For Auld Lang Syne, My Dear
European Social Forum Plenary Address
by Alastair McIntosh,
for Human Ecology, Ecosse,
the FSE / ESF plenary, Paris, 14 November 2003
behalf of the Dundee Trades Union Council
For Auld Lang Syne, my Dear
soir mes amis [French], Feasgar math [Scottish Gaelic], Shalom [Hebrew],
Assalaam-o-Alaikum [Arabic], Namaste [Hindi].
those greetings, in 5 languages of the world, tell us something about being
human. They suggest that to know one another requires being deeply rooted in
suggest sharing blessings of goodwill, happiness and peace. As “Namaste”
from India implies, this can take us to the most profoundly spiritual level of
that which gives life.
life is what we must seek today as we reflect on “cultural and national
identities in Europe”. Let’s explore the four keywords there: identity,
nation, Europe and culture.
identity is the shape that life takes in forming who we are and what we stand
for. Identity spreads out from our inner selves as ever-widening circles -
through our family, our street or village, our town or region, and eventually to
the nation and beyond.
nations should be, therefore, our communities that give life on a large scale.
follows that Europe is a community of many smaller communities, and beyond that
is the community of the entire world.
solid sense of identity, then, is about connecting our individual lives and
where we come from with nothing less than planetary consciousness.
is the collective shape that this common life takes. And culture to a community
is like water to a fish. We move and breath it so naturally that it gets taken
for granted, unless, that is, the river runs dry or becomes polluted.
many of us find that our rivers are drying up. Some perceive deliberate
poisoning by forces that would diminish distinctive nuances, and turn their land
and cultures into mere commodities to be bought and sold.
Marcuse said, “Pollution and poisoning are mental as well as physical
phenomena…. When people are no longer capable of distinguishing between beauty
and ugliness, between serenity and cacophony, they no longer understand the
essential quality of freedom, of happiness.”
is why strong cultural and national identities are so important in standing up
to globalisation. They distinguish us from the banal brutality of packaged
Scotland, our national poet, Robert Burns, warned about the dangers of this
brave new world that was then called Empire.
a poem called Strathallen’s Lament, written on the eve of the French
Revolution, he said: “The wide world is all before us,/ But a world without a
- he said, we could become Imperial Scots if we wanted to. Yes - we could
participate in the competitive exploitation of the world. But only at a terrible
a loss of friendship. At a loss of conviviality. At loss of true
with the benefit of hindsight, Robert Burns’s prophecy speaks even louder than
it did in 1787.
too, globalisation’s engine of advanced capitalism offers the wide world, but
a world without a friend.
offers identity – but only branded as McDonalds or Nike.
offers “democracy” – but only based on one share, one vote.
offers rewards - but it cannot confer blessing, because human blessing can only
come from love in a living heart.
as such, advanced capitalism it is not capable of saying with any deep integrity
such benedictions as - “Bonjour”, “Shalom” or “Namaste”!
that is why we must make a new politics today. A politics by which we can greet
one another eye-to-eye, as human beings made of flesh and blood.
politics that asks of every policy:
it give life to those around us?
it give life to the environment?
does it give life to the soul?
Scotland today we are trying to recover our nation’s political, economic and
too long we have had a British identity that triumphed in colonial power. A
British identity that still has nuclear weapons and still believes that war can
save the world.
in Scotland are mounting challenges to that identity.
1999 we recovered our own Parliament after 300 years of being ruled from London.
This gives us partial independence, or “Devolution”.
flagship legislation of our new Parliament has been land reform.
year we passed a Land Reform Act. It guarantees the freedom to walk anywhere,
and makes it easier to take land out of private ownership and into the control
we are rural or urban, relationship to the land matters. It is where we build
community. It is where we have or put down roots. It is where we develop our
identity, our values and the sense of responsibility by which we can take care
of one another and the Earth.
need land reform in Scotland because our nation has been colonised by the rich.
Just 1,000 owners control nearly 2/3 of the private land. The tenure system up
until now has been feudal.
the land is not free, then our cultures and identities are imprisoned. That is
why Scotland is in the process of decolonising both its land … and its soul.
we must be very careful how we do this.
are seeking freedom from domination by a powerful elite - and not ethnic purity!
many of us are actively working to make ethnic minorities feel welcome in
Scotland. We are emphasising the traditional sacred duty of hospitality for the
short term, and fostership (or adoption) for the long term.
want a Scotland where ethnic diversity is celebrated in mutual respect. Where
pride in being Scottish means being proudly inclusive. Anything less would be a
shameful national identity.
is the opposite of the competitive ethic of globalisation and the opposite of a
“world without a friend”. It is the co-operative ethic of One World
Now, many of you will know the ancient Scottish song, Auld Lang Syne – “Old Long Ago”:
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And auld lang syne?
auld lang syne, my dear,
auld lang syne.
tak a cup o kindness yet,
auld lang syne!
Burns copied down this traditional song in 1788. His version is remarkable. It
challenges all that would have us forget our histories and homogenise our
song poses a double set of ethical questions which I’d summarise as follows:
“Is it right that old friendships, and history, should be pushed forever out of
the mind and forgotten?”
answer is in the chorus. He says, in effect, that only by remembering the roots
of who we are and where we come from can we build a culture of conviviality.
He tells us to share what he calls … “a Cup of Kindness” … and look … here I have one of these special Scottish cups to show you (though let it not be seen as being unique to Scotland).
has 2 handles so that it can be passed from hand to hand, thereby uniting the
let us do that here! And let me fill it with the taste of Scotland!
please … have some minimal respect for property rights! … and will somebody
bring me back my cup when it is empty?
[At this ending I filled a large quaich with a bottle of whisky and passed it to the audience. The 700 delegates in the hall rapturously danced and sang the first verse and chorus of Auld Lang Syne, each in their own language. It was magic, and I got my cup back!]
McIntosh (Alaistair MacIntosch) is a Fellow of Edinburgh’s Centre for Human
Ecology and the author of Soil and Soul: People versus Corporate Power
(Aurum Press, London), described by George Monbiot as “a world-changing
17 Nov 2003