Scotland’s Big Debate, Mini-Crises and A Tale of Two Establishments
Scottish Review, August 27th 2013
We hear all the time from all quarters and opinions that the independence debate is a historic one and a momentous decision.
Sadly often it doesn’t feel like that at the moment, seeming more like the next installment in the Labour-SNP dirty war or a bitter by-election in a closely fought parliamentary seat.
The key issues, if you go by what has been in the media in the last few weeks, has been who paid for a newspaper article, whether Labour for Independence was a front and deliberate deception, and even, who originated and then stole the phrase, ‘the best of both worlds’ (which apparently ‘Better Together’ allege ‘Yes Scotland’ stole).
The most recent controversy involved several dimensions. There was the hacking scandal which entailed ‘Yes Scotland’s’ computer systems being cyber-attacked; ‘Yes Scotland’ paying for an article in ‘The Herald’ by Dr. Elliot Bulmer; and what looks like an orchestrated attempt to reduce the debate to the most superficial level.
The ‘Yes Scotland’/Bulmer scandal warranted the ‘Daily Telegraph’ Scottish edition making it its lead front page story, proclaiming ‘Faltering Yes campaign paid for good publicity’ (August 22nd), and elicited all sorts of partisan commentary and partisan posturing on social media. Is this where twitter really comes into its own, as the hashtag #indyref gives voice and platform to the most simplistic and partisan opinions?
‘Yes Scotland’ and Bulmer crossed a fundamental line which might be seen as a storm in a tea cup, but one which is important. ‘Yes Scotland’ paid for a piece -which the author accepted – and which the newspaper and public didn’t know about. It wasn’t transparent, and it changed the piece into advocacy and advertorial.
Blair Jenkins, ‘Yes Scotland’ chief, on STV’s “Scotland Tonight’ (August 22nd) when asked if he felt it would be alright for someone to write a piece on climate change which was ‘paid by a campaign group with a vested interest’, conceded it wasn’t, and that ‘Yes Scotland’ wouldn’t be doing this again. Kate Higgins, the nationalist blogger, viewed that this had been a mistake and that ‘Yes Scotland’ were now in a period of ‘damage limitation’ where trust had been eroded.
The above only matters in the light of the strange nature of large parts of Scottish public life, where substance is often avoided. Then there is the issue of the political nous of ‘Yes Scotland’ which has been revealed as sadly lacking, not for the first time. And there is the campaign to bring the debate down to the most puerile, petty levels, which if it is not officially run by ‘Better Together’, is by forces in sympathy with them.
All of this is an affront to political debate, but not exactly surprising. What the people peddling these negative, micro-controversies are trying to do is raise levels of cynicism, disillusion and disconnection. They are doing this in the believe that the forces of negativity will encourage voters to switch off and then stick with the status quo.
This has to be put in a much wider context. At the moment, the debate is presented in much of our politics and media as just a Yes/No discussion involving two rival camps, advocates and cheerleaders, narrowing the debate down to two simple choices which lack nuance or substance. More crucially, this curtailing of possibilities, disenfranchises most of the Scottish public, and presents the debate as a tale of two arid constitutional offerings, limiting the chances of exploring the deep economic, social and cultural dimensions of all of this.
It means that we have, apart from a contest between two forms of nationalism – unionism being a form of nationalism (something many Labour figures don’t seem to be able to come to first base on: witness Margaret Curran on ‘narrow nationalism’ last week and Brian Wilson ad nauseum), something more profound.
Namely, that this historic debate is having much of the history deliberately knocked out of it. Instead, we have the unedifying spectacle of two minority bubbles, tearing bits out of each other in public, mainstream and social media and other platforms. Somehow some of the parties seem to think that this forms the basis of how to run and win a campaign.
What this noise and thunder disguises is that as things currently stand the Yes/No debate offers a choice between two versions of conservative Scotland and two rival establishments.
One is the old establishment which has administered Scotland for the last 40-50 years until the last few years, made up of the labour movement, trade unions, parts of local government and elements of the voluntary sector.
The other is the bright, shiny, new establishment associated with the SNP and self-government. And seamlessly in the act of self-preservation, some parts of the old establishment have moved from one elite to another without pausing for breath or changing any other opinion. This allows them to continue the uninterrupted coverage of conservative Scotland, and saying to the rest of us, don’t worry about change, trust us, trust your elites in time-honoured Scottish style.
This is a state of affairs that has to be highlighted and challenged. A debate which continues status quo Scotland, our comforting stories and sense of complacency isn’t going to do much good. A continuation of politics, current affairs and the discussion on Scotland’s future which deliberately restricts it to a closed shop and minority interests, isn’t likely to produce anything radical.
This wasn’t how it was meant to be in the fantasyland Scotland, in which some believe exists a place of radicals and idealists. But it is how things were likely to turn out, given the power of the two establishments, the grip of institutional Scotland, and the reach of elites.
That’s why we need to challenge those in positions of power, and those in politics, media and public life. Scotland’s referendum can be a choice between competing versions of safety-first Scotland and keeping the existing show on the road. Or we can point out that there is a long story to this, of the managed, ordered, institutional Scotland of the union, and that this debate and vote offers the first time to hold it to account and critique it.
Elite Scotland has failed us and it isn’t offering anything of worth for the future, whether independent or in the union. And not surprisingly, those elites want to retain their pre-eminence and make sure whatever Scotland’s constitutional status, that they retain their place and position. All of the mini-dramas, pseudo-controversies and disinformation, are part of a deliberate obfuscation to shut down any attempt at wider debate and change.
A different road is possible: of the independence debate as a catalyst for the much delayed democratisation of Scottish public life. To do so entails asking awkward questions, challenging who and what has power, and shining a light of scrutiny into those dark, dimly lit corners of society which have so far avoided much attention.