Bad history leads to bad politics – from Trump to Brexit and Scotland
Scottish Review, September 2nd 2020
The past is always with us, being remade and reinterpreted to suit the needs of the present. Yet in today’s world of complexity, change and messiness – as well as constant information and disinformation – a lot of questionable interpretations of the past are gaining currency and being used to justify bad politics in the here and now.
The most obvious is Trump who, despite over 180,000 Americans officially dead from COVID-19, is running for re-election as President on a record that he proudly claims is to do with ‘American greatness’. Simultaneously the chaos and violence engulfing many American cities is, he thinks, nothing to do with him and his divisive racist politics and rhetoric, but all about others – namely ‘Democrat-run cities’ and protestors.
If Trump manages to distance himself far enough from his own scandalous record as President and presents himself as some kind of outsider, divorced from the consequences of his own actions, there is a chance he will be re-elected. This may be in fact be the only real chance he has to ‘win’ re-election which could well be at terrible cost to American society and democracy.
Back home the examples are a little less grotesque than that of Trump but still tell us much about how people deliberately decide to become prisoners of a very selective, distorted version of the past.
Take Scottish Labour which has had a hard last few years. Last Friday their general secretary Michael Sharpe was on social media raising the spectre of events of March 1979 when the Labour Government of Jim Callaghan lost a vote of no confidence by a single vote, heralding the 1979 election and Margaret Thatcher becoming Prime Minister.
Sharpe said: ‘A reminder the SNP voted down a Labour Government to usher in Thatcher’. No mention that along with the SNP voting against Labour in the vote of confidence so too did the Liberals led by David Steel after the end of the Lib-Lab pact – but no one ever seems to mention the role of the Liberals. The bigger point is that the main culprits who brought the Callaghan Labour Government to its sad end were Jim Callaghan, Labour and the disagreement between party and unions which led to ‘the winter of discontent’.
If that were not enough, immediately after the above Sharpe continued in a similar vein stating: ‘a reminder that the SNP actually opposed a Scottish Parliament’. This is 100% untrue. The SNP over the course of its history has engaged in many detours, highways and byways, but pre-devolution consistently stood for a Scottish Parliament. Whereas Labour were actually as a party formally opposed to a Parliament or Assembly between 1958 and 1974.
The above comments just underline what everyone knows. That Labour have been spooked by the SNP, and 20 plus years into the Scottish Parliament, and after thirteen years in opposition have little idea of how to do politics, challenge the SNP and be an opposition force. The 1979 story is the sort of point which still animates George Foulkes, but carries little weight elsewhere; the Parliament argument merely underlines that Labour feel the SNP have stolen the story of devolution from them, which they have.
Lest we think this is all owned by one party or tradition in Scotland there are similar examples from independence supporters. There is the importance given to the McCrone report – a confidential eighteen-page memo written by economist Gavin McCrone in 1974 which summarised the potential gamechanger North Sea Oil would be to the economics of independence. This memo was not published at the time as it was civil service advice; and its existence only became known in 2005.
In part of the nationalist mythology this report’s existence is proof that the UK Government kept the truth from voters. It is proof of an establishment conspiracy only uncovered by the actions of the SNP. Rather the contents of the McCrone report underline what all Scottish politics knew in the 1970s: that North Sea Oil changed Scottish politics. There was a SNP campaign at the time called ‘It’s Scotland’s Oil’ which was hugely successful and contributed to the SNP surge in the 1974 elections.
Another more nuanced one is how the 1979 referendum is seen, the 40% rule (which required a threshold of 40% support across the entire electorate) and fall of the Callaghan Government. When the 40% rule was proposed by George Cunningham, a Labour MP, in 1978, a total of 34 Labour MPs voted against the party whip for the measure which passed.
In the account given by Callaghan in his memoirs and reproduced by the ‘Wings over Scotland’ blog, this rebellion is seen as being responsible for the downfall of Labour in office, by creating a referendum hurdle which could not be passed: ‘I have since wondered whether those thirty-four Labour Members would have voted as they did if they had been able to foresee that their votes on that evening would precipitate a General Election in 1979 …’ Hence, this has become to some independence supporters the story of how 34 Labour MPs brought down their party, ushering in the Tories, providing a reverse narrative and victimology to that of the Labour account of 1979 above.
Step forward in the league of disinformation the latest interventions from George Galloway. Galloway has now turned his attention back to Scottish politics through ‘Alliance for Unity’, under which banner he plans to run candidates in next year’s Scottish elections to aim to stop the SNP. He is also calling for Labour, Lib Dems and Tories to co-operate in this aspiration.
Galloway regularly talks of the SNP’s role during the Second World War, when it was a tiny micro-party, in incredulous terms equating them with the likes of Nazi collaborators in occupied Europe, saying in 2014 that ‘the leaders of the SNP were openly willing a Nazi invasion’ of the UK.
This has become a mantra for some fervent anti-independence supporters with Jamie Blackett, deputy leader in the Galloway enterprise telling The Times a similar tale of history. Talking of his hero, Hugh Dowding, head of Fighter Command in the Battle of Britain, and someone we all owe a debt of gratitude to, Blackett says that if he had lost ‘the SNP would have been ruling Scotland since 1940 in collaboration with the Nazis.’
The collaboration charge about the SNP leadership is completely inaccurate. The SNP supported the war but many of its members opposed military conscription on the principle of ‘not in my name’ due to the absence of any form of Scottish Government. This position saw SNP wartime leader Douglas Young and future leader Arthur Donaldson go to jail.
In UK politics Corbynistas took great delight in damning the record of the Blair-Brown 1997-2010 Labour Government. It was simply neo-liberal, Thatcherism continued and not worthy of holding office in the name of Labour. There is a problem if you trash the record of your own party in office. Voters tend to think that you were not a success in government and not think that your party is worth electing.
What unites all of the above is the making of a fictitious, simplified and caricatured past to justify entrenched, bitterly partisan politics now. There is in all of these accounts a search for villains, even traitors to the cause in question, and conspirators who can be blamed for the politics of your side going wrong. As in the hideous example of Trump it allows for an abdication from any sense of responsibility for your own actions.
The only near-comparable example to Trump and one made many times in UK politics has been that of Brexit. The right-wing version of Brexit has become associated before and after 2016 with a buccaneering, free-market version of Britain’s past – one where we conquered the world in terms of Empire, oceans and trade – which is meant to have resonance and relevance today. The suggestion is that a version of Britain can arise which divorces itself from Europe, looks to our maritime past, reconnects with the English-speaking democracies of the world and embraces deregulated capitalism. This is a national fiction which ignites the imagination of parts of the right, think tanks and elements in Boris Johnson’s government.
It says much about modern Britain that we still have to have painful debates about whether Empire was good or bad, slavery, and the appropriateness of the lyrics of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ and ‘Rule, Britannia!’ at the Last Night of the Proms. There is still hope that in Britain this reactionary version of the past can be defeated and its upholding of conservative values in the present.
But all across the world we see similar stories of inaccurate pasts being advocated to promote bad politics in the here and now. A better sense of history would be helpful, but really the question is why do we have so many demagogues, big and small, in our politics today and why do too many people choose to listen to them and their simplistic accounts of betrayal and treachery?
The answer lies in the unfortunate truth that too many of us are drawn to the pull of complex issues being the result of villains in the present and past, offering the false escape of a Manichean way of interpreting and living in the modern world. That failure – which has led to Trump, a dishonest Brexit, Corbynism’s dismissal of Labour past, the alternative versions of 1979 and many more such accounts – is a damning indictment of mainstream politics and politicians the world over which has cost us all dear.