8 April 2010

How to triangulate when you’ve got four corners?

How to triangulate when you’ve got four corners?  In February, the sagacious Peter McColl (former parliamentary Mosca to former Green MSP and alfalpha male, Mark Ballard) rebuked the West Wing’s Jed Bartlett and his hive of fictional advisers for what he takes to be the President’s triangulating political strategy.  This creates “a particular type of politics”, McColl argues, and that type of politics is poisonous.”  I quote a couple of choice sections from the Bright Green Scotland piece below, to give you the bare bones of his contention about the politics of triangulation:

“This is the process of moving yourself into the middle ground. By moving away from your vote base, you are able to peel votes off your opponents. This often involves a symbolic move from the party base ... ”

“... Triangulation has a very specific and limited use. It’s what you do if you’re the main party of opposition and you want to be in government, but not really to change anything. That’s why it worked for the SNP – the main opposition in Scotland with the strategic aim of showing they can be trusted with government. It is impossible for a small party, or third party to triangulate as the party’s core support is almost inevitably too small to sustain this strategy. And that’s one of the fundamental problems with the Liberal Democrats.”

I don’t want to dwell on the inculpatory or exculpatory detail of the West Wing’s imaginary, grandiheroic Democratic administration, which might bear out or refute McColl’s specific charge against it. Rather, I’ve been trying to puzzle out what folk are talking about when, as they do fairly regularly, they explicitly or implicitly imagine party political strategy in the instant election in terms of triangular metaphors. Particularly in the Scottish context, as any reasonably intelligent young geometrician will advise you, it is difficult to form one triangle when you’ve got four corners. The metaphor seems obvious enough in the context of the UK wide race – a tri-pointed context which is sanctimoniously dignified by the BBC inflicting its three-man debates on the country. Three points + lines = ▲. Simple? Not necessarily. One reason that I’d suggest caution is that this simple definition of triangulation – basically amounting to having three primary competitors – is very different from the sort of triangulation McColl clobbers. We’re dealing with at least two different senses of triangulation here. This second sense of triangulation originates in the United States context of binary Elephant vs Donkey electioneering and “third way” Democratic appeals, which heralded the death of big government, and more recently the promise of a transcendent unity, the end of anomic political fractures. The point about triangulation on this definition is that the shape is formed between two competitors, pied-pipering the other lot’s voters with particular centralising messages. Although this is frequently imagined on a left/right axis, (however problematic that formulation really is) – in the triangulating rhetoric “laying claim to the centre ground” – obviously there is no inherent cartography designating the middle ground of politics. Centre-left, centre-right – it’s a contingent matter, rooted in the consensual midriff of the particular political community we’re talking about.

Brian Taylor suggests that “to counter that squeeze phenomenon, the LibDems will seek to triangulate this contest - to pitch themselves in contradistinction to both Labour and the Tories, offering a message of sustaining social “fairness” while pursuing economic recovery.” Taylor’s triangulation seems to be primarily of the first order – not premised on the Liberals in the centre, but of Liberals simply as a third point. This analysis seems perfectly cogent in the context of the Liberals’ ideological vacillations. Sometimes wanting to claim they’re to the left of Labour – no triangulation there – at other times suggesting that they are the shruggers compromise between Labour and Tory. And again, still others when reference is made to “savage cuts”. If they were students of contemporary philosophy, they’d try to be Utilitarian Kantians, and pitch for the incompatible position.  The concerns of triangulation seem to me quite different from the concerns of a third-party candidacy which might cultivate and pick away at their competitors’ overall tally of votes. With the Liberal Democrats, it seems to me a question of the third option, rather than the third way. These concerns of this political thirdiness seem best exemplified by the squirming ballyhoo about who gets to stand at the middle podium during the debates between Labour, Tory and Liberals. Clearly the experience of the Chancellors debate (which I’m cheerful to say, I didn’t watch) convinced observers that Vince Cable was like Christ crucified between two sinners – and that if they’d only exchanged crucifixes, George Osborne would have got all the cheers and would have taken home all the plums.

This seems to me a symptom of a triangular political competition in England, but not an outbreak per se of the brute politics of triangulation. That being so, what about the solid square of Scottish politics, propped up by the introduction of the SNP in a fourth corner? Here, I’d suggest, we can see agitation for a triangulation, particularly in the early tales and metaphors emanating from my own SNP in these early stages of the contest. Essential to this strategy is the Tweedledum, Tweedledee and Tweedledoo thesis, as I’ll describe it. Although focussing on the Tories and Labour (Tweedles dum & dee), its important to notice that the Liberal Democrats (Tweedledoo) are increasingly being scooped up into the same category by the SNP rhetoricians. Reflect on the stark scolding the Maximum Eck gave Tavish Scott a few weeks back on sweatsome Nick Clegg’s rhetoric on the brutality of cuts. Consider the line from Salmond’s recent speech at the SNP party conference, on Trident missiles:

“A cosy consensus on Trident. The extent of their disagreement is whether we have three new submarines or four new submarines. But we say – no nuclear submarines. No nuclear missiles. No weapons of mass destruction on the river Clyde. Theirs is a consensus on nuclear power. On nuclear dumping. Consensus on the deeply flawed tax proposals from the Calman Commission - proposals that would see a 5p hike in income tax just to see Scotland’s budget stand still. Tory and Labour agree on student fees, punishing taxes on fuel, post office privatisation and post office closures.”

Although Salmond is clearly talking about the blues and the reds – given the opacity and vagueness of Tweedledoo’s position on nuclear deterrence technologies, Trident or otherwise, it seems to me that a clear condensation strategy has been envisaged and put in motion by the Nationalists. This strategy defines the 2010 General Election in terms of SNP (local champions) vs (Tweedledum, Tweedledee and Tweedledoo). Thus, while apparently faced by three discreet alternative positions, Salmond and Shoal are working to coax the election discourse into an alternative binary structure. One they hope will work to their best balloteering advantage. On a wider note, because of its radically different geometry, it is also a narrative which is apt to confuse onlookers who still sketch their General Election 2010 metaphors using three points rather than four. For that reason, and given the persisting biases towards the triune in British broadcasting, the SNP might find that getting this message out proves somewhat difficult. Although it is clear that the UK media still can't cope with the death of the centralised Westminster life, buried with devolution at the end of the 1990s, the coverage of this campaign will at least furnish us with an opportunity to analyse and understanding of  how UK national institutions are coping with an increasingly delineated Scottish political Otherness, a decade devolved.

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