Our only enemy was gold

I’ve always thought Edwin Muir’s poem ‘The Castle,’ like Burns’ ‘Parcel of Rogues,’ referred to the Acts of Union of 1707. Many Scots considered the union of Scotland and England to be a corrupt bargain in which Scottish nobles and landowners who’d been ruined by the Darien scheme were bailed out with English money in return for signing over Scotland’s independence. (I don’t want to argue the merits of that theory; historians have been batting it around for four hundred years without reaching agreement. I just want to point out that the attitude exists.)

It did just occur to me recently that there could be another, slightly anachronistic interpretation of the poem. If Edwin Muir had been given a glimpse of Scotland’s condition today and the destructive effects of welfare dependency, he might have written exactly the same poem. For generations Scotland was a poor country whose greatest natural resource was its people and their devotion to education. They educated their young people and sent them out all over the world, and as George MacDonald Fraser said, “A Scotsman on the make is a terrible thing.”

The expansion of the welfare state has eroded that, perhaps fatally.

All through that summer at ease we lay,
And daily from the turret wall
We watched the mowers in the hay
And the enemy half a mile away
They seemed no threat to us at all.

For what, we thought, had we to fear
With our arms and provender, load on load,
Our towering battlements, tier on tier,
And friendly allies drawing near
On every leafy summer road.

Our gates were strong, our walls were thick,
So smooth and high, no man could win
A foothold there, no clever trick
Could take us, have us dead or quick.
Only a bird could have got in.

What could they offer us for bait?
Our captain was brave and we were true….
There was a little private gate,
A little wicked wicket gate.
The wizened warder let them through.

Oh then our maze of tunneled stone
Grew thin and treacherous as air.
The cause was lost without a groan,
The famous citadel overthrown,
And all its secret galleries bare.

How can this shameful tale be told?
I will maintain until my death
We could do nothing, being sold;
Our only enemy was gold,
And we had no arms to fight it with.

8 thoughts on “Our only enemy was gold”

  1. In the anachronistic version, gold is involved at two levels—there is the gold distributed in small denominations as part of badly-designed (from an incentives point of view) welfare systems, and there is gold distributed in much larger denominations to the designers and managers of those systems.

  2. I was amazed to read a throwaway comment awhile back that Newfoundland was formerly independent (the details of the late-stage British Empire and the status of its component parts have not been completely clear to me), but lost that status due to WWI era debts.

    The novels of Haldor Laxness are highly relevant to this conversation as well, in their depiction of the brutal hardships of life for poor Icelandic farmers, and how brief periods of prosperity, caused by speculation and accompanied by taking on debt in ways that were previously unimaginable for various reason, can cause their situation to in the end be even worse. These works and their mindset seemed informative to the actions of Iceland during the financial crisis relative to, for instance, Greece.

  3. So if the entire population is paid a substantial income just for existing..as influential people are suggesting will be both possible and necessary given (what they believe to be) the coming improvements in robotics/AI….then will we get:

    –a ‘mass aristocracy’, driving an outpouring of artistic and literary creativity and general good things?


    –a ‘yob’ culture?

    …or some of each?

  4. “…then will we get:”
    Skyrocketing suicide numbers and complete drug legalization, in a feeble attempt to prevent the huge majority of unemployed males from overwhelming the prison system.

  5. “but lost that status due to WWI era debts”: it pleaded to be taken back as a colony. After WWII those noble Canadians agreed to take it off Britain’s hands. In the referendum those who wanted to join Canada had a narrow win over those who wanted to return to independence.

  6. Simon Schama’s History of Britain reports that the Scots sold out, in part, because of disastrous debt from the Darien scheme.

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