A noxious broth

British politics is not a pretty thing to behold. Particularly now that the British Conservative Party has succumbed to its own version of the ugly factionalism which has beset the British Labour Party for decades. I have no evidence to support the contention; indeed, no evidence may exist, but I would venture that had a survey similar to that reported in The National, been conducted within British Labour at any time in the last 30 – 50 years, it would have shown remarkably similar results. Similar in that, at any given time, there would be factions within the party prepared to tolerate all manner of negative consequences – up to and including the demise of British Labour itself – in pursuit of their particular faction’s agenda.

Historically, one of the identifying characteristics of the British Conservative Party was its capacity for unity in the face of any challenge to its power. Whatever disagreements and differences may have roiled within Tory ranks, come the threat of being defeated by the detested ‘reds’, the magnificent ‘blues’ would pull together like a termite colony under attack by ants.

Anecdotally at least, one of the identifying characteristics of British Labour has been that it has more factions than members. And a significant proportion of those factions considered their policy agenda more important than winning the power to implement that agenda. A few even considered themselves more important than the party. Or, they considered themselves to be the party.

The political left in the UK has been a diminished force, in part because of its aversion to effective political power, but also due to a curious predilection for ‘defeat with honour’. The glory of the fight is appealing. The responsibility that comes with victory, maybe not so much.

Now, we have a British politics in which British Labour is as riven as ever by cliques and conspiracies, except that the lines separating the factions have become indistinct, if not blurred to invisibility. Even the factions seem to have lost cohesion. And few if any seem coalesced around anything recognisable as a firm principle.

As for the Tories; the best we might do in the way of a generous perspective is to observe that they have had less practice at this factionalism lark than the other main British establishment party. Compared to British Labour, they are rank amateurs. So it may not be so surprising that they aren’t coping at all well with the unfamiliar phenomenon of division in the ranks. It’s as if all those termites had suddenly shrugged off the bonds of colony and developed their own individual personalities and priorities and preferences. They’re all over the place!

I think the word I’m looking for here is ‘dysfunctional’. Although the term hardly does justice to the noxious broth of megalomania, avarice, ego, ineptitude, vacuity and corruption that seethes in the cauldron of the British state.

Scotland surely does not want to be a part of this.



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Wisiness

It is almost 15 years since American TV satirist John Colbert coined the term ‘truthiness’ to describe, as explained by Wikipedia, “the belief or assertion that a particular statement is true based on the intuition or perceptions of some individual or individuals, without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or facts”. Personally, I prefer the definition given by Stu Campbell of Wings Over Scotland, “things that sound as if they’re true, and which people will therefore be inclined to believe, even though they fall apart under any factual scrutiny”.

It is a useful word describing a very real phenomenon with which we are all familiar. Even if we are not acquainted with the term, I’m sure we all recognise truthiness when we encounter it. And we encounter it rather a lot. Every day, several times a day, we read and hear things said by politicians and political commentators which have the superficial appearance of truth, but which may only avoid being outright lies by virtue of some semantic technicality.

In any exchange, we are constantly looking for indicators of truth. When speaking with someone we pick up clues from their facial expressions, their posture and their gestures. When reading, we may judge the trustworthiness of a writer by their personal reputation, their academic qualifications and their experience as well as the standing of the publication in which the writing appears. But people can learn to control their body language. And even those with the most impeccable credentials are capable of deception and dishonesty.

We also look for evidence of truthfulness in the actual words spoken or written. The language used, the tone, the phrasing and more can be taken as signs. As much as anything else, the form of words used may persuade us to believe. This being so, it is only to be expected that an art and science will evolve of crafting words to simulate the qualities of truth the better to conceal dishonesty and effect deception. Thus, truthiness.

It occurs to me that what is true of of truth also holds for wisdom. If words can be crafted to give the impression of truth, they may also be contrived to have the appearance of wisdom. If truthiness, why not wisiness.

Truth withstands any amount of examination. Truthiness evaporates under any kind of scrutiny worthy of the name. Wisdom fits comfortably in a recognised and recognisable system of logic, knowledge and shared experience, while adding something new to that system or taking something novel out of it. Wisiness is just words selected for their associations and connotations.

A common manifestation of wisiness is the appeal for caution. Being generally risk averse, people are predisposed to find wisdom in any form of words advising prudence. The wisiness of the appeal for caution can be enhanced by the use of pejorative terms to describe a homogenised alternative. Anything which does not conform to the wisiness of caution is ‘hasty’ or ‘reckless’. It is entirely about the language. The words sound wise because they are chosen for that purpose. Were they genuinely wise, they would have been chosen for reasons that stand outside the words themselves.

Sometimes, of course, an appeal to caution may be truly wise. People may be generally risk averse, but they are also prone to moments of rashness. So, it may be wise, if mostly redundant, to advise people not to walk on motorways or eat unidentified mushrooms. Wisiness, however, attempts to paint wisdom onto what is actually no more than a rationalisation of fearful inaction or a cover for negligent unpreparedness.

We see much wisiness, too, in ill-informed or self-serving notions of human psychology. Notions which tend to be simplified to the point of caricature. We are told that people don’t respond well to this, or are put off by that as if human responses and preferences were amenable to mechanical explanations. But we are told this in language that oozes wisiness and sounds all the more plausible because of it.

Regular readers will by now have realised that, as I write this, I have in mind a certain trait within the Yes movement. Not that wisiness is exclusive or even particular to those associated with Scotland’s independence movement. If the concept has merit at all, it is as a phenomenon of communication generally, and not confined to a specific group or area of discourse. It is safe to say that, given a certain minimum linguistic skill, we all resort to wisiness at some time. It just happens that the Yes movement is the area of discourse with which I am most familiar. It is where I most readily and most frequently encounter instances of both truthiness and wisiness.

There is wisiness, for example, in Pete Wishart and others urging that the SNP and the Scottish Government hold off on action to resolve the constitutional issue until the arrival of some “optimal time”. This is wisiness, rather than wisdom because it cannot be amplified or explained in any terms other than its wisiness. We are asked to accept the wisdom of this advice solely on the grounds that it sounds wise. But it sounds wise, not because it fits comfortably in a recognised and recognisable system of logic, knowledge and shared experience, but because it has been expressed in terms selected with at least a little skill to sound wise. Ask even moderately probing questions about the reasoning behind the advice and the appearance of wisdom instantly vanishes.

There is little else but wisiness in the constant appeals for positivity and the condemnation of negativity. There is wisiness dripping from the pompous and vacuous rebukes delivered to those in the Yes movement who stray from the approved lexicon when addressing 2014 No voters and Unionists in general (see picture). A wisiness which presumes a profound understand of a psychology that is somehow both extraordinarily uncomplicated and common to all who voted No in the first independence referendum. By this presumption alone we know it to be wisiness and not wisdom.

Just as people need to be aware of the difference between truth and truthiness, so they need to be able to distinguish between wisdom and wisiness. Being cognisant of the devices used to manipulate perceptions and thus attitudes draws the sting of those devices. It makes us less susceptible to the blandishments of those who would mislead us – intentionally or otherwise and for good reasons or bad. Being aware makes us better consumers of media messages; better political actors; and better people.

In that last observation, at least, there is surely both truth and wisdom.



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Irrelevant babbling?

When British politicians are talking about Scotland’s politics, and particularly the constitutional issue, there is a perfectly understandable urge to simply dismiss what they say as the inane and irrelevant babbling of people who are not only abysmally ignorant on the subject but too arrogantly superior to feel the need to inform themselves. It’s only Scotland. They reckon they can say anything they like so long as there is no hint of respect. In the fervid atmosphere of ‘One Nation’ British Nationalism gripping the Westminster clique, showing any hint of respect for Scotland is likely to be taken as a sign of weakness. Nobody wants to be seen as ‘weak on the Union’.

It would be a mistake, however, to discount completely statements such as Jeremy Hunt’s three ‘conditions’ for a new referendum. Scrutiny of such utterances can provide clues as to the ‘thinking’ behind them. Because, while Hunt and his ilk see no need to be properly briefed before making such statements, the content will have been influenced by their advisers. And those advisers will be at least broadly acquainted with the tactics the British state intends to use in its efforts to preserve the Union and eradicate the threat to established power posed by Scotland’s distinctive political culture.

Hunt’s first ‘condition’ is clearly repeating and reinforcing Ruth Davidson’s pretentious stipulations. British politicians of all parties will know how important it is to support Davidson and encourage the idea that she has real authority. She is the ‘Queen of the BritNats’. The native figurehead for the British Nationalist cause north of the border. She may be a nonentity whose status relies entirely on media hype; but. second only to David Mundell, she is the British political elite’s most important asset in Scotland.

This ‘condition’ also serves to obscure the fact that the Scottish Government already has a mandate for a new referendum. This is part of a wider effort to create doubt and uncertainty in order that the British media can impose a more helpful version of reality. And, of course, it oozes the contempt for Scotland’s democracy that is an essential part of any British politician’s image/

The second of Hunt’s ‘conditions’ tells us that the British establishment is fully aware of how well the ‘currency issue’ worked for the anti-independence effort in the 2014. It also tells us that they recognise how and why it worked as well as it did. Given its effectiveness, it is hardly surprising that they would wish to exploit it again. Note how Hunt picks at the scab of a debate which has raged fiercely within the Yes movement. The hope is that we will again fall into the trap that did so much to weaken the Yes cause in the first referendum campaign.

Arguably the biggest mistake made by the Yes campaign was that so many in the movement were so easily led into trying to answer the question ‘What currency?’. It is, without doubt, the most telling example of Better Together’s use of doubt as a campaigning tool. Jeremy Hunt – or, more likely, the minds directing him – is obviously intent on keeping the dispute about currency running. And, more significantly, determining the terms of that dispute. It would be gratifying to think that lessons had been learned. But I fear many in the Yes movement will once again fall for this ruse.

Hunt’s third ‘condition’ seeks to bounce the Scottish Government into an undertaking that they will accept and adhere to whatever rules the British state may set for a new referendum. This is interesting for two reasons. It suggests that the British establishment has doubts about its ability to block the democratic process in Scotland. And it hints at fears that the Scottish Government may have its own plans to take control of the entire process and cut the British government out of it completely.

There is one further point to be made here. That British politicians are now setting ‘conditions’ for a new constitutional referendum in Scotland is, in itself, informative. It tells us that they are, of course, anxious to convey the impression that they have the rightful authority to impose such conditions. It also tells us that they have all but abandoned the ‘just say no’ strategy that has been so spectacularly unsuccessful; necessitating a renewed effort to afford Ruth Davidson an aura of credibility.

It is always encouraging when ones opponents implicitly acknowledge their failures and show signs of uncertainty about their ability to succeed. Doubt works both ways.



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A nightmare scenario

As ever, Andrew Tickell does an excellent job of taking us through the rules and procedures of the Scottish Parliament. His account of how Nicola Sturgeon might force an early Scottish general election is intriguing. But there is one possible twist to the hypothetical tale which either hasn’t occurred to him or, more likely, was considered too outlandish even in an age of bizarre politics – the Grand Coalition.

Suppose that, when Nicola Sturgeon resigns as First Minister, instead of “the ridiculous spectacle of a Davidson-Leonard contest” envisioned by Andrew we had the rather less amusing spectacle of the British parties in Holyrood forming an alliance sufficiently workable to avoid “complete ungovernability”?

Is this really so difficult to imagine? It may not be easy to see such a Grand Coalition working in the longer term, but how long would it have to last in order to foil Nicola Sturgeon’s devious plan to bring about an early election? If the British parties could cobble together any kind of administration and keep it limping along for even a few weeks, Ms Sturgeon would be left looking every bit as foolish as Theresa May did in the aftermath of he snap UK general election in 2017.

There was a time when a formal association between the two main British parties – even at the North Britain branch level – would have been unthinkable. But that all changed in June 2012 with the formation of Better Together / Project Fear. That set the precedent. It is now not possible – or, at least, not sensible – to discount the possibility of a Grand Coalition of British parties in the Scottish Parliament.

Such an alliance would be justified in terms of a shared British Nationalist ideology which readily overcomes the already uncertain political differences between the British Conservative & Unionist Party in Scotland (BCUPS) and British Labour in Scotland (BLiS). Because we’ve seen it before from their predecessors, it is all too easy to imagine Leonard and Davidson sharing a platform festooned with Union flags; and to hear the grandiloquent speeches about a shared determination to “protect our precious Union” and “save Scotland from the evil of the SNP”. Rhetoric which would be echoed by their respective bosses in London, both of whom would eagerly seize the opportunity to play the ‘unity’ card in the hope of trumping the Mad Brexiteer insurgency threatening the cosy two-party arrangement which has served the British establishment so effectively for decades.

If the thought of a Grand Coalition of British parties wresting control of Holyrood from the Scottish parties doesn’t give you nightmares then reflect for a moment on the damage such an administration could do. Think of the ways it could use even temporary power to advance the ‘One Nation’ British Nationalist project. The possibility of such an alliance may be remote. But the prospect is horrifying. Could Nicola Sturgeon afford to take a chance?



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In place of truth

David Mundell

There is certainly hypocrisy in David Mundell’s screeching U-turn on the matter of his willingness to serve under Boris Johnson. Just as there is dumb arrogance in Ruth Davidson’s bombastic pronouncements on the subject of a new referendum – her actual authority being in inverse proportion to her pomposity. Similarly, it is difficult to explain Richard Leonard’s dire performances at First Minister’s Questions (FMQ) without including stupidity as a significant factor.

But is there something more to all this than rank hypocrisy, vaunting arrogance and abysmal stupidity? Is it, perhaps, a mistake to dismiss such things as mere gaffes or to discount them as just evidence of the kind of character flaws which seem ubiquitous among British politicians? When taken together with the various form of dishonesty by which the British media allows the gaffes to go unreported and the character flaws unremarked, might we be looking at a much larger phenomenon?

Some time ago. in an article for iScot Magazine called ‘The death of truth’, I wrote,

It seems not enough to say that truth is being supplanted. That it is being overwhelmed by a “narrative contrary to reality”. For all its vivid persuasiveness, the concept of a “vast, permanent chasm between reality and perception” is wanting. Possibly because it leaves reality distanced, but intact. And the sense I get is, not of truth being set-aside or distorted or obscured, but of truth being demolished. Obliterated. Eradicated.

Not that I am suggesting some Orwellian plot to murder truth. But if making the concept of truth indistinct and elusive serves the agendas of a sufficient number of people with a sufficient amount of influence then what emerges from their behaviours and interactions may be all but indistinguishable from a conspiracy.

What is certain is that the British establishment has developed doubt as a powerful weapon in its propaganda arsenal. Pretty much everything that British politicians do seems designed to foster uncertainty. The British media does a bang-up job of spreading that uncertainty. This results in a generalised erosion of confidence, not only in politicians, but in the entire political system. It also leads to much confusion among voters and, at the very least, a reduced ability to make informed choices.

When people are confused and uncertain they are more easily led. Or steered. They are more readily deterred from effecting change. They are more averse to anything that can be portrayed as a risk. They are more inclined to favour the familiar and cling to the status quo.

An atmosphere of uncertainty and confusion also makes people more susceptible to anyone who offers a risk-free option. Or an option which, with the help of the media, can be portrayed as risk-free. It was doubt, generated and exaggerated by Better Together / Project Fear, which the British political elite deployed so successfully in the 2014 independence referendum. It was the plausible promise of a simplistic certainty that launched the Brexit fiasco.

Pervasive doubt leaves space for manufactured truth. When truth is diminished, reality is defined by the loudest and most intrusive voices. Last week, Mundell said he wouldn’t work with Boris Johnson. This week, he says he would. Next week, nobody is sure what he said – or when he said it.

Nicola Sturgeon is First Minister. She has the authority of that office. She has the democratic mandate. Ruth Davidson is treated by the British establishment – particularly the media – as if she has the same status as the First Minister. She is presented as speaking with similar authority. She is allowed and enabled to claim a mandate that she doesn’t possess. Keep this up for long enough and with sufficient intensity and the distinction between First Minister and nonentity is blurred. Davidson’s pronouncement are afforded a weight they cannot legitimately have.

At FMQ, Richard Leonard persists in asking questions about reserved matters. This may be, wholly or partly, attributed to stupidity. But, deliberate or not, it has the effect of causing confusion about the powers of the Scottish Parliament and makes it easier to blame the SNP administration for the deleterious impact of British government policies.

Leonard’s evident stupidity is appalling. Davidson’s pretentiousness is offensive. Mundell’s hypocrisy is disgusting. The British media’s dishonesty is despicable. But put all this together and you have a phenomenon which is quite frightening.



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If your fridge could scowl

It is always disappointing when The National appears to be picking up bad habits from the Unionist press. There is no “row” here. Ruth Davidson’s duplicity, mendacity and hypocrisy have been amply confirmed. As have her inability to grasp how democracy works; her difficulties with simple arithmetic; and her contempt for the Scottish Parliament. There is no debate about any of this. No discussion, never mind a “row”.

Nor is there any great controversy over what she says. Davidson can stand in front of a mirror practising that look of grim gravitas for the remainder of her ignominious political career. The reality remains that she does not now, nor will she ever have, the authority to dictate terms to Scotland’s democratically elected government or to impose conditions on Scotland’s right of self-determination. The deeply furrowed brow and dour set of her mouth say more about her ability to get into character on cue than about her standing in Scotland.

Ruth Davidson is a nonentity. She may be taking a turn at being leader of the official opposition at Holyrood, but given the way she and the other British politicians squatting in the Scottish Parliament conduct themselves, that title does nothing to enhance her status.

Anybody who can be replaced, even temporarily, by Jackson Carlaw is not a person of significance.

If Ruth Davidson is so insignificant, why does she have such a high public profile? If you are asking that question, you have it the wrong way round. Davidson has been given a high public profile because she is insignificant; but, for the purposes of the ‘One Nation’ British Nationalist project, the British establishment finds it expedient to have her decked with the trappings and treatment associated with seniority.

The matter of status is important. In a properly functioning democracy, where all legitimate political authority derives from the people, status must be earned. It is in the gift only of the people, and must be won from them. But that takes time and effort. It requires talent and ability and the attributes of personality and character which combine to make charisma. Wouldn’t it be more ‘efficient’ if a suitably tractable individual could be given the appearance of those qualities and properties? What if those abilities and attributes could be applied to a person as paint is applied to woodwork? What if the desired image could be manufactured? What if the image could be tailored to the individual and, more importantly, the purpose for which that individual is being used?

Fortunately – or regrettably, depending on your perspective – the art and science of the marketing industry has provided the tools for the job. Those tools have been developed to the point where status is now a commodity to be purchased – like electricity or internet access. Celebrity can be mass-produced and celebrities can be manufactured like motor vehicles – each specified for a particular market. Would you like yours camp with sequins? Or serious in a suit? Or down-to-earth in shirt-sleeves and chinos?

Ruth Davidson is just such a product of the image industry. Her status is as illusory as the ‘gifts’ of somebody off of one of them reality TV shows. She is an appliance being used by the British establishment for a particular purpose. Like a toaster or a washing machine. She has no more claim to genuine political status than your vacuum cleaner. And rather less authority than your radio alarm clock.

Why would a fridge-freezer be the subject of a political “row”?



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The power of doubt

One takes a chance describing anything as novel. It may be a cliché to say that there is nothing new under the sun, but such things get to be clichés for a reason – there is an element of truth or wisdom in them. What we do get are new twists on old phenomena or practices. New ways of doing the same old thing. Or the same old thing adapted to a new purpose. The modern understanding of the term ‘propaganda’ is little more than a century old. Borrowed from the Catholic church, the word acquired its political sense during the First World War. Initially, it was not a pejorative term but simply referred to material or information propagated to advance a cause. We can immediately see the commonalities between the words ‘propagate’ and ‘propaganda’.

The word may be relatively new. But the practice surely isn’t. Propaganda is a modern term for something that is as old as politics. And politics is at least as old as civilisation and probably as old as our species. If there is anything new under the sun, it certainly isn’t propaganda. Such novelty as there may be lies, not in the practice, but in its formalisation.

It was almost certainly wartime propaganda which gave the word its negative connotations. There is, after all, no reason why a cause must be honourable or the material and information used to advance a cause necessarily honest and accurate. And if the cause is survival in an armed conflict it is easy to justify production of dishonest material and dissemination of false information.

We should be wary, however, of unthinkingly dismissing propaganda as malign or rejecting its use as reprehensible on account of these negative connotations. Propaganda needn’t only be used to further bad causes. Joseph Goebbels is recognised as one of history’s great propagandists. The methods he developed and deployed served a truly vile ideology. But those same methods can be adapted to benign purposes. We may not be comfortable with the thought that we are promoting our obviously worthy cause using the same basic tools as were used by the Nazis. But we should bear in mind that those tools have been around for millennia and have served many causes, not all of which were as objectionable as that promoted by Herr Goebbels.

That said, a cause my be considered objectionable without it being remotely comparable with Nazi ideology. Although, because it’s all politics, it is always possible to find similarities if you are sufficiently intent on doing so. And sufficiently imaginative. That goes for the form of British Nationalism now gripping English-as-British politics as much as for any other political ideology. It is not particularly difficult to make comparisons between the words and actions of fervid British Nationalists and the work of Joseph Goebbels. But such comparisons are superficial and trivial. Because they can always be made, they can never tell us anything useful about the cause being advanced.

Any situation in which propaganda is being deployed can be made to look ‘evil’ if that is what suits the propaganda purposes of those describing the situation. But ‘evil’ is an empty term. It does not explain. In fact, it is most commonly heard when explanation is being most energetically avoided.

We need explanations. We need understanding. We cannot manage affairs without properly comprehending them. We can only participate effectively in democratic politics to the extent that we are able to see through the fog of propaganda. We can only hope to avoid being manipulated if we have at least some familiarity with the methods used to manipulate us. There may be an argument for teaching the basics of propaganda in schools. Although it might not be deemed socially acceptable to use ‘Goebbels on the Power of Propaganda’ as the text.

We swim in a sea of mediated messages. It makes evident sense that each of us should know as much as possible about the processes involved in mediating those messages. Feel free to slap anyone who derides media studies. Media are only slightly less consequential to our lives than air, food and water. Snorting derisively at the study of media makes about as much sense as dismissing study of the respiratory system. Or poo-pooing study of the digestive system. (Pun unabashedly intended.)

The understanding we need comes from analysis. Dispassionate, objective analysis – if at all possible. It comes from asking the pertinent questions. When politicians speak, we should do more than just listen to the words. We should ask probing questions about what is being said. Why is it being said? Why is it being said at this time and in this manner? Why those words? Why this message? Why this messenger?

How am I supposed to understand the message? How am I supposed to react to it? How am I reacting to it? Why am I reacting to it in this way?

What is the immediate context? What is the wider context? What is the obvious purpose of the message? What is the less obvious purpose?

What is the content of the message? How does that content relate to established facts and reasonable assumptions?

It sounds like a laborious process. But, with some practice, it becomes automatic. It is possible to develop the ability to filter politicians’ words through an analytical mesh almost in real time. At the very least, there is an awareness that the message will have to be filtered through that mesh at some point if it is to be properly understood. That awareness alone is a shield against manipulation.

As I write this, the media sea is thick with the bombastic, bilious utterances of British Nationalist politicians. The contenders for the role of leader of the British Conservative & Unionist Party have been launching their campaigns at the same time as the ‘Queen of the BritNats’, Ruth Davidson’ is desperately trying to keep the crown on her head. Or is it the media desperately trying to keep her in the role to which they appointed her? It’s the kind of parasitical symbiotic relationship where it’s difficult to know who is using who.

My sense of it is that Davidson is regarded by the British establishment as no more than a convenient tool; made all the more convenient by the fact that there really isn’t anybody else available. So, just when it looked like Ruth was about to lose her lustre, another dollop of turd polish was applied and she is back to enjoying a prominence she is no doubt foolish enough to suppose she has earned by her talent and ability rather than her willingness to be exploited.

But what about those utterances? What is that all about? What do we find if we ask the kind of questions referred to earlier? Afforded a platform by the BBC, Davidson said,

If she [Nicola Sturgeon] puts it in a manifesto that she’s going to hold another referendum and she wins a majority outright, then she can negotiate with the UK Government in the same way as happened last time.

But she doesn’t get to just, in the middle of a parliament where she’s lost her majority, get to stick her hand up and say I’m going to re-run this referendum again and again until I get the result I want.

The National

I don’t intend to essay a detailed analysis here. I just want to point out that, whatever the words say, this is propaganda. It is a message crafted for a manipulative purpose. And, like much propaganda, it works on a number of levels.

It is a rallying cry for hard-line Unionists in Scotland. The British parties in Scotland long since abandoned any hope of taking votes from the SNP. They are all now squabbling over that Unionist vote. Increasingly, they are also trying to keep people within the Unionist fold. They recognise that many have started to question the Union, having been given ample cause to do so by Brexit and the general ugliness of British politics. Even formerly committed Unionists are now less convinced of its efficacy. Questions are being asked about how the Union serves Scotland. Questions are being asked about whether the Union serves Scotland at all.

But there is a deeper purpose to this propaganda. And it has to do with doubt. And this is where we find something that at least looks novel.

Old-style tyrants ruled by terrorising those who might might be a threat to their power and status. But terror is both debilitating to a population and expansive to maintain. So, established power now relies on a lower level of fear that keeps the population functioning and which can be maintained at virtually no cost using mass media. Doubt!

People react, often in unpredictable ways, against being made to feel afraid. Especially if it is constant. But they can readily be persuaded to regard doubt as no more than sensible caution. The most effective propaganda is that which gets people to, not only succumb to being manipulated, but actually participate in the manipulation. If the propaganda can work on existing risk aversion to create or amplify doubt, then people can be discouraged from acting in particular ways. At population level, this discouragement is effective power.

Arguably the greatest advance in social engineering came with the realisation that there is no need to make people afraid in order to manage them. You only have to make them uncertain. Stalin would be feeling really stupid right now. But he could take some comfort from the fact that he lacked the essential tool for generating an atmosphere of doubt – the mass media.

(incidentally, but importantly, this atmosphere of doubt fits very nicely with an economic system which derives its energy from insecurity, inequality and imbalance. An economic system powered by precariousness can always use doubt as fuel.)

If we want to see an example of doubt being used to manipulate people we need look no further than ‘Project Fear’. Or ‘Project Doubt’ as it would have been more appropriately dubbed by those engaged in the anti-independence propaganda effort if they had been a bit more thoughtful. The entire exercise was aimed at weaving a suffocating web of exaggerated and irrational doubt using threads spun from reasonable concerns and normal resistance to change. With the willing cooperation and active participation of the mainstream British media, the exercise was successful.

Whereas coercion is defined by the removal of choice, doubt absolutely requires it. There must be two narratives in order that people can be made uncertain about which they can rely on. Counter-intuitively, these narratives don’t have to be particularly distinctive. Look at how difficult it so often is to distinguish between the narratives of the two main British political parties. Look at the confusion this causes. Confusion is the close cousin of doubt.

In the long-term, of course, this doubt and confusion is highly corrosive. It eats away at trust in democratic institutions and processes. We can see this in its current effect on English-as-British politics. But the British political elites are not given to thinking in the long term. As we watch the best and brightest that the British political system has to offer stumbling between soundbites we may feel nostalgic for the days when they used to stagger from crisis to catastrophe. If we are old enough, we even may look back longingly on the dimly remembered time when British politicians’ vision extended as far as the next election.

Ruth Davidson’s job is to provide the framework for an alternative narrative. Up to a pint, it doesn’t really matter what she says. It only matters that the media are able to report it as a competing narrative to be set against whatever the Scottish Government says. Davidson has been imbued by the media with a faux authority precisely so that she can be set against Nicola Sturgeon. Two narratives. Two ‘leaders’. Plenty of scope for the media to manufacture doubt as to which is true or real.

Of course, one of those narratives is almost entirely false. (There has to be a kernel of truth in any well constructed lie.) And one of the leaders is actually a fraud. A fake. A creature built entirely of media hype and a cog in the British state’s propaganda machine. The dishonesty of the narrative and the falsity of the figurehead are things glaringly obvious to most people in Scotland. But that doesn’t matter. The propaganda doesn’t work on the basis of a distinction between true and false, but on the basis of their being a distinction – regardless of what the distinction is or the nature of what lies either side of that distinction. The alternative narrative exists only so that the propagandists, and those who take their cue from them, can say, “But what about this?”.

Cast your mind back again to the 2014 referendum campaign and Better Together. Recall how their narrative involved a series of questions that were cycles through endlessly while responses were ignored by the media and British Nationalist kept repeating that there were no answers. The questions didn’t have to be sensible. All that mattered was that there be questions. Because questions imply doubt. The more so if the response to those questions was an attempt to find an answer that would be deemed acceptable. The diverse and long-winded answered only served to amplify the doubt.

None of this may be new. It almost certainly has parallels in past campaigns. What does seem novel, however, is the intensity of the effort to generate doubt, and the degree to which this effort seems coordinated. But there is one facet of this ‘culture of doubt’ which strikes me as being a recent development. And Ruth Davidson is to be found in this strand of British propaganda as well. I refer to the blurring of the distinction between winners and losers in elections and referendums.

We are all familiar with the massive media effort to portray Davidson as the winner of the 2017 UK general election. If you only read British newspapers or watched the BBC in the days and weeks following the vote, you could be forgiven for thinking the Tories had won the vote in Scotland and that Ruth Davidson was the new First Minister. That is how brazen was the lie and how intense was the effort to sell that lie to the public.

But this has now become a commonplace of what passes for political journalism in the British media. After any poll, their is a narrative which seeks to afford the losers a status equivalent – at least – with that of the winners. At its most effective, this propaganda line can have people actually believing that the losers are the winners and vice versa. Look around social media and you’ll find no shortage of people prepared to insist that the SNP lost that 2017 election, despite the fact that, by every meaningful measure, the SNP came out of the election in exactly the same position as it went in.

But the point here is that this kind of total deception is not necessary. The propaganda is effective even if all it does is produce a small doubt. Because, using mass media, that doubt can translate into the manipulative power by which people are managed.

This form of social management may not be new. But it is kinda scary.



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