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)

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Going for Gross: Alex Salmond, Blowjobs and the Duchess of Cambridge

During the Edinburgh Festival, a journalist called Iain McWhirter (who did the recent TV series ‘The Road to the Referendum’) was commenting during a show discussing the media in Scotland as part of ‘All Back to Bowie’s’, on the way that most newspapers dealt with stories that related in some way to the Referendum. The policy was to do what were called ‘BlowJobs’. This means that, if they tried really hard, they could spin ANY news story to start with the banner headline of ‘Blow to Salmond as…’. Even if it was a ‘good news’ story for ‘Yes’, they knew that it could be spun and presented negatively. See Professor John Robertson’s results at the start of the year surveying BBC and STV bias, for some broadcast equivalents. For example, – I remember when the unemployment and employed figures were both really favourable in Scotland compared to the rest of the UK, and this news was presented as bad news, as it must be a sign of zero hours contracts. Surprisingly, zero hours contracts in no way featured in the same figures covered by the UK-wide BBC reports on that same day – it was purely a means of packaging by BBC Scotland.

At the same time, any pro-Union/BritNat story would be encouraged and expanded upon – almost as though this could push any Referendum coverage out, and so substitute some trite story to (somewhat lately) reinforce the idea of Britishness.

I could not help but think of this this morning, while watching the BBC News Channel. In June last year, it was something of a joke amongst Yes voters that – in order to push Britishness in the run-up to the vote – another royal baby would be required. Chris Cairns cartoon expressed this really well at the time. So this morning, as the reports were coming in about a drop of around 1% in the pound sterling (see previous post), other market concerns were highlighted. Four companies were singled out, as having dropped 2.5-3%. They were RBS, the Weir Group, Lloyds (because of Scottish Widows Fund, BofS and Clydesdale) and Standard Life. You may recognize that most (if not all?) of those companies have form for making noises about possibly disinvesting in Scotland in the result of a Yes vote, whether in 1979, 1997 or the current independence campaign. But this was not how they were identified this morning.
The BBC presenter chose a remarkable characteristic, identifying them as “Companies” as she put it, “with significant exposure to Scotland.”

‘Exposure to Scotland’? Now there is an interesting turn of phrase. I confess that I had not expected the disease metaphor to be used in a different context in the Referendum debate, after Johann Lamont described nationalism as a virus in September last year. This had chilling echoes of a 1942 speech by a certain former German leader about “the discovery of the Jewish virus”…slightly ironic, given how often Labour in Scotland desperately attempt to portray Yes campaigners as some form of incarnation of that ideology (see ‘The No Narrative 2’).

But I digress.

I am fairly sure that the BBC presenter this morning was not making such bizarre connections, and merely intended to use the word ‘risk’ in there somewhere, and fluffed it on live TV. I began to wonder if this was some sort of reflection on the noises those companies themselves had made, regarding considering moving in the result of a Yes vote – as several other companies who had been far more neutral seemed to be in no way singled out for this group.

Then suddenly there was breaking news. A royal pregnancy was announced!

Soon people were scrambled to stand outside symbolic buildings to spread the word…and I could not help but feel a certain surreal sense of what was happening. Perhaps déjà vu? The timing…was remarkable. And as the reports continued through the morning, in a slightly garbled form, with comments about the Duchess’ severe morning sickness response last time around, it emerged that this was not a pregnancy at 13 weeks. It was nearer 1 month.

Ok, so this is going to be the most gross and tasteless of these posts by far – and it subscribes very very heavily to the tinfoil hat brigade’s conspiracy theory outlook on life. So here goes…

What if the Duchess of Cambridge ISN’T actually pregnant? David Cameron went up to Balmoral yesterday, it’s true – unusually not stopping off anywhere for any publicity opportunities – but perhaps to come to an arrangement with the Queen, for one last, big ‘Britishness’ stunt, a last push to invoke that confused Olympic, Dunkirk mess of a sentimental viewpoint?

 

‘Liz – need a favour. Do you think you can get the grandson’s wife to pretend to be pregnant? Everyone loves a royal event – we can’t manage a wedding at such short notice, so I need a pregnancy.’

‘But Dave – it’s too short notice – with those ultra long-distance lenses, they’ll be able to tell that she isn’t 3 months pregnant the first time she steps out.’

‘No worries, Liz – I’ve got me a plan. We say that she is suffering that extreme morning sickness again, so is announcing after only a month’s pregnancy that she is canceling the engagements in her diary. That way, there wouldn’t be anything visible to see – so nobody gets suspicious that it is a fake royal story.’

‘But it would become obvious quite quickly…’

‘Nah, no worries Babe – I only need her to be pregnant for two weeks, then after the Referendum we can say that it was a phantom pregnancy or summat. See me right, and I won’t forget this, Liz…’

 

Well – maybe I’m paraphrasing. Slightly.

Of course, it may well be that the Duke and Duchess, as former recipients of the Scottish education system doing their degrees together at St. Andrews University, are indeed quite genuinely pregnant, and that there is nothing whatsoever suspicious about this unusually premature announcement. And that is just a pure coincidence that a little ‘royal baby magic’ could be sprinkled on the ‘No’ campaign at this difficult time for them.

But the timing of this, as a last minute ‘Rule Britannia’ publicity event…is…surprisingly propitious. It would certainly dispel the charge that the ‘No’ campaign is only ever negative. Deeply cynical and manipulative , yes – but not UTTERLY negative. And if it looks like a duck, sounds like a duck, maybe even walks like one…

143 countries have become independent since the war – which means that if Scotland votes ‘Yes’ then it will make it a gross. It also means that we will not be subjected to even the threat of ‘stunt Britishness’ events and TV programmes such as we have already experienced this year, in an attempt to enforce an identity on the people of Scotland that 62% of them (identifying themselves as exclusively Scottish) do not associate with, and only 18% (‘Scottish and British’) that do.

It also means that maybe I could stop seeing ducks where there aren’t any. 🙂

 

“The No campaign fail to offer such an inspiring option because it isn’t a campaign for anything. It is a wall built to hold back the tides of apathy, disillusionment and anger over centuries of mistreatment and political abandonment.” (Hamish Gibson, National Collective)

The Revolution will NOT be Televised: How BBC Scotland became McFox News

One of my favourite sessions in the Edinburgh Fringe’s ‘All Back to Bowie’s’ thread, was the one concerning the media in Scotland. Iain McWhirter and Peter Arnott with a representative from National Collective, and a provocation by former BBC Scotland and Good Morning Scotland anchorman Derek Bateman, all of whom rejected the idea of overt bias by the BBC, but bemoaned the top-down London-dominated mindset in BBC Scotland, and the way that the BBC received its agenda directly from the (again, London-dominated) press, especially at a time when 25% of its journalists (mainly from News and Current Affairs) had been axed from BBC Scotland over the preceding two years, contributing to a “cultural helplessness in our media”. Derek is a staunch defender of the BBC from accusations of ‘bias’, although he does blast its Head of News for not realising the political landscape had moved in both 2007 and 2011. So, at the same time as a majority of us had decided that we trusted Holyrood more than Westminster, BBC Scotland was still trying to decide whether it was “Strathclyde Region renewed, or a Mini-Me Westminster” (as Bateman put it),  regarding Holyrood as Billy Connolly’s ‘wee pretendy parliament’ – and thus already moving away from its audience.

I myself came to my slightly more cynical position a while back: it was probably around two years ago that I made the contentious comparison of the BBC in Scotland with Fox News.  I had just seen BBC Scotland’s determined presentation of the local council results, and noted the stark focus of the BBC in treating the Glasgow Council results as exceptions to their otherwise standard rule of assessing a gain in comparison to the previous council election.  This was in striking contrast to the coverage of the other channels. Glasgow, as you may recall, had a series of individuals that defected from Labour after being in post for some years, nearly wresting control away from the council’s Labour group.  The BBC decided that these positions were ‘Labour wins’ – despite the fact that Labour had those positions in the previous council, thus making them ‘Labour Holds’, as opposed to ‘wins’ from independents (with a small ‘i’).  The variance of this assessment was something that I found quite shocking, as it was not being extended to other council posts that had had by-elections – and had the effect of reducing the SNP’s tally of gains relative to Labour, on a night when the SNP won the popular vote in the council elections for the first time ever.

After such an inauspicious beginning, I started to look more critically at the BBC’s coverage, and started to see more and more similarities with a certain US TV station.  You see, for some time, I had followed the FaceBook page ‘We Survived Bush, You’ll Survive Obama’, and had picked up on a lot of techniques used to try and discredit an administration not favoured by a particular broadcaster.  You know the sort of thing – not just failing to report ‘good news’ stories, but also reporting everything in a negative context. So Obama drinking a Pepsi becomes an attack on Coca Cola, Obama getting caught in the rain becomes a squandering of water during a drought…that kind of thing.  I was surprised how easy it became to spot similar stories on BBC Scotland – even down to new figures showing that the jobless figures were dropping faster than the rest of the UK, when the story became uniquely not about that, but about zero hours contracts (as though they only happened in Scotland) instead.

So, yes – I confess that, around this time, I started to refer to BBC Scotland news as McFox News, similarly dedicated to traducing the government of the day, regardless of the news. In this regard, it is interesting to note that Freedom of Information requests to NHS Boards in Scotland had increased by almost 700% from Labour’s last year in power at Holyrood to the SNP taking power there in 2007. BBC Scotland’s Eleanor Bradford has been conspicuous in the reporting of stories attacking the NHS in Scotland, and the FoI requests increase would seem to suggest that the broadcaster was fishing for ‘bad news’ stories in an attempt to undermine confidence in both the Scottish Government run by an SNP administration and the Scottish health service.

I would have to admit that I have a little bit of experience in this realm, as I do a lot of work in China, a country where the control of broadcasting is so effective that for most citizens the Tiananmen Square massacre of June 1989 never actually happened. Of course, it is hard to make an argument comparing the Chinese state broadcaster (called – without a trace of irony – ‘CCTV’) to the BBC – but I confess that my illusions about good old ‘Auntie Beeb’ (as I was raised to understand it to be), started to fall away a couple of years ago. In this context, little things such as online comments being closed down on BBC Scotland political and economics stories on its website, yet being completely open on the BBC websites for England, Wales and Northern Ireland, started to take on a different complexion.

At this time, it became hard not to consider the accusation that far from being the arbiter of peace, harmony and democracy, the BBC was actually acting very much as a state broadcaster under much more obviously repressive regimes.  In this context, the explosion of television programmes with ‘Britain’ or ‘British’ in the title since the SNP majority government was elected in 2011, is quite startling. This list represents (not exhaustive – at the end of this piece) only those shown in the first months of 2014 – and it is interesting to reflect how many such programmes existed before 2011 – can you remember any of these being broadcast before then?

Of course it could be ENTIRELY coincidental, but the fact that most of them are subsequent (rather than in the run-up to) the London 2012 Olympics is perhaps revealing: one could, perhaps cynically, review them as a policy by the BBC designed to submerge Scottish (and other) identities within an aggressively-promoted ‘Brand Britain’. I did see one commentator opine that perhaps in the past the BBC had had a policy to avoid this sort of thing, in order not to push Scots and others into feeling alienated, and was now heavily overcompensating for this in a ‘mass rebranding’ exercise, as the BBC had realised that this strategy had not worked?

All of these are (comparatively) subtle ways of subliminally attempting to alter people’s identity perception – and would certainly tie in with more overt acts to suppress the Scottish identity in other aspects, e.g. Red Arrows at the Commonwealth Games Opening Ceremony being blocked from flying blue and white (as they have done before at Scottish events), the decision to host Armed Forces Day on the same weekend and in the same town as the 700th Bannockburn anniversary (unusual, as noted elsewhere, given that Armed Forces Day was last held in Scotland a mere 4 years ago). These are all trappings of the Age of Empire, which have been ramped up in the run-up to the Referendum, and some of which were evident during the Commonwealth Games (as I have noted elsewhere).

In this context, it is of little surprise that alternative podcasts such as Referendum TV (anchored by McWhirter and Riddoch, amongst others), Bateman Broadcasting (by Derek) or even DateLine Scotland have sprung up, to fill the empty niche of referendum-related broadcasting, and compensate for the dearth of programming from BBC Scotland at this critical time. So, yes – all of the above is why I was one of ‘those people’ demonstrating outside the BBC at Pacific Quay during the Commonwealth Games, and singing along to the wonderful Queen parody ‘BBC Blah Blah’ (check out ‘Yew Choob’ on YouTube).  At just over 1,200 people (we each had to take a unique number, in order to counter the BBC’s previous underreporting of our numbers), we were not a huge contingent – but we at least matched the numbers that turned up that same weekend to the free Armed Forces Day event in Stirling.

I would close with a line akin to ‘BBC Scotland ignores this trend at its peril’, but by this stage, I think that BBC Scotland frankly understands too little to care – as it perhaps always has, ever since devolution.

 

 “Don’t bemoan the media. Be the media.” (Jello Biafra)

List of BBC TV programmes in the first half of 2014 with either the words ‘Britain’ or ‘British’ in the title:

The Great British Year

Britain’s Empty Homes

The Great British Bake-Off

Harrow: A Very British School (Sky 1)
Martin Clunes: Islands of Britain
Full Throttle: The Glory Days of British Motorbikes
Great British Railway Journeys
Up All Night: Britain on Call
Britain’s Funniest Comedy Characters
Fool Britannia
Britain’s Secret Treasures
Britain and the Sea
Fake Britain
Britain’s Secret Terror Force: A Panorama Special
A History of Britain in Numbers
A Great British Christmas with Sarah Beeney (CH4)
Shipwrecks: Britain’s Sunken History (
BBC4)
Young, British and Broke: The Truth about Payday Loans
Keeping Britain Safe 24/7
Reel History of Britain
Nigel Slater’s Great British Biscuit
Great British Garden Revival
Heston’s Great British Food (CH4)
Great British Sewing Bee Christmas Special (
BBC2)
Britain’s Killer Storms (CH4)
Britain’s Favourite Xmas Songs (CH5)
Pothole Britain – Drivers Beware! (CH5)
Battlefield Britain (
BBC4)
UK’s Best Body (The Active Channel, Sky 281)
The Year Britain Froze (More4)
The Year Britain Flooded (More4)
Sex, Lies, and a Very British Scapegoat (ITV)
Brit Cops: War on Crime
Brit Cops: Law & Disorder
Brit Cops: Rapid Response
Brit Cops: Frontline Crime
Boozed Up Brits Abroad (Sky Living)
Great British Ghosts (Drama)
The Ladybird Books Story: How Britain Got The Reading Bug (
BBC4)
Legends: Roy Orbison – The ‘Big O’ in Britain (
BBC4)
Britain’s Hardest (Challenge)
JFK: The Final Visit to Britain (
BBC2)
Britain’s Favourite Christmas Songs (CH5 )
Britain’s Craziest Xmas Lights (CH5)
The British Invasion: Herman’s Hermits (Sky Arts 1)
Sacred Wonders of Britain (
BBC2)
Britain’s Got Talent (ITV)
A Very British Murder with Lucy Worsley (
BBC4)
The Hidden World of Britain’s Immigrants (
BBC2)
Battered Britain: Storms, Tides and Floods
Fred Dibnah’s Made in Britain
Ade in Britain (STV)
Britain’s Great War (
BBC1)
Gibraltar: Britain in the Sun (CH5)
ACI: Britain’s Worst Crash (National Geographic)
Hidden Histories: Britain’s Oldest Family Businesses
Britain’s Best Bakery (STV)
Benefits Britain: The Bedroom Tax (CH4)
The Boats That Built Britain (
BBC4)
Kidnapped; Betrayed by Britain? – Panorama (
BBC1)
Britain’s Bronze Age Mummies: A Time Team Special (CH4)
Hungry Britain – Panorama (
BBC1)
I Never Knew That About Britain (STV)
Permission Impossible: Britain’s Planners (
BBC2)
Pop Charts Britannia: 60 Years of the Top 10 (
BBC4)
Britain on Film (
BBC4)
The Nature of Britain (
BBC2)
The British (Sky Atlantic)
A Very British Renaissance (
BBC2)
Border Country: The Story of Britain’s Lost Middleland (
BBC2)
Rule Britannia! Music, Mischief and Morals in the 18th Century (
BBC4)
British Touring Car Championship Live (
BBC4)
Jet! When
Britain Ruled the Skies (BBC4)
Great British Menu (
BBC2)
The Battle for
Britain’s Breakfast (BBC2)

2014: The Festival of the Referendum

And so another Edinburgh Festival finishes, leaving town with its Fringe. Last year, the outgoing Festival director announced that no work relating to the Referendum would be commissioned for this year’s event, prompting outrage. I have seen Elaine C. Smith (in an interview on the refreshing Referendum TV that has been running online throughout the festival) state that she feels that the director did that quite deliberately, knowing that it would provoke a response, and I have to accept that she knows better than I on this. Certainly, the Edinburgh Festival’s programme for this year seems to provide some evidence for that interpretation, and this has been noted: from Jenny Hjul’s somewhat irritated column in the Telegraph to Steven McElroy’s review in the New York Times that observed that the Referendum had dominated the event.

Certainly I found it exciting to be at the Festival in a way that I do not recall – the stimuli of the political shows, and that sense of the times in which we live. From Alan Bissett’s play (now booked in to the Tron for the night before the Referendum) to David Hayman’s one man show, and the cultural showcases on National Collective Presents as well as the panel debates of All Back to Bowie’s, it has been absolutely fascinating. David Greig in particular is to be commended (with all the rest of his partners in crime) for putting the Bowie show together, ranging across twenty discrete topics relating to the Referendum: Wales, Ireland, England, Britain, Tory Scotland, post-yes negotiations, media, sports, women, foreign policy…all these and many more were covered.

Hjul may espouse the view that the shows are only talking to an already-committed ‘Yes’ audience and not changing anyone’s minds, but I would not be so certain of that, were I her – certainly, all of the shows that I attended had a (albeit small) No presence in the audience. I admit it – I did see my second-ever vote No badge-wearer (why do they always – even on TV – look so unhappy and/or angry?) outside the Bowie’s yurt. As the owner of the Vote No car sticker (the one with the ’Scotland For Marriage’ car sticker, remember?) in my neighbourhood has now transformed their upstairs window into a small altar with flags, this is probably the sign of a predictable late-emerging visible ‘No’ profile in these last weeks between the Fringe and the vote itself. (And of course, for reasons that I have explored elsewhere, it is perfectly understandable why ‘No’ voters would not feel the same need to identify themselves that ‘Yes’ voters would.)

But in terms of the Festival, it has been an enriching opportunity, giving an access to discussion and debate that has been sadly lacking from the airwaves (or even the press, to a large extent), and the Referendum debate will be a sadder and smaller affair without the added dimension and depth that the Festival has provided throughout August.

 

“I tell you what – have you heard them? Talkin’ about independence? Tweetin’ it into existence – bein’ the TV programme.” (Catrin Daffyd, poet)

The Pitiless Storm and the Unequal Union

In ‘The Pitiless Storm’, one of the highest profile Referendum shows in this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe, David Hayman portrays a trade union leader on the eve of accepting an OBE. In composing his speech, he is caught between the critical gaze of his memories of his father, his 17 year old idealist self, and his departed ex-wife’s abandonment of New Labour in the wake of the February 2003 80, 000 anti Iraq war march in Glasgow. Cornered in the nexus of his founding principles, Hayman capitulates to the inevitable acceptance that Labour have abandoned their values, and for the hope of any social justice for his people, that he has to go against his traditional party’s line and vote Yes in the independence referendum. The transformation of the character is hardly a subtle metaphor: the character is committed to the Union and the ideal of the benefits that it should – yet has failed – to bring, and undergoes a Damascine conversion on the night before his Knighthood (which I think an OBE is?). Yet Hayman’s personal commitment to Radical Independence makes him eloquent in his embracing of the character in both aspects – as well as somewhat impatient with questioners during the informal post-production conversation that he conducts with his audience while sitting on the edge of the stage. Perhaps that is why Argyll Council appears to have been systematically suppressing advertising for Hayman’s one-man show, although it still seems a massive overreaction, that on balance is more likely to provoke a ‘Streisand Effect’ (where an attempt to suppress information actually has the reverse of the intended result) in response.

Labour’s underpinning argument for the Union – that of collectivising, of uniting together and sharing effort helps working people – although a fine principle – is not supported by the evidential experience. The idea that a million families with children were lifted out of poverty in the ten years following their 1997 election is somewhat shaky grounds for justification of maintaining the Union, following the consequences of the next 3 years of that same government.

One argument I see from ‘No’ advocates along the ‘stronger together’ thread, is that the United Kingdom is ‘greater than the sum of its parts’. Is it? Frankly, I’m not sure that currently it is equal to the sum of its parts, never mind greater than them. The majority of the UK is held back from fulfilling its potential as more is poured into the city state of London – London is probably fulfilling its potential, but the rest certainly is not. Much of that is due to simple realpolitik: the Westminster Government (whether acting in the EU or elsewhere) will understandably fight for the interests of the majority of their population – which is the south-east of England. Scotland’s different needs with regards to population dispersal, fishing and farming, re-industrialisation and immigration are often argued against because they simply do not suit the agenda of the rest of the country – indeed those needs are diametrically opposed with regard to reindustrialization and immigration.
We are told the Union is ‘the most successful union in history’ (although it is hardly that, given a fair chunk of it left in 1922 – essentially the state that went to war in 1914, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, no longer exists to commemorate that hundred year anniversary), but if the ‘No’ campaign is to be believed as sincere in making this statement, then it has a romanticised view of how well the Union has actually worked for Scotland: it hasn’t, and the centralisation in London noted by Vince Cable is also making it a bad experience for the NE of England (and frankly other parts of the UK) as well.

In economic terms, we regularly hear that Scotland has been financially supporting the Union (in the sense of putting far more in than it gets out) for 33 years. Business for Scotland has argued that this is likely to have gone on for much longer, the former civil servant John Jappy noted figures in 1968 (before the oil boom) that showed that Scotland was paying disproportionately more per head even then. This is supported by figures showing that in 1952-1953 Scotland paid 410 million in revenues, and received only 207 million back in expenditure. Even more damningly, government figures for income and expenditure from 1900-1922 (recorded in HJ Paton’s book The Claim of Scotland) show that Scotland was receiving between 21% and 40% of its taxes in expenditure (I’ve excluded 1914-1918 for obvious reasons). Records seem to have been stopped in 1922 at the time of Ireland’s departure, perhaps in some trepidation that these figures might fuel ideas that Scotland was getting a ‘raw deal’, and give them similar ideas about secession (a harbinger of McCrone, in some ways). We may be the wealthy cousin in terms of supporting the Union, but we have not had the economic benefits of the Union that the other two regions (SE England and London) have had that so fundamentally sponsor the Union – and in that sense we appear to have been very much left as the ‘poor relation’ in terms of what is received back.

And this lack of economic distribution has resulted in a lack of opportunity – which can be indicated quite effectively by looking at figures of population growth and emigration from Scotland (either to London or further afield):-
– Between the 1981 and 1991 censuses, over a quarter of a million Scots left Lanarkshire and the former Strathclyde region alone.
– Between 1971 and 2011, England’s population grew from 45.9 million to 53.0 million, whereas
Scotland’s rose from 5.2 million to 5.3 million. That is a contrast between 15.5% and 1.9% growth over 40 years;
– Going back further, between 1952 and 1965, 345,000 people left Scotland;
– From 1901 to 2001, England’s population increased by 60%, whereas Scotland’s increased by 10%.

Armed conflict, of course, will take a proportion of these figures – and others have argued elsewhere over (for example) the higher per capita cost to Scotland of the First World War (although 53 parishes in England and Wales had all their servicemen returned from this conflict, there were no such settlements in Scotland or Ireland that achieved this). Although a family tradition of military service is an important factor, one has to remember that families rarely opt for such careers, when there are other opportunities (such as agriculture) which would enable people to stay at home.

Beyond the lack of population growth, the statistic of 19% of the population of Scotland being in poverty (this should be the country with the 14th highest GDP per head in the world, remember), and the burgeoning of foodbanks after 307 years of Union, are also not great indicators that there has either been a Union dividend, or that we are indeed ‘in it together’. In Westminster, the Labour Party failed to get a full turnout to pass their own motion to end the Bedroom Tax (the absentees would have been enough to secure the vote), yet enthusiastically voted for a welfare cap. In addition, they have promised to go even further on welfare cuts than the current government – cuts with an implementation deadline of 2016, that the Child Poverty Action Group has said will push a further 100,000 children in Scotland directly into poverty by 2020, following the 30,000 children pushed into poverty in 2013 alone. In health terms, this is further reflected: in particular, the correlation between long-term Labour wards and low life expectancy in Glasgow is striking. Life expectancy for males in Glasgow’s East End is lower than some warzones (including the Gaza Strip): Labour may espouse that it cares about the worker in Grimsby as much as in Glasgow – but that doesn’t mean that they are going to do damn all for either of them.

This picture of a donor sector of the UK, that has suffered disproportionately as a result, becoming historically poorer than elsewhere in the UK, is not a pretty one: in particular, the squandering of oil resources (at the same time as the possible benefits to an independent Scotland were kept secret in the suppressed McCrone Report of 1975) means that the UK is one of only two oil-producing territories in the world NOT to form an Oil Fund. And this is not an exclusively one party problem: this fiscal recklessness has been repeated by Westminster governments of all colours, and is not simply the domain/devoir of Conservative or Labour Governments, but of Westminster governments as a whole. This has resulted (as the old joke goes) in Scotland being the only country in history to discover oil – and become poor.

“If you agree that society’s ills transcend borders – of course they do – then you should wish to eliminate the influence of these elites from as many people as quickly as possible. The fastest way to do that is to vote Yes. Voting Yes removes the Lords’ power over Scotland forever in one fell swoop, and sends the unmistakable message that we won’t tolerate such injustice any longer. We can stand as equals with our friends in England, Norway, Iceland, Ireland, and beyond, and start building not just a better country, but a better world. It will also be the biggest slap in the face the British establishment has ever faced; a wholesale rejection of austerity; a rejection of weapons of mass destruction and reckless environmental policy; a rejection of centralisation and neoliberalism. This majestic act of defiance could be just what the left in England, Wales and Northern Ireland needs. A single act of defiance can inspire revolutionary movements.” (Magnus Jamieson, National Collective)

‘It’s about the Democracy, Stupid’: Celebrities, Simplicity and Intervention

Today I watched the Edinburgh Festival Fringe lunchtime show ‘All Back to Bowie’s’, inspired by the thin white duke’s bizarre celebrity intervention back in March, via the even thinner and whiter proxy of Kate Moss. As he asked us not to leave him, we stayed round at his. Thus, the theme of each performance is set each day by a different Bowie song, the venue we inhabit is the yurt atop Dave’s Manhattan residence, and there it is that we witness the political debate from the panel as well as songs and poetry. And Cora Bissett played guitar (as one song – almost – goes), Kate Higgins of Woman for Independence (blogger from burdzeyeview.com) delivered a galvanizing ‘provocation’ for the panel with Stephen Noon (Yes campaign strategist) and the renowned Hollywood actor from Dundee (and voice of Newsnet Scotland’s Duggy Dug, explaining the Referendum issues), Brian Cox.

Brian Cox is no recent parachute into politics purely for the 18th September. He has long been politically active and is a member of the Labour Party. This political activity is not dissimilar to Sean Connery’s membership of the Scottish National Party and establishment (through his fee for 1971’s Diamonds are Forever) of the Scottish International Education Trust, where Scottish artists can apply for funding without having to leave their country in order to pursue their careers. Connery has vowed not to return to live in Scotland until it is independent. Another SNP supporter is the musician Fish (normally referred to with the suffix ’ootamerilyan’), who has long been an advocate of independence, but declined to take part in the current Yes campaign because (although he will be here for the vote – and, contrary to David Greig’s ‘The Yes/No Plays’ will actually vote ‘Yes’) he intends to move soon to be with his German partner and her family in Karlsruhe in Germany, so felt it might be portrayed as hypocritical to actively campaign if he was not intending to stay himself and be part of the subsequent Yes future that he would have been advocating.

These considered politically active individuals made me reflect on the oft-criticised role of the celebrity in politics – particularly in the context of this week’s 200 celebrity ‘Lets Stay Together’ initiative…most of whom have very little in the way of prior political credentials. Their presentation seemed a rather clumsy intervention, based on the questionable model of David Cameron’s bizarre ‘lovebombing’ appeal back in February, that at the time seemed instead to produce so many supportive ‘run and save yourselves’ tweets from the electorate down south. This position of ‘don’t leave us we love you’ is rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding of what the Referendum is about. The constant insistence from the southern establishment-owned press that this is about ‘anti-Englishness’ produces these curious responses – and one wonders whether such an interpretation is really aimed at people in Scotland, or more to support the ‘anti-English’ narrative down south as the sole credible reason for a desire for independence. That, in some way, it would be unthinkable that there might be ANY other reason for voting for independence than ‘anti-Englishness’ – as though this could POSSIBLY be symptomatic of a much broader UK-wide dissatisfaction with the democratic deficit of a Westminster that refuses to change and continues to funnel money down to Vince Cable’s giant suction machine of the (would-be) city state of London. Because accepting that it might be part of an advocacy for broader political change due to a widespread failure of Westminster across the UK would be – horror of horrors – tantamount to Scotland leading a second political enlightenment for London to latch on to. This exposes the crass naïveté of the ‘Let’s Stay Together’ initiative – the Referendum is not happening because of any perceived animosity towards England, the English or any other part of the UK: it is dissatisfaction with the democratic deficit that is the reason for ‘leaving’ (as they curiously like to put it). And this dissatisfaction is widespread and shared throughout the UK.

This sentiment was perhaps best summed up in the final part of the ‘All Back to Bowie’s’ show: a piece of poetry had been sourced from the audience, who had been asked to each provide a completed sentence that started ‘I want to say Yes to…’. One audience member (I believe from England?) had written down “I want to say yes to…an independent Yorkshire, Cornwall and Rutland: England is London.”

Vince Cable may – or may not – have been in the audience.

 

“For those of us who hold firm to Labour values and believe in a society that has at its very heart a sense of collective responsibility, a Yes is now the only real choice.” (Brian Cox)

What price legitimacy?: The beautiful, shining example

I’ve seen a couple of shows at the world’s biggest arts Festival, which started in Edinburgh last week, concerned in one way or another with the Referendum. This is something of a protest after the announcement last year that the Festival organisers would not be inviting new work on the Referendum for the Edinburgh Festival in the referendum year. The first performance that I saw was the preview of Alan Bissett’s new play ‘The Pure, The Dead and the Brilliant’. Looking at this light satire of the politics surrounding the Referendum reminded me of the unusualness of the context for this movement for self-determination. We are used to seeing political movements for change in the context of extremity. Brutality, torture, suppression of identity. Is there a ‘sliding scale’ of ‘wrongness’, that means that, at some point it becomes justifiable to start a self-determination or political reform movement, but below some critical threshold of abuse, it is not legitimate? Does one really need a dedicated report or rating from Amnesty International before one has the political kudos to be a ‘legitimate’ political movement for change? I think not. That way leads to the argument that only action of armed struggle – or armed containment/suppression by the controlling state – can validate a political movement for self-determination, which is clearly absurd.
As much as my political memories regarding Scottish independence go back to the seventies, my ‘political awakening’ (if it could be described as such) was in the late eighties, when I became involved in the campaign for Croatian self-determination. For me, there were some parallels between Croatia and Scotland, in terms of a historical monarchic union when one royal bloodline ended, the wealthier yet junior partner in a political union, with moves for independence. At the time, I was less aware of demonisation of those campaigning for independence or aspects of suppression of cultural identity, such as had been isolated in Amnesty International’s report noted – although to be fair many of these have really come to the fore in Britain since the election of the majority government at Holyrood (see lists of the huge increase of BBCTV programmes featuring the word Britain or British in the title since then). During this time, amongst a variety of early campaigning experiences, I met with Eleanor McLaughlin, then Lord Provost of Edinburgh, a prominent Labour figure (one of many who have come out for ‘Yes’ over the last 6 months), to discuss ways that the City Council might express some degree of support or solidarity for the movement. This strategy of trying to engage Scottish political bodies for expressions of support had come about as a result of the shooting of a Croatian political exile in Kirkcaldy by an assassin sent by the Yugoslav state (as came out during the trial in Dunfermline Sheriff court). I can remember that at this time, there was a palpable sense that in some intangible way the near martyring of this political campaigner in some way added weight or legitimacy to the campaign for Croatian self-determination.
In this context, two other Edinburgh Festival plays (‘3,000 Trees’ and ‘The Death of Willie MacRae’) dealing with the apparent murder of the anti-nuclear dumping lawyer (and SNP activist) by the security services in Easter 1985, is something of an anomaly. We don’t need assassinations, internment, or abuse through interrogation, to make the claim of self-determination legitimate. We don’t need (no matter how many might desire it) Alex Salmond to be imprisoned on Robben Island for thirty years to validate the Yes movement. Governments can abuse their position and forfeit their right to rule, without having to go that far – and that is one of the beauties of what is happening here, that Scotland has the opportunity to set this shining international example, of major political change happening without any violence at all. If the political system does not reflect the needs of the people, then that is justification enough that it needs to be changed.
There needs to be no violence or shedding of blood: only the pencil in our hand that makes the shape of the saltire in a flag-shaped box (for either option) on the ballot paper on September 18th. The beauty of Scotland setting such an example to the world was not lost on David Trimble (a very definite unionist) who endorsed the positive aspects of such a political transition through the ballot box, in terms of the model that it could potentially demonstrate for Northern Ireland as a new and positive influence for political movements elsewhere.

”Nuclear waste should be stored where Guy Fawkes put his gunpowder.” (Willie MacRae at the Mullwharcher Enquiry on nuclear dumping, 1980)