When the Dykes Held Firm: the Dutch withstand the onslaught of the Alt-Right Tidal Wave from the West…this time

There is a narrative about the last 12 months in western politics, whereby (without going into the realms of tinfoil-hatted conspiracy theories), BrExit and Trump’s election are part of a global phenomenon – a wave across the world, a rise of right wing politics. (Indeed, within Scottish politics, many of us in Yes, would add the ‘No’ vote in the 2014 referendum to this trend, as it bears the same hallmarks of support and funding by the same groups that delivered the Leave vote as well as Trump’s victory – see here and here). Under the terms of this narrative, Trump’s victory sweeps east across the Atlantic like an Alt-Tsunami, sweeping BrExit to the hard right, and thunders towards mainland continental Europe, where a series of right wing parties are poised with forthcoming elections to sweep back civil rights, demonise immigrants and generally move towards the door out of the European Union. Graphic image, isn’t it? I can almost see Roland Emmerich applying for the right to make the movie.

Within the narrative of this political catastrophe, March 15th 2017 was the first real test of how the wave was going to strike, with the parliamentary elections in the Netherlands, followed by France in just under two weeks time in April, and Germany in September. And in February, it seemed that the rumoured apocalypse was going to happen: the far right PVV (Partij voor de Vrijheid, or Party for Freedom) was on course to become the largest political party in the new Dutch parliament, standing to win 35 seats in a parliament with a 75 majority. In the wake of a coalition between the conservative People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie – VVD) and the Labour Party (Partij van de Arbeid – PvdA), in which the Labour Party was disappearing in the polls (as did the LibDems in the UK, after their similarly disastrous coalition with the Conservatives), this was a significant problem, with the PVV led by Geert Wilders (who is, indeed the only member of this party) looking to take much of VVD’s political support. All the political parties that were running for the Dutch Parliament vowed not to work with Wilders even if he was successful…but many are the political parties who have espoused fine values until the ballot stations are closed, then will do a deal with whomever is necessary, in order to be a part of government.

The conservative VVD had been less outspokenly xenophobic in its rhetoric than the PVV – and opposed PVV’s advocacy of the Netherlands leaving the EU (‘Auf Niedersehen’ – or ‘NExit’ – as it was less imaginatively dubbed) – but in the final run-up to the vote, the VVD’s leader, the Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte looked to try to take the fight to the PVV…by beginning to ape their language. This is a similar scenario to the recent one faced by London’s Conservative Party, who in late 2014-early 2015 moved to disempower UKIP by occupying a similar anti-EU and anti-immigration position. (And we all know how that brilliant strategy is currently working out.) Rutte launched an advertising campaign touting supposedly ‘Dutch values’, with ‘Doe normaal of Ga weg’ (‘Act normal or Go home’, reminiscent of Theresa May’s advertising campaign during her time as Home Secretary) as the strapline. Then, as a further move to triangulate on PVV’s electoral support in the week running up to the election, he engineered a confrontation with Turkish government officials visiting the Netherlands to speak to Turkish voters there. In the high-profile statements and expulsions of diplomats from the country, Wilders was all but absent, only able to stand by while Prime Minister Rutte used his position in government to ‘act tough on foreigners’, clearly positioning himself as a crypto-Wilders to the PVV’s would-be supporters. By this final week, the polls were already showing a slide from the PVV’s high water mark the previous month, but after the confrontation between Rutte and Erdogan,  it seemed that the VVD had consolidated their position to be the largest party.

I was watching the election coverage with an apprehensive group of Dutch academics at Munich University on the night (the picture above shows the whiteboard in the common room, with predictions and the exit poll figures in black), and sure enough, the exit polls came through as the polling stations were closing (a few had to remain open as they had had an unexpectedly high demand and so had run out of ballot papers), and PVV were projected to be equal second with two other parties (Democrats 66 and the Christian Democrats) on 19 (only gaining 4 new seats, instead of the previously predicted 20), and the VVD remaining the largest party on 31 (losing 10 seats). There was some relief…but over the next couple of days, the final tallies came through, and VVD finished on 33 seats, with Wilders’ Party on 20 – the second largest in the Dutch Parliament.

Tom – a friend in Amsterdam – had made a schoolboy error, arguing that everyone in his extended family should vote for the VVD to keep Wilders out (the VVD were weak in Amsterdam, so it is debatable how much this strategy would have worked anyway – at a time when the Greens were in the ascendancy, a vote for them would have been a more effective use of his franchise). But more than a wasted vote, the approach of voting for the VVD as an attempt to undermine the PVV, is of course counter-productive – it reinforces the support for a party espousing overtly right wing mantras – effectively borrowing PVV’s political ‘clothes’ – and thus validating that rhetoric and keeping the ground free politically for the continued expansion of the VVD to the right. Such a vote validates VVD’s xenophobic approach (ironically, Tom has a Polish wife, so this may well lead to a problematic position for his family if the VVD goes further down the PVV or UK Conservative Party’s path, in terms of foreign residence and right to remain), and sets their agenda: the existence of Wilders’ political support means that they know that they always have room to expand to the right to consolidate their power – and the moment they start to look ‘weaker’ on xenophobic policies than PVV’s hectoring, they know that that same support will return to Wilders, so they are unlikely to abandon their rhetoric. It depends how much of an influence the final coalition (which currently looks to contain the more left of centre Democrat 66 and the Greens) can devise to keep the most right wing of VVD under control. In a political system where coalition is the norm (rather than the UK’s first past the post, where coalition is an unusual anomaly), there is not a single party of government (as the UK Conservatives had, making their EU referendum obligatory), so less opportunity for the government to be forced to move to the right to disempower the far right, thus legitimising far right xenophobic viewpoints as mainstream Dutch politics. In addition to giving the far right more prominence, the VVD’s climate change denial agenda is liable to pressurise any of the Green policies that they wish to enact.

So, is that it? Emergency over, Fortress Europe’s western seaboard flood defences held, everyone stand down? Well, not really – there is still a bloc of 33 seats of the right wing VVD, whose leader Mark Rutte (likely to continue as PM, regardless of the final coalition agreement), had recently talked about people who were not ‘normal-acting Dutch’ that should leave the country (even if they were born in the Netherlands). Then there is the second largest party with 20 seats, the anti-EU membership PVV.  The PVV drove the VVD to the right, making the right wing perspectives normalised, and sustains the problem presented by the PVV. Unless the VVD can work back from their current position, they are in danger of being nudged further each time by the presence of a farther right group such as the PVV.

In terms of the broader European question, perhaps there is cause for more hope: the expected boost to Marine Le Pen in advance of April 23rd’s first round of the French Presidential elections that would have come from Wilders having the largest party in the Dutch parliament, has not happened.  The day after the Dutch election, the IFOP survey indicated that public support for the EU had increased by double digits in Germany (18%), France (19%) and Belgium (11%), having seen the mess that the UK was making of leaving the European Union. But Marine may yet succeed politically through expressing anti-immigration sentiments, even if not (yet) advocating a French exit from the EU. She is, after all, the second most influential MEP after Martin Schulz, and under her leadership the Front National won 24.9% of the vote in the European elections in France – personally winning over 33% of the vote in her own constituency: she is clever – more so than her father (the previous Front National leader) or Wilders, and may win office without the right wing wave of xenophobia from the Netherlands that she might have been hoping for.

Under Angela Merkel, Germany currently looks unlikely to fall prey to the far right or anti-EU movements – as indeed its neighbour Austria rebuffed such approaches from Norbert Hofer in its October 2016 presidential election.

The results for the Dutch Parliament – however the coalition turns out – still shows that there has been an accommodation towards a ‘normalisation’ of immigrant-hatred, which is close-kin to a more general hatred of foreigners, and its affiliated suspicion of all things ‘European’. There will not be grounds to feel safer until that tide of the right starts to recede from mainstream politics.

So, yes, this time the flood defences held, but the move of Dutch politics to the right means that there may yet come a ‘NExit’ time.

 

“Nobody in their right minds has faith in [the PM getting ‘the right deal’ for the UK] as the Conservative government stumble and stagger towards negotiations in a European community now strengthened by the Dutch election results.” (Mike Small, ‘Citizens of Nowhere’, 16/3/2017)

 

[For a more in-depth review of the political background to the Dutch election, I commend you to Bella Caledonia’s article on the Dutch election result: http://bellacaledonia.org.uk/2017/03/20/dutch-elections-curb-your-enthusiasm/ ]

Introducing Melanie Phillips, the new Gustaf Kossinna: New Alt-History from The Times of London, and British Exceptionalism from the Lessons of History

There’s been a very historical feel to the news in these last weeks – even more so than one has come to expect with the standard issue ‘Empire 2.0’ nonsense of BrExit. As Paul Kavanagh noted, with the invocation of Henry VIII powers in conjunction with the Great Repeal Bill, so that legislative alteration avoids scrutiny, and some mainstream newspapers analysing whether war with Spain was viable over Gibraltar, it has all gone a bit 16th century within 4 days of Theresa May sending her Article 50 letter to Donald Tusk in Brussels. This could be interpreted as a positive sign for Scotland – which was of course independent way back then, and free of the worst excesses of England’s trade blockade (see https://50daysofyes.wordpress.com/2016/11/08/tales-from-brexitland-brexit-and-the-new-darien-an-equivalent-for-the-navigation-act ) – but the campaign to oppose Scotland’s return to independent statehood has recently been remarkably unafraid to revisit and revise history. Just over a week before Nicola Sturgeon stood in Bute House and announced to the world that she would be requesting that the Scottish Parliament support her request for a Section 30 Order from Westminster, a remarkable piece of historical revisionism appeared in The Times on the 7th March, penned by one Melanie Phillips.

Its timing seems to have been dictated by an article two days earlier, with Professor (also Sir) Tom Devine, described as the “preeminent historian of [the British] Isles” in The National on 5th March (http://www.thenational.scot/politics/15133372.Interview__Tom_Devine_on_the_end_of_Scotland_s_long_love_affair_with_Europe/?ref=mrb&lp=14 ). Within this interview, Devine made the point that Scots were European long before they were British: “If you take mainland Britain, then Scotland has long been the less insular part…If you look from the 12th century until today and divide it up into centuries, Scotland’s linkage with Europe has been longer than its link with the Commonwealth, the Empire or with England.” So far, so unsurprising – as a Kingdom Scotland existed from 843 A.D., with England arising a century or so later (possibly taking longer to unite, as they had been overrun by the Roman Empire). Devine explained – using perhaps less than flattering evidence – the reasons why Scotland was less introspective: “The historical theory is that [it] was because of Scotland’s relative poverty. People had to go abroad. A French proverb of the 12th century sates: ‘Rats, lice and Scotchmen, you find them everywhere’. The Scots were nomadic from an early age.” He pointed out that between the 12th and the 18th centuries the Scottish link with Europe was extraordinarily powerful, and believes that this experience prior to the 18th century allowed Scotland to become one of the most efficient trading countries with the New World. “What happened in the mercantile sense is that the lessons Scottish traders had learned in trading with Europe were simply transferred en bloc to the transatlantic area,” he says. Devine then went on to express sadness and regret that this longstanding relationship with the rest of Europe was about to come to an end with BrExit.

Clearly, emphasising that Scotland’s oldest link was not with England but with Europe is not the sort of thing that Westminster wishes promulgated much at a time when Scotland will soon have to choose between these two Unions – and one suspects that the idea that Scotland is a hundred years older as a country than England would not have been terribly welcome either. But hold: two days later, undaunted by such trivialities as academic knowledge and a lifetime of study, there came journalist Melanie Phillips, riding to the rescue of the beleaguered Union.

In a bizarre Alt-Right ‘history’ piece for the second-longest running national newspaper in the world, The Times (The Glasgow Herald being the longest-running), Phillips puts forward an audacious proposal – that there is, and indeed has only ever been, no nation other than Britain on the British Isles (you can find the full article here: http://archive.is/Tq8lH ). Her primary objective lies in one line: “Britain is a nation with the right to rule itself. It is the EU which is the artificial construct” – but then she attempts to justify this with some remarkably convoluted – verging on contortionistic – argumentation.  Firstly, she puts forward the interpretation that “Throughout its history, [Britain] was beset by attempts at secession by tribes across Hadrian’s Wall and across the Irish Sea”, glossing over the possibility that the presence of such movements might just be because it was an artificial political construct. She then asserts that “Kingship matters because monarchs unify tribes into a nation”, overlooking the fact that that would give Scotland priority through precedent, as noted above. She then grudgingly acknowledges that Scotland developed “the characteristics of a nation: a distinct language, religion, legal system and so on” but apparently that is not a ‘real’ nation, so that adds nothing to its right to exist.  All of these differences, history, trade, psychology, philosophy…all dismissed and trumped by the geographical unity of a landmass.

Phillips (fide Wikipedia) writes pro-Israel articles for The Jerusalem Post – so a cynic might say that it is perhaps no surprise that she finds it easy to rip up old established identities and  cultures and resettle them with a constructed fiction of her choosing, but I would be fascinated to see her apply her geographically-driven approach to African nationhood.

But Phillips seems to have a bigger beef with Ireland than Scotland: “Britain, by contrast” with Ireland, which apparently only came into being in 1922, according to her, “is an authentic unitary nation. It didn’t begin with the union with Scotland but as the British Isles, an island nation defending itself (or not) against invaders from across the seas.” The oldest bond, she wrote, was the bond between “Britons”, as being all residents on the same island. Priority means nothing – historical fact, even less.  Never mind kingdoms, identity, or wars of invasion to try and remove that distinctive separate political identity (see writer, poet and lecturer Stuart McHardy’s new book ‘Scotland’s Future History’, in which he points out that these conflicts really are misrepresented by the normally-applied phrase ‘Wars of Independence’, given that Scotland was established as a kingdom a long time before the founding of England); never mind alliances forged with European nations against England because of those invading armies from the south: clearly, the greatest connection is amongst those living on that single landmass.

JK Rowling – no fan, it should be noted, of Scottish self-determination – attacked Phillips’ piece, by quoting it and substituting ‘UK’ for ‘EU’ (as you can see for the graphic above), which she believed demonstrated how ridiculous Melanie’s argument was…although it has to be said that Rowling’s version reads a lot more reasonably as an argument for Scottish independence than Phillips’ original does for Britain. It may be something of an understatement to say that Phillips’ was a ‘bold’ claim, unhindered as it was by facts or reason – but she has now been regarded as such a legitimate commentator on the subject, that she appeared as a recent guest on the BBC’s ‘Question Time’ panel show.

In the run-up to Theresa May initiating Article 50, this move by those opposed to Scottish independence is an even more bizarre shot than the misfire with Sadiq Khan at the Scottish Labour Party conference some weeks earlier: historical details being swept away in the presentation of the sort of irrational sentiment that the pro-independence campaign used to be accused of, once upon a time. This sort of convenient historical revision is not exactly a new stratagem when matters of empire are afoot – Gustaf Kossinna (1858-1931) was an archaeologist whose material culture work in the 1920s was used to spread the idea that there was ‘one German people’ that inhabited parts of Poland and Czechoslovakia, in order to pave the way for those countries to be annexed as part of a ‘traditional greater German homeland’ in the thirties. Having disseminated the idea that there was a deep subterranean unity across territorial borders, it weakened the objections of German people to those borders being dismantled, and the territories annexed.

One article (even if it is in The Times) does not of course equate to the same scale of justification employed by the National Socialist German Workers’ Party in Germany, who went so far as to fake newsreels of archaeological digs in order to support their arguments for expansion. But a determination to rewrite well-established history in such a globally-respected media organ indicates the limited stock that is likely to be placed by Westminster and its pet London commentariat on such accounts of strong European roots and links for Scotland, in the run-up to the second independence referendum. British Nationalists seem unhesitating in reaching lower and lower – into what is undeniably an all too familiar toolbag. When Theresa May, at the Scottish Conservative Party Conference at the start of March, attempted to justify her ignoring of the different political cultures demonstrated in the EU vote as a way of unilaterally setting up a hardline BrExit for English voters, it was more than a little chilling that she used the expression “for at heart we are one people”: as one commentator put it, “did she add ‘one leader, one Empire’?” British Exceptionalism is alive and well – and apparently applies to the warnings from history, as well.

Germany today is a modern global leader, with a progressive view of what Europe can be, and an accompanying comparatively open attitude towards refugees. To a very real extent, there is a sense that Scotland is more represented by what Germany is now in terms of progressive and social democratic pro-EU policies, whereas with its gunboat diplomacy on Gibraltar and rising xenophobia, England is heading very much more in the direction of what Germany was – back in the 1930s. The degeneration of British nationalism continues apace, and there is no small amount of bitter irony that the more the BritNats have attempted to traduce the Yes movement (often in the process trying to refer to them as ‘Nazis’), the more the British establishment has begun to look increasingly like a deeply racist regime…and resembling the early days of one of the most notorious of the twentieth century.

I have dealt with some of aspects of the demise of the British identity that previously gave some access for Scotland to be a part of Britain (first two of three parts here https://50daysofyes.wordpress.com/2014/12/20/the-queens-buried-rules-when-the-impartiality-of-the-monarch-is-strained-the-death-of-scotlands-post-war-dream-part-1 and https://50daysofyes.wordpress.com/2015/03/18/football-is-not-a-matter-of-life-and-death-its-much-more-important-than-that-of-football-and-diverging-flags-the-death-of-scotlands-post-war-dream-pt-2 ) in the Three Estaits series, and Paul Kavanagh  (https://weegingerdug.wordpress.com/2017/03/07/the-wrong-side-of-history/) neatly summarises a further dimension, while looking at Phillips article: “the many ties of Britishness, all the institutions and organisations which once fostered that sense of Britishness which remains strongest in the oldest generations, have been destroyed by the British state itself and most often by the Tories. Just 50 years ago there were dozens of large state owned organisations, British Coal, British Steel, the Royal Mail, British Leyland and many more, all were owned by the state and helped to create and promote a sense of a shared British experience and identity. They’ve all gone now, sold off and broken up, and as they disappeared they took that fragile sense of a British identity with them. And the reason it was fragile was because it was never strongly rooted in history, no matter how much Melanie tries to rewrite the past.” It is one thing for a historian to write of modern political events in the context of such history, but when journalists such as Melanie Phillips indulge in a Kossinna-like reinvention of history to justify the dominance of an anglocentric power construct, it suggests that advocates of the Union may still be experiencing difficulty finding that elusive ‘positive case’ that they searched so long for in 2013-2014.

Trying to reinvent a unitary British dream that was allowed to die in the decades following the second world war, and digging deep in the dirt of an imagined past for shards of justification, has no relevance when looking to decide what our future might be.

 

“I can confirm today that next week I will seek the authority of the Scottish Parliament to agree with the UK government the details of a Section 30 Order, the procedure that will enable the Scottish Parliament to legislate for an Independence Referendum…before it is too late to decide our own path.” (Nicola Sturgeon, 11:44, March 13th, 2017, Bute House, Edinburgh)

 

The ‘Once in a Generation’ Game: 12 Referenda for ‘No’ Monkeys

A reviewer took me to task recently, over my use of the word ‘generation’: in the paper that I had submitted, I was comparing two historically separated figures variously engaged with Enlightenment science, and had said that there was a generation between them. A furious note was scribbled on the manuscript when it came back from review: ‘a generation is 25 years’. I had to confess that I had never before heard anyone say that there was a specific mathematical figure for how many years a ‘generation’ constituted, and thus considered myself duly enlightened.

‘Generations’ are topical right now: there has recently been an upswell in what is colloquially referred to as the ‘YoonStream’ (the Unionist social media bubble), regarding the recurrence of an independence referendum. The prospect of a second independence referendum is taken as perhaps the equivalent of the notorious ‘Vow’ made by the Westminster parties a few days before the 2014 vote, wherein large-scale, wide-ranging new powers would come to Scotland’s Parliament if we only voted ‘No’ to independence. It would be (Scotland was told) the same as Home Rule, the abiding aim of the de facto Labour Party’s founder, Keir Hardie – effectively a federal UK. (If any of this sounds familiar, that is because a couple of Saturdays ago you might have heard similar promises by Gordon Brown, the same architect as last time. What is interesting is that he was wheeled out in the final week of the campaign in 2014, as the polls showed Yes was ahead – perhaps his early appearance now, before the campaign has even started, is a similar reflection of recent polling showing that ‘Yes’ is again ahead…although it may equally have been an attempt to divert attention away from Nicola Sturgeon’s keynote SNP spring party conference speech to former ‘No’ voters, on the same day.) This ‘Vow’ naturally failed to materialise once the No vote had been secured – but the ‘vow’ equivalent that Yes is accused of, is that there was a ‘promise’ that this referendum was a ‘once in a generation’ or once in a lifetime event – ergo there should be decades before there was even the possibility of it happening again.

However, the whole premise is rot, relying as it does on the wilful misrepresentation of comments made by Alex Salmond in the run-up to the vote on 18th September 2014.

I remember seeing the reports in 2014, with him being asked about the referendum by somewhat hostile journalists, in terms of the frequency of such things. Alex swerved the question neatly, choosing to emphasise the rarity of having the chance to have such a vote for independence. “It is a once in a generation opportunity”, he replied. I understood exactly what he meant: it was a warning. He did not want anyone to be relaxed that this plebiscite might commonly recur in the future, that it was a question that could easily be regularly revisited, so no pressure to go with it this time. He did not want such an impression to spread, making the electorate complacent and feel that they could casually vote ‘No’ (or not vote at all) without serious consideration, as there would be ‘another independence referendum along soon’, like a number 11 bus. There had been no vote – or even token gesture of consultation – on the Act of Union in 1707 (to be fair, the closest that regular non-land-owning people had to free expression back then was the series of riots that took place in virtually every Scottish town and city in protest at the idea of the Union coming in to being), or at any point in the ensuing three centuries plus. So to say that the opportunity to have such a say was rare (or even once every twenty five years) is a significant understatement.

It seems fairly safe to say that a major reason for the 2014 plebiscite being agreed to by Westminster was that David Cameron was confident that he could use it to destroy the SNP as a political force.

There was no largesse here, or great love of democracy – he felt he could use it against his political opponents (in much the same way that he disastrously initiated the EU referendum purely to resolve the Conservative Party ascendancy) to his own ends. If Cameron had not seen an opportunity for himself, then that referendum would most likely have been denied – of course, not by being as foolhardy as to say ‘no’, but probably under the guise of ‘now not being the right time’, as Theresa May tried last week: hitting it into the long grass, as the political golfing metaphor goes. In short, it was a fluke of Conservative arrogance and caprice that the first independence referendum happened – Salmond was never, ever in any way shape or form saying ‘fair dos, if you win this, we will not ever mention it again’ – he was saying ‘they have never been so daft as to let the question be asked before, and this will probably be our one shot at it’. You cannot misrepresent the act of encouraging someone to vote because it is a rare chance that may well not come again, as equating to making a promise or vow – such as Cameron, Clegg and Milliband did in that last week of the campaign, in trying to make the referendum seem to be about ‘independence or more powers’, instead of In or Out of the UK. (You can read elsewhere about how that intervention undermined what the referendum was actually asking, as commented on by political scientist Professor Tony Carty, at https://50daysofyes.wordpress.com/2014/12/12/beyond-conditional-nos-the-ongoing-political-uncertainty-of-what-the-no-vote-actually-meant .) The two simply do not equate – but perhaps it says more about a certain kind of Unionist mindset that they would hear Salmond’s words as those of someone coming cap-in-hand to beg a favour, rather than a warning to the Scottish electorate against being complacent, because the state might well block any future calls for Scottish self-determination in perpetuity. Instead, they prefer to play the Once-in-a-Generation Game.

Of course, the issue of self-determination is not evenly spread throughout time, and becomes more of an issue at times when the colonial or ‘parental’ government becomes more obviously incompetent or unwilling to represent broader interests and concerns. This has the effect of reminding people of the state that they are in, and how brazenly unresponsive it can be to their needs. At other times, this is not so obvious – although having come through the crucible of 2014, the Scottish electorate look more forensically at Westminster’s performance than ever before. As hard as it was to battle through to the end of the September 2014 referendum and see it end in a failure, the more sanguine among us had been considering that it was an exercise in waking ourselves up – ready for the next time. Like Morpheus in the Nebuchadnezzar, unplugging as many individuals from the mainstream media Matrix as we could, so that they looked more critically at the political world around them, and what it really means to be Scotland in Britain. (Given the recent Panelbase media survey, whereby only 32% of Scots expressed confidence in the BBC as a balanced news-provider regarding constitutional issues, I think we can say that we have had some significant success in that regard.) That has meant the awakening of critical political thinking in Scotland – with political parties judged harshly, and rewarded richly, according to how well they stood up to public scrutiny. The political landscape of Scotland has been transformed – and, some might argue, this has had a knock-on effect in England. It also means that the electorate are a lot more questioning of the media that they more passively consumed in the past.

The ‘Yes’ Movement suffered last time from failing to criticise how Scotland faired as a component within the UK, instead focussing on the many possibilities and opportunities that would come with becoming an independent state. (One of Cameron’s purported reasons for refusing to debate Salmond during that campaign, was to avoid turning it into a referendum on Westminster’s ‘custodianship’ of Scotland within the Union.) Ian Bell wrote that he felt the main reason that ‘Yes’ lost, was in its failure to address why one might not wish to be considered British – in truth, Westminster has stage-managed exposure of precisely why one might not wish to be considered that since the result in 2014, running from English Votes for English Laws, the failure of the Smith Commission, the watering down of those insipid proposals, and the implosion of the EU Referendum and the sudden xenophobic leap towards a hard BrExit. And, so, we find ourselves once more looking at a Scottish Independence Referendum – perhaps more as an indication of the need to call Westminster’s performance over the last three years in the wake of 18th September 2014 to account, than anything else.

It is fair to say that the British state has not favoured the Scottish question being asked, and has relied on a series of unlikely-to-be-surmounted obstacles to prevent that from happening. But how ‘precious’ is that long-lasting union, if the countries of the UK are only in it because none of them are allowed to leave? As one commentator noted, it is the difference between parliamentary democracy and political capture – are we really being treated as though we are nothing more than a 19th century colony, in this ‘union of equal partners’?

For example, it is worth noting that, prior to devolution, there was no consideration of a referendum as the mechanism for Scotland attaining independence – all the SNP had to do was secure a majority of the MPs representing Scotland at Westminster, to automatically gain the right to declare independence. That was, of course, seen to be astronomically unlikely…but Westminster could not have foreseen the degree to which people in Scotland would become so utterly disillusioned with first the Conservatives (primarily from Thatcher), then Labour (through Blair in Iraq), and finally the Liberal Democrats (through coalition with Cameron’s aggressive government). Suddenly, the SNP were the only credible party of government left in Scotland. Today, those old Westminster guidelines seem laughable, with 56 out of 59 MPs elected to represent Scotland in Westminster being Scottish National Party members: never mind a simple ‘majority’ of Scottish Westminster seats as a requisite for declaring independence, they were close to getting ALL of the seats. That could easily be taken as a mandate – but the SNP have even more than that to underpin their right to hold a further independence referendum.

As I write this, the Scottish Parliament is debating the motion to pass a request for a Section 30 Order from Westminster, to make an independence referendum legal and binding. That same Scottish Parliament is governed by the SNP, who were elected explicitly on a manifesto that said that if Scotland voted to stay in the EU but the UK voted to Leave, then this would constitute grounds for a new independence referendum on Scottish independence (especially given that continued membership of the EU was supposedly one of the major reasons to vote ‘No’ in 2014 – although that argument was hotly disputed by ‘Yes’). Although the SNP dropped their absolute majority of the previous Scottish Parliament (which was supposed to be mathematically well-nigh impossible to achieve), the SNP have enough members to pass the motion against united Conservative, Labour and LibDem opposition in Holyrood, and they also have the support of the Scottish Greens for an independent Scotland. The SNP have a clear mandate for an independence referendum from their manifesto for the Scottish Parliament elections last year, which described the specific EU vote circumstances that transpired – never mind what would have been a pre-devolution mandate from their near unanimous occupation of the Scottish benches at Westminster. But as you once more hear the desperate unionist howl of ‘but you PROMISED it was only once in a generation!’, remember that there was never any undertaking to Unionists, by either politicians or by the Scottish people, that there would not be another one – it was a warning to the Scottish electorate that, with the paucity of opportunities during the lifetime of the Union for Scots to assess whether the Union should be dismantled, that another chance might well never come again. Not an undertaking, but an expectation – and who could have expected that the Conservatives would press such a self-destructive button on their relationship with the EU, less than two years after citing it as the main reason for Scotland to stay in the UK?

It is interesting to note that Alex Salmond’s explanation to Andrew Marr (see quote below) of the sort of timescale that he imagined for a political generation is not so far from the literary one mentioned at the start of this article – the gap between the Scottish Assembly vote in 1979 (won on the same 52:48 majority as the UK’s EU referendum, incidentally) and the 1997 vote for the Scottish Parliament with tax-raising powers, is one of 18 years – and between that and the independence referendum, 17 years. This time, the gap will be much smaller, because circumstances have changed catastrophically over an incredibly short timeframe…and it is hard to envisage another change as cataclysmic (Conservatives take UK out of the UN? Offer to join with Russia as an appeasement to Trump for a better trade deal to circumvent US protectionism? Yeah, I know…as unlikely as hard BrExit was 18 months ago) as to once more demonstrate a clear need to reassess the viability of the Union again. But – as much as Westminster might like to pretend that this is all a ‘plot’ of the SNP, or whomever is in charge of the party at any given time (because they always like to personalise it as an individual’s ‘obsession’, rather than the electoral preference of the electorate…although that is arguably far far more true of Theresa May’s premiership than Nicola Sturgeon’s), it is ultimately the people of Scotland that have that power – and who make the choice of when and if any given political party is given a mandate for an independence referendum. And if the people say it shall be so, then so it shall be.

But if the Unionists want it to be once in a generation, then we have quite a backlog of overdue independence referenda to get through – if it is twelve (for each unassessed batch of 25 years since 1707), then by my reckoning that leaves nine still outstanding, after 1979, 1997 and 2014 are taken into account. The sooner Scotland starts on getting through that backlog of referenda, the better.

Either way, it is coming.

 

“If you remember that previous constitutional referendum in Scotland – there was one in 1979 and then the next one was 1997. That’s what I mean by a political generation…In my opinion, and it is just my opinion, this is a once in a generation opportunity for Scotland.” (Alex Salmond to Andrew Marr, 14/9/2014)

 

 

‘Questions, a Burden to Others’: The True Divisiveness of the Scottish Independence Referendum

The 1960s television series ‘The Prisoner’ warned against asking questions when living in The Village. ‘Questions, a Burden to Others’, followed by the ever-so slightly patronising companion message ‘Answers, a Prison for Oneself’. Nobody wants you to ask questions, is the message – and you will not like any answers that you get. Perhaps they saw it as ‘Divisive’?

‘Divisive’ has become a very popular word in the press recently, in reference to referenda: it is supposed to indicate that asking a referendum question is a bad thing, because it ‘divides’ people. The usage seems to me to be desperately trying to ignore that any democratic process – whether referendum or election – becomes therefore intrinsically ‘divisive’. There is a reason why they ring a ‘Division bell’ in Westminster to signal MPs to go to their division lobby to vote for or against a resolution. Should they rename it something less ‘choicey’? Something that sounds less – dare I say it? – ‘separatist’? If democracy was not divisive, then that would be because everyone thought the same….and therefore there would be no reason to check which was the preferred option for any given question. So, in that sense, ‘divisive’ though asking a question may be, it is also kind of intrinsic to the idea of democracy in the first place…otherwise people are just being dictated to. (We might guess that the individuals that ran The Village were more in favour of the latter – rather than the former – option of government.)

Therefore, the treatment by politicians and the press of ‘Divisiveness’ as incredibly unusual in a democracy, and something that people need to be protected from, needs closer examination. Political elections are HIGHLY ‘Divisive’ – and the fact that they happen pretty much annually, whether for local councils, Holyrood, Westminster or to the European Parliament – suggests that society somehow manages to recover and continue on, no matter how ‘divisive’ – or ‘choice-ive’ – multiple parties on a ballot paper are. So are the dangers of being ‘Divisive’ more unique to the clearly terrible phenomenon of a referendum, rather than an election, then? Astonishingly, Switzerland – which had 31 referenda between 1995 and 2005, to answer 103 questions – has not collapsed into internecine violence and anarchy as a result of this ‘division’ in its political culture. It seems that asking questions is not so dangerous after all.

One thing that the prospective referendum certainly seems to have been ‘Divisive’ about, is the response of the political parties. At their conference in Perth on Saturday, the Scottish LibDems said they would oppose a second independence referendum – just as Nick Clegg (former Deputy Prime Minister and ex-party leader) said that Westminster should not block one. The leaders of the political parties opposing the SNP in Holyrood have faired little better: the Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson has gone on record saying that she opposed a second independence referendum, but that Westminster should not block it.  In September 2015, the Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale said that she would allow Scottish Labour MSPs to have a free vote on a second independence referendum, even permitting them to campaign for independence. However, since then she has moved from her position, saying in July 2016 in the wake of the EU Referendum (The Guardian on 7th July) that it would be “categorically wrong” for the UK Government to refuse a second independence referendum, and now saying that she will oppose such a referendum. And – to top it all – the UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said on Saturday that it would be “fine” for there to be a second Scottish independence referendum. He changed his position again this morning, just before Nicola’s announcement from Bute House – but not before a Labour supporter had started a Twitter poll on whether or not Corbyn was right to approve of the referendum, and 89% of the votes cast said ‘Yes, he was’. So the latest statement from Jeremy is that Scottish Labour will vote to block the referendum in Holyrood, but UK Labour will not vote to block it in Westminster. All clear, then? All this from the party that brought you the new Twitter hashtag of #unitescotlandnotdivide with zero sense of irony.

‘Divisive’ – the word was even used by No.10 Downing Street today, straight after Nicola Sturgeon’s announcement, when the Prime Minister’s Office said that an independence referendum would be ‘Divisive’. This would presumably be ‘Divisive’ in a similar way to BrExit, except that BrExit gets more and more ‘Divisive’ as it continues, steering harder towards an antiquated imperialistic world-view, and away from the liberal state that people once thought the UK was…even going so far as for Theresa May to threaten to take devolved areas back from Holyrood.

In this regard, Theresa May seems to have been keen to be as provocative as possible and make people in Scotland feel divided from the UK’s decision-making, even if she does not want them to vote for independence so that Scotland is actually away from the UK. That single odd action by Theresa May at the Scottish Conservative conference a couple of weeks ago – talking about taking powers back from the Scottish Parliament, for some new devolved settlement – exemplifies how unnecessary it was for Westminster to be facing the prospect of another Scottish independence referendum again, especially so soon. All of this is happening as a result of the UK Government’s mismanagement not so much of the 2014 Referendum, as of the aftermath of the Referendum: from Cameron’s English Votes for English Laws on the morning of the 19th September 2014 (rendering Scottish MPs second-class members of the Westminster parliament, hot on the heels of promises that the Union was a partnership of equals), on to the homeopathic treatment of the Smith Commission to make the promised ‘Vow’ an irrelevance. All this, just at the time they should have been endeavouring to woo people back, to make them feel valued as part of the Union – as JK Rowling opined in her advocacy of a ‘No’ vote: “I doubt whether we will ever have been more popular, or in a better position to dictate terms, than if we vote to stay.” But no: on it went, with the disappointing response to the differential EU referendum result for Scotland…it has all been botched by an indifferent Westminster government, who did not seem to realise that there was ever a ‘peace’ to win, once the first campaign was finished and won.

So ‘wooing’ (rough or otherwise) was the path not chosen by the UK Government. Instead, the message of ‘gotcha, suckers’ was writ large. They were so confident that such an SNP mandate was a one-off circumstance that would not be repeated, that they could be as boorish and triumphalist as they wanted about their victory, secure in the knowledge of the inevitable collapse in support for the Scottish National Party now they had lost the September 2014 Referendum. This was clearly the end of the SNP, and the end of aspirations for an independent Scotland.

Well, not so much. We arrived today at the First Minister’s residence in Bute House for a morning press conference called at short notice. A series of recent polls showing increased support for Scottish independence (one even exceeding 50%) and the campaign had not even had the starting pistol fired. At the end of the First Minister’s announcement to the press that she was going to ask the Scottish Parliament to pass legislation for a second referendum on Scottish independence, a fundraiser was launched to raise a million pounds for the referendum campaign in 100 days. In seven hours, it had raised over a hundred thousand pounds (almost an hour after Wings Over Scotland’s annual crowd-fundraiser had coincidentally hit the same figure following 14 days on Indiegogo).

As much as the rhetoric has been about ‘Divisiveness’ from the unionist parties run from London, it is the negative actions of those parties that have led to a uniting of Scots from different party backgrounds under a Yes banner. Far more so than when the last starting gun was fired, back in 2012, with support for Scottish independence on 28%. The answer this time may – or may not – be different, but the responsibility for the question being asked lies solely in London.

 

“A country denied the ability to run its own economy is blamed for being bankrupt by the authority which exercises those macro-economic powers over it. The British Treasury pulls our wings off then laughs when we can’t fly.” (Derek Bateman, former BBC Scotland broadcaster)

(Thanks to Chris Cairns of Cairnstoon for the above cartoon, first published 11/3/2017)

P.S. I would love to have said that Scotland might culturally be more comfortable with the idea of having referenda than many other areas of the UK, due to its tradition that the people – rather than parliament – are sovereign…but that might be giving a lot of people a little more credit for knowing more details of Scottish political history than might perhaps be realistic. Especially as I could not have claimed to have known this myself before the previous referendum occurred…. 🙂

Race to the Bottom: Scarecrows, Straw Men and the Murder of Axmed Abuukar Sheekh

Last week was marked by the fallout from the Labour Party’s Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, use of a speech at a party conference to equate the movement for Scottish independence with racism, as well as the volatile comment pieces that sprang up as a result.  (See http://www.ericjoyce.co.uk/2017/03/the-claire-heuchan-episode-is-an-early-warning-to-independence-supporters/ for a timeline of the most significant contributions.) The resulting field of commentary resembles less one of battle, than one of agriculture, because it is so filled with ‘straw men’ that you cannot see the crops for the scarecrows.

The Mayor of London had been invited to speak at the Scottish Labour Party’s spring conference in Perth last Saturday, which was serving as a final rallying cry before May 2017’s Scottish council elections, in which Labour are expected to lose heavily (a projected drop of 12 points on 2012’s results, where they lost the popular vote to the SNP for the first time). Khan apparently penned his speech in conjunction with Anas Sarwar (former MP and deputy leader of Labour in Scotland – rumours were rife over that weekend that Khan was somewhat annoyed at Sarwar for messing up his pitch, perhaps as an attempt to break Khan’s erstwhile close relationship with Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon). Much of his oration was trailed in advance on the Friday in the Daily Record – an understandable preview platform, as it is the Scottish Labour Party’s pet tabloid (infamously responsible for the empty ‘Vow’ that swung the September 2014 Independence Referendum vote at the 11th hour), but it caused such a backlash that his speech as delivered the following day seemed to back off from the stridency of some of his more contentious statements as they had been promoted in print. “There’s no difference between those who try to divide us on the basis of whether we’re English or Scottish and those who try to divide us on the basis of our background, race or religion” had the caveats of “in this respect” and “of course I’m not saying the SNP are racist” inserted, to slightly distance himself from his own previewed text.

The take-home message from his speech was easy, his comments parsed down to the shorthand version of ‘if you vote for Scottish self-determination, then you are a racist – so stop supporting independence and back the Labour Party’…which unsurprisingly drew a somewhat negative response from the Yes movement: many of them were former Labour voters, and this strategy may not have been the wisest to ‘woo them back to the fold’ in advance of the May council elections. (People don’t like being called racists.)

In the immediate aftermath, with Khan’s speech doing more to damage his reputation than to encourage a resurgence for the ailing Labour Party, enter Claire Heuchan, a PhD student from Stirling University, who penned a comment piece for The Guardian newspaper, endorsing the interpretation that Scottish nationalism relied on ‘othering’ and issues of belonging:”both perspectives are reliant on a clear distinction being made between those who belong and those who are rejected on the basis of difference”. Inherent in Heuchan’s article is the assumption of a belief on the part of the Yes movement that Scottish society has somehow already achieved an egalitarian nirvana, which is a fallacy of presupposition, often presented as Scotland believing itself ‘racism-free’. This reminded me of my time as a student in Edinburgh in the 1980s, when a 28 year old Somali refugee student called Axmed Abuukar Sheekh was murdered in the Cowgate in Edinburgh on January 15th 1989 by a group of white youths. Firstly, it is depressing to recognise just how long the Somali refugee crisis has been ongoing. But beyond that, although there had been racist killings in Scotland before, this brutal act more than any other publicly killed the lie of Scotland being free of racist violence, and led to a coming together of a group of us, to form Edinburgh Students Against Racism. Our aims swiftly coalesced around a campaign to have the murder classified as racist: there was a determination on the side of the authorities not to prosecute it as a racist killing, in spite of correspondence composed by the suspect (while incarcerated) bearing National Front and swastika symbols…along with the Union Flag.

The association of the Union Flag with such sentiments should not come as any great surprise, even before the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox by Britain First supporter Thomas Mair last year – after all, it is unlikely that any country will grow to become a major imperial power if it is ‘burdened by inclusive attitudes’ – and the well-recorded support for racist groups in the UK (the British National Party, the KKK, the Orange Order, the English Defense League, the Scottish Defense League) for a ‘No’ vote in the Scottish Independence Referendum of September 2014 was emphatic. Beyond campaigning groups, this pattern was also reflected in the attitudes of those who actually voted. Last September, a YouGov poll correlated responses to questions about what people regarded as making someone ‘Scottish’ with their vote in the Scottish Independence Referendum: place of birth, parental heritage, where one grew up, time period of residency, even simple personal belief of ‘Scottishness’ were all assessed by the sample. In all categories (save for ‘two parents Scottish’), Yes voters were more receptive and welcoming to those who considered themselves to be Scottish – for whatever reason.

This was further supported by a Panelbase poll in February of this year, where a question was asked about the level of immigration: with Scotland having one of the lowest immigrant population shares in the First World (at less than 7%), it is not unreasonable to use this question as a proxy for racism. (People don’t tend to like being asked directly if they are racist.) The results were quite stark, with No voters, Leave voters and supporters of the two main unionist parties (Conservative and Labour) polling as significantly more racist than Yes voters, Remain voters and supporters of the LibDems and SNP. (Similarly, the over 55 part of those sampled, which famously voted ‘No’ in contrast to the younger demographics, also came out with more than 50% agreeing that there was ‘too much immigration’.)

Sadiq may have unwittingly stumbled into this, without realising it, but …the idea that Scottish independence is about anti-English racism is old and redundant: it is demonstrably not, and is very far away from that. Scottish self-determination has not been about ‘anti-Englishness’ for a very, very long time, and only a failure to conduct adequate research might lead him to say otherwise. Such a statement is at best lazy or ‘late to the party’, at worst deliberately provocative…and, indeed, an attempt at divisiveness.

With Sadiq’s apparent starting point intrinsically flawed regarding the Yes movement, the first Straw Man appears. Khan was fundamentally wrong about Scottish independence being about dividing Scots and English – apart from the fact that I can remember vocal English SNP members back in the 1980s, the self-determination movement exists because people who live in Scotland recognise that UK governments systematically and repeatedly fail, disparage and ignore them and their needs (simply look at the power structures involved). This has often been reflected by Westminster outrage when Scotland decides to similarly ignore the agents of those Westminster governments – and begins to vote en masse for an alternative. Straw Man #1 is the premise that ‘Scottish independence is about being anti-English’ – and one might surmise from Khan’s modifications on the day of his conference presentation that he had started to realise that this might not be a safe argument, and that he perhaps had to some degree been set up by his hosts as a comparatively uninformed stooge. But this is a standard British nationalist/unionist error, or trope, and I cannot help feel (having seen British nationalism unfold over many years) that the narrative that we hear from that side telling us that Scottish self-determination is identity politics, is simply because they cannot themselves imagine any other reason why someone would want to be independent from Britain (because, why else could you ever wish to leave such an oh-so-perfect union?) – except for despising the dominant and controlling nation of the UK.

But whereas Khan set the first hare running, the rest of the Straw Men from last week were planted by Claire Heuchan.

Claire presents Straw Man #2 by attacking the concept of  “a fairer Scotland”, a commonly cited aspiration for the Yes movement.  Through her myopic prism of ‘othering’, she can only interpret this as being a statement about being ‘fairer than England’ – the more obvious conclusion that the aspiration is for a Scotland fairer than it is just now, simply does not occur to her…or perhaps does not fit with her argument, as such an aspiration is not an unreasonable ambition for any country. (It seems too obvious to go into the idea that perhaps the current lack of fairness in our society might in some way at least in part be due to the actions of the controlling partner of the Union over the preceding 300 plus years – but I digress.)

Straw Man #3, however, may be the most offensive – that those who campaign for Scottish independence are white and therefore have never experienced racism. Putting aside the very clear racism deployed against Catholics in Scotland, as elaborated on by Paul Kavanagh (see https://weegingerdug.wordpress.com/2017/02/28/lets-talk-about-racism-in-scotland/), which affected a great deal of supporters of Scottish self-determination, that assertion is simply not true, either. It follows Heuchan’s wry yet smug (and more than a little patronising) comment that “there is a certain irony to white people with progressive politics rubbishing what an Asian man has to say about racism”.

When Heuchan’s opinion piece initially came out in The Guardian, I was shocked by the vociferous criticism it received by dignified and respected journalist Ian McWhirter as “pig ignorant…piss poor”. But having read – and reread – it, I began to understand why he reacted that way. From initially thinking that the writer was simply well-intentioned but hapless, I began to believe that her piece was fundamentally racist or discriminatory in and of itself. For a long time, Scots complaints against discrimination within the UK were dismissed – ‘it cannot be racist because you are not a race’ was the laughing response – and yet now we have the insinuation that as a group we can ourselves be racist to English people? One rule for one and another for another? Well, that would be consistent with our experience in the Union thus far, I guess…and the silencing of people in Scotland as ‘others’ who can have no legitimate reason for protest is furthermore extended within the accusation of Claire’s article: if you are white, you cannot contest this, because you lack a common frame of reference. (Again, Paul Kavanagh gives the lie to that observation in his blog referenced above on anti-Irish racism.) Maybe it was all just a light piece of PhD thesis task avoidance behaviour  by Claire, to troll using The Guardian and (as one observer put it) call the best part of 2 million Scots racist, then disappear off Twitter for 5 days – but she cannot expect to give her opinion without it going unchallenged. Playing the race card in this cynical way is nothing but an attempt to gain exceptionalism and exclusivity from criticism: the naivete of the statement “white SNP supporters and allies have never been subject to racism” is hackneyed and rings hollow. Heuchan listens only to her own prejudices, rather than objectively commenting on the Yes movement itself, and her remarkably thoughtless article has, however unwittingly, done more to silence discussion about racism in Scotland, than to enable a discussion about it – despite perhaps purporting to do exactly the reverse. But then, as we will see, enabling discussion and resolution may very well not be her demonstrable agenda behind writing the piece after all.

But before that, let us look at Straw Man #4, equating national self-determination – a movement for all who live in Scotland – as being one of exclusion (an argument that could only be made for a nationalist movement in a controlling position within an already existing state – which Scotland most certainly is not). Here, Claire goes beyond the ‘standard’ error of describing self-determination as an issue of identity: her contention of the ‘othering’ of difference is precariously and utterly reliant on being able to describe Scottish self-determination as being about identity in the first place. She expresses it in terms of the fear of differentiation as a means to argue against self-determination…but I cannot help wonder if she would have the same reservations when speaking to those in the United States, India and much of Africa about making the same decision to determine their own future and leave the rule of a government based in London. Surely she does not give legitimacy to one and not the other…because of skin colour, or religious differences? Or…does she think that the case for Scottish self-determination has some fundamental reason why it – as opposed to the many other self-determination movements that have led to the diminution of the British (and other) empires – lacks legitimacy? Why would it be so exceptional?

After Heuchan’s comment piece was published, her past tweets (as Sister Outrider) and the nature of her political activism began to emerge during the following days: not only had she been a ‘Better Together’ activist (you will see her at the very start of this BetterTogether advert https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RxbAu3LphYM – as the first of ten ‘students and young people’), but also repeatedly using the phrase ‘British and Proud’ for her observations – including rebuffing an approach from the Afro-Caribbean community. This phrase is a somewhat typically British Nationalist mantra. Shortly after these tweets began to be publicised, Heuchan went off Twitter, citing abuse and threats.

As I have said, as much as I wanted to believe that Heuchan’s piece was well-intentioned, I came to wonder more and more about whether it was fundamentally racist in and of itself. Khan is no political novice, and definitely no backroom student keen to take part in activist videos – he is a clever and savvy politician, and had to be to get to the office of Mayor of London. As such, it is profoundly depressing to think of how much his remarks demonstrate his ignorance of broad discrimination – and how much it validates the perspective that the London commentariat really have neither the first clue about, nor any interest in, what happens in Scotland. To appropriate Theresa May’s terminology, he is only capable of understanding a simplistic “narrow idea of” racism, and struggles to imagine anything beyond that (in spite of the plethora of evidence to the contrary), revealing his dearth of understanding of discrimination where it is on a non-colour basis. To an extent, Sadiq Khan looks like he was simply used to deliver someone else’s message, and has come out of it looking a trifle gullible and more than a little foolish. In contrast, I cannot find Claire Heuchan to be such a victim: she very clearly appears to have intended to exploit Khan’s error in order to make political capital to further her ‘Better Together’ agenda.

Eric Joyce notes that Heuchan (as an apparently committed unionist) ignores any context of unionists ‘othering’ outsiders to give any comparisons (much as she woefully fails to present any substantive evidence or examples for her argument – which is somewhat concerning in a would-be academic). We have already looked at the statistics of voting patterns with regard to racism and immigration for both Scottish Independence Referendum and EU positions, to show that Yes and Remain were positions very much against ‘othering’, in stark contrast to those favouring BrExit and ‘No’. Even beyond that, taking the way the Scottish and the UK governments – symbolising the Yes and the unionist movements, respectively – approached the constituencies to which they put the questions in those two referenda is enlightening: the openness of the Scottish Independence Referendum (where the franchise was not determined by where you were born, but simply if you lived in Scotland, without question of time of residency), was without any question a far more inclusive stance than that taken for the EU referendum, where EU nationals were simply denied the vote. Evidence and polling data aplenty was available – but Heuchan was not making a critical analysis, solely wishing to focus on Scottish independence supporters, without context of their opponents, lest the Yes movement start to look a lot more pleasant in comparison.

At Edinburgh Students Against Racism, like most student groups, we had invited speakers. Local MP  Alistair Darling was (perhaps ironically, now) one, back in the day when he did not feel that he had to remove his beard if he wanted to rise to power and ermine. Another was the broadcaster Muriel Gray, who was then Rector of the University of Edinburgh, and she came to one of our early meetings. I remember one anecdote she related to us there, about riding the London Underground, watching a black man reading the Daily Express, and wanting to shake him and shout “why are you reading that, that paper HATES you!!”. Labour campaigned against Scottish self-determination on the basis of its xenophobic ‘fear of becoming foreigners’, with the inherent underlying exceptionalism that nothing could be worse than waking up one day and ‘not being British’. Since then they have emphatically endorsed immigration control, and echoed the most discriminatory policies of the Conservative government. Even the UK government’s approach to permanent residency applications comes across as significantly more discriminatory than most other EU member states: in Europe, under the same EU law, the UK government requires an 85 page form to be completed, at a cost of £65 for such an application – whereas in Germany, it is 2 pages for €8 and in Eire it is 5 pages and free. These barriers to migrants are all anathemas to Scotland, a country that is utterly dependent on increasing immigration in order to survive and thrive, and it makes me seriously question why Claire advocates a Union that speaks – not just through the rise of UKIP ‘values’ in the Conservative government, but also through a Labour opposition that comfortably embraces the terminology and tropes of ‘blood and soil nationalism’ – of foreigners in such negative terms. Her premise that Scottish self-determination is driven by ‘anti-Englishness’ may be delusional, but the UK Government and opposition seem to be remarkably at home with ‘othering’ – and perhaps that is worth her while reflecting a little more soberly on.

Within a couple of days of her comment piece being published in The Guardian, Robert Sommyne (a supporter of Scottish independence from a London Afro-Caribbean family) had responded to contradict her, using his experience with the Yes movement, and Claire Heuchan had left Twitter, citing online abuse. This posting is very deliberately not about abuse (which will be dealt with in another piece, as part of the new information-political landscape that we live in), and clearly deals with the assertions in the person’s writing, rather than criticism of the person themselves. Abuse should not be tolerated, and regardless of how insultingly your political movement may have been trolled in The Guardian to an audience of three quarters of a million people, it simply should not be done: any ad hominem comments or attacks simply look as though you cannot rebut the argument itself – so play the ball, not the player. But if you publish opinions and comments, you have to be prepared to be held to account for what you publish – someone studying for a PhD in particular should know that. Criticism of your published work is not abuse, and such not be conflated to be such – holding someone to account is not abuse – as Eric Joyce has noted, if you do genuinely suffer online abuse and threats, then that has no part in political debate, and you should report it to the police. As with the experience of the 2014 independence referendum, the Yes side is the only one which receives any scrutiny or examination – never the one representing the vested interests of the British establishment….and given Heuchan’s avowed unionist agenda, I would have been less bothered by her article if she or The Guardian had made it clear that her comment was coming from a far from neutral standpoint, but one with a very real axe to grind. But it was left for others to discover that through research, and to disseminate the hidden broader context of her opinions, and how her words played directly to her own very specific political agenda, rather than actually coming from a more balanced perspective, as they purported to.

As I have said, Scottish independence – in and of itself, by its very definition – relies on the idea of increasing immigration, as Scotland (inside or outside of the Union) will not survive and thrive without it. Indeed, the journalist Stephen Daisley once made a key distinction between the two ‘anti-establishment’ political parties at Westminster: “Reduced to its simplest terms, UKIP wants fewer people to be English while the SNP wants more people to be Scottish.” And yet somehow ‘anti-Englishness’ is bizarrely supposed to be the driver of the inclusive movement of Scottish self-determination. The audacity of taking a movement that demands higher levels of immigration and paradoxically trying to equate it with a “narrow nationalism” where there are those who belong and those who are rejected, is as bold as it is ludicrous. This is simply not the profile of a country that is ‘othering’. Scottish nationalism is described by its most poisonous critics as the “worst kind of nationalism”- one might ironically presume that this is because it welcomes immigrants, so does not really fit into the more common definitions of nationalism that the British state can more comfortably relate to. Therefore, in comparison with British nationalism, Scottish self-determination does not ‘tick the correct xenophobic boxes’. To use Claire’s own vocabulary, “purism” currently governs British identity, as evinced by ascendant politics in England, reinforced and ‘validated’ by the BrExit vote. “British and proud” is becoming less and less a phrase that one can utter without irony.

This incident may well be an early preview of how the next Scottish Independence Referendum will be fought: in the context of a likely wasteland where the UK is destroying its economy in parallel to ideological dismantling of the health service and the welfare state (which the Scottish government will not be able to stretch its budget to protect forever), thus undermining the previously-deployed empty arguments in the First Referendum about sticking with the UK for economic reasons, the fight to kill Scottish independence will have to move, to this time be an attempt to portray an anti-imperialist self-determination movement as nothing more than racism. This straw man in particular may be the first scarecrow of the new Project Fear. If that is how they want to win it, with all the implied damage that such a scorched earth policy will inflict, as a rerun of what Sadiq Khan himself described as the Leave campaign’s ‘Project Hate’, then that is a choice that shows how little they value the constituent parts of their “precious Union”. So be it – it avoids dealing with the issues, and the inherently difficult approach of making the mythical positive case for the Union, so one can see why it would attract a new ‘No’ campaign looking for a new bottle of snake oil in the bottom of its almost empty bag.

It is of course possible that Claire Heuchan stumbled unwittingly into this, not realising that she was effectively resurrecting this age-old refuted simplistic argument (although her previous activism for Better Together would lead me to question her veracity in that regard, if she were to make that argument…as does her selective deletion of over 16,000 tweets from her account before she came back online today), but regardless of that it is unlikely that the Yes movement is going to simply accept being tarnished as racists – and it is entirely unreasonable to expect them to do otherwise – as a way of trying to invalidate a movement for self-determination against a fundamentally imperial-style of control. Because it is anti-imperialism – not racism – that is closer to the character of Scottish self-determination.

In this light, it seems beyond credulity that Sadiq Khan – who warmly congratulated Pakistan and India on their independence days after his speech last week – could have come to Scotland and made such an ill-thought out comment on Scottish self-determination, and one cannot help but wonder how much he feels he was poorly-advised. Khan reportedly believes that nationalism as a concept is divisive by definition because it stresses differences, implies superiority and erects barriers to other people. I beg to suggest – and believe that the arguments above demonstrate – that the campaign for Scottish independence fulfils precisely none of these three criteria.

But British nationalism? Now that is a whole different story.

 

“It isn’t important where you come from, what matters is where we are going together as a nation.” (the late SNP MSP Bashir Ahmad (1940-2009) speaking in 1995)

 

 

 

 

 

Tales from BrExitWorld: Laughing at the Holocaust

I had trouble sleeping last night – woke up about 4am, then just couldn’t get back to sleep. While I lay there, my mind drifting, it seemed to me that I could hear laughing…in some way at the holocaust. Well…give me 1,500 words, and let’s see if I can explain it any better than that.

Today, the 18th November, is Alan Moore’s 63rd birthday. Perhaps unsurprisingly this week I found myself drawn back to watch the film version of his classic ‘V for Vendetta’ ten years since it was released. As much as I was devouring the very different comic when it was being issued by DC Comics, I always found the film, written by the Wachowskis, to be nonetheless very powerful and appealing in its own right. One of Moore’s many criticisms of the film’s script, was that it translated the story of anarchy versus fascism into a US political debate (albeit staying in the setting of London). I can remember the promotional material when the comic came out– the slogan ‘Welcome to Fascist Britain, 1997’ seemed prophetic then, living through Thatcher’s government, as much as I would argue that, after this past year, the film now seems prophetic. The vision of a Fascist Britain, governed by a thuggish breakaway from the Conservative Party (Norsefire), requiring swearing of Articles of Allegiance, with High Chancellor Adam Suttler (beautifully played by John Hurt) strikes a chord with both BrExit England and President-Elect Trump’s New America.

The reports of racist attacks in the US (and elsewhere) may not be as quantifiable as the post-BrExit vote spike in violence observed in Britain (at least not until August 2017, when the figures are annually released by the US Government) and therefore dissembling by Trump supporters that the incidents are all hoaxes sadly gains some traction in the absence of official collated data, but it does now seem that this type of aggressive behaviour has in the minds of some been given a legitimacy due to the poor quality of candidate about to enter the White House on January 20th. Already the protesters are appearing with rhythmic placards: ‘No Trump, No KKK, No Fascist USA’. But there are deniers spreading across social media, saying ‘it ain’t so’ – questioning whether stories are hoaxes (Breitbart News being particularly keen to push that angle, of course, as they have been one of the most incendiary outlets for support for Trump since the start), unfortunately fed by a component of the population that either wishes to defend its decision or can’t bring themselves to believe the horror of what has come to take up residence in Washington D.C.: from ‘oh now, it can’t be so bad, he’ll be held in check’ to the mind-numbing and naively destructive ‘it can’t be bad, change is a good thing – right?’. By doing so, they are helping lay a foundation of skepticism to greet any future reports of abuses or other incidents – and inadvertently become apologists for white supremacists.

In a recent post I drew attention to the similarity of the wins by Trump, BrExit and the No campaign against Scottish independence, and others have been drawing other connections. A week ago, we all noted the photo of Trump with Farage in the foyer of Trump Towers with the gauche golden lift in the background, looking fresh as though plucked from a luxury hotel in China. Trump had even had Farage at one of his rallies, and referred to his prospective win of the White House as being “BrExit plus plus plus” – so the link between the two was clear. But a recent article (https://wildernessofpeace.wordpress.com/2016/11/15/cresting-the-rising-tide/#more-4060 – screen grab above from Wings Over Scotland’s repost) had another image from the same golden lift photoshoot, with a mob of other BrExit steerers surrounding the two, all with pedigrees for opposing the Scottish independence vote, as well. Take a long look at them: that group got three for three, and – mostly in this year – have between them made the world unrecognisable.

Farage seems to have upset the bumbling Conservative Government by being far higher up Trump’s speed-dial list than them, to such an extent that not only is he being asked if he will rejoin the Conservative Party (which he left in 1992 after Major signed the Maastricht Treaty), but there is also a suggestion that he may be made a Lord. On the one hand, it might seem like he is being shunted sideways, patted on the head and told to be quiet by Theresa – but then again he would provide a strong pro-BrExit voice in the House of Lords, where the Conservatives do not have a majority. Theresa May would need such an advocate for a hard BrExit in that house…and might feel that it would finally be getting him to do some work to deal with the consequences of the BrExit campaign that he had been building towards for years and finally won in June this year. Farage – like Trump – was always difficult to take seriously, although the media (in particular the BBC) seemed dangerously entranced by him long before he had an elected MP for his party. But, as Carolyn Leckie’s piece ‘Beware the rise of Fascism in UK and US’ noted the day before Trump’s election, fascism does not come wearing its trappings on its sleeve, with obvious monsters at its head – it is presented by amiable harmless-looking buffoons, it lulls, befriends, and acts as the only friend for the poor and frustrated…even if it is plainly clothed in wealth and elitist privilege.

Amongst the voices denying that BrExit and Trump’s election are a dangerous surge to the right (nicely labelled with the inoffensive ‘alt right’ caption), I can’t help but hear a laughter of derision at the comparison: ‘why no, that’s not us, dear boy, of course not…!!’ That psychology that makes people believe that bad things only happen to (or are done by) ‘other people’ can turn a standard that everyone should be measuring themselves against, into a standard that is just for ‘those other people’ to keep themselves in check with.

‘It happens to other people – not us.’ That passive racism so well-exhibited by Generation WW (who were taught it as part of wartime propaganda) that it was somehow exclusively ‘a German thing’, blinds us to such threats coming from anywhere else – especially close to home. Certainly Generation WW was willingly blind to just how keen a population the Third Reich would have found in Britain to exercise some of those racial purity laws – and if THAT generation could be in denial, given their proximity to those events, what about more recent generations, that have been so distanced in time from the entire experience of that war? They may not laugh at the thought of the holocaust being homegrown as easily in Britain after a banking collapse (as it was in Germany 80 years earlier), but they still desperately need to not see the commonality. And it is hard not to see it in the context of the holocaust, for what is to come.

In Germany, at least, they teach the horrors of that war and why totalitarianism must never take hold there again – elsewhere, where countries don’t feel they have to take responsibility for their anti-semitism or racism at the same time in history (because, you know, it wasn’t ‘their’ racism that was causing all the problems of the war, right?) a smug complacency develops – ‘their’ racial intolerance is Ok – they’ve got it under control – its just a bit of ‘banter’, right? All the usual excuses that apologists for intolerance deploy to deflect criticism, happening on a national level: ‘it doesn’t happen here – it happens to other people – it simply wouldn’t happen here, you know – because, of course, we’re BETTER than that other country that started the war…’ and the hypocrisy of that simplistic justification is completely lost on them, as they slowly start to move back to the dangerous mindset that sets all the wheels back in motion again.

Of course, it is hysterical and unreasonable to leap to Nazi Germany as a comparison for Trump or Farage – of course it is. Unfortunately, history gives us absolutely no better comparator. Those people who warned us about not learning the lessons of history – particularly with reference to the Third Reich – have sadly been vindicated.  In this context, I thought Farage’s suggestion that Trump restore the bust of Winston Churchill to the White House to be somewhat inappropriate: as much as it was symbolic of a link and that mythical ‘special relationship’ between the UK and the US, I’m not really sure that Churchill would approve of Farage himself, given that he represents the rise of the same political threat that Churchill spent so much of his energy fighting against during the war, but hey ho…irony sleeps for noone.

For myself, I am just starting to find it funny – almost as funny as BrExit – because the whole thing of such a dark, hideous disaster, underpinned by such base stupidity and denial is preposterous. Especially with the war of words between those saying ‘No…it can’t be THAT bad…change is good, right?’ and the others going ‘You have no IDEA how bad this really really is!!!’ – that is – in and of itself, funny.

The holocaust is very much the ‘poster boy’ event for mass atrocities resulting from such racial (and other) discrimination – the sheer scale of its numbers meant to intone immediate solemn agreement from all that ‘IT’ should never happen again. And yet…it seems that in practice it is not having that effect on a significant number of the global population. I mean, if 6 million dead were not enough to get the lesson learned last time…then what is? How much more death do we need the next time – how high the mountains of bodies to be digitally recorded in colour, so superior to those old black and white Pathe wartime newsreels – to have a chance of the lesson sticking? If THAT many people dying isn’t enough of a warning to tell you that this is the way things go (so don’t even start on that path by voting in leaders advocating such racist policies) then what is the magic magic number that will be? What is the magic number that does the trick, so people realise that the lesson from history is not a restricted ‘discriminate even more against people in other countries called Germany’ but a very simple and encompassing ‘do not go there ever again – because anybody can do that’?

And its not like there were not the accounts to bring the point home – Pastor Niemoller, for one – although perhaps today he would instead be saying “first they came for the Muslims, then they came for the women…” Yet it was not enough to give enough people pause to think. And of course – as long as people can externalise those uncomfortable parts of the narrative to apply to others, and not them, then the lessons from history will continue to go unheeded – and voters will still be exploited by smiling right wing politicians who know they can easily take advantage of them to gain power.

The pictures outside the golden lift in NYC are naked triumphalism from those who do not care to sit back in the shadows anymore – they’ve won, and as far as they are concerned, they have remade the world in their image – what can anyone do against them now? In the coming years they will drive the US’s media to follow Breitbart News as a legitimised model, and slowly start to dumb down the nation’s attitudes into bestial savagery.

Happy Birthday, Alan – as Bart Simpson recently noted on his blackboard, ‘Being Right Sucks’.

 

“Immigrants. Muslims. Homosexuals. Terrorists. Disease-ridden degenerates. They had to go. Strength through Unity, Unity through Faith. I’m a god-fearing Englishman and I’m goddamn proud of it.” (Lewis Prothero, the Voice of London, V for Vendetta, 2006 motion picture – or maybe also the Daily Mail editorial, any day of the week)

Tales from BrExitLand: Repucalypse Now – An Ill Wind and a Little Local Trouble in the Colonies

The son of an illegal Scottish immigrant to the US (Mary Ann MacLeod from Lewis, see May 21st 2016 article in The National  http://www.thenational.scot/news/the-mysterious-mary-trump-the-full-untold-story-of-how-a-young-scotswoman-escaped-to-new-york-and-raised-a-us-presidential-candidate.17824 ) won the US election this morning and is scheduled to become the 45th President of the USA on January 20th 2017, the oldest (at 70) first term president that the country has ever had.

Springburn-born Craig Ferguson (now a naturalised US citizen during his ten year stint presenting The Late Late Show on CBS) apparently made much political capital on his show out of pointing out that to ‘trump’ in Scots meant to fart. This was a surprise to me, as I had only come across the expression in some districts in England during my life (and a search on Google reveals only references to its use in Wales, Norfolk and the north of England). And it is indeed hard not to see his election as a wind of ill omen for the world.

Like the Scottish Independence Referendum of September 2014 and the June 2016 EU Referendum, this was an essentially binary vote, with only two real choices. Perhaps another similarity between the two other political choices was that the two main options were not the choice that many people wanted to have – the unusually high number of 6 million ‘Other’ votes that did not go the way of Trump or Clinton would seem to testify to that. At the end, Hillary emphatically won all the ethnic demographics – except for the white one, which formed 70% of the voters, where she only had 37% support. Was it perhaps an unjustifiable fear of feminism and female leaders (see http://wp.me/p4SdYV-6Y ) that drove this section of the electorate, especially when one sees that Trump won 7 out of every 10 non-college-educated male white vote. Exit polls also indicated that women voted Democrat in much higher numbers than they voted Republican…as one might expect, given the prevalence of Trump’s misogyny the last weeks of the campaign.

All three of these binary votes in as many years were negative votes, against openness, inclusion, hope and progressives, the decisive mass vote of the over 45s overwhelming the wishes of the younger electorate. All three were also characterised by a remarkable disregard for checking facts – or more a disinterest, either by the media or the majority of the voting public, in those same facts.

The Scottish Independence Referendum had a barrage of unchecked facts – but in a very polarised sense: Better Together’s howlers went almost universally ignored, as they were in keeping with the narrative that the press wished to present, whereas the Scottish Government’s 670 page White Paper ‘Scotland’s Future’ was attacked in microscopic (and ludicrous) detail. (Yet note the contrast in level of detail offered between the Yes campaign for an independent Scotland and the Leave campaign to exit the EU, where they did not even have a Plan ‘A’.)

Interestingly, the media’s polarity did have the unexpected effect of triggering a rapid drift away of its clients, as members of the public became increasingly disillusioned by what they were being told by the mainstream news outlets: the subsequent engagement of people in Scotland with online and independent news media to get an alternative perspective that felt (a little) less biased, resulted in a plunge in newspaper sales (except for the Sunday Herald, which doubled its previous year’s sales, in the 4 months after it declared for Scottish independence) in parallel with an emergence of online sources as the most-trusted sources of news. [This dimension will be explored separately within the forthcoming instalment of the review of modern Scotland’s Thrie/Four Estaits ‘The Death of Scotland’s Post-War Dream, Part 3’.]

The two plebiscites of 2016 effectively went to the core of the identity of former imperial powers (see Gore Vidal if you want to contest that), they harken to the power of a bygone mythical age of greatness, and a garden of plenty which the advocates can restore you to. Well…that’s not exactly unusual in politics. But with BrExit and the US election, there was more of a rejection of analysis of any fact-checking (whether by TV stations or other media sources) in favour of empty jingoistic slogans – no matter how much Trump was fact-checked and shown to be lying on a grand scale with his fragments of sentences, his fatuously dismissive behaviour and salvation slogans carried greater force. BrExit’s ‘Leave’ campaign leaders went further, resorting to casual dismissal of expert opinions in the face of their absurd claims: “People in this country have had enough of experts” quoth Michael Gove (somewhat ironically, given that as a former education secretary, he should have had some faith in the products of the education system that he was overseeing…unless he felt that the EU were in some magical way forcing his education system to produce unreliable experts, perhaps?).

This dismissal is an insidious one of anti-intellectualism, whereby instinct and anecdote is endowed with greater (inevitably mystical) power than facts, data, or authorities that have the education and specialist training in a field that allows them to consider it objectively – so that you don’t have to go through all that training to do that for yourself. Stephen Colbert went so far as to coin the term ‘truthiness’ – Wikipedia defines this as “a quality characterising a ‘truth’ that a person making an argument or assertion claims to know intuitively ‘from the gut’ or because it ‘feels right’ without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or facts.” In other words, it presents you with a legitimate licence to disregard everything you wish – spirituality and religion sweep away facts: the final triumph of Magic over Science. It brooks no argument against it – because it does not come from reason.

Fear is invariably invoked in politics – which is rarely helpful, as it leads to irrational decisions, and that is one of the reasons that the Yes campaign avoided utilising it even in the face of their opponents relentless use of nothing else. But fear multiplied by nonsense just creates chaos which is socially destabilising – it creates a level of frustration which (as Yoda might point out in sentences Trump can only listen to with envy for their coherence) leads to hate, and then violence. England in particular has seen the rise of this phenomenon in the wake of the BrExit result seemingly ‘legitimising’ racism as part of mainstream political discourse.

Will misogyny similarly rise in the USA in response to the role model that has been elected to their highest political office? One can only hope not – but with much less certainty than yesterday morning.

 

“…it’s an ill wind blaws naebody gude.” (Rob Roy, Sir Walter Scott)