . During it for me did not put a foot wrong but we should be away in front in the polls we are not but not in the doldrums either
    In Scotland Richard Leonard and his team have got to prove we are a credible alternative Government the same at Westminster btw .
    I believe the SNP are now firmly focused on the day job .
    And now this seemingly never ending internal election that was faught in public by people who should know better and I am not referring to Duncan is over I want to see Richard put in place the policies needed to get Labour into government at the next Holyrood election
    The Scottish budget is going to be a big political test for all the parties .
    And never forget or take for granted the public tax is going up and we are the ones paying
    As this is the first time a Scottish Government has used tax raising powers I hope we have an answer for when the FM says what would you have done

  6. And while I am at it I am watching Kezia in the jungle and no she should not have gone while Holyrood is sitting
    And on the Alec Salmond show which I also watch
    Alistair Campbell on Brexit and he wants our PM to have the nerve to say you voted UK got it wrong
    And he was asking why did none of our brainless wanders my words not his not see the Irish Border problem coming

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