Playing the game

scotlands_parliamentThe British establishment hates and fears the SNP because it is truly an alien force in their midst. It operates within the British political system, but is not part of the British political system. It has been inserted into the structures of power privilege and patronage which define the British state, but is is not beholden to those structures. It has been imposed upon established power by the people of Scotland, but refuses to accept that the latter are, as a consequence and condition, subordinate to the former.

By the British political elite’s own rules, the SNP formally represents the people of Scotland. It not only forms the administration at Holyrood, it also has the largest number of MPs, outnumbering all the British parties combined. In itself, this would not be a problem. It becomes a problem for the British establishment because the SNP doesn’t just insist on representing the people of Scotland, it insists on being accountable solely and exclusively to the people of Scotland.

From the British establishment’s point of view, this makes the SNP a serious menace. It cannot be controlled. It is not susceptible to the customary blandishments or vulnerable to the usual threats. At Westminster, the SNP group is taking the arcane rules and archaic procedures which are supposed to baffle and foil ‘rogue elements’ and turned those tools of suppression into weapons of mass disruption. The managers have no sanctions that aren’t likely to rebound on them. The manipulators can get no purchase. The ‘men in suits’ have no influence.

Conventional power always begets a countervailing power. The SNP represents an element of that countervailing power manifested in ways and places that the conventional power of the British establishment is totally unaccustomed to, unprepared for and bemused by. It’s just not supposed to be this way!

Some will seek to dismiss the SNP Westminster group’s behaviour, accusing them of ‘playing games’. But politics is a game. Or, at least, it is closely akin to a game in that it involves moves and counter-moves. The moves being made by Ian Blackford and his troops are not at all whimsical. The disruptive tactics are part of a larger strategy. There is a point to all of this which will become evident in due course.

In the meantime, British establishment figures will continue to protest. They will object indignantly that the SNP is not ‘playing the game’. The real reason for their discomfiture, however, is that the SNP is playing the game rather too well.


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If the Union offends thee…

ian_blackfordAlong with Mike Russell, Ian Blackford is emerging as one of the heroes of Scotland’s independence movement. Unquestionably, this is because both these individuals are unafraid to reflect in their rhetoric some of the indignation and anger felt by people across Scotland and beyond.

What may seem strange to some is the extent to which the British establishment seems oblivious to and/or disdainful of this outrage. The British political elite appears genuinely incapable of appreciating how its behaviour is viewed in Scotland. Either that, or they simply don’t care. Or maybe there is some awareness, but it is countered by powerful denial. I suspect there is an element of all of these at work.

There are certainly those in the British political parties who simply cannot understand why anybody would challenge the authority of the British state or question the efficacy and desirability of British governance. To them, the British ruling class is a natural phenomenon, much like the winds and the tides. They take for granted the British ‘right to rule’ just as they do the air that they breathe. when Ian Blackford and Mike Russell talk about the deficiencies and failings and offences of the British state, they might as well be speaking the Gaelic for all the British understand of what they say.

Some, no doubt, are just as aware of these deficiencies, failings and offences as Blackford and Russell and the rest. But, from the arrogant and perverse perspective of British exceptionalism, getting away with these things is a mark of superiority. They not only don’t care about the harm they do, they revel in it. Gross abuse of power and abysmal incompetence are, like the elaborate raiment and ornate headgear sported by aristocracy, the ostentation which signifies status.

Then there are those who simply blank out the discomfiting reality. We see all to clearly in aspects of the Brexit fiasco the astounding capacity for denial that exists within the ranks of the British political elite. If they are capable of deluding themselves about how that whole bourach is going, it’s easy to see how David Mundell might have convinced himself that he really does speak for Scotland and that we all respect and admire him just as we love and adore Ruth Davidson.

What this all adds up to is a British state which is sick to its core. Chronically sick. Terminally sick. From Scotland’s perspective, ending the Union will be like amputating a diseased limb.


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The duck that roared!

keith_brownKeith Brown joins the long list of pro-independence politicians plying the Yes movement with pious soundbites urging us to “reach out to our communities and former No voters, and make the strong and positive case for independence”. I’m surely not the only one who hears such bromides and immediately thinks, “Been there! Done that! Got the No vote and its dire consequences to prove it!”. I can’t be alone in craving something more from the SNP than a litany of banalities about ‘the power of being positive’ that sound like they’ve been lifted from the monthly motivational talk given by the sales manager of an office supplies wholesaler.

OK! I get that the new Depute Leader is, first and foremost, a politician. There are public expectations about how ‘real’ and ‘serious’ politicians behave and sound. Ducks don’t strut! Ducks don’t roar! Keith Brown and his colleagues have to act the part. But don’t you just wish more of them would step out of character once in a while? Don’t you long to see the duck strut? Aren’t you desperate to hear the duck roar?

Apparently, many of you are. While the reaction of the British establishment to the SNP House of Commons walk-out led by Ian Blackford has been predictably sneering and hateful, the public seems to have loved it. The prissy, tut-tutting disapproval of this bit of political theatre emanating from the British political elite was all but totally drowned out by the cheering and applause from the cheap seats. SNP membership surged yet again and social media blazed with an enthusiasm that not even the wet blankets of the British media were able to damp down.

Perhaps encouraged by the public’s reaction to the walk-out, Blackford strode back onto the boards at Westminster to give a storming speech in the almost debate-like play unofficially titled “Sewell? So what?”.  Fearful of a severe upstaging, David Mundell side-stepped the starring role in favour of his understudy. He was right to do so. Blackford’s performance sizzled with righteous anger and crackled with genuine passion. As a follow-up to his part in ‘SNP Walkout’, it was perfect.

Twice now, Ian Blackford has shown that an SNP politician can strut and roar without any cost to their credibility. People are ready for this. People want this.

Of course, the ‘positive case’ for independence must continue to be made. But this must be more than a dull recitation of dry facts and dusty figures. It cannot be only a tedious repetition of the arguments made in the first referendum campaign. Something more is needed. We need a positive case which is at least as much about democratic principle as it is about economic prosperity. But the tempered steel of this positive case also needs to be given a sharp edge.

One of the Yes movement’s most compelling slogans is ‘Hope Over Fear’. This is commonly taken to mean, among other things, that we should campaign exclusively on a message of hope and eschew the politics of fear. But functioning democracy requires the informed consent of the electorate. Which necessarily means that, when faced with a political choice, they should be aware of the possible negative implications as well as the potential positive consequences associated with either or every option.

How different the outcome of the 2014 referendum might have been if, as well as offering a bright vision of independent Scotland, the Yes campaign had done more to make people aware of the dire consequences for the country of remaining part of the UK. It’s not as if we didn’t know. The effect of a No vote was foreseeable and foreseen. The subsequent behaviour of the British political elite was predictable and predicted. But little, if any, of this was conveyed to voters by a Yes campaign which came to regard any hint of negativity as heretical.

Nelson Mandela famously urged that our choices should reflect our hopes and not our fears. He did not suggest that we should be oblivious to threats which might prevent realisation of our hopes. The light of hope is measured by the darkness of the fear it overcomes. SNP politicians have been very good at describing the light. They have been far less willing to talk about the dark that threatens to enfold us should we fail to seize that light.

Reframing the campaign to restore Scotland’s rightful constitutional status as resistance to the threat of ‘One Nation’ British Nationalism doesn’t mean we abandon the ‘positive case’ for independence. It simply means that we add an extra element to that campaign. We’ve made people aware of what Scotland can do as an independent nation. It is right and necessary that we should also make them aware of what will be done to Scotland should we remain part of the UK. The case for independence is augmented and made complete by the case against the Union.

Both cases will benefit from being put to the people with such facts as may be available; such rational arguments as may be formulated; and such objective appraisal of the options as may be possible. But all of this is likely to leave people cold unless it is lit with the fire of justified anger and honest passion.

I’m not asking for Braveheart. Just a bit more Blackford.


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The media filter

What a killjoy Ian Blackford is! The British media went to all the trouble of concocting a controversy around his ‘coronation’ as SNP Depute Leader, and he goes and spoils it all by announcing that he won’t be attending the ceremony. Almost from the moment Angus Robertson resigned, the story was of a party in turmoil with anonymous ‘sources’ telling tales of intrigue at the top and revolt everywhere else. Plots were supposedly afoot to usher Blackford into the post without the tedious formality of a democratic process as set out in the party’s rules.

Quite how this was to be contrived was, like the identity of those allegedly ‘voicing concerns’, never revealed. It always seemed odd to me that these ‘sources’ could be both close enough to the inner circles of the SNP to be regarded as reliable informants yet be totally unaware of the party’s constitution and the rules governing the nomination and election of the Depute Leader. But, of course, the story didn’t have to be credible. It only had to be titillating. What does it matter if a story is questionable when nobody is going to question it?

The spin now will be that the devious schemes of the party leadership have been thwarted. The glare of the media spotlight has forced them to back off. Blackford has been ordered to abdicate before he even got to wear the crown. It won’t matter that there was never any substance to the story of his ‘coronation’ in the first place. A new truth has been manufactured. It is now part of the cosy consensus informing the media narrative. George Orwell imagined an army of Winston Smiths beavering away in the Ministry of Truth physically rewriting old newspaper articles so that they didn’t contradict whatever was decreed to be the new Truth. The intrusive ubiquity of broadcast mass media and the infinite palimpsest of rolling news have made Winston and his colleagues redundant. why bother rewriting the past on paper when it can be revised in the public consciousness.

If the practical impossibility of a proposition is inconvenient to the desired narrative, then simply ignore it. The public only know what they are told. If nobody tells them this ‘coronation’ of Ian Blackford couldn’t actually happen, there’s no problem. In their minds, it is true. Manipulation by the media is not only a matter of what is reported and the way a story is framed. Things that aren’t reported and questions that aren’t asked also play a part in the deception. Manufactured truth thrives best in an environment where all potential competing information has been filtered out.


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It’s just a game

It is a regrettable fact of life that before commenting on anything in the British media one must first check for accuracy. Standards of journalism are so abysmally low that factual errors are common. This article in the Sunday Herald, for example, refers to Kirsty Blackman MP as “the SNP’s deputy leader”. She is, in fact the SNP Deputy Westminster Leader. That is to say, the Deputy Leader of the SNP Group at Westminster. Considering the article is about the contest for the post of SNP Depute (not ‘deputy’) Leader, this seems like a particularly clumsy mistake.

Having put the record straight on that, what else might be said about an article trumpeting Tommy Sheppard as the favourite in a race which hasn’t yet started? Nominations haven’t even opened. It seems a little premature to be speculating about who might win a race when we don’t even know who the runners are. Tommy Sheppard hasn’t even declared his candidacy yet. He is being pronounced the leader on the basis of absolutely nothing more than the need for a sensational headline.

That’s if Tommy Sheppard really is the favourite. The headline says so. But by the second paragraph we’re being told that “Ian Blackford had been tipped as the favourite”. Confused? The Sunday Herald doesn’t care.

I have to say that I rather resent the media trivialising the issue in this way. But I don’t suppose there’s any more point in complaining about that than there is in objecting to the errors. That’s just the way it is. Everything is reduced to the level of some tacky TV talent contest. For those of us who aspire to a better politics, it’s all a bit depressing.

It’s not only the disregard for accuracy and cheapening of politics that grate on the sensibilities of anybody who takes their politics seriously. I’ve written elsewhere about how the media manufactures truth. The way they generate ‘fakts’ that have no necessary connection to reality, but which fit nicely into the common narrative – the cosy consensus. Such a fakt is the myth of concern within the SNP that there may be a ‘coronation’ of Westminster Group Leader Ian Blackford MP. This myth is now firmly established in the mainstream media regardless of the fact that the party’s procedures make such a ‘coronation’ quite impossible.

I don’t suppose many people will find this sort of thing annoying. And that is part of the problem. As a society, we’ve become inured to the poverty of political journalism. We’ve grown accustomed to the mistakes and the distortions and the dishonesty. For the most part, people just don’t expect any better. They make no great demands of the media. So they get the media they deserve.

I’m one of the oddballs who does take it seriously. I happen to think it matters. It matters because, for the majority of people the mainstream media is their window onto the world of politics. They see the democratic process through the lens of newspapers and radio and TV. I’m going to be hard to convince that there is no correlation between the way politics is portrayed in the print and broadcast media and levels of disengagement from the democratic process.

But maybe I’m wrong. Perhaps the way to restore the connection between people and politics is, not to have the media take it all more seriously, but to go even further down the road of mass appeal. How about we dispense with all that tedious stuff about policies and party organisation and have the SNP Depute Leader contest decided in the style of ‘It’s a Knockout’? Mind you, Tommy would probably still be the favourite.


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