Better Together?

Better Together? (Wenceslas Hollar, The Belly and the Members) – Image Source:

Better Together? (Wenceslas Hollar, The Belly and the Members) – Image Source:

Day after tomorrow, the inhabitants of Scotland get to have their say in a referendum as to whether or not they wish Scotland to become an independent, sovereign state, potentially resulting in the dissolution of a union with England that was initiated in 1603 and confirmed in 1707.

Even though I do reside in Scotland at the moment, for one year, I have no say in the referendum myself: this is not because it is exclusive in any way, but simply down to the fact that I arrived too late for voter registration. On the plus side, however, it saves me the good time and trouble to make up my mind on this matter – a matter on which I, for once, do not have any particularly strong views: whatever the outcome, life as we know it is likely go on as a result.

Those who are opposed to an independent, sovereign Scotland at this point find themselves represented by the ‘Better Together‘ campaigning platform, a platform that has to face the thankless task to mobilise support for a negative claim (‘No’) in response to the ‘Yes Scotland‘ movement, which has both a thoroughly positive-sounding name and positive campaigning posters (‘Yes’).

Notions of nationalism and ethnic pride to one side, a significant part of the debate affects economic matters: matters related to wealth generated through the availability of natural resources (such as oil) and the investment in sustainable energy (Scotland has made excellent progress in its efforts to go green), matters related to the distribution of wealth and jobs across the UK (with London and the South-East being perceived as a black hole that swallows all the wealth, skimming off the North and feeding the South at everyone else’s expense), and matters related to the general (relative) spend of national resources (especially with regard to social security systems, but also with a view on culture and education).

The political debate has utilised and reinforced an ‘us vs them’ stereotype, Holyrood (us, Scotland) vs. Westminster (them, London, the South-East, England, or the UK, more generally), in which ‘they’ (Westminster) are depicted as greedy and self-obsessed, with little regard and even less understanding for those who live across the Scottish border (and some other regions too). This has been reinforced by a dislike for the current Tory government and its prominent figureheads. ‘We’, in turn, are depicted as quasi-Scandinavians, socially minded and almost egalitarian, with no time for matters of social class and political corruption.

To the best of my knowledge, nobody has, so far, exploited the classical fable of the Belly and the Members in this context.

Yet, some of the language, both on the ‘Yes Scotland’ and the ‘Better Together’ side, strongly reminded me of the famous episode that is reported for the 494 BC secession of the plebs, in which Menenius Agrippa reaches out to the Roman plebs, who had decided to escalate Rome’s ongoing conflict of the orders rather drastically.

The Roman historian Livy reports the incident as follows (2.32.8–12):

placuit igitur oratorem ad plebem mitti Menenium Agrippam, facundum uirum et quod inde oriundus erat plebi carum. is intromissus in castra prisco illo dicendi et horrido modo nihil aliud quam hoc narrasse fertur: tempore quo in homine non ut nunc omnia in unum consentiant, sed singulis membris suum cuique consilium, suus sermo fuerit, indignatas reliquas partes sua cura, suo labore ac ministerio uentri omnia quaeri, uentrem in medio quietum nihil aliud quam datis uoluptatibus frui; conspirasse inde ne manus ad os cibum ferrent, nec os acciperet datum, nec dentes quae acciperent conficerent. hac ira, dum uentrem fame domare uellent, ipsa una membra totumque corpus ad extremam tabem uenisse. inde apparuisse uentris quoque haud segne ministerium esse, nec magis ali quam alere eum, reddentem in omnes corporis partes hunc quo uiuimus uigemusque, diuisum pariter in uenas maturum confecto cibo sanguinem. comparando hinc quam intestina corporis seditio similis esset irae plebis in patres, flexisse mentes hominum

In translation (by B. O.Foster):

‘The senate decided, therefore, to send as their spokesman Menenius Agrippa, an eloquent man, and acceptable to the plebs as being himself of plebeian origin. He was admitted into the camp, and it is reported that he simply told them the following fable in primitive and uncouth fashion. ‘In the days when all the parts of the human body were not as now agreeing together, but each member took its own course and spoke its own speech, the other members, indignant at seeing that everything acquired by their care and labour and ministry went to the belly, whilst it, undisturbed in the middle of them, did nothing but enjoy the pleasures provided for it, entered into a conspiracy; the hands were not to bring food to the mouth, the mouth was not to accept it when offered, the teeth were not to masticate it. Whilst, in their resentment, they were anxious to coerce the belly by starving it, the members themselves wasted away, and the whole body was reduced to the last stage of exhaustion. Then it became evident that the belly rendered no idle service, and the nourishment it received was no greater than that which it bestowed by returning to all parts of the body this blood by which we live and are strong, equally distributed into the veins, after being matured by the digestion of the food.’ By using this comparison, and showing how the internal disaffection amongst the parts of the body resembled the animosity of the plebeians against the patricians, he succeeded in winning over his audience.’

Menenius was successful with his simile, even if this was only one of many incidents in Rome’s constant class struggle during the time of the Roman Republic.

It will be interesting to see whether or not team ‘Better Together’ (who has not yet found a similarly striking simile in this debate) can be successful, too – and, if not, whether or not a sovereign Scotland will be able to function just as much as a living body as it is hoped by those who currently support its independence.

About Peter Kruschwitz

Berliner. Classicist. Scatterbrain.
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3 Responses to Better Together?

  1. eksty says:

    As a historian I feel compelled to correct a rather iffy statement: NO Union was initiated in 1603 bar a regal Union which was the norm rather than the exception in early modern Europe. While James VI & I had plans for further union, these were blocked by the English parliament and certainly cannot be seen as a direct line to the current situation. The current Union, ie one of Parliaments, rather than of Crowns only came about in 1707, and created a new country, namely the United Kingdom of England and Scotland. Prior to that Scotland and England were separate, sovereign nations. (The Cromwellian interregnum cannot be seen as part of this as it was an enforced incorporation, not a Union.)


  2. Thanks for the clarification, much appreciated! 🙂


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