16 October 2012

Blinded by the Westminster prism...

On the theme of significant political images, yesterday afforded another telling little scene, courtesy of the BBC's midday Daily Politics.  Jo Coburn was sitting in for Andrew Neil and the discussion, understandably, turned to the issue of Scottish independence, and Cameron's jaunt up to Edinburgh to subscribe to the deal.  In an earlier segment of the programme (starting about 7:00 minutes in), Coburn interrogated SNP local government minister, Derek Mackay, about the Nationalist position on a range of topics, opening with the gambit that "the terms of trade have been agreed, but we don't yet have a question.  What would you like the question to be?"

Now, I don't object to this style of interviewing, which poses, as if from a position of ignorance, critical questions, permitting politicians to make their views plain. But I wonder if there might be more to it than this. Coburn then proceeded to put several needling propositions about independence to Mackay, as is her right and indeed, journalistic duty. James Caan shared his unrecognisable, tin-eared interpretation from a position of palpable cluelessness.  Somewhat later in the programme, after a few shots of Cameron bounding up the steps of St Andrew's House, Coburn introduced her panel to "discuss this historic moment".  

A balanced bench of judges, this, consisting of Deputy Labour leader, Anas Sarwar, the Liberal Democrat MP for Solihill, Lorley Burt, and for the Tories, Steve Brine, MP for Winchester.  None of which were, as you can imagine, particularly complimentary about Scottish independence, as is their prerogative.  During this section, she announced, as if it was news to anyone, that the SNP does indeed have a preferred referendum question, squinting down to consult a note, as if she'd only just discovered this from the lips of Derek Mackay. Seasoned Scots political watchers no doubt fell out of their armchairs in shock at this startling revelation.

For the nationalist, the gripe about the political balance of the piece composes itself.  This was like an edition of Scottish Questions in the House of Commons, where the vast majority of participants agree that nationalists are a bemusing cadre, to be reported as the somewhat eccentric, Other, marginalised in the conversation and certainly not to be taken too seriously.  As a representative balance of political opinion on the topic, it was a signal failure.

But bracket the issue about the representativeness of the conversation broadcast. On this critical day in the referendum's progress, it's more than accidental, but significant and telling, that the BBC should cobble together a debate, reflecting not the realities of contemporary Scottish politics, but the old Westminster spectrum of opinion, in which a complete spread of views need only include beams of red, blue and canary yellow.

As someone living down south at the moment, I'm interested in what folk in England make of the process, and what significance, if any, they can see in the referendum for their own vision of politics and of the United Kingdom. I'm keen to hear, from time to time, how pro-federal English Liberals talk about Scottish independence, or listless half-unionists from the Tory benches defend their, often modest, enthusiasm for "keeping Britain together", or the extent to which apparently non-nationalist democratic socialists from the Labour benches account for their universal adherence to the United Kingdom.

I've written before about devolution, and the accelerating social disunion we can already detect, as the political spaces of Westminster and Holyrood - and their attendant reading and broadcasting publics - pull apart. Despite the proliferation of potential sources for the journalist or reader based furth of Scotland, despite the relative ease with which folk can find out more about the emerging sense of a distinct Scottish political space, we don't see a London media showing greater savvy about issues at the core of the referendum debate. Instead, hackneyed imagery of nationalism are endlessly repeated, reportage is dominated by the implications of distinctly Scottish politics on Westminster - isn't it unfair that you charge the English for tuition fees? Why should Scots get free prescriptions, and the English pay?

The binary language of "them" and "us" is often employed, oblivious to the significance of such pronouns, and the presumed audiences they purport to distinguish and address. One doesn't have to be a devotee of Scottish nationalism to recognise this ongoing trend, and the social and political drift which underwrites it. The Spectator's Fraser Nelson, no friend to the SNP, has repeatedly identified the phenomenon of a drift apart in UK public affairs,  Even under devolution, the social union is breaking down, precisely because a shared politics is part of constituting a shared social and public life.

For all of their hostility towards Scottish nationalism, it is ironic that through the exclusions of their reporting, and the projection of Scottish politics as a foreign vale, populated by curious natives whose political convictions refuse neatly to fit into the categories of Westminster-centric political analysis, these self-same London-based media outfits foster a critical sense of difference, and reinforce the boundaries between UK and Scottish constitutional and political space, by increasingly seeing and writing and talking about Scotland as if it were a foreign country, covering Scottish stories as they might developments in France, or German politics. To put it another way, albeit unwittingly, the unionist UK media are helping to create the conditions which Salmond was able to exploit yesterday, making Cameron look like a foreign dignitary, rather than a Prime Minister on his own turf. I'm reminded again of Michael Ignatieff's description of political life in Canada, and the effect of the divergent political conversations happening in Quebec, and the rest of the country:

“The problem here is that we don’t have anything to say to each other any more. There’s a contract of mutual indifference which is very striking for someone of my generation ... Now effectively – effectively – we’re almost two separate countries."

This already looks like a recognisable and escalating feature of the relationships between the "London centre" and the "devolved periphery" to me.  What is interesting, too, is that you find curious and telling manifestations of this sort of feeling everywhere, beyond the papers, the news bulletins and discussion programmes. I recently attended an otherwise engaging lecture in Oxford.  The (English) academic in question was keen to subvert the (pervasive) idea that the international recognition of a right of peoples to self-determination was rooted in Wilsonian idealism in the wake of World War II.  The speaker was keen, instead, to promote an alternative genealogy of self-determination, rooted not in American liberalism, but instead in communist and socialist political history. 

To underline the significance of his study, he listed several "independence struggles" for self-determination from across the world.  Quebec warranted a mention, as did the Catalans and the Basques., along with Palestine and the Chechens. I waited for the S-word.  His longish list ended, and he moved on, having identified, as he saw it, all the important examples of self-determination which his audience might be interested to consider. I sat, at once astonished, and on another level, hardly surprised, that the independence movement on his own doorstep, imminently imperilling the integrity of his own state, didn't seem to warrant inclusion.

Looked at abstractly, this is profoundly strange omission, and reflects remarkable complacency on his part. When I challenged him about the domestic gap in his account, he shrugged it off as an accidental exclusion, a meaningless oversight, and not to be read too much into.  I was unconvinced. The absence of Scotland from this English lawyer's imagination was not incidental, but tells us a good deal about how a sense of understanding about Scotland is circulating (or not) within the UK, despite his considerable resistance to seeing it that way.

In what other state but the United Kingdom is it even conceivable for smart, highly-educated scholar of self-determination, listing significant instances of his topic, not to think of secessionary movements within his own borders immediately, not first, not second - but not at all?


  1. Interesting piece.

    You say that you are interested in the views of people down south, but when you get a down south panel, you complain that there's nobody from up here on it.

    We discuss these issues endlessly up here, in most cases with no English contribution. It affects them as much as us, so why shouldn't they have the odd debate without us?

    In any case Derek McKay had been on earlier, no doubt as erudite as ever, so the SNP view was heard.

    As for Quebec.... that's a night-mare of a different colour...

  2. Braveheart, you miss the point. Yes folk in Scotland talk about Scotland and its relations with the rest of the the UK a lot. (I suspect they do end these discussions sometime, by the way.) But such discussions are informed by a good idea of what is going on in London. How could it not be when British media every day beam into Scottish homes such news items about how Michael Gove is transforming "the British education system"? So participants in such discussions are well aware of the thought world of their Westminster counterparts.

    What is lacking is any sense that the reverse is true, or that participants in pretty clueless discussions about Scotland down here are aware just how out of touch they are. And whether you are a unionist, nationalist or still swithering, that should be a concern.

  3. "the discussions are informed by a good idea of what's going on in London"....!!

    Have you read the blogs? Have you listened to Joan McAlpine and Kenny Gibson?

    Large numbers of SNP supporters think that what's going on in London is suppression of the Scottish nation and a sort of colonialism where Scottish money keeps English Governments afloat and mass murdering foreigners for fun!

    If the Nats knew, really knew, what was going on in London they wouldn't be Nats.

  4. I don’t think it is that surprising that an English person should fail to mention the secession movement in Scotland. The independence referendum as an issue is considered marginal there. The English appear to consider the gravest economic crisis for 70 years as being more worthy of their attention. In so far as they have noticed, the English seem to be remarkably in favour of Scottish independence, so much so that it might have been wiser for Mr Salmond to have pushed to hold the referendum there rather than here.

  5. An Duine Gruamach16 October 2012 at 18:54

    "If the Nats knew, really knew, what was going on in London they wouldn't be Nats."

    Ah yes. How could anybody in full possession of the facts think differently from me?

    I also live in Oxford at the moment. They seem to be nice enough folk here, with little in the way of oppressive, colonialist schemes (or not any that they've mentioned to me, at any rate). But as often, Cllr. Gallagher, in lunging wildly at those frothy nationalists in your own mind, you've not really addressed The Worrier's point. Are English people - especially those from the metropolitan London bubble, ignorant of Scotland and its political situation?

    This is an extract from a conversation I had today:

    "Where is it you're from?"
    "London. Yourself?"
    "I'm from Edinburgh."
    "Edinburgh! You've come a long way, then."
    "Oh, it's not that far away, really."
    "[Laughing] Anything north of London is far away for me."

  6. An Duine Gruamach16 October 2012 at 18:56

    Forgot to add:

    Are English people - especially those from the metropolitan London bubble, ignorant of Scotland and its political situation? And if so, does that indicate that Scotland and England are drifting apart?

  7. I am (largely) with Bob and LPW on this one, though my examples may differ. I think misconceptions about Scotland abound - I once had a very odd conversation with a highly intelligent NUJ person who said how pleased he was to come to Scotland, and get away from bigotry. As for Americans sheesh - their fantasies about us are much stranger.

    We Scots do have misconceptions about each other of course - supporters of Central Belt football clubs are convinced Aberdonians and even Dundonians spend their evenings pursuing sheep for interspecies communication.

  8. I wonder if councillors should be working for the people of their locales instead of trawling blogs snd writibg to paoers howlung for attention

  9. When I wrote "really, really knew" I meant "understood" (that's why two reallys).

    Are English people ignorant of Scotland and its political situation?

    No more than Scottish people are ignorant of Cornwall or the Gower Peninsula, or County Down or East Anglia and their political situation(s). I wouldn't condemn them for that.

  10. The USA left but they'll come crawling back soon.
    Canada left but they'll come crawling back soon.
    India left but they'll come crawling back soon.
    New Zealond left but they'll come crawling back soon.
    Australia left but they'll come crawling back soon.
    Ireland left but I am SURE they will come crawling back soon.
    The Bahamas... etc.

    There is obviously nothing to all this independence stuff. ;)

  11. I have often remarked that independence movements which achieve a significant amount of public support - even well short of a majority - tend ultimately to succeed. There is a certain momentum that that makes success inevitable. What LPW identifies here is, I think, an outward manifestation of a psychological aspect of this phenomenon. It is almost as if the increasing divergence of the two political, social and cultural entities is subconsciously recognised even by those who would never explicitly acknowledge it.

    Contrary to what some of those commenting seem to imagine, it has absolutely nothing to do with Englishness as opposed to Scottishness. It has to do with distance from the realities of contemporary Scottish politics. That distance is as often measured in attitudes as in miles or parentage.

    The reason independence is inevitable is that this distancing is a self-reinforcing process. The more removed the commentariat becomes from the actual experience of people in Scotland the more these people feel alienated from the old political entity and the more they turn to that with which they can identify.

    Meanwhile, the establishment cliques of that old political entity become increasingly parochial by way of a reaction the the challenge to their comfortable status quo.

    I know of no way that this process can be reversed. The clock cannot be run backwards. Things said cannot be unsaid. Things thought cannot be unthought. The union is finished. The best we can hope for is a well-managed transition to a new relationship.

  12. I had a look at the online editions of various newspapers this morning, The Independent, The Mail, The Express and The Telegraph and the Edinburgh Agreement was either missing or a minor story.

    It may have had more prominence in the print editions but it puzzled me. Here was an independence movement getting a referendum which could leave with 33% of the UK's landmass and it wasn't headline news.

    As you've pointed out it's almost as if it just doesn't seem to have any impact on England even though for most of them Britain, the UK and England are synonyms and as far as they are concerned it is one nation that is breaking up.

  13. Napoleon Blownapart16 October 2012 at 22:58

    The conclusions I have drawn from conversing with English people from the SE bubble is:
    They think the SNP and Alex Salmond is a recent phenomena and don't realise they have been around for decades (even in Westminster).

    They think Alex Salmond is a flash-in-the-pan character whose having his 15 minutes of fame, so hate him and he'll go away soon enough.

    They actually don't care what happens outside the the home counties and London, it's a different world and England is not England anymore.

    They have become reactionary voters, usually reacting from something they have been spoon fed from the right wing media.

    They believe that all is well as long as the British institutions are still in place so that they can sleep at night (Crown, Westminster, Armed Forces, BBC etc).

    No understanding of Scottish politics, devolution or Holyrood because Scotland has nice scenery and nothing else (the oil is English and the land is owned by the Queen OK!), and they don't want to know, hence a permanent sense of bemusement and reserved anger (reserved for the Daily Mail comments section).

    The trusted London media (ie Nick Robinson) keeps them 'informed' LOL!

    Two questions I get asked the most: (2008-11) "Do Scots like Gordon Brown?" and: (present day) "Why do you Scots have to be different, why can't you be more like us?" ... from mostly university educated people in their 30s and 40s.

  14. Napoleon Blownapart

    You paint a very convincing picture. But I would point out that the attitudes you describe are not peculiar to English people. one need look no further than certain Scottish journalists with whose work I'm sure you are familiar.

  15. Is it not the case that the English have always reacted this way to independence movements? A refusal to take seriously, followed by incomprehension, hurt, then rejection of the memory of shared ties.... c.f. Ireland, India, etc.

  16. The South East of England and in particular the Greater London area have enough news and entertainment on their doorstep to keep them amused. It took a riot in Liverpool for them to even glance that far North.

    In an almost Trainspotting way, I do not blame them for their ignorance, I blame us for assuming that it would all work out OK in the end.

  17. Napoleon Blownapart17 October 2012 at 01:01

    @Peter ...

    Yes of course, these usual suspects are what I call 'embarrassed Scots', they want to be something else because they treat Scotland like a backwater and write about it as such where nothing is done right and no achievement is met. They hate themselves because they are part of it, lumping the SNP and the Independence Movement together into the Scottish cringe along with shortbread tins, the White Heather Club and chronic self-abused black affrontement. What they don't understand is that most Scots have grown up now and moved on. It's these 'journalists' that have become the new Scottish cringe and will be left behind stewing in their self loathing bile come 2014

    @Kininvie ...

    I totally agree.

    @Douglas ...

    "In an almost Trainspotting way, I do not blame them for their ignorance, I blame us for assuming that it would all work out OK in the end."

    It's an honest Scottish failing I suppose, thinking that other peoples think like us but don't really. It comes from our education system and ethics which gives us belief that we are equals regardless of our background, it keeps down any notion of a corrosive class system that is still so prevalent in England.

  18. What can you say or do if you're a blind elephant in a shrinking room?

    Some time back I waded through a biography of Winston Churchill. In his early political career he was more Whig than Liberal, was an advocate for social reform and while acting as the MP for Dundee and having gained his first ministerial post still included "This England; this sceptred Isle" in his speeches.

    Damned near a century later little has changed though much has been lost through such hubris.