15 May 2014

The Anatomy of Panic

The collapse of old, critically-unexamined certainties can be discombobulating. We've all got them - basic assumptions we make and generally don't question, that keep life toddling on undisturbed.  The sun will rise tomorrow. Labour will win any Glasgow election going. What I'm good at today, I'll be good at tomorrow: my talents and faculties won't desert me.

Often as not, we can afford to take these things for granted.  But when the ground falls suddenly away beneath you, you're generally unprepared for the landing. In my experience, your first reaction is almost invariably the wrong one.  The temptation to overreact, to panic, is acute.

For my part, the experience of working on a doctorate has been a serious salutary one in this respect.  The process of writing has always tended to come easily to me, even as a nipper.  I may run like a hirpling pygmy hippo.  My body may have the accumulated athleticism of an adipose sloth.  My character may be haunted by its share of weird anxieties and frustrating inadequacies. But I have always been confident, and have always enjoyed, turning a phrase in print. To find yourself tongue-tied, fretful, blocked and inarticulate - was seriously disturbing.

As people's troubles go, this is a fairly minor anxiety which I invite no particular sympathy for. But what rendered it dismaying was the discovery that an old immodest conceit was fundamentally mistaken. I am now, I'm happy to say, over the hump, but for a period, this confrontation with the unforeseen collapse in one of life's certainties curdled my spirits and demolished my confidence. I'm doubtless better off for it, but the internal resources had to be slowly worked up, to deal with it.

Why the confessional note, you might reasonably wonder.  In the referendum debate, recent weeks have seen a familiar existential panic grip sections of the Better Together campaign, particularly in Tory circles south of the border.  There are plenty of prudent reasons to be anxious.  The polls have narrowed.  The incoherences and disunities in the No campaign are proving increasingly difficult to manage privately, and are spilling out into acrimonious press briefings and backstabbings. Interventions supposed to have been decisive, warning of the perils of separation, have failed to stir up the animus against independence which was hoped.  

More fundamentally anxiety-provoking is the discovery that the positive case for the Union has proved disturbingly difficult to state lucidly or with confidence.  Folk like Hugo Rifkind, profoundly invested in ideas of Britain and Britishness, lament that "the fat-tongued, rubber-footed, cack-handed, tin-eared uselessness of British political discourse on Scottish independence is beginning to give me the fear." You don't have to be a wizard strategist to discern that this bag-of-ferrets strategy doesn't look good. 

In these unhelpful, public intra-Unionist anxiety sessions, the tone has been by turns hysterical and resigned. It's all Alistair Darling's fault, the dreary so-and-so.  No, that's not it at all. It's all these horrid Tory day-trippers, these coalition ministers with their hectoring tones and messages of calamity. That's not it. It's Labour's dereliction of duty when it comes to activists. Like Wellington at Waterloo, you can imagine senior Tories rattling around empty offices, crying, "where are the Prussians?"

All of which, for the independence-supporter, is fine larks and to be encouraged.  But I do wonder if the pitch of the panic tells us more about the gap which has opened between Scottish and Westminster politics, than it does about the likelihood of Yes carrying referendum day. I've written here before about the phenomenon of being talked at about Scottish independence in parts of England. Surely the idea of Scotland separating is disreputable, ludicrous, laughable, impossible, unthinkable. Surely no right-thinking person could possibly endorse the idea. Oh, if you must. Have your silly referendum, then. But it is a foregone conclusion, my dear chap.  Even explaining that a good chunk of the country had voted for the SNP twice did nothing to shift this basic conviction in those I talked to. I came to realise that our political imaginations occupied two different spaces, and they simply hadn't begun to take the possibility of independence seriously, or pondered why others might find it desirable or compelling.

With the Yes campaign catching up in the polls, that cherished certainty has been annihilated. This is, I'm sure, profoundly disturbing and helps to explain the irrational and excessive alarm now gripping parts of the No campaign. Also in the Spectator earlier this week, Alex Massie was on perceptive form on this point, concluding: 
"Some people seem shocked that the race looks as though it will be a close one. I’m more tempted to be shocked by the fact people are shocked by this. It’s almost as if they’ve not been paying attention."
Crumbling certainties confuse and they upset. And the No campaign across the UK doesn't have the luxury of much time to recalibrate its emotional and intellectual resources.  The imaginative gap, alluded to by both Massie and Rifkind, separating the Westminster-dominated politics and the debate in Scotland, remains one of the Yes campaign's most significant structural advantages.

The best advocates always understand their audience, its quirks and assumptions and reactions.  They know which levers to pull, which switches to turn and which to leave well alone. Now and then, the talented amateur may get lucky, but it is a risky business. For the increasingly-anxious political actor, steeped in London-centric politics and hoping to have an impact on how Scots vote in September, the prevailing disunities within the UK make the job that much harder. For Better Together's supporters, they can but hope that none of their fretful, tinkering amateurs presses any big red buttons before September. 

31 comments :

  1. I can hear the sound of nail chewing from here.

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  2. Of course if the yes vote succeeds and Scotland becomes independent it will condemn England (and Wales) to a Tory government in perpetuity. I think Ill emigrate!

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    1. No it won't as England gets the party it votes for 90+% of the time.

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    2. Blair didn't need any Scottish seats for his 3 wins...

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    3. No democratic country has a perpetual one-party system. After a while, the parties realign to create a competitive race. So England will have a competitive left-of-centre party, just as Scotland will have right-of-centre one. In theory, the English left-of-centre party might be rather similar to the Scottish right-of-centre one, but Tory governments in perpetuity won't happen.

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    4. 'Of course if the yes vote succeeds and Scotland becomes independent it will condemn England (and Wales) to a Tory government in perpetuity.'

      That is a common myth.

      1997 General election, Labour majority 179. Number of Scottish Labour MPs: 56
      2001 General Election, Labour majority, 167. Number of Scottish Labour MPs: 56
      2005 General Election, Labour majority, 66. Number of Scottish Labour MPs: 41.

      And the notion that Scotland has always voted Labour is another myth.

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    5. "And the notion that Scotland has always voted Labour is another myth.

      Don't mention Mr Dundas, or Mr Gladstone...

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    6. Oh very true, but I was thinking more of 1955. The wiki article on the Scots Tories Westminster vote is interesting


      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scottish_Conservative_Party



      That table of vote share can be read as a portrait of terminal decline if you like, but also shows one interesting swing in vote share - 41.8% in 1945 (a year the popular narrative has it they were wiped out!) and 50.1% in 1955, that latter figure being often misleadingly cited as the only occasion one party won over 50% of the vote in Scotland, as it includes a few wee allied parties, but still.

      My take is the long decline is in major part down to increasing resistance to sectarianism among the Scottish Tories - I mind talking to a nice young English Thatcherite in the the late 70s who was deeply shocked at anti-Catholicism in Scotland ('can't work with these people'),

      Actually looking at the history learning site

      - http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/1945_general_election.htm


      it gives different figures to wiki (maybe without the wee allies??) and interestingly shows that in 1945 slightly more Scots proportionately voted Tory than in England.

      I understand little of this - I don't even understand how Eurovision works - but clearly the notion of a historically left-wing progressive Scotland under the heel of a right-wing England is one that doesn't stand up.

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    7. It is an interesting one: folk tend to forget (or not realise) that the calamity which has engulfed the Tories north of the border is a relatively recent development in historical time. Callow mites like myself, politically unconscious before 1997 or so, might be forgiven this lapse. But Thatcher's re-election two years before I was born, in 1983, despatched a mighty 21 Scottish Members to Westminster. But the folk memory differs.

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  3. If it is true that the debate on independence is now steeped in negativity and that the pro-UK side is regarded as the more negative of the two, I hope that I may be allowed to bring some positivity to the table.

    We exist, all 60 million of us, on a small island with a 300-year record of social, political and economic solidarity with our island neighbours. We like and respect our fellow Britons. Indeed, such is the intermingling that has resulted in the long years of peace that it could truly be said that we are our neighbours – there is very little difference between a Scottish and an English person of the same approximate social class. We have a shared history and we rub along very well with shared values and joint programmes. Together we are committed to democracy, fairness and justice. Together we have delivered a settled, fair and just society within UK borders, and an extensive welfare state including universal education and National Health Service. Together we have shared to effort of the burdens of creating a healthy and admirably unified UK society.

    The Parliament at Holyrood currently has powers over Health, Education, the Police, the Justice System, Transport and Economic Development including Planning. It was also given power over taxation by the ability to vary income tax by 3p in the pound although this has never been used and appears to have lapsed. With the full enactment of the Calman proposals in 2016 Holyrood will have further tax raising powers including a Scottish rate of income tax and, for the first time, borrowing powers. These are extensive powers and give the Scottish people a high degree of flexibility and control over policy and delivery within Scotland. This extensive autonomy exists within the security of the larger democratic and economic structure of the greater United Kingdom, providing political and economic stability and strong defence and foreign policy support, all of which the SNP implicitly admits with its desire, while calling for “independence”, to keep the UK Pound, the Monarchy, membership of NATO, the EU and a host of other international agreements and treaties that the Westminster currently holds and negotiates on behalf of the whole of the UK.

    I am not sure how much of the above could be considered “negative”: I can only see positives. It seems to me that the most obviously negative element of the debate is the SNP’s contrary desire, on no strong argument that I have heard in decades of debate and exchange with Nationalists, to destroy all of this and replace it with something which they are unable to describe with any certainty or coherence and which does not amount, in my view, to solidarity with my fellow citizens.

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    1. "I am not sure how much of the above could be considered “negative”"

      It isn't, of course. What it is is irrelevant.

      We will exist on the same island after independence.

      We will still like and respect our fellow Britons after independence. And the chance is that they will respect us rather more than they do now, because most of them currently think we sponge off them and get privileged treatment which they pay for but which is denied to them.

      The Scottish Parliament will still have all the powers you describe after independence. It will also have lots more, enabling it to conduct the affairs of Scotland in a manner best suited to Scotland's needs, without having to take into account what might be good for Essex and Kent.

      And most importantly of all, Scotland will ALWAYS get the government it votes for, rather than just 40% of the time, and only then by coincidence.

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    2. If nothing will change, why go through the pain?

      And you obviously didn't read Edwin, above

      "That is a common myth.

      1997 General election, Labour majority 179. Number of Scottish Labour MPs: 56
      2001 General Election, Labour majority, 167. Number of Scottish Labour MPs: 56
      2005 General Election, Labour majority, 66. Number of Scottish Labour MPs: 41.

      And the notion that Scotland has always voted Labour is another myth."


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    3. Who said nothing would change? I didn't. I said we'd be more respected, more democratic and more able to act in our own best interests. Those are all changes.

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    4. So nothing would change but "we" would be more respected etc....? yeh? as my 9 year old nephew might say.

      Can you explain to me: how would Yes vote improve the lot of people living in Scotland?

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    5. You did? I didn't know they had invisible ink on the internet....

      Maybe you could try explaining how would a Yes vote improve the lot of people living in Scotland in actual words, facts, arguments, evidence? That sort of stuff.... I know. Troublesome.... still, give it a try....you know you want to

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    6. See above.

      The governments we choose. Not Tories six years out of every ten, and gutless, snivelling pseudo-Tories the rest of the time.

      Governments that act for US, not the City of London.

      Governments spending our money on our people, not on bombing foreigners and making us a target for terrorists.

      And, y'know, self-respect. I understand if a Labour councillor needs to go and get someone to explain that to him, so take your time.

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    7. The question I asked was: how would a Yes vote improve the lot of people living in Scotland?


      You seem obsessed with self-respect. Don't you respect yourself?

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    8. I do, but then I'm not a Labour councillor so it's easy.

      Which part of "Governments spending our money on our people, not on bombing foreigners and making us a target for terrorists" do you need dumbed down?

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  4. What's the point of raising income tax in Scotland, when it goes into the treasury's coffers and doesn't come back to Scotland? Seems a bit pointless to me.

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    1. a. It does come back to Scotland.

      b. Just because it makes no sense to you doesn't mean it makes no sense.

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  5. You did? I didn't know they had invisible ink on the internet....

    Maybe you could try explaining how would a Yes vote improve the lot of people living in Scotland in actual words, facts, arguments, evidence? That sort of stuff.... I know. Troublesome.... still, give it a try....you know you want to...

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    1. Braveheart,

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x-ZMwp1elXw

      Answer that!

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  6. A large proportion of taxes collected is spent funding a disproportionately large military & to disproportionately invade/bomb/coerce foreign sovereign nations. In addition, we fund a pointless nuclear arsenal that almost all NATO members for example chose not to have. We will soon fund a high speed rail project that will come not within a 100 miles of Scotland for many decades if ever. We also pay for colossal infrastructure projects in London while our A9 remains single carriageway for many miles. I could go on ... but imagine all of that & more is spent on more productive or socially beneficial projects like housing or hospitals or country wide internet.

    Imagine having a proportionate defense force instead of a half arsed military pretending to be a superpower. Imagine not having to get a bloody connection in London just to fly somewhere we fancy for the weekend.

    There are too many positive benefits to list here but most important of all, independence means we get rid of a second unelected house & always get the democratically elected government Scotland votes for.

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  7. I don't understand the 'mea culpa' at the start of this. It didn't seem to me to follow through. If it had, I would have written:

    "LPW, you are far too hard on yourself!"

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    1. Thanks Douglas. I was really just trying to give a personal example of the wider phenomenon the post discusses.

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    2. Braveheart

      Why were Unionist Parties determined to keep 2nd question off ballot paper?

      1.hoping for a high NO to destroy nationalists
      2.keep devo,status quo
      3.further powers to scottish parliament is a threat

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  8. Scottish labour are a spineless , two faced liers who offer nothing but scares and smears. They are finished in Scotland wait and see.

    Liberals policy ........ aye right

    Tory dont make me laugh

    SNP a vehical to get us where we WANT to go


    REV keep up the great work you do ..


    YES SCOTLAND

    YESGUY

    thanks again LPW always an education

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