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)

 

 

 

 

 

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Wings Over Bonn: Waiting for ‘Project Red’…

I spent the last week of February attending a training course in Bonn. Come the last Friday afternoon, and I had some time to kill before going to the Airport for the flight back to Edinburgh. As the internet had been a little erratic to access for the preceding day or two, I managed to find an office in the department I had been studying in, and logged in – Gmail (a forbidden pleasure in so much of China) the inevitable first port of call.

I saw the notification that the year’s ‘Wings Over Scotland’ fundraiser had started at 10am that very morning, and my interest was piqued right away. Their first fundraiser in 2013 had set a precedent for a political website, and last year’s had been legendary: launched 6 months out from the Referendum, with a target of £50,000 (+£3,000 for the fund-raising site’s commission) to try to reach in 34 days, it had hit the total in under 8 and a half hours, had gone over £80,000 in 24 hours, and finished the 34 days at £110,717. A stunned and outraged unionist twitterati (note: no capital ‘t’…) mumbled incoherently that the fiendish editor of ‘Wings Over Scotland’ must be taking the same money out and resubmitting it, under a variety of fake accounts, to produce such a large sum (as clearly there could not possibly be so many people believing in independence and the service that he provided)…despite the fact that the commission would erode the money each time….and the amount of work to generate over 1,710 donor accounts would have been quite impressive.

‘Wings Over Scotland’ might not – as their fundraiser positively declared – have ‘finished the job’ last year, but their impact was massive, and in a war against a decidedly partisan and all-pervasive media (coming soon, The Death of Scotland’s Post-War Dream Pt.4), as much underground promotion of the case for independence as possible was necessary: the legend that is The Wee Blue Book had a massive penetration of literally hundreds of thousands of copies, and won many minds (and, perhaps, hearts) over to ‘Yes’. For Rory Bremner, in his BBC review show of the Referendum campaign, to say that Wings was the unofficial propaganda outlet of ‘Yes’, in the same way as the BBC was for ‘No’, was a high plaudit indeed. I certainly don’t regret the two week’s salary donation one bit – I only wish that I could have given more. Undoubtedly, ‘Wings Over Scotland’ are a huge part of the reason why The National exists today, where before there was no equivalent media outlet (Ok, the Sunday Herald came late to the party…) before September 18th: it demonstrated an appetite for news that was not coloured by an overriding hatred of the idea of an independent Scotland.

But back to Bonn. I clicked the link from the Wings e-mail that led to the IndieGogo page, to see how things were doing. I think my biggest post-Referendum interest has been on how much of the surge in support for ‘Yes’ (in a broad sense – full fiscal autonomy, as a path ultimately to independence) would be retained by the time May 7th‘s General Election comes, so anything that gives an indicator of change, or weakening resolve, interests me. Is the hope for self-determination being crushed and eroded by the increasingly contradictory nonsense coming out of the ‘No’ camp parties?

The page started to load: it was just after 4pm in Germany, so that meant the fund-raiser had been running for five hours. I looked at the figure, and my heart fell slightly…the only figure up on the page was the target – £48,356. It did not appear that there had been any donations at all yet. Still, people would be getting home from work soon, and…no, this was not right. £45K plus £3K for indieGogo’s commission was fine, but that £356 was…just weird.

On an impulse, I refreshed the page. £48,501. And I started to laugh…

‘Wings Over Scotland’ had hit their target in 5 hours – a slightly lower target than the previous year, admittedly, but still: the difference between £105 per minute last year, and £160 per minute this year.

Around two weeks later, on the 14th March, the fund-raiser broke through the £100K mark. So far it has over 2,700 donors, and still gets several hundred pounds each day. I have a feeling that, if it was running through the end of March, there would have been yet a further surge when another payday came through.

And what, might you ask, does all this mean?

Firstly, I would contend that the faster rate of donation, across more individual donations, suggests that despite the Referendum focus being absent, that this is a mark of people’s ongoing revived engagement with politics in Scotland. It is also – clearly – a massive endorsement of Campbell’s character (the editor), to inspire such belief through his posts on the website AND what he delivered during the Referendum campaign, The Wee Blue Book in particular being outstanding [http://theweebluebook.com/]: this is not just based on some wild promises, then the proceeds disappear as he runs off to the Bahamas – this is a vote of confidence, based on what he actually delivered last time. People have confidence in him, believe in and trust him to do well for them with their money.

And what – I may hear you ask – is this money for? Well, in addition to the (compared to mainstream media) thoroughly referenced and researched articles, and a (small) salary for the man to do it, he commissions a large amount of leftfield polls, asking alternative questions…which reluctantly the mainstream polls slowly drift towards asking in his wake. And something hinted at for this year’s fundraiser is ‘Project Red’: “After last year’s Wee Blue Book, we’re currently working on another sizeable and significant undertaking in time for the general election. We can’t give away too much about it at the moment…” Project Red: a book of handy referenced Scottish Labour lies, perchance? Well, that would be my guess, anyway…but whatever it turns out to be, I am pretty sure it will repeatedly nail the lie that ‘the biggest party gets to form the government’ (only true if you get a majority…otherwise it is the incumbent’s job).

 

“Wings are the ‘No’ campaign’s biggest nightmare: they were expecting Alex Salmond and the SNP. They were expecting Blair Jenkins and Yes Scotland. They were NOT expecting Stuart Campbell and Wings Over Scotland.” (Dr. Morag Kerr)

A Binary Mess of a Decision: Salmond’s Trust & The Social Media War

It’s a funny thing about politics – you cast a vote in secret, and it is up to you whether you disclose it afterwards. So how does this work differently in a referendum? Well, in a multi-party election, its fairly easy for uncertainty of ‘actual choice’ to play a role: even if you know someone well enough to know their political views, a comfortable region of doubt still usually exists – perhaps their clearly articulated political viewpoints are still nebulous or ill-defined enough localized to 2 or 3 different political parties. Let’s face it, even when some people used to say they were for an independent Scotland, it was quite often the case that that statement would be ‘suffaced’ (like a preface is to a prefix, so a sufface is to a suffix 🙂 ) by ‘but I don’t trust the SNP’. I can remember Magnus Linklater’s poll in the Scotsman at the time of the 1992 election which said something very similar, with over 50% wanting independence, but political support for the one party wanting to deliver that objective at less than half that figure. So party political votes cannot be clearly mapped on to personal beliefs in a clear way – and you might well be left suspecting that dear Aunt Jessie might have voted for the Conservatives with her unusually ‘traditional’ view on immigration, but could not be 100% certain – especially if tactical voting came into play.

The Referendum is different. Apart from not being about any politician or party, it is a simple Yes or No. Binary decision. So in a broad sense, it is much harder to hide your reactions to a variety of issues, and not give away which way you’re inclining in your vote, when there are only two options – and that is with uncertainty in the casting, before knowing the result. It will be even easier to tell afterwards – the response will be a link between your beliefs and whether your vote was on the winning side or not.

So even if you don’t raise the issue with others – you can get a sense fairly quickly, in any long period with a colleague conversing on anything else. Even with the big switch over the weekend, when everything seemed to step up a gear, you could have a good idea from people’s various levels of tension.

To be fair, many ‘No’ voters (from experience on the stall) seem easy to spot: their refusal to think or engage with the question that has been so marginalised for so long pushes them swiftly into the open, and as the tide of Yes support rises around their feet, that stuttering confusion as incoherence rises along with incredulity leads to only one response:”…just….No!!!”. A lot of this inarticulacy – often coupled with an insistence that this is not something that will be discussed – comes from the last decades of marginalization of the idea of Scottish independence as merely a joke commodity. Surprisingly, this has dictated much of the press coverage since the SNP majority, which has been (until a few weeks ago) fairly universally condemnatory and abusive of anyone contemplating Yes…and most especially of that First Minister.

As others have noted before, this is a somewhat bizarre approach. As much as personalizing a campaign makes it easier to pretend it is one person and thus easier to discredit, the one person that they have chosen does remarkable public satisfaction and trust ratings.

Yesterday I mentioned how so crude a metric as his ‘FaceBook likes’ were soaring in the last 3 weeks. Better Together would no doubt say that this was no doubt the CyberNats, well-trained members of the SNP machine, all-powerful as mythical creatures tend to be – yet the membership of the SNP party (although easily the largest in Scotland) is only around 25,000. Alex is today on 57,145, Nicola on 39,071, John Swinney on 10,527. In August last year, a poll examined how much the public (regardless of whether or not they agreed with the individuals concerned) felt that they were acting in the best interests of Scotland.
On the Yes side: Alex Salmond +15, Nicola Sturgeon +12, Patrick Harvie -14
On the No side: Alistair Darling -11, Willie Rennie -13, Anas Sarwar -18, Ruth Davidson -18, Johann Lamont -19, Michael Moore -20, David Cameron -42

The same poll asked which of these the public believed were telling the truth about independence. On the Yes side: Alex Salmond (-3), Nicola Sturgeon (-5), Dennis Canavan (-19), Blair Jenkins (-31)
On the No side: Alistair Darling (-27), Michael Moore (-43), Anas Sarwar (-47), Blair McDougall (-62)
On this basis, the combined net trust ratings were Yes -58, No -179, making the No campaign slightly over three times as distrusted as Yes.

The following month, September 2013, another poll looked at the satisfaction ratings of the four party leaders: Alex Salmond: Overall rating +11; David Cameron: Overall rating -45; Ed Miliband: Overall rating -46; Nick Clegg: Overall rating -53

As a leader midway through second term leading government, those are remarkable satisfaction and trust ratings, in comparable terms, given that the No campaign has decided to try and focus their attention on identifying the campaign solely with him and noone else.

As in the creation of a single isolated personality, so for the pretense that there is only one group in Yes. But that is one of the things that I like about ‘Yes’ – it is a truly broad umbrella, with all sorts of groups contained within it. I like the breadth of ‘Yes’, and the wide-ranging skillset of its diverse supporters. Like Business for Scotland. I confess at the opening show of the Willie Macrae play last month at the Edinburgh Festival, I found myself behind Michelle Thomson, the Managing Director of Business for Scotland in the queue – then had the embarrassment of experiencing a ‘fanboy crisis’. I blustered an apology at the end of the performance, explaining that it was a little weird for me, as I had been watching her on YouTube the previous night. Right, so THAT went well, then….

Or there is also National Collective, whose creatives I have referred to elsewhere, and not forgetting Radical Independence, Women for Independence, Academics for Yes, NHS for Yes, Disabled for Yes, Wealthy Nation…And yet many of these groups are barely referred to at all during Referendum coverage. Because, as in the same way as ‘Yes’ has to be solely identified with Salmond (see ‘Conflation and Personalisation’, elsewhere on this Blog) following the strategy highlighted by Professor John Robertson’s research (University of the West of Scotland) on media bias, so all groups must merely be ‘SNP fronts’ – which of course is hilarious in the context of the stooge Astroturf organizations (see ‘Fake Plastic Grass Roots’ elsewhere on this blog) parachuted in to try and give the ‘No’ campaign a veneer of credibility. That same ‘personalising’ strategy that eliminates the ‘Yes’ movement and the grassroots campaign in favour of leaving Alex Salmond as somehow the only person in Scotland that wants this to happen, also airbrushes every other group out, eliminating the broad umbrella or ‘kirk’ of ‘Yes’, in favour of painting it solely as the SNP – and nobody else. That way it shuts down and denies any discussion of this being a ‘popular’ movement – one born of and sustained by the people, with whom sovereignty is retained.

And yet still the Yes support has risen. Almost as though people are finding the guidance on ‘who to trust’ from elsewhere. Perhaps from themselves. Out there, exploring on the Internet. Using Social Media: becoming the Caledonian version of the Arab Spring. Ignoring the media machinery for the state. Against all the odds.

IF we manage it.

 

“If Scotland becomes independent, it will be despite the efforts of almost the entire UK establishment. It will be because social media has defeated the corporate media. It will be a victory for citizens over the Westminster machine, for shoes over helicopters. It will show that a sufficiently inspiring idea can cut through bribes and blackmail, through threats and fear-mongering. That hope, marginalised at first, can spread across a nation, defying all attempts to suppress it. That you can be hated by the Daily Mail and still have a chance of winning.” (George Monbiot)

Conflation and Personalisation: The Deliberate Blurring of the Leadership of the Yes Campaign

One woman that I spoke to during the mass canvas the other Saturday surprised me when she expressed the hope that the forthcoming debate on the Tuesday on STV would provide more information. Two hours of live television might produce spectacle – but I would have been somewhat surprised if it had produced much information at all.

Fair enough – I may have a slightly different threshold for ‘more information’ than many: by a brief skim through my mailbox, I can see that I have read over 2,000 articles on the Referendum in the last 18 months. To me, the debate was Salmond settling for Cameron’s stooge – possibly a tactical mistake, as it blurred the leadership question in the way that ‘No’ had been trying to do for a while.

On the first hand, the case for Yes rests on Westminster’s mismanagement and different political direction to Scotland’s – and on that basis, the First Minister of the Scottish Government holding the Prime Minister of the Westminster Government to account, and questioning what the case for Scotland staying in the Union was, by asking the leader of that political Union directly, does not seem unreasonable. Cameron has paid lip-service to the idea that it was ‘for the people of Scotland to decide’, at the same time as cabinet ministers were regularly parachuted in for one day missions in Scotland before running away again, and more and more money was sunk into Whitehall producing reports and distributing leaflets to every home. So his intervention and controlling hand has been clear in the campaign, even as much as he avoids direct debate.

But secondly – and perhaps more critically – Alistair Darling, as Chair of the No campaign, should technically only be debating his opposite number in Yes – Dennis Canavan, the Chair of Yes. But No has tried hard to avoid that, as they want to make the Referendum solely about Alex Salmond. This is very much part of the No strategy to (echoed by the media) personalise ‘Independence’ as a solely Salmond (or SNP) issue, to thus try to ignore the wide variety of organisations coming out in support of independence as a way of seeking social justice and a better society for the people in Scotland that cannot be achieved through Westminster. This process deliberately ignores a broader political coalition, and attempts to marginalize the movement as narrow and minority-led. Once Salmond becomes perceived as the face of the Yes campaign (instead of Chief Executive Blair Jenkins or Chair Dennis Canavan), and bodies such as The Common Weal, Business for Scotland, National Collective, Wealthy Nation (and of course the mythical ‘CyberGnats’) can all be ignored or bizarrely (paranoiacally?) portrayed as ‘front organisations’ for the SNP, then Yes becomes a single man to target – which is much easier than the broader target of a nation’s collective aspirations, or a dissatisfaction with the current system of government. Because – as we have all heard at least one person say, as a reason for voting ‘No’ – “Ah hate that Alex Salmond.”

This perceived approach was to a degree confirmed by the academic study of broadcasting bias in referendum coverage on BBC and STV, by the University of the West of Scotland’s Professor John Robertson (MediaLens carries a summary report). A particular strategy that he noted was
‘the conflation of the First Minister’s wishes with the YES campaign seems a classic case of undermining ideas by association with clownish portrayal of leading actors [in the campaign].’
He recalled that this skewing of the coverage was reminiscent of the way that the corporate media demonised previous Labour Party leaders Neil Kinnock and Michael Foot, as well as miners’ leader Arthur Scargill.

In terms of this agenda setting by a media following one side’s narrative, it is perhaps interesting to note Noam Chomsky’s comments relating to ‘Manufacturing Consent’, and the need for citizens to take two specific actions in order to break free of this form of control. Chomsky asserts that in order to break free of Media Control and Agenda Setting, citizens must take 2 actions:
1. They must seek out information from Alternative Media (media outside the mainstream and usually having a particular point of view).
2. They must move toward change by becoming engaged in community action – because people can use their ordinary intelligence to make changes in their lives and communities. Grassroots movements begin there.

When I first came across this a day or two ago (I confess I had never read anything of Noam’s beforehand – noting only his presence as an achievement in some computer games – although I had noted with passing interest that he had come out in support of ‘Yes’), I could not believe how coincident these two actions were with what the Yes campaign has already achieved: the outbreak of citizen journalism, alternative news sites, alternative media broadcasts as part of the campaign external to Yes Scotland certainly fulfils action 1, and the grassroots movement that has taken over from the previous centralised Yes Scotland campaign has wonderfully fulfilled action 2.

The BBC (and to a lesser extent STV) has been shown to be demonstrably biased through academic research, in particular noting the one-sided and classical tactic of personalisation to try and undermine a political movement. Further actions such as ignoring (suppressing?) Yes campaign releases, except through the filter of the No campaign, has created the dissatisfied and restless environment for the rise of ‘citizen journalism’, using online resources and social media, in a way that is truly reminiscent of the Arab Spring (perhaps a ‘Caledonian Spring’, if someone is looking for a title for one of the innumerable books that will inevitably arise in the wake of this Referendum?).

David Hume asserted some 250 years ago that power always rests with the people, but they don’t use it because they are oppressed or manipulated. It remains to be seen whether the people of Scotland have heeded Hume’s warning and fulfilled Chomsky’s prescription for freeing themselves from manipulative media, in time to objectively judge their choice on the 18th September.

 

“There is a reason there is no genuine grassroots movement for No, and there’s a reason Yes has seen an explosion in people power.” (Hamish Gibson, National Collective)

Paper Tigers and Gnats: The Myth of Cybernattery

So I guess that having an online pro-independence presence classifies me as a ‘CyberNat’. The hilarious myth of cybernattery is one of the more ludicrous outgrowths of the ‘No’ campaign’s strategy to make the campaign for a ‘Yes’ vote to be solely about one person (Alex Salmond, in case you hadn’t guessed where this idea was headed).  Given Salmond’s popularity and satisfaction ratings, compared to the Westminster leaders, this might seem a bizarre and risky choice of tactic.  So why would they try this approach?  Well, there are several benefits of this approach, in terms of ‘presentation: first of all, it has the effect of communicating the idea that support for this idea is not only limited, it is isolated. As such, it can be portrayed as ‘one person’s obsession’ (how often have you heard Johann Lamont use that precise phrase?) – so you don’t need to feel that it is reasonable, or ‘normal’, or (heaven forfend) a popular idea.  (In the longer term, this of course also paves the way for any desire to present an ‘unfavourable’ result as dismissible’ – but let’s not get ahead of ourselves…) Which means that there is no way that the idea of an independent Scotland could ever possibly be viewed as a campaign of broad ‘grass roots’ support.  That it cannot be regarded as legitimate for the Scottish Government to make it policy to have this Referendum because it was part of an upfront part of the manifesto that the party of government gained their landslide on the basis of; that, in some mysterious way, the electorate were not voting for a party saying they would conduct a referendum when they gave that party its landslide majority victory within a system designed to return coalitions. This way, you can make the supporters feel alienated from the idea that they have embraced, their collective ownership (through an intention to vote for it) somehow removed, and it can be presented as some strange idea solely belonging to a Lee Harvey Oswald style ‘lone nut’. That way, you can rubbish an individual, without appearing to attack the will of a large section of the electorate – ‘don’t worry, we are not getting at you, it is all his fault’.

So how, then, from a ‘No’ perspective, does one deal with the massive popular online pro-independence presence, which so effectively undermines this ‘lone nut’ model?  One has to discredit them, otherwise the idea that this might in any way be a popular movement starts to gain some traction.  So what to do? Simple – make them simply an extension of that ‘lone nut’ – all under his direct and personal control.  And worse – demonise them, run stories about how they perpetrate such terrible abuse that they are in some way ‘sub human’.  Although online abuse is never acceptable, it is worth pointing out (again) that a recent survey demonstrated a 3:1 ratio of abuse with Yes supporters more likely to suffer it than No supporters.  I was thinking about this, and how the mainstream media’s representation of Yes campaigners really did not fit with reality, while helping at a Yes stall at the Meadows last week, with some genteel retired ladies of Newington. In this context, it is also worth remembering that the only victim thus far of physical violence during this campaign is a Yes supporting 80 year old pensioner, James McMillan, who sustained a broken wrist in Edinburgh when one woman attacked him for his ‘Yes’ placard.

So amidst the calls for ‘Alex Salmond to take responsibility for and rein in Cybernats for abuse’ (Jim Murphy’s ‘straw man’ rhetorical accusation of choice) lies the implicit idea that the Yes-supporting online community is a) aggressive (despite evidence of this being notoriously hard to track down any evidence of e.g. in the case of Susan Calman); b) directly controlled by the First Minister.  I do wonder sometimes if these grand objectors, with their tinfoil hats tightly applied to keep their conspiracy theory intact within their heads, imagine us all getting nightly strategic bulletins from some ‘central office’. In striking contrast, in 2012, when the user of a Labour FaceBook page expressed his wish for the death of Alex Salmond’s 90 year old father, a Labour spokesman dismissed objections thus: “Political parties are responsible for their candidates and officials, but members of the public must be responsible for their own behavior.” Presumably, this is why they try to portray online supporters of independence as some sort of unofficial secret wing of the SNP…because otherwise, by their own logic, they would not be able to link the online activity of members of the public with the Scottish Government.

Amusingly, as observed by one individual on Bateman Broadcasting this week, many of those voting for independence would appear to not be ‘nationalists’ (i.e. primarily embracing cultural or sentimental aspects) at all, but simply have a belief that the worst part of David Cameron’s ‘Broken Britain’ is the flawed Westminster system, and that is what they wish to leave behind.  In this context, they are not ‘Nats’, but closer to gnats – a buzzing nuisance, an irritation for those used to presenting an unquestioned Union-led narrative of politics in Scotland.

And I’m not sure that that is really anything for me to be embarrassed or ashamed about – is it?

“It’s time for the SNP and the First Minister to finally rein these people in.  Washing their hands of them and pretending they don’t know who they are will no longer do.” (Jim Murphy)