The concept of loyalty is one that has given me some difficulty throughout my life. My unease with loyalty started early, but I was not able to express what it was that bothered me until my teenage years.
OED: loyal 1 .true or faithful (to duty, love or obligation) 2. steadfast in allegiance: devoted to the legitimate sovereign or government of one’s country. 3. showing loyalty.
And of course loyalty is the state of being loyal.
But there in the definition lies my difficulties. Love and obligation I understand, but duty is a much more difficult one. The binding force of what is right – what is required of one: the behaviour due to a superior; deference, respect. The dictionary of necessity begs a whole series of questions here.
What is right? Who determines what is right? Who determines what is required of one? Who is my superior? What is meant by deference and respect? How should respect be shown?
(One begins to sound like the Prince of Wales when one is forced to use so many ones, doesn’t one … One did not expect naughty students to throw paint at one’s Rolls and one did not expect one’s partner to be poked through one’s car window. Did one?)
An old maxim states that society is subordination, which is another way of the powerful saying that the ordinary people have to be kept in line and know who is boss. A key element in subordination is the inculcation of loyalty as the main alternative to brute force…
Fealty is a better word to describe what those who demand loyalty really mean – allegiance, a feudal tenant’s or vassals fidelity to a lord.
When I was a child, three loyalties were demanded of me – loyalty to my religion, loyalty to the nation (the British Empire) and loyalty to various people who were up to no good. Translated, these demands for loyalty all meant the same thing – don’t question or criticise dubious goings-on, especially by those in authority, and don’t listen to the arguments and blandishments of others. I had trouble from the outset with all three; religion, patriotism and the “don’t grass” loyalty to petty – and some times not so petty – criminality. Not the least of my dilemmas arose from the fact that loyalties usually conflicted with each other.
Patrick Cockburn, commenting on secrecy, his father Claud Cockburn, and Wikileaks in Wednesday’s Independent, quotes Sir Burke Trend - I will resist the obvious pun – a Cabinet Secretary of yesteryear on Government secrecy -
“It is a matter not so much of concealing as withholding and what is withheld is not so much the truth as the facts”
Loyalty to Britain (we didn’t call it the UK) was loyalty to a nation which had an established church that was not mine, and which banned members of my religion from succeeding to the throne. Loyalty to my religion meant that I should report wrong doing as a matter of course, instead of closing my eyes to petty theft, the black market of wartime Glasgow, the things that “fell off lorries”, and the behaviour of some teachers and some members of religious orders at my schools.
Loyalty also meant that I should not listen to the vibrant, passionate and articulate political soapbox orators in the Glasgow Barrows, who propounded ideas that challenged my religion, indeed any religion, and questioned the behaviour of the British Empire. My loyalty to my church was also apparently inextricably bound up with loyalty to the Republic of Ireland – Eire – a country of which I knew little, except that it was no longer part of the British Empire and the breaking up had been so very hard to do. This didn’t make it easy on myself. (Apologies to Scott Walker!)
Loyalty also meant loyalty to the Labour Party, but the Labour Party wanted me to go and boo at Winston Churchill, our great wartime leader, as his open car went along Duke Street, past the cattle market. Adult Glasgwegians had long memories of Churchill in other incarnations. (The wartime government was a coalition!) As the great man, dressed in his siren suit, gave the V for Victory sign, we were encouraged to offer the Agincourt version, a gesture that our religion – and good manners - forbade us from using on all other occasions.
Such were the early contradictions in a 1940s Glasgow childhood, and I have to say that I am grateful for them, since they induced a lifelong scepticism about dogma, religious, political or intellectual, and a willingness to open my mind to alternative views of the world.
I was baffled at the ease with which my contemporaries and the adults in my life readily accepted these contradictions, and it was not until I read George Orwell (Nineteen Eighty Four, published in 1948) in my very early teens, and came across his concept of doublethink – the ability to hold two contradictory beliefs in the mind without conflict – that I began to understand.
But in this maelstrom of conflicting definitions of loyalty and conflicting demands by others for this desirable attribute to be displayed, I did find loyalties that meant something to me – loyalty to concepts of freedom, equality, justice and truth – and managed to translate these into loyalty to family, to individuals, to my class – the Glasgow working class – and to an idea of Scotland that transcended the myths and prejudices of the time.
In adult life, the demands for loyalty by others remained – to religion, party, and nation. I had long since abandoned the religious loyalty: the political loyalty to the Labour Party remained, but as an internationalist, I thought of myself as a citizen of the world, and felt no particular loyalty to the UK or indeed Scotland, as a political entity.
But a new demand had appeared, loyalty to an employer - company loyalty. My early working life, from leaving school at fifteen up to National Service at eighteen – and for three years thereafter - was characterised by short periods of employment in a variety of different jobs, but then I settled into the long hauls with a single employer that were typical of the expectations of the 1950s and 1960s. I hadn’t achieved the ‘job for life’ target that most aspired to, and that many of my contemporaries and most people I knew had settled into, but I had a couple of long runs.
The Army had its own demands of loyalty, but I was not part of a combat corps – I was a clerk – so the fierce and necessary loyalties to regiment, to platoon, and to comrades in arms were absent, although I understood them well from my older relatives, all of whom had fought in the British Armed Services in both world wars.
Company loyalty was then (1950s t0 very early 1980s) a significant thing, but a very strange beast indeed. Maggie Thatcher’s wind of change more or less killed it off, but it survived in pockets of industry and commerce, and survives still, although severely enfeebled as an idea. I was never loyal to a company, but I did feel a strong sense of obligation and duty to individuals within it, and to the extent that they constituted the soul of the company and their values and integrity manifested themselves as the company, I suppose that was company loyalty.
The most characteristic aspect, then and now, was that those who most deserved loyalty never asked for it, and those who least warranted it were always trumpeting its value and demanding it. Since I was in Personnel, I was regularly exposed to employees who proclaimed their loyalty vociferously, especially when they felt vulnerable. I had to regularly remind them the Company’s loyalty to them was essentially limited to their contract of employment and its terms, and their loyalty to the Company was subject only to the minimum notice of termination they had to give.
To be blunt, employees who attributed their long service to company loyalty either were doing very well out of the company, or had nowhere else to go, and the company had few problems of loyalty when it came to doing to employees what was commercially and financially required. One company I worked for boasted of its generous pension and redundancy policies. This lasted during the good times, but evaporated rapidly in the face of hard times when they actually had major redundancies and a radical increase in pensioners, who were also inconveniently living much longer.
LOYALTY TO A POLITICAL PARTY
Political loyalty is what really prompted me to ruminate in this way over loyalty – that and the formidable demonstration of Gail Sheridan’s loyalty to her husband. I gave my allegiance in terms of my vote for over fifty years to the Labour Party, until the sheer weight of evidence tipped me belatedly into the realisation that the party I was loyal to didn’t exist anymore, and had not existed for decades. Iraq was the moment of truth, but it had been building inexorably for years.
Now I am loyal only to ideas and ideals, and to individuals who share these ideas, but I am also loyal to individuals who have a different view from me about how these ideas and ideals can best be put into practice, providing their solutions do not deny the very essence of what I believe in. As for loyalty to a political party, well, that will last just as long as its key policies address my key concerns, and its key people exemplify its values.
At the moment -and for any future I can foresee - that party is the Scottish National Party – the only significant party that is anti-nuclear and committed to the ultimate independence of Scotland within the European Community.