The media always believes that what concerns it must concern us all. Twice recently it got this badly wrong – Iraq and the banking crisis where it simply failed to understand what was happening in the proportion of the world not made out of press releases. The navel-gazing over NATO and its difficulty in understand the Yes campaign launch suggest it may be starting to get things wrong again.
I had started writing about the remarkable ability of the neoliberal political ideologues to act like nothing happened, no Enron, no Leahman Brothers, no Irish/Spanish property-speculation madness, no uncontrolled house price inflation in Britain and so on. In his piece in the Scotsman not only does Madsen Pirie not even begin to engage with the question (recognised, I thought, by everyone) of how incautious deregulation in the financial sector played an absolutely crucial role in all of our current problems. But then I noticed a tweet from my pal Eddie at the Scotsman wondering what I thought of Alex Massie’s piece in the Spectator. And I can’t resist…
There is lots in the piece, but I want to pick out four points that I really do think are important in the current debate, some philosophical, some strategic. The first (and most immediate) is about the SNP’s strategic approach to the independence debate. Here I in large part agree with the comments – the SNP until now has assumed a caution-first stance on getting towards independence. It has sought to take out of public perception the idea that SNP is ‘dangerously radical’. Now in fact there is a more important way to understand this, because it is not radicalism that is the problem but what I’m going to call ‘endorseability’. If we look at the policies kicking around the UK right now, the left and the centre left has nothing near close to being as ‘radical’ as the Tory/Liberal coalition (personal profit for the rich from state run schools) or the Pirie line (absolutely flat tax with no recognition of the role of redistribution). It’s not so much that the SNP needed to be less politically radical but that it had to be ‘endorsed’ as a ‘proper’ political party by the mainstream commentators. It takes a little remembering but six or seven years ago many of the ‘gatekeepers of political wisdom’ believed the SNP to be an unelectable fringe party. The first step identified by the Party (led at the time by Jm Mather) was a straight-down-the-line triangulation strategy – the Party navigated to a neoliberal economic policy with the sole purpose of gaining ‘credibility’ among the editor-class. The social policy stuff was relatively untouched, because shifting from a social democratic position was genuinely untouchable. (None of this is interpretation – I heard the presentations and they were explicit about all of this.) So my interpretation is not so much that the ‘five years of caution’ was about winning a referendum vote but about getting a referendum vote.
However, the caution point gets the party only so far, and the lunch of the Yes campaign indicates a different strategy. This is the next point that I think is important – it is very, very early to make comments about what is or isn’t the nature of the Yes campaign. People fail to realise this but we’ve had 12 years of No campaign with barely any Yes campaign (by the admission of the unionists, the SNP has avoided the independence issue as much as it could). All of the messages coming towards the left in Scotland at the moment is that the campaign will be different, that different groups from right and left will be free to talk about what independence means to them and to hell with the risk of the media writing about ‘division’. (In fact, strategically, it is possibly in the disagreement that the best case for independence can be found – there is nothing of substance in the unionist vision for the future articulated so far, only ‘more of the same’ and if this turns out to be an unpopular ‘same’ then ideas, especially conflicting ones, may be an attractive alternative.) I wait to see if this comes to pass (politicians actually able to live with genuine free speech don’t yet exist in the big parties) but it creates the possibility at least of something unfamiliar in contemporary politics – genuine and lively debate about possible futures. We shall see, but if this happens there will need to be some significant recalibration of how the commentator class sees events. And the No campaign will have to think seriously about what ideas it is offering.
But this is the future. The third point I’d pick up is predicated on the NATO issue and what it tells us about the SNP’s positioning. There is much to consider. First, it is important not to take at face value the suggestion that Scotland is pro-NATO. What is true is that the PR budget of the defence, security, arms and corporate interest industries is much bigger than that of CND or the Reid Foundation. The Scotsman will run an entire conference predicated on the assumptions set out by the arms industry, line up writer after writer to support the same case and if there is any risk we didn’t get the message they ask a former Secretary General of NATO to explain why all of us sceptics are wrong. Meanwhile, it seems more-or-lesss impossible to get a single critical word about NATO into the paper (the only critical article I can remember was Pat Kane’s which was distorted by the strange use of the most unrepresentative pull-out quote I can remember). Every assertion about the folly of the SNP position on NATO that I have seen comes from within this source – the polls, the commentators and so on. I do not take at face value the suggestion that the majority are uncritical.
I shall point instead to Iraq (yes, I know, not technically NATO) and Afghanistan. For every assertion made that NATO is the ‘choice of the people’ I would simply retort that all of the most unpopular political acts in the last decade of Scottish/UK politics were either the result of banks or NATO. Millions have taken to the streets in opposition to acts by NATO; you couldn’t get two men and a dog to spontaneously march in favour. One should be very careful about an entire world-view moderated by only one side which chooses to ask no critical questions of itself. Bluntly, the ‘NATO debate’ is barely happening outside Scotsman-world – even the other newspapers in Scotland have run the occasional story with little follow-up or interest. And the story Alex tells of what happened is also not quite right – there was no U-turn; Salmond allowed one small group a little leeway to see if there was widespread support for a change in policy. There wasn’t, so it was closed down. This all amounts to a few people blogging, a few people lobbying, a few people writing letters and the majority of the SNP rejecting the trouble being caused by a small internal group. It was a real issue but only a big issue in the minds of a relatively small number of people.
But it doesn’t matter anyway – the next important misunderstanding. This is triangulation again – everyone in politics is obsessed by ‘middle Britain’. I need to pause and draw that out. The narrative is that ‘middle Britain’ represents the hard-working bulk of the UK pollution etc, etc. This, however, is not what the politicians are really talking about. Middle Britain in real political terms is actually about the mobile voter decisive in geographically-disaggregated elections – the small number of people in the small number of constituencies which are the ones who will impact most on outcome. Politicians never admit it but this group is quite atypical and often a bit nuts (it has strong views but they are contradictory and they change). It is a permanent, unwritten assumption that this is the target group for winning and moving close elections, and it profiles (roughly) as the ‘Daily Mail’ reader with a strange mixture of libertarian distrust of power and yet a strong affinity to ‘institutions’ (monarchy, business leaders, the armed forces). If you want to win elections, NATO might matter to this group.
But the independence referendum is not geographically disaggregated. The traditional ‘swing voter’ is not a swing voter in this vote – they are firm No people. So they just need to be ignored by the Yes side. The crucial vote is not reading the Daily Mail but the Daily Record. The vote is won by shifting traditional Labour voters, not small-c conservative voters. Among the people who may wish to vote for independence but aren’t sure, it is a misreading to assume that closeness to the United States military adventurism is a policy likely to triangulate them. The No side has tried to play the fear card, but in fact a shift in the SNP NATO position would very possibly simply have played into that fear trap rather than negotiating around it. And in any case, it is a marginal issue for most people. Those in the establishment who think that us out in the world spend our time talking about NATO are wrong, just like their assumption that Trident is a vote-winner reflects the company they keep and not the views of the nation (the polls on Trident are easy to interpret – people don’t want it with much more vigour than any poll has suggested they do want NATO). So the strategic assumption that the NATO position plays against a Yes vote is an interpretation of the wrong kind of vote. I would argue that the NATO position could easily play in favour of a Yes vote for lots of reasons, not least of which is that anyone I know in Scotland who might be motivated to knock a door either for Yes or for No was on the anti-war marches. But I accept a much more nuanced position that this – or than the Scotsman; the NATO issue plays in a number of ways.
And so to my final point – that Scotland isn’t minded for radicalism. But then again, this is relative. I assume that the meaning here of radicalism is taken to be left-wing radicalism, where again most of the real ‘radical running’ in the UK is currently ‘radical right’. In that context, conservatism is in fact a left-of-centre position. But that isn’t the point. Countries are not ‘left’ or ‘right’. People are. Scotland has no major right-of-centre constituency in electoral terms – the Scottish Parliament is only ever dragged to the right by lobbyists, media and influencers, never by the Scottish Tories. But this question is a mistaken question anyway. You can’t discuss Scotland’s political opinion without considering Britain’s. Britain is probably the most right-wing nation state in the EU and one of the most right-wing nation states in the developed world. It bombs more people, spends more on military, has the lowest levels of employee rights, the largest amount of surveillance of the population, a deeply entrenched class system and – crucially – one of the most concentrated media ownership profiles outside of Berlusconi’s Italy. The reason people can accept the idea that the BBC is ‘left wing’ is mainly because of the context of the rest of the media – which veers mainly from right (the Mail) to far-right (the Express). Scotland in Britain is bombarded with right-wing propaganda and the UK as a whole has not much political debate – the solutions are agreed by all the parties, only the balance and pace of the solutions is up for discussion.
An independent Scotland? Here I differ strongly with Alex’s position that in such circumstances Scotland ‘will’ be something. We don’t know what it will be, because it hasn’t yet been. I have argued with plenty on the left who have sort of hinted that the problems of Scotland will be fixed by independence (noting that others on the left believe independence would make things worse). I have told the unionist left that statements claiming an inevitable neoliberalism in an independent Scotland the same as I have told nationalist left claiming we are a guaranteed a socialist nirvana the same thing – don’t draw straight lines from here to there. People are not monolithic, they change. Scotland was Tory, now it isn’t. The nature and soul of Scotland would be to play for on day one of independence – nothing would be set.
But – to conclude – I have often noticed how flexible the word ‘conservative’ is. It could mean ‘politically conservative’ which is a sort-of political ideology. Scotland is not politically conservative. It could mean ‘instinctively conservative’ which is the ‘I don’t like risks’ approach to life. I can see little evidence that Scotland is particularly more conservative than anyone else. But there is another meaning of conservative that has become fashionable among the right-of-centre in Scotland and it is a definition that means ‘if you oppose right-wing radicalism you are conservative’. You know, conservative in wanting to keep the NHS unmerketised, education free, public services public and so on. Is this conservative? I don’t think so. It is just an expression of a left-of-centre tendency (certainly when compared to London politics). But this is not a ‘truth’, only a current fact. It could change – it will change.
How do I sum this up? Caution is natural for most political parties (excepting right-wing Tories – but then they have to make 30 U-turns) and the SNP had more political reason than most to want to be ‘endorsable’. The independence debate, however, may not be a battle of political parties and so those who comment on politics may have to readjust their perspective in much the same way the had to around about the Iraq debate (remember all those mea culpas from commentators who misread the situation). It is just too early to say. And Scotland is no more conservative than anywhere else in terms of its ‘risk aversion’, its just centre-left during a period of radical right reform. None of this tells us our future. And NATO? Irrelevant to most.
The first realignment in Scottish politics may not be of the political parties – it may be of media mindsets. This is not just the same again and just like its woeful failures over Iraq and then the banking crisis, the media elite may come to realise that it simply didn’t quite understand what was going on until after it happened. Meanwhile, elsewhere, life goes on…