Shuggy's Blog

"All things are wearisome, more than one can say." - Ecclesiastes 1:8

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Against TV debates

Political debates on television are a terrible idea.  Given their history of giving undesirable candidates potentially decisive boosts prior to elections, you wouldn't think you'd need to make this obvious point but in the context of the referendum debate in Scotland, apparently you do - to both sides.

In American Presidential elections, the story is pretty familiar.  In 1960, Kennedy debated with Nixon on television and won.  No bad thing in itself, perhaps - but the manner in which he did so had absolutely nothing to do with the quality of either the arguments or the candidates.  Kennedy - then the underdog - appeared at the studio looking fresh and suntanned.  He declined the offer of make-up for the studio lights so Nixon felt obliged to do the same.  But Nixon was pale and sweating profusely, recovering as he was from a recent illness.  Kennedy won the debate - in the eyes of those who watched it on television.  Those who heard it on the radio thought Nixon had won.

They've had them in US Presidential elections ever since.  Among the candidates who have done well out of them include Ronald Reagan, Bush Snr, Bill Clinton and George W Bush.  It isn't an argument that would appeal to me but at least in this context I suppose people could claim the personality of the candidate is important.  Less so, however, in the context of our parliamentary democracy - yet they insisted on having them here too.  If you recall, Nick Clegg did rather well in 2010 only to go from being, in terms of popularity, Churchill to Chamberlain.  You'd think that in itself would be enough to illustrate the superficial nature of these media arm-wrestling contests but Clegg certainly didn't seem to get it, which is why he decided it might be a good idea to appear on national television with Nigel Farage, who of course won. 

I wouldn't know who has learned anything from this in the rest of the UK but I have yet to read one single comment anywhere in Scotland suggesting that a debate of this nature on the independence referendum would be a truly awful idea.  The Yes campaign realised some time ago that Alex Salmond is like Marmite: SNP voters - or most of them anyway - like him a lot; those of us who are neither SNP nor Yes voters can't stand him.  As a consequence, one of the most frequent refrains from Yessers is to cry, "It's not about Alex Salmond and the SNP!".  The same people invariably insist that it is, however, all about David Cameron and the Tories - which is, of course, why Salmond wants to have one of these daft TV debates with him.  The Prime Minister of the UK is usually told by nationalists to "butt out" of the debate over whether Scotland secedes from the Union, except in this context.  What they want is a staged event that would be the very incarnation of the SNP narrative about being ruled from London by a posh Tory elite they didn't vote for.

Cameron would lose before he even opened his mouth.  I'd like to think that he understands this is the reason he's declined the idiotic invitation to prove he's not 'feart' but for whatever reason, it's a good thing that no such event will take place (hopefully).  No so Alistair Darling who will - or perhaps won't - debate with the First Minister prior to the referendum.  I am dismayed that so many people on my side of the debate seriously think this would be a good idea.  "He'd run rings round Salmond".  No he bloody well wouldn't.  When he was Chief Secretary to the Treasury and later Chancellor, I half seriously wondered whether he had been chosen for the job because he was so boring that he could deliver quite bad economic news without too much controversy, on account of the fact that his audience had fallen asleep before they'd had a chance to absorb it.

The one pro-union politician who could wipe the floor with Salmond in a debate of this kind is George Galloway and if this doesn't serve to illustrate the point that these events lend themselves to populist pugilism, I don't know what would.  Alex Massie has just been tweeting that a Spectator debate in Edinburgh has been host to an unironic audience of lawyers and bankers cheering a barnstorming performance from our George.  Such is the nature of these things.  It's supposed to be about profound changes to the constitution that will endure long after Salmond, Darling, Cameron and Galloway are worm-food but the fact of the matter is that the short-term politics of personality are the order of the day.  If any of these debates go ahead, there will not be one single piece of new information  presented.  This is one of the many reason why I find the prospect of anyone changing their mind after watching any of this on colosseum TV pretty depressing.

Monday, June 09, 2014

Nationalism: means versus ends

One of the disfiguring features of the referendum debate is that it is dominated by arguments about economics by people who aren't, in the final analysis, particularly interested in economics.  What is not well understood - particularly by London-based commentators who enter the fray - is that there is in Scotland roughly about 25% to 30% of the electorate who are nationalists that would support independence no matter what the consequences.  They may believe all this stuff about Scotland being like Norway or Sweden and becoming a beacon of social democracy for the rest of the UK but at base relative poverty is for them preferable to maintaining a relationship that they liken to the occupation of Poland circa 1940.

The softer, and for me more congenial, support for independence comes from means-ends nationalists who view separation as a mechanism to get the sort of policies they want to see.  This I've said this already but most of these are socialists and greens.  The overwhelming majority of Yes voters in my acquaintance belong to this category. If there is a Yes vote in September, it'll be because the Yes campaign have persuaded enough Scots to be nationalists like this, at least for a day.  I understand this but it is desperately naive, which is why I was grateful to Torquil Crichton for reminding us of a lesson from the Irish experience: when socialists hitch their wagon to nationalism, the former invariably lose:
"There have been 29 general elections to the Dàil, Ireland’s parliament, since independence. Ireland’s Labour Party have won precisely none. When socialism goes up against nationalism in a country where all civic politics is about the nation, then Labour doesn’t stand a chance."
This is one in the long list of reasons I have to answer the Nationalists' rhetorical question: what are you afraid of?  Politics that is 'about the nation' creates forever a cross-cutting axis over the normal politics of class, which smothers the latter.  As Alex Massie and others have already suggested, a post-referendum battle between the SNP and Labour is going to be essentially one to see which becomes the Fianna Fail of Scottish politics.  In this I have no doubt the Nationalists would win.  Understood like this, Labour for Independence - along with the other Labourists prepared to throw their lot in with the separatists - are signing their own death warrant.


Thursday, June 05, 2014

On hyperbolic historical comparisons

In a New Statesman interview, Alistair Darling has caused a bit of a fuss by using the term 'blood and soil' to describe the sort of nationalism represented by the SNP.  Okay, he didn't actually use the phrase but I'm not sure the supposed clarification takes much away from the original complaint.  The journalist suggested it and he appeared to agree with it.  The expression actually predates National Socialism but since it is now forever associated with the Third Reich, I don't think there's any point in arguing that Darling's way of expressing himself was anything other than unwise, to say the least - as was his comparison of the First Minister with the late North Korean dictator.  However, there are two observations one could make.

The first is obvious enough and has already been made by several people.  What is behind the faux outrage of some nationalist commentators is absolutely jaw-dropping hypocrisy.  If there is anything in Goodwin's law - the idea that the first in any debate to make a Nazi comparison is the one who lost it - this applied to the nationalists years ago.  It was the SNP's Alex Neil who got a standing ovation at the SNP party conference for comparing the then Shadow Scottish Secretary George Robertson to a Nazi collaborator.  More recently, Salmond himself described a BBC journalist as a Gauleiter.  

That the journalist in question was a sports journalist serves to reinforce another point.  Some have taken the latest outburst of Twitter stupidity as a symptom of how ill-tempered the independence referendum has become.  Well, it has - but the fact that anyone could come up with a 'law' to cover the frequency with which people use Nazi comparisons in arguments shows the extent to which people seem to have absolutely no other historical analogy with which they can express their disapproval of something.  

An aggressive foreign policy is always 'like what Hitler did in the thirties' - never something else, even something obvious - like Napoleon or something.  (It might be worth noting in this context that the purpose of the comparison in this context is to de-legitimise any response other than one that involves the use of military violence.) 

We also saw Egypt's government toppled in a bloody military coup - justified on the grounds that the Muslim Brotherhood were dismantling democracy from within, just like what Hitler did in the thirties.  No other comparison - say, a Latin American one - would do.  Or maybe Putin?  Oh hang on, he's just like Hitler too.  It is in this context we should understand this latest nonsense.  Making a plea for people to try and cut down on the number of Hitlers they see is probably pretty pointless but I would insist that it shows, not that people know too much about the Nazis, but that they don't know very much at all.  If they did, they might have a better sense of proportion.


Saturday, May 31, 2014

Counting the cost of independence

When people complain about how much the Queen earns, or the expense of the civil list in general, what's almost always behind it is not a belief that the British monarchy could do things more cheaply but rather a disapproval of the idea of having a monarchy at all.  The same is true of the current argument about how much setting up the the infrastructure of an independent Scotland would cost.  'Alex Salmond is under increasing pressure to reveal the likely start-up costs of independence'?  Well, I dare say he is but what good would it do if he did because he doesn't have a clue.  Neither does HM Treasury, nor Professor Dunleavy.  Nobody knows what is going to happen in the event of the unravelling of a three-hundred year-old Union and surely I am not alone in growing more than a little tired of those who believe they do?  I am more likely to believe the higher estimates than the lower simply because that tends to be the pattern with government projects.  The most obviously relevant example here is the construction of the Holyrood parliament building.  It was completed at around 10 times the originally estimated cost - but since I supported devolution, the price of it was not the decisive factor.

The same is true of Scottish independence.  I have absolutely no doubt that the cost of disentangling Scotland from the Union will be more expensive than the Nationalists estimate.  This is not entirely irrelevant given their disingenuous protestations about public spending cuts but fundamentally it is not at the core of the issue.  No, it doesn't matter what it costs; even if it can be done cheaply, setting up the infrastructure of an independent Scotland is for us not worth a red cent because we do not believe it is a very good idea.

I wish people had read to the end of the FT editorial that was quoted by both sides in this particular indy-spat.  [I'll quote from the paper copy rather than providing a direct link to the piece, if you don't mind.]
"These sterile exchanges may fill column inches with accusations and counter accusations.  But they must not decide the outcome.  More is at stake this September than hypothetical arguments about pounds, shillings and pence.  In the heat of the battle, Britain's politicians should not forget the deeper ties of history and shared political experience that link us."
That it is the Financial Times exhorting us to be less narrowly economistic should give more people pause.  As it is, the cost of independence can be measured more easily in the quantum growth in bullshit we've witnessed recently, rather than in pounds sterling.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Against the politics of certainty

Whenever I am asked why I'm voting no, I usually say, "Because I don't believe in nationalism".  This is partly because that's what I think, partly because it is surprisingly effective.  It closes down conversations with boring people who just want to recite a load of SNP slogans to you - and those conversations that do continue start from a point that gets to the heart of the issue of what this referendum is about.  It is surprising how many people respond - I'd even say recoil a little - and insist, "Ah, but I'm not a nationalist either but I'm voting for independence".

Allow me to demur.  Political nationalism is the idea that the boundaries of the state should be congruent with the nation, the latter defined in various ways but has conventionally been understood to be a people who share a common culture.  The problem with this as far as I am concerned is that while culture and organisations are human universals, nations and states have not been.  It is a supremely important fact yet nationalists almost always argue as if the marriage between the two is the unquestionable natural order of things and any deviation from this is something that is impossible to justify.  This, I think, explains the utter incomprehension of nationalists when confronted with an alternative view; they don't treat it as a position to argue against but rather as a symptom of mental disorder - hence what is for me easily the most tiresome rhetorical phrases in this neverendum: nationalists endlessly repeating the line, "What are you afraid of?" to anyone who has the temerity to disagree with them.  This incomprehension is also what is behind the notion that any opposition can only be another form of nationalism; that some of us like Britain the way it is partly because it is not a nation-state has not occurred to them - but even if it had, they would not be able to understand it.

The answer, then, to the question, "What are you afraid of?" is exactly this - this politics of certainty, of blind faith, which always and everywhere treats dissent as deviance and heresy.  It is this that is always behind any of the economic arguments that we are told will decide this debate.  That might be true of the undecided but it is not what animates the foot-soldiers that are doorstepping for the Yes campaign.  They might sincerely believe Scotland would flourish after independence but in the way that an abused child would if they were released blinking in the sunlight after some kind of subterranean incarceration.  Might take them some considerable time to function properly but the escape is the overwhelming imperative.  I appreciate some might find this extreme but it is, I think, the base belief among the hardcore of the nationalist movement.  Economic prosperity will follow independence, most of them believe, but even if it didn't, they would still prefer relative poverty to what they see as servitude.

My concern is this is not well-understood.  Certainly not by the waverers who might be persuaded by the frustratingly vague promises of jam tomorrow and also not by the 'non-nationalists' for independence.  Most of these are socialists and greens.  They argue that independence is not a political expression of national identity but rather a means to achieve the sort of policies that are frustrated by membership of the Union.  But at the heart of this is a belief in Scottish exceptionalism: Scots are just so social democratic but will never be able to realise this whilst locked into a Union with these cold-hearted, foreigner-bating southerners.  In other words, this is a national political culture that makes a separate state essential, which brings it full-circle to the original definition.  I'm of a pessimistic disposition so I would argue that the best one could expect is perhaps some mild improvements but without any fundamental shift in Scotland's long-term growth rate.  And I wouldn't expect any Scottish government of whatever party to be that different in their attitude to the power of business and the press.  It certainly wouldn't be with Alex Salmond at the helm.  Whatever happens, it would be accompanied with a heavy dose of disillusion among those on the left, once they realise that the reason we don't have the sort of socialist policies they want to see is because people don't vote for them and not because we're part of the Union.

What the Euro elections showed, ironically, is that Scotland is not that much different from any other European country and what we are experiencing here is part of a wider nationalistic trend in politics.  You do not need to think it will end in catastrophe to worry where this fundamental misdiagnosis of our problems might take our country or the rest of Europe.  It is frankly absurd to believe, as some seem to, that nothing but good can come of all this flag-waving nationalism and if saying so is a tenet of what the more unthinking nationalists like to call 'project fear' then sign me up.  I'm saying no to nationalism.

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