George Orwell, Politics and the English Language
Bad language is becoming a recurring theme in the referendum debate. Yet it is not so much the predictable vitriol and smearing that we need to worry about. Nor is it about how we define ‘Scottishness’. Rather, it’s the fact that so much of today’s political lexicon is almost entirely devoid of meaning.
Many of today’s politicians end up like Hugh Abbot from the Thick of It: who on preparing to launch a token policy at a school is torn over whether to use the term ‘families’ or ‘people’ and ends up opting for ‘families of people’. Of course what Iannucci’s TV-series demonstrates so eloquently is the trap that British politics is caught in: any words that mean anything risk alienating someone (potentially in a marginal seat). Strong statements on anything other than the most basic issues are increasingly difficult to come by.
We live in an era where satire has become so real that reality has become a caricature of itself. Even terms as solid as ‘family’ and ‘people’ are lost in a morass of focus-group determined consumer politics.
Call it post-modernism, call it the end of history, call it spin, or whatever term you like. Just remember that, as Orwell so brilliantly predicted, when language ceases to mean anything, the human loses out to power at every turn.
A dysfunctional family
Modern political language is, as Orwell pointed out, ‘largely the defence of the indefensible’: political reality is often too brutal to take form on a page or in speech, so in its place we get euphemism and innuendo.
An honest defence of the union is something that is only rarely glimpsed, because at its crux, as Blair McDougall recently admitted, is a belief that governments in the south will ‘act against’ Scotland. It’s a dark and unpleasant picture of the way that the politicians on this island operate, and is closely linked to the notional idea that a new found ‘foreignness’ would close off Scotland to rUK on a number of levels.
It’s therefore especially interesting to look at Better Together’s appropriation of emotive terms in their literature. Words like ‘family’, ‘break-up’, ‘patriotism’ ‘unity’ and ‘strength’ abound. Definitions do not: for they’re not meant to say anything tangible about the UK as we know it, but rather to imply that Yes is an anti-family, aggressive, reactionary and weak position. It paints independence as a family break up writ large: with all of the affecting pulls and baggage that implies.
This fast and loose approach with emotive, familial, terms, used to say very little, contrasts with societies with better capacities for social cohesion. The Swedish Folkhemmet concept springs to mind: a political consensus crafted by Per Albin Hansson on the premise that the nation is a family: closely linked to the idea that the state should focus on providing a post-class based society that is a ‘people’s home’.
Perhaps the most telling facet of British politics today is that there is no uncontested term to build consensus around. This is dangerous. Words that should promote consensus such as ‘welfare’ ‘hard work’ ‘justice’ ‘society’ and ‘democracy’ often do the opposite. Chronic misuse means they have become fault lines to the point where, even when used figuratively, they are deeply contested.
The implosion of language that Orwell referred to stems from division: the lack of any common meaning or agreed parameters between all who might participate in a debate.
This is what the UK, categorically, fails to offer. A proper campaign to save and reform the union would have built a concrete, cross-party concept of what a new British political consensus could be. The problem is, such a concept, though briefly enacted in 1945, has never been possible in Britain. The structures that make Britain divisive and render social cohesion impossible at a national level remain in place. That’s why Better Together’s language is extremely vague when related to domestic policy while on defence and foreign affairs it is blatantly jingoistic.
In the absence of a rational programme for the UK’s future Better Together exists to oppose an enemy that owes a great deal to its own imagination. This kind of approach carries with it a set of very tangible risks that could scar our public discourse for good. In its desperate bid to present Yes as the divisive, regressive force it is obviously not, it has consistently failed to empathise with its opponents on any level. The fact that they rarely even acknowledge the existence of the official cross-party Yes campaign is very telling in this regard. Though it may well be the No campaign’s undoing, it places the debate in dark and unedifying terrain. The group’s recent soliciting of potentially un-sourced reports of the SNP attempting to ‘silence its critics’ based on one phone call, shows that, in effect the UK will defend its current status with an AstroTurfing smear campaign worthy of the Tea Party.
Though Better Together’s website may state: ‘there’s a better choice for our future’ their complaint is directed towards the very idea of having to make a choice in the first place. Put simply, they’re not interested in having a rational conversation: it is in their interests to make this conflict as messy, emotive and as divisive as possible. This deliberately demands remarkable levels of patience from all pro-independence activists.
The fact that Scotland has reached such a dramatic historical juncture through entirely non-violent means, is rarely celebrated. After all, the obvious implication of such a smooth, consensus based process, is that we’d probably be quite good at self-government. People get violent and aggressive when terms that should have concrete meanings are thrown into flux. Last week’s edition of Any Questions from Bearsden was an illustrative example. Nicola Sturgeon answered a question about A and E targets, and pointed out that Scotland has rejected privatisation within the NHS. Ruth Davidson’s response, in a debate in which she had already branded the SNP liars and reflected on her pride in having worn a uniform, described Sturgeon as ‘doing down England’. The only rational interpretation of this view would be that criticising the policy pursued by the government of a nation somehow means that you harbour negative sentiments towards the people of that nation. We really are getting into surreal and dangerous territory here.
For example I detest the Irish Government’s stance on abortion and think it unjustifiable that in these isles women still die because of medieval religious dogma. This does not make me anti-Irish. I think that the Russian government is profoundly misguided on a whole number of levels, but I don’t have an opinion, or any interest, in ‘doing down’ the Russian people. Yet, increasingly emboldened by their own ‘patriotic’ rhetoric, unionists like Davidson are veering into inflammatory territory in which rational debate becomes lost in an ever-thickening fog of war.
If you don’t respect your opponent, if you reduce an entire movement to ‘Alex Salmond’s obsession with independence’ you don’t just risk losing the argument, you risk destroying the terrain in which the argument is able to take place.
The appropriation of interdependence is based on the belief Scotland would be cast out into the cold by the UK and the EU for exercising self-determination. In reality the very nature of our highly interdependent world makes such a stance very difficult to maintain. The very skewed claim, though rarely explicitly stated, rests on the inherent ability of any conservative movement to lay claim to anything that is good about a present status quo and cast itself as the defender of this against the ‘uncertainty’ of change.
Better Together’s statement on their ‘positive case’ starts by asserting ‘We love Scotland’ something that, though they may find it pleasing to state, is of no relevance. Here we see a debate that has come full circle: the flag waving phase of Scottish nationalism is long gone. A broad coalition of civic groups and progressive parties has taken its place. Appeals to identity are now almost exclusively the preserve of the no campaign, a group of disparate political parties anxious to preserve separate platforms and uncomfortable when sharing them. Though they are incapable of realising it; this gives the Yes campaign ample political space to mobilise activists on a ‘nothing to fear but fear itself’ ethos of empowerment and collective action.
Orwell’s essay is instructive in another regard: “politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer.” As we see in its use of language Better Together is trapped by the mess of the incoherent politics that is has to contain.
What we end up with is a strange, nationalistic unionism that churns out obscene statements of patriotism like: ‘As Scots we believe there’s nowhere better’. Yes that’s right: being Scottish becomes contingent not on simply calling the place home, but also thinking that it is superior to all others. It’s a narrow, parochial ‘my country right or wrong’ message premised on a vast miscalculation about the origins of the Yes movement.
Another key prop is militarism, that will no-doubt reach fever pitch around next year’s massive Armed Forces Day celebrations in Stirling. Again the emphasis is not on Britain’s parity with its partners and allies, it’s about being ‘better’ than everyone else: ‘The British Armed Forces that protect us are the best in the world.’ Presumably aircraft carriers without any aircraft and a resource-draining Trident with a questionable safety record are key planks of this world beating military machine.
Once again the salient point is emotive not rational. It is not asking people to think, question, reflect on the past or project into the future.
Perhaps the best example of this was Ed Miliband’s xenophobic remarks on Scottish independence at the Labour Conference. Referring to Cathy, a woman who had recently recovered from a heart problem and received treatment in England, he said of NHS staff:
‘They care about her because she is Scottish and British, a citizen of our United Kingdom. Friends, Cathy is with us today, back as a delegate. Where is she? Cathy’s here. Friends, I don’t want Cathy to become a foreigner. Let’s win the battle for the United Kingdom.’
So much for solidarity: so much for interdependence. The worst thing that Cathy could be, in the eyes of the Labour Party, is ‘foreign’. This is nationalism at its worst: you’re either one of us, or we, literally, cease to care.
On the other hand, even commentators in The Spectator are pointing to the lack of an impassioned, positive, case for the union. As the article points out the current No campaign, even if it succeeds, is setting up the case for an emboldened independence movement further down the line.
The truth is, Better Together do no love the union, they’re frightened of it. This is the big fear that underpins all of Project Fear. Ironically it’s premised on the idea that the UK and Scottish governments would lack any shared interest or desire to work together if the latter was also sovereign. Who’d want to stay in a partnership on that basis?
All national cultures within the British Isles can claim to be literary. The exceptionally adaptable, decentralised tool that is the English language may well be the most important ingredient in a polyglot stew that goes way beyond our own shores. The independence debate shows us that we need a politics in Scotland that is worthy of such a rich heritage. Who knows, perhaps it might even give meaning to words like ‘democracy’ ‘welfare’ ‘family’ and ‘justice’ once again.