In the 1870s, Gustave Flaubert compiled a series of entries for a purported Dictionary of Received Ideas. It was a guide to the platitudinous idiocies with which middle-class French people responded to their daily lives under the Second Empire. Here's a selection from the I's.
ICE CREAM: It is dangerous to eat it.
IDEALS: Perfectly useless.
IDIOTS: those who think differently from you.
ILIAD: Always followed by the Odyssey.
ILLUSIONS: Pretend to have had a great many, and complain that you have lost them all.
IMAGINATION: Always 'lively'. Be on your guard against it. When you lack it, attack it in others. To write a novel, all you need is imagination.
IMMORALITY: Properly enunciated, this word confers prestige on the user.
IMPIETY: Thunder against it.
INFINITESIMAL: Nobody knows what it means, but it has something to do with homeopathy.
INNOVATION: Always dangerous.
INSTRUMENT: If it has been used to commit a crime, it is always 'blunt', unless it happens to be sharp.
ITALIANS: All musical. All treacherous.
Flaubert, Gustave. Bouvard and Pécuchet with the Dictionary of Received Ideas. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976, pp. 311-312.
It's a brilliant mixture of hearsay, commonplace, pretentiousness, self-importance, hypocrisy, and cliché. It's very funny but underneath it there's a deep sense of anger and despair. It's reminiscent of Schopenhauer's The Art of Being Right (1831), which purports to be a guide to rhetorical tricks to win the argument without actually being right, but expresses despair that these horrible unreasoning manoeuvres actually work. Flaubert's Dictionary articulates a kind of disgust at the way people so often seem proud to substitute proper ideas with mere Things To Say. We hear this all around us nowadays and I've never felt it more explicitly than in the last week of the Scottish independence referendum.
Not from the Yes side. In fact, not from the Scottish No side. But from the English. Not everyone, obviously, but, I've followed from afar the debates in Scotland on extraordinary websites like Bella Caledonia and National Collective and Wings over Scotland for a couple of years and I've been dazzled - I mean it, dazzled - by the wit, imagination, the rigour, seriousness and good humour with which the debate has been conducted. But then, two weeks ago, when suddenly Scottish independence was thrust into the centre of English political attention, it's been shocking how very intelligent people have been parroting platitudes about the debate, completely unaware that Scotland has been discussing this for years with all the encrusted complexity and subtlety that you would expect. It's been an unedifying, uninformed spattering of received ideas: why hasn't England got a vote? people have seriously asked; of course it's all about hating the English; the Yes campaign have just bullied the opposition; it's all about ethnic nationalism (Thunder against it); the Scots are just obsessed with Braveheart; it's just a short-termist anti-Tory vote; their sums don't add up; they're addicted to oil/subsidy/welfare; an independent Scotland would consign England to eternal Tory rule. All of these issues have been properly debated north of the border, but no one south of it seemed to care; far preferable to utter these bons mots, half-witticism, half-analysis, wholly useless.
This matters because of what is about to happen. Scotland has voted no. It was pretty decisive and this should be respected. (But let's remember, 45% of Scotland voted Yes in the face of virtually the whole of the media, the whole of the political establishment, a coordinated campaign by some big figures in the finance and business sectors, and a negative and scaremongering No campaign.)
This morning, David Cameron walked out into Downing Street and explained that he was going to honour the pledges about further devolution made late in the campaign. And we all - not just the Scots - have a responsibility to hold him to that. Already we've had that prick Farage on the radio disputing that the Scots deserve any more powers and there are numerous Tory MPs harrumphing about the Scots being 'rewarded' for 'losing' the vote.
But there's a catch. This is what Cameron said.
I have long believed that a crucial part missing from this national discussion is England. We have heard the voice of Scotland - and now the millions of voices of England must also be heard. The question of English votes for English laws – the so-called West Lothian question – requires a decisive answer.
So, just as Scotland will vote separately in the Scottish Parliament on their issues of tax, spending and welfare, so too England, as well as Wales and Northern Ireland, should be able to vote on these issues and all this must take place in tandem with, and at the same pace as, the settlement for Scotland.
I hope that is going to take place on a cross-party basis. I have asked William Hague to draw up these plans. We will set up a Cabinet Committee right away and proposals will also be ready to the same timetable. I hope the Labour Party and other parties will contribute.
This is very clever. He's going to offer devolution as Scotland would expect, but he's making it conditional on a kind of devolution to England too. It can't be separated; English devolution 'must take place in tandem with, and at the same pace as, the settlement for Scotland'. Scottish MPs won't be able to vote on English issues, which means that if they give tax-raising powers to Holyrood, implicitly Scottish MPs won't be able to vote on an English budget.
This is a serious matter for Labour, because, although, as I've said before, removing the Scottish MPs would not necessarily mean Labour couldn't get to power, removing the Scottish MPs from the vote would make them much more vulnerable to voting rebellions in power. But of course, if Labour try to resist these plans, Cameron can say to Scotland that he'd like to introduce devolution but Labour is blocking it. Given that Labour has emerged rather bruised from this campaign, it needs to build bridges with its Scottish electorate, so will be reluctant to put obstacles in the way.
This is why Cameron has so enthusiastically agreed this massively accelerated timetable. He got Miliband and Clegg in lockstep in the last weeks of the referendum campaign - that vow, signed by all three party leaders - and he wants the deal to be done before the election. He doesn't want the three main parties going into the election with three different settlements for Scotland which would expose their divisions. He wants to seal the deal to benefit the Tories and it's going to be very difficult for Labour or the Lib Dems to get in the way. (Note that the negotiation of Scottish devolution is being handled by Lord Smith of Kelvin - a crossbench peer - but the English devolution is to be overseen by lifelong Tory William Hague. So they can be separated, but only to let Hague ensure that the settlement works to the Tory benefit.) All my leftist friends who wished for a No on the basis that it would lead to eternal Tory rule: well what do you know? We got it anyway.
To resist this, several things would need to happen. I suppose Labour could do a backstairs deal with the Lib Dems and disaffected Tories to isolate Cameron and bump things beyond the election - but that's business as usual; that's the kind of stupid game playing that our current corrupt, fly-blown system produces. To respond genuinely, imaginatively to the situation it's in, Labour will need to look beyond immediate party politics and re-connect with its grassroots, but not just its grassroots; it needs to find a way of connecting to the disaffected working class that are drifting to UKIP or not voting at all, to the humane middle class who do not put money above people. This will never be done through branding or soundbites or warm words; it means rethinking the whole approach of the party to become a people's Labour Party, the kind of thing it hasn't really been since the mid-1980s.
Because the West Lothian question is a serious question. We shouldn't be vote-rigging parliament just to keep 'our' party in power. But there are many constitutional arrangements that we need to consider; we need to debate the nature of our polity, examine imaginatively the examples of other countries, and models not even tried; we need to look hard at our system and ask what is essential, what is traditional, and what we could just sweep away; to get excited about what our country could be; to take responsibility as citizens, creative people, democrats, prepared to believe, really believe, that anything is possible. In other words, we'd have to drop the received ideas and become a lot more Scottish.
But we only have a few months to do it, where Scotland had two years (or maybe 35 years). There's not much evidence that we're prepared to make the effort; we rejected voting reform; we rejected regional assemblies; most of us don't even vote except at General Elections; we actually elected Boris Johnson, because apparently he's a bit of a character.
There's little sadder than that feeling of possibility closing down, or the imagination narrowing to a dot. But that's just today.
Tomorrow - as democrats, citizens, progressives - we need to hold on, keep the possibility alive, force open the edges of our imaginations, work hard, dream harder, because if we don't take responsibility for our country, we deserve everything we get. If we can't imagine what being a fully active citizen would mean, we've already lost.