The Power of Black and White

Scottish political debate is characterised and marred by a host of difficult divides and fractures.

There is anti-Nationalist Labour hatred; the rage of the so-called ‘cybernats’; and a widespread, almost national sport of anti-Toryism. All of these are part of a Scottish problem which we see not only in our politics, but also across society, culture and football.

Why do large parts of the Labour Party so virulently hate the SNP? And why do part of the Nationalist community, ‘the cybernats’ think it appropriate to conduct themselves the way they do? The former have used a politics of fear and negativity for years against the Nationalists, while the latter believe they are taking a stand against an omnipotent unionist establishment which is biased against them.

We can look for answers in each tradition. Labour until this year saw one of their main tasks as defending the self-preservation society they had built. In Scottish nationalism there is commonly a sense of self-righteousness and belief in one ‘true’ way.

One reason regularly put forward for the vitriol is the lack of substantive difference between Labour and SNP bar independence. Something more is at work than this.

I think that part of the problem is that Labour and SNP, even beyond the zealots on each side, don’t understand each other and so don’t understand what motivates their political passions and involvement.  This is why they find it easy to attribute negative motivations to their opponents.  What’s more, there is a profound asymmetry between the two in that Labour, the long dominant culture, has reacted with fury to being challenged by what it regards as the Nationalist interlopers who have dared to intrude into what were once ‘Labour’s natural heartlands’.

In my view, Labour’s detestation of the Nationalists is found at all levels of the party, whereas the manic hatred of Labour seen in ‘the cybernats’ is found at the margins of the party. Labour misjudgement and caricaturing of the Nationalists can be seen everywhere – in Iain Gray’s latest whinge, Ian Davidson ‘s ‘neo-fascist’ comments, Douglas Alexander, Gordon Brown and about any Labour figure you care to mention.

This picture is part of a wider story. We can see a similar pattern in the relationship of Rangers and Celtic, the former the long established dominant club and culture, the latter, seen as the imposters, ‘alien’ and ‘illegitimate’. The records of violence, abuse and even tragically deaths connected to ‘the Old Firm’ isn’t balanced between the two, but of predominantly Rangers fans doing violence to Celtic fans; which doesn’t excuse the excesses and idiocies of some Celtic fans.

The sheer volume of hatred, aggression and anger coming from one quarter in particular, seems to be something the current sectarian bill has failed to grasp. Yet, this is what dominant cultures do when under threat and their once unquestioned writ no longer runs.

All of this in our politics and society can be linked to the absence of empathy across swathes of Scotland, damaged, bruised relationships, and an aggressive, masculine language of violence across society, as well as actual violence making Scotland a more violent country than our European neighbours. While we believe we are a friendly, warm, welcoming people, the other side of our society is a shaming record of violence, crime and alcohol abuse which is off the record compared to others.

Some of this echoes Carol Craig’s analysis in ‘The Scots’ Crisis of Confidence’, just reprinted in a revised second edition. She argues that it is commonplace for people to be labeled and judged ‘worthless’ and traces this back to Scotland’s religious past and the division into the ‘saved’ and the ‘damned’.

I don’t think it is an accident that the Rangers v. Celtic divide originated around religion, and that the Labour v. SNP fissure often feels like a throw back to Scotland’s embattled religious sects.

There is the need for action in politics. Mike Small, writing in the pro-nationalist ‘Bella Caledonia’, said that a debate of ‘cybernats v. cyberbrits’ was not only quaint given the prevalence of the internet, but also ‘a boring game’.

Small argues that we desperately need to develop non-party bases for ideas to widen out the debate which has become phenomenally narrow, insular and focused on a political class. And he rightly points to the need for the SNP to change gear in this new environment and have the confidence to engage in a degree of self-criticism, which would ultimately strengthen, not weaken the Nationalist cause.

We have to go much further than that. There is a whole host of men behaving badly across Scotland (and some women) and we have to stop colluding with it, allowing it to flourish by silence and evasion, and address it head on.

We have to be capable of more than the current disfigurement of much of our society. Aren’t our political traditions capable of more than reflecting cliché and stereotype? Would it not aid the Labour Party if it recognised that the Scottish Nationalists have been a force for good in our nation these last forty years, and stopped using a pejorative, negative language of ‘separatism’ and ‘separation’?

And given that this is the finest hour so far of the Scottish Nationalists, would it not aid a generous, pluralist, dynamic vision of an independent Scotland, if they were to tell the cyber-thought police to shut up?

It is fascinating to reflect that even writing the above carries with it a slight feeling of foreboding for what some of our vociferous political tribalists might say, but we have to challenge them.

It is understandable that so many people want to cling to a rigid sense of certainty in a turbulent, complex world, but in so doing they only aid a politics of insularity, conformity and conservatism. Such characteristics don’t really help Scotland address the kind of challenges we are going to have to face and open up public debate and discussion.

Black and White Scotland, the voices of a monochrome world are damaging themselves, their own well-being, the rest of us, our society and our prospect for creating a different, collective future. The campaign for a Scottish self-government which is meaningful, taking a stand against the authoritarian mindsets found across society, and a dynamic, outgoing public culture, are all part of the same canvas and debate.

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  1. European says:

    Gerry, how do you justify your statement that there is “manic hatred of Labour seen in ‘the cybernats’”? That there is apparent “hatred” on the part of many Labour politicians and supporters for the SNP is as plain and obvious as the nose on your face. But where is your evidence that the feeling is reciprocated?

    Labour’s dislike of/resentment towards the SNP stems almost certainly from its realisation that a strong SNP weakens Labour in Scotland – and undermines Labour’s chances of winning power at UK level. Tough!

    But let’s not assume that Labour hatred towards the SNP produces SNP “hatred” towards Labour. You’re tiresome, Gerry, when you repeat this over and over again.

    And this observation is from someone who enjoys reading your pieces …

    1. Hm. If you read the comments section on Newsnet, the Scotsman etc., you’ll often see Scottish nationalists accusing British Nationalists of being traitors, quislings etc.

      1. Sleekit says:

        I would wager that the accusations are in response to an initial attack.

        It would be quite reasonable to describe someone in this fashion if they were perceived to be working against the good of their own country.

        I have read far worse coming from the Pro-Union side of the fence regarding the Scots, SNP and generally anything Scottish.

        Both sides use insults, the Nats to get the point across, but the Pro-Union side generally dont have any points to get across, hence just insults.

  2. vronsky says:

    Tiresome, indeed. At what particular level of corruption, mendacity and criminality would Gerry think a little tut-tut of disapproval might be admissible? SNP distaste for Labour is based on a dispassionate assessment of their nature. Labour hatred is driven by the fear that they will lose a patch of neglected real estate which has for many years been a ‘nice little earner’ for them. That is an important asymmetry, because there is mounting evidence that the public is beginning to share the SNP’s analysis. That’s a lot of cybernats – hence perhaps your anxiety?

    And ‘lack of substantive difference between Labour and SNP bar independence’? I’m speechless. Do you know anything at all about politics?

  3. James MacDonald Reid says:

    “…a Scottish problem”…..”Scotland a more violent country than our European neighbours”? Gerry, you’ve suggested this several times before, but I think that you will find the same problem and just as much violence in Italy, Spain, Greece, Russia, Portugal, Romania… Indeed, what about the violent riots and the level of gun-crime in England? I have been to many other European countries and I cannot say that Scotland’s violence is either uniquely polarised or exceptionally intense.

    1. naldo says:

      Well said, James. Gerry was banging on about this on Newsnight Scotland the other night but, when pressed by the presenter, could provide absolutely no evidence to back up his claim.

      Scotland suffers from the same social dysfunctions as any other post-industrial European nation – there’s nothing unique or particularly intense about our problems.

      And rival political parties act like the narrow tribes they are the world over. Does anyone seriously believe there was no enmity between Labour and the Tories when the latter were a force to be taken seriously in Scotland?

  4. Sannymac says:

    I’ve read many posts by Gerry Hassan. He implies that he is a supporter of Independence, However he seems to me to be more of a Tory wolf hiding in a nationalist guise! Personnally I regard Gerry as a latter day Daniel Defoe!!

  5. Sleekit says:

    My transition to the SNP and independence happened over a long time. I started as a Labour Supporter (It was the done thing… we’ll you wouldn’t be Tory coming from a Glasgow Steel Industry Family).

    On the eve of opening Holyrood, the BBC happened to mention that as part of Devolution the sea border at Berwick had been moved. It was glossed over and forgot by the populace in the wake of a new parliament although it stuck with me that I found it a shabby way to go about things.

    I was proud of the NHS, believed free education was one of the foundations that made Britain a great country and admired the British armed forces and their professionalism in helping to restore order to war torn communities… I mean, it’s not like we had anyone we were likely to end up at war with…

    After Iraq I was disillusioned with Labour but still voted for them in 2005 to try and stop the Tories (It’s a national sport in Scotland you know. It’s not like we actually do it for a reason).

    Things went downhill but I still voted Labour at Holyrood in 2007 despite the lies, presuming to know what was better for the people than they did with the result of ditching manifesto commitments, removing the 10p tax rate, raiding the pensions and introducing what I can only describe as alarming free market ideas into the NHS and Education.

    Then came the Expenses Scandal and I couldn’t do it anymore… I just couldn’t vote for Labour and their morally bankrupt party as it had altered completely from the Party I grew up with.

    In 2010 I wanted to bring democracy back to Westminster and could see that the only way to do this was to challenge the 2 party power structure.

    Then a man appeared. A nice man that had charm, ideals and was more convincing than any Snake Oil salesman… I bet you can guess where I am going with this…

    I voted Lib Dem in an effort to hamstring Browns government and force them into a coalition with the Lib Dems but it would appear that too many people tried this too and the result was the unholy coalition that we now suffer.

    At first I thought, “Let’s give them a chance, and see if they can tame the worst excesses of the Tory’s”.

    By this point was so disillusioned with the main 3 parties that on May 5th I voted SNP for the first time (and obviously for AV).

    The scale of the SNP victory was awe inspiring and left me confident that we really did have people looking out for the interest of Scotland.

    You might be wondering where I am going with this but it is with reference to being a Cybernat.

    It was after this election that I was online on UK national papers and could not believe the vitriol and hate directed towards Scotland, the Scots (or Scotch as we are affectionately known).

    The terms benefit scroungers, wasters, moaners, to wee, too poor, too stupid became common place in National forums. Even the failure of a business venture, The Darien Scheme, was wheeled out 300+ years later to justify that Scotland could not survive on its own.

    I was horrified by the reaction and angered to the point that I made an effort to find out the truth of allegations made against the Scottish people and refute them if false.

    Needless to say, it was not long until I was immersed in the internet, ploughing through details that I had never heard mentioned in the Main Stream Media let alone explained.

    It was at this point that I got my SNP membership. The disrespect shown to Scotland gave me the push I needed to apply.

    I started to post responses. Nothing inflammatory or offensive. My goal was to ensure that if I came across a Lie, Half Truth, misrepresentati on or just a failure to report the truth that I would try to make others aware of the inaccuracies.

    We can only have an honest debate about our society if we know the facts and whether you like to admit it or not, the MSM in Scotland are indeed biased in their reporting against the SNP.

    No government should be beyond criticism, but it needs to be up to the public to decide based on all the facts.

    The attempts to ‘Smear’ Cybernats is grossly unfair since every group has it’s difficult fringe. We are not all the same! Few are.

    I am proud to be called a Cybernat!

  6. Gerry Hassan says:

    I love the comments from Sammymac which tells you a lot about the limits and problems of Black and White thinking. He writes ‘Gerry impiies he is in favour of Scottish independence’ as if you have to prove something. Two weeks ago I wrote a piece: eleven reasons for answering the ‘why’ question on Scottish independence. And as for comparing me to ‘a latter day Daniel Defoe’; is that meant to be an insult? Defoe was one of the most gifted pamphleteers and writers of his age, and only a B&Wer would want to solely define him thru his pro-union book post-1707. I am against B&W thinking across the spectrum, name-calling, categorisation and labelling, and acknowledge that Lab detestation of the Nats is much more severe. But these are historic times. The self-government and independence movements need to show a number of characteristics: but one is a sense of pluralism and standing up to those who dont want a dynamic, diverse debate about the challenges we are going to face.

    1. bellacaledonia says:

      Thanks Gerry. The difficulty is in creating a (self) critical culture whilst the onslaugth of attack is underway (daily) by opponents of – well virtually any change.

      There’s some really interesting conversations starting in and around the Scottish Independence Convention though about making public spaces that could go beyond the political party ping-pong into deeper dialogue where mistakes and complexities can be owned up to and explored rather than denied or buried – but all from a place of real commitment to change and transforming our country. This seems like a good opportunity.

  7. Indy says:

    I agree with a great deal of what Gerry says but I think the underlying issue is not even to do with independence/unionism, it is that politcs in Scotland remains not only male-dominated but dominated by a certain kind of male. And it’s a vicious circle because the worse it gets the more women are put off and the worse some of the men get.

    I mean – and I am really not making a Labour/SNP point here – look at the whole way the Eilidh Whiteford/Iain Davidson story was covered and some of the language used. I don’t want to re-open the issue but it wasn’t good and a lot of women would just think oh dear, remind me never to get involved in politics.

  8. Ard Righ says:

    Politics is not culture or tradition, it is a servile contrivance.

    Football is not culture, just media fed tribalism.

    1. naldo says:

      I agree, Ard Righ and also reckon that politics is just media fed tribalism and football is a servile contrivance.

  9. Gerry Hassan says:

    There are masses of statistics on Scotland as a violent country with worse levels of crime and drinking. It doesnt fill me with any happiness or glee to point out such figures. There are figures for Scotland as a whole which put us off the radar – compared to anyone else. Have a look at the data provided by Alcohol Focus Scotland. On violence and crime the data from Strathclyde Police Anti-Violence Unit – for Strathclyde and Scotland – show we are way off the map compared to most European countries. We have a Scottish problem here, and a Greater Glasgow one: Glasgow is per head the fourth most violent city in the world – and those are Strathclyde Police figures. Why deny this?

    It isnt anti-Scottish or anti-independence to say this. What it means that we cant grow and become more confident by pretending things are what they are not. Yes we have to be positive about Scotland’s capacities. But this is not a Scottish marketing exercise. We have to challenge the couthy, comforting stories – and say that the Scotland of above is unacceptable. How are we going to change it? Independence on its own wont. And while we are at the Labour Party and unionists have to take some responsibility for the state of our nation.

    And well said to Indy about men and macho, posturing politics. In fact, while this is still a huge problem, Scotland has feminised in lots of ways in the last 30 years. We have lived through a long revolution in our society which has brought us to today: the decline of Labour Scotland, the rise of the SNP and self-government, etc.

    1. naldo says:

      Baltimore has a similar population to Greater Glasgow. Last year there were 24 murders in Greater Glasgow and 220 in Baltimore. Kay Adams told me this on the radio yesterday.

      Glasgow is not the 4th most violent city in the world. Strathclyde polis are at it.

      Seriously – walk around London, Manchester or Liverpool at night and compare those cities with Glasgow, Edinburgh or Dundee. I’m no havin a dig at England but it’s far more violent than Scotland.

      1. Indy says:

        Come on get real. If we are going to measure ourselves against anyone why not against the Swedes, the Danes, the Belgians or the Dutch? Why pick an American city when America has an incredibly violent gun culture?

        We all know violence and aggression are a huge problem, closely linked to alcohol and drug abuse and the damaging cycle of inter-generational povery and under-achievement.

        Independence is not a magic wand, it won’t solve all those problems overnight but it would at least give us the capacity to start coordinating policies across the whole range of areas, not just devolved ones, to try and make a difference. The SNP Government has already started to do what it can and in my view that is one of the reasons a lot of people turned to the SNP. People may not like the idea of higher drink prices, they may not like what is being proposed in the football related disorder bill but perhaps they realise that it is necessary and that government has to start doing stuff to tackle these problems instead of just talking about it.

  10. MacNaughton says:

    I blame the wider culture of conflict on most of the mainstream press and their practitioners many of whom seek to write headlines rather than stories. As Karl Krauss put it, a journalist is somebody with no ideas, who knows how to express them.

    I like Bella C because it is not trying to be a mainstream paper, in its format,feel etc. It feels like a genuinely free forum. The towing of whatever party line is to be avoided by anybody who believes in the faculty of critical thought.

    The independence convention sound like a venue for a new understanding; encouraging a cross-societal dialogue is indispensable for the new Scotland. I am pretty sure most Labour party supporters are a lot less anti-SNP than their MP’s, who have something to lose by independence.

    In terms of Gerry’s article, I would be loath to mix Celtic – Rangers, SNP – Labour into one issue as some kind of Scottish dichotomy, much less add violence into the mix – though I take the point that Scottish male aggression is a common thread. But google “las dos Españas” (the two Spains) and you get almost 10 million hits and scores of books on a country riven in two, arguably still to this day.

    What people write on-line is a matter of personal responsibility, ethics and self respect; these are things for each individual.

    My own view is that film critics should write about films that they like, where they offer some insight. The same could be said of most posters and blogs. To post ‘against’ a blog is usually a waste of time unless you have something constructive to offer along with it.

  11. Keef says:

    Well Gerry you have left me wondering,

    I think the past 3 pieces you have written all seem to be slanted towards the union argument in so much as you do not defend the union (let’s face it who could). No, instead you pick holes and whatsmore petty holes in the pro independence argument.
    The reason the “cybernats” seem to be so hot headed online is they are most often than not livid at the double standards that are applied from Westminster, BBC, hootsmon, Torygraph etc.
    I understand why they are livid. To read everyday lies and half truths about how badly your nation is and how dumb you nation is would do that to any sane person. The fact that the MSM does not correct this, no, they actually encourage it, makes it all the more galling. Your gross generilation does not help the matter Gerry. Why not write something constructive for a change? The past few offerings from you have been pap, padded out with non-factual opinion.
    The reason they are “cybernats” is that they have no voice whatsover in the MSM or on any TV station, save a token gesture in BBC Alba.
    You used to make sense Gerry. Do you have someone ghost writing for you now?

  12. Albalha says:

    The problem I see is viewing Scotland through a Glasgow centric prism. Rangers = Labour and Celtic = The SNP, what? Come on pretty crass comparison for the history of the relationship between Labour and the SNP throughout Scotland. What about rural vs urban? Think Angus and Dundee and see how after years the Labour hold over the city has ended, this hasn’t been based on blind emotional allegiance but by decent politicians showing they care. Change through the ballot box. Likewise Scotland and violence, yes Glasgow and its surrounds has a
    serious problem but how about the rest of the country, how does that compare?

  13. Helena says:

    As a self confessed cybernat I think that Mr Hassan has yet to scan the average National Newspaper of this United Kingdom. The worst exponents of what he claims for his fellow countrymen come from below the border. Where Nationalist try to explain or reassure they are faced with claims from our (fellow) countrymen that we are spongers, drunks and benefit druggies. Where we meet those from the Unionist camp, they play the man, normally our First Minister who is subjected to such abuse that it is absolutely disgraceful. I have yet to meet anyone who is a member of the Scottish National Party (I am not a member) who treats anyone in a similar fashion.
    So I think Mr Hassan has got it all wrong.

  14. Donald Adamson says:

    As one of a minority on this thread (or is it a minority of one?) who is broadly supportive of Gerry’s work, I can, nevertheless, see why this piece has raised some hackles. An appropriate subtitle for this piece might be, ‘Why can’t we all just get along’?

    One of the difficulties I have with it is the implicit suggestion that conflict is necessarily a bad thing. That’s where I would part company with Gerry’s analysis, for conflict is the stuff of life. This doesn’t apply only to major events in world history, it also governs our daily lives. Anyone in a partnered relationship, for example, particularly one with teenage children (!), will know that sometimes it’s difficult to distinguish conflict from life. We are, after all, a species that is capable of amplifying the most trivial pretext into grounds for a long-running dispute – an overgrown leylandii, the rights to a car-parking space etc. Put it another way, imagine how unbearably dull life would be if we all agreed with each other about everything all the time.

    Given this, it’s hardly surprising that on more weighty matters – that involve and often threaten people’s strongly-held beliefs and values – we adopt entrenched positions. But conflict isn’t just inevitable, it’s also necessary. I don’t want to sound like an unreconstructed Hegelian here, but we only make progress in our personal, national and global affairs by attempting to resolve the numerous conflicts that we encounter in our daily lives. Conflict, in other words, is an important source of our creativity. It forces us to address it, to negotiate it, to devise at least partial solutions to it.

    Gerry is partly right to state that, “Scottish political debate is characterised and marred by a host of difficult divides and fractures”. My response to that would be, thank goodness for that! I say partly right because I would have edited out the word “marred” in this sentence. I don’t think that Scottish political debate can be anything other than it is as long as Scotland remains in the union.

    I’m also not sure about the point that Gerry attributes to Carol Craig here. I think that we ask the Reformation to shoulder too great a burden when we cite it as an explanatory variable for our current malaise. After all, Calvinism didn’t even have a monopoly of the doctrine of predestination in world religions, though, as Weber recognised, the softening of the relentless austerity of the original conception by Calvin’s successors was Protestant-specific and, in the process incidentally, provided a partial resolution to what was an unbearable conflict for believers.

    At any rate, I would be more cautious that Gerry seems to be here in appearing to make a neat correlation between our “religious history” and sectarianism, however seductive the intuition might be, not least because a more important historical context is the existence of an economic system that brutalises us, that encourages us to treat society as a war of all against all and that compels us to prostitute ourselves in order to subsist. In these circumstances, is there really any mystery about why so many people feel “worthless”, degraded and have limited horizons? As Charles Pecquer put it for the millions he was referring to, so for most people, “The misery that millions are forced to do work that is so physically and intellectually demoralising that they are even forced to consider the misfortune of finding such work as fortunate”.

    Unfortunately, we are not developed enough as a species yet to create societies where it is illegal for one individual to employ another for a wage, to create societies, in other words, where wage slavery is as illegal as other forms of slavery, never mind create societies that are in a position to realistically implement the abolition of exchange value. None of this is to trivialise Gerry’s important analysis here. Important because he identifies some of the key sources of conflict in Scotland and this is surely the first step in addressing those conflicts. Identify them, then try to advance our understanding of them and then attempt to resolve them. Having said that, even if these conflicts are ever satisfactorily resolved, new conflicts will emerge, whether Scotland is in or out of the union.

    It’s tempting to blame the current state of Scottish Labour on New Labour but, in truth, the rot set in to the Labour Party long before 1994. Keynes’s biographer, Robert Skidelsky, got it right when he argued that Keynesianism served a function for the leaderships of both the British Conservative and Labour parties. For the Tories, it allowed them to distance themselves from their historical association with the mass unemployment of the inter-war period. For the Labour leadership, it allowed it to adopt left-wing policies without having to be socialist. In other words, it served a placatory function in the relationship between the leadership and the rank and file. With the collapse of Keynesianism, so Labour lost much of its purpose, with the obvious exception of being rhetorically ‘anti-Tory’, but even the Attlee governments’ policies, much like Keynes’s General Theory itself, were largely an attempt to save British capitalism from itself.

    New Labour was always a quintessentially English project whose premise was the need for Labour to appeal to a (Tory) constituency in England that it had lost (in that respect, the legacy of New Labour in England has brought the party full circle, back to where it was in 1987). Little wonder, then, that New Labour created a policy vacuum in Scottish Labour, leaving the latter little option but to fight the battles of the 1970s against the SNP. After all, what else was Scottish Labour for?

    Given that parliamentary politics is a battle of mutual discreditation projected into the public domain, it is hardly surprising that relations between Scottish Labour and the SNP are so fractious. But surely one of the reasons why so many on the Scottish left have gravitated if not to the SNP then at least to independence, is because independence offers a means of challenging the apparent certitudes of a ready-made world, manifest in the British state, among other things. A disaffected Scottish left, resigned to the inability and unwillingness of Westminster to institute major reforms, has little option left but to channel its aspirations into the possibilities that independence offers. What Scottish Labour don’t appear to have cottoned on to yet is that they are not just fighting the SNP – and independence is much too important to be left to the SNP – but an independence movement that appears to be gathering momentum.

    One final point on the issue of conflict. Even if it were possible, let alone desirable, to remove all divisions and fractures from Scottish political debate, doesn’t this just beg the question? For in the unlikely event that this was ever achieved, what on earth would Gerry, and the rest of us, have left to write about?

    1. bellacaledonia says:

      I’m in the same boat. I agree with much of what Gerry has to say but often find the search for consensus an odd and unlikely destiny. It sometimes comes across to me as a sort of disavowal of real power relations. People disagree – and disagree vehemently becase there’s much at stake and what we are talking about is ‘people taking power’.

      That doesnt mean we have to be nasty, stupid or vindicative, in fact it strengthens the case if we’re not. But the idea that it wil all just be worked out rationally and then we’ll all just get along just seems … unlikely…

      1. Indy says:

        But politics is not a battle of mutual discreditation as Donald suggests. That just isn’t the case. We didn’t win the election by discrediting the Labour Party. We didn’t even mention the Labour Party!

        And we won’t win independence by attacking unionists either. Yes of course we need to point out that the Union is a straightjacket holding us back but we can only win by focussing on the benefits that independence can bring to peoples lives.

  15. Donald Adamson says:

    Indy, I’m happy to stand by the original point as there’s just too much evidence to support it, in Scotland as well as elsewhere. Moreover, I don’t find your argument plausible and in your second paragraph you contradict yourself.

    You really don’t remember anyone in the SNP publicly mocking Scottish Labour over the subway incident or ridiculing Scottish Labour’s feeble attempt to recruit the Asda incident for their own ends? I seem to remember Nicola Sturgeon, among others, making great play over the point that that these events demonstrated the disarray of Scottish Labour (and good for her). What a short memory you must have.

    But even putting these examples to one side, and I’m sure I could come up with many others if I spent more time on it, for example, I can remember Alex Salmond and other senior figures in the SNP attempting to discredit Scottish Labour’s policies on knife crime, the council tax freeze and a host of other policies in the Scottish Parliament, the leadership debates as well as other public platforms, it doesn’t make sense to argue against this. If you had argued that parliamentary politics isn’t only a battle of mutual discreditation then I would have agreed with you so, to that extent, the original point might benefit from a qualification.

    I agree about the SNP’s positive election campaign (although I think this is overstated by the SNP) but how often have you heard representatives of the SNP argue that Scottish Labour’s campaign was negative? The two are connected because, not in spite of, the fact that they’re oppositional. In other words, the SNPs strategy wasn’t conceived in a vacuum, or in isolation it was as much a response to the state and strategy of Scottish Labour as anything else.

    But what I find most worrying about your reply is the implication that all the damage was done (to Scottish Labour) in the election campaign. It’s true that the early polls showed Labour well ahead but there could have been a number of reasons behind that. I would argue that, for a number of reasons, Scottish Labour was largely discredited before the election campaign began, not least because of the result of the 2010 British general election, and that the SNP, as the primary beneficiaries of this in Scottish politics, was behind much of that discreditation.

    As for your second paragraph, I’d be interested to learn how you intend to attack unionism but not unionists. Given that the latter are advancing the cause of unionism in Scotland that would be a superhuman achievement on your part. For make no mistake, the unionists will be attacking you. I admire your adherence to the message of positivity but I’m afraid I have to disagree with you that this, and this alone, will win the referendum. It won’t.

    1. Indy says:

      Nope Donald. You can go back over the SNP website and follow every single day of the campaign – there is not a single negative story in it. And I am pretty sure Nicola Sturgeon did not say anything about Iain Gray running out of Central Station, neither did Alex Salmond.

      Of course people will comment about other policy proposals such as Labour’s crazy carry a knife go to jail policy but that’s just by the by. That’s not the focus of the campaign.

      It frustrates me sometimes that people just think positive campaigning means not saying nasty things. It’s not that at all – it’s about focussing on what you want to say, on the message you want to get over and not being side-tracked into talking about your opponent’s agenda.

      We can see Labour and the rest of them making that mistake now. You know the more they talk about whether Scotland will have its own currency or join the euro or stick with sterling or what terms our EU membership will be on the more real they make the prospect of independence and the more they highlight the fact that an independent Scotland will have choices, that we will be able to decide these things for ourselves rather than having those decisions taken for us. They think they are attacking us and discrediting us but all they are doing is highlighting what a difference independence would make.

      It’s good that they are helping us in that way but we’ve also got to remember that no-one is going to vote for independence simply because we discredit our opponents or say the Union is rubbish and doesn’t serve our interests. That is not in itself a reason to support independence – because an independent Scotland could be equally rubbish. We’ve got to show how it could make life better for people and keep ramming home that message.

  16. Donald Adamson says:

    Indy, I’m speechless.

    There was me thinking that my (partial) definition of politics was self-evident and relatively innocuous!

    Look to the SNP website? No thanks, I mean, how long has positivity been on-message now? I have, though, turned to another reliable pro-SNP source to demonstrate the point I’m making (see below).

    You seem to be turning this exchange into a discussion of the merits of positive and negative election campaigning. I don’t see the process of discreditation as synonymous with negative campaigning. Moreover, I’m not sure that the distinction between positive and negative campaigning is as clearly defined as you imply, I would argue that it’s much more nuanced than that.

    In fact, your own post is a good example of what I mean by discreditation, i.e. challenging, undermining etc the credibility of the opposition and its policies. I’m thinking here of your fourth paragraph, where you identify what you consider to be some of the weaknesses and errors of Scottish Labour’s position. I don’t call what you are doing here an example of positive or negative campaigning, I just call it politics, an example of (mutual) discreditation (Scottish Labour dutifully reciprocates), although, of course, there is much more to politics than this.

    But it’s your chance remark here that I think is the key point:

    “Of course people will comment about other policy proposals such as Labour’s crazy carry a knife go to jail policy but that’s just by the by”.

    It’s that “by the by” that constitutes an important part of the discreditation process. I’m not making a judgement about whether this is a good or bad thing, rather, all I’m suggesting is that it’s an inevitable and necessary feature of party politics in a system where parties are competing for votes. Moreover, if people’s (i.e. SNP) comments consist of references to the “crazy” policies of an opposition party then not only would I call this an example of an attempt to discredit Scottish Labour I’d also say that it’s pretty negative to boot. Of course, challenging, ridiculing and attempting to undermine the credibility of opposition policies isn’t the only means of discrediting the opposition to any political party. The competence of a party leader and/or a government/opposition is another means, including citing the personal characteristics of individuals to discredit them and/or the party. To suggest that the SNP is above all this is as absurd as it would be to argue that Labour bad, SNP good.

    Since my general arguments don’t convince you, though, it might be helpful here to turn to some of the evidence to illustrate both this and the original point about mutual discreditation and the SNPs part in it. After your last post, I looked through some back copies of the Scots Independent (SI) up to April 2011. I wouldn’t even try to count the number of examples from the paper over the last couple of years that I could have cited to demonstrate the point that I made in my last reply to you:

    “Scottish Labour was largely discredited before the election campaign began, not least because of the result of the 2010 British general election, and that the SNP, as the primary beneficiaries of this in Scottish politics, was behind much of that discreditation”.

    I’ve limited the examples cited to a few select quotations from senior members of the SNP (I can provide you with numerous others if you like) and avoided the letters pages and leaders as well as other comments from ordinary SNP members which are often, to say the least, less measured.

    Finally, I have to say that I think that this is one of the most routine arguments that I’ve ever felt the need to provide evidence to support but, you asked for it, so here it is:

    “Labour have learnt nothing since their defeat this time last year…They are still taking the support of people in Glasgow for granted…Labour are putting Gordon Brown’s interests before the needs of the people in Glasgow and people will see that for what it is”. John Mason, SI August 2009.

    “Labour’s reshuffle has really hit the bottom of the barrel…You have to wonder how many people said no to Iain Gray before he had to ask Charlie Gordon. The real problem with Labour’s Holyrood group is the man supposedly in charge…These are desperate measures by a desperate leader – all he has done is rearrange the deckchairs on a rapidly sinking ship”. Jamie Hepburn, SI November 2009.

    “The Calman plans have always been a political fix designed by Labour’s handpicked Commission…That a bitter and disappointed Labour party is clinging to proposals that were rejected even by their own government is a sign of how far Labour still has to come to represent the interests of the people of Scotland”. Linda Fabiani, SI June 2010.

    “Labour has run for cover as it positions itself for next year. You won’t hear their benches at Holyrood taking any responsibility for Labour’s economic legacy – nor an ounce of responsibility for walking away and letting David Cameron into No 10”. Nicola Sturgeon, SI July 2010.

    “This is typical of the unsavoury depths Labour have sunk to in opposition. No one can trust a word they utter…Labour have been misleading parents and children”. Willie Coffey, SI August 2010.

    “But what we have to do is to get our hands dirty in taking on Labour. The last campaign was aspirational but this time we must get our attacks in early on Labour. I want to hear a lot more about Labour’s miserable legacy and the poverty of talent in their front bench team”. Pete Wishart, SI October 2010.

    “Labour has ripped us off in Glasgow for generations…They [Labour] seek electoral advantage by appealing to the basest geographical prejudice. Wherever you are in the country Labour will find a reason to make you think your neighbour is getting preferential treatment from the SNP”. Bob Doris, SI October 2010.

    “Labour left this country in the most appalling mess. Their record as a Government is woeful and now their behaviour as an opposition is if anything worse. It is this and their breathtaking hypocrisy we will be reminding the Scottish people about from now right up until May”. Pete Wishart, SI December 2010.

    “Labour put forward suggestions about how the Budget could be improved…The Budget process showed that Labour are unfit to be even the Opposition in Scotland without any suggestion they could be the Government. They made themselves look ridiculous”. John Swinney, SI March 2011.

    “Iain Gray is even less popular than Annabelle Goldie and every effort to raise his profile is only met with increased indifference and hostility…Gray’s leadership has left Scottish Labour in a void and the years of oppositionism has left them without a programme of their own”. Pete Wishart, SI April 2011.

  17. Indy says:

    Yes but Donald you are not getting my point. Of course people comment on stories which involve the Labour Party but that is not how the SNP has campaigned, not for years. It is totally by the by that Labour’s policy on crime was rubbish. The key point – and the point that the SNP focused on and reiterated again and again and again in leaflets, on the doorsteps, in press releases, in interviews and speeches – is that the SNP’s policy on crime was WORKING. Increasing the numbers of police officers on the street and a greater emphasis on community policing had a demonstrable effect. Not only did people feel safer because they saw more police about the place they felt safer because statistics showed that crime was falling. At a time of recession, when crime could be expected to rise and indeed was rising elsewhere in the UK, it was falling in Scotland because of the policies that the SNP Government had funded and put in place. That was part of the record and as you know the SNP’s entire election campaign was centred around three pillars – record, team and vision.

    The 2011 Scottish election campaign was. in my experience, a highly unusual one in that at the onset of the regulated period – the long campaign – the undecideds were still in the lead. And even at the onset of the short campaign the undecideds were still in the lead. That is unusual because received wisdom tells us that elections are won and lost in peace-time not in the campaign itself, and that has certainly been the case in most elections I have been involved with. But that wasn’t the case this year and I think every SNP acivists would tell you the same thing. So we have to look at the shape of the SNP’s campaign and the focus on record, team and vision and see what was so successful about that and how that approach can be replicated for the independence campaign where it is quite likely that we will start the long campaign with the undecideds in the lead. Most importantly we need to have the same systematic focus on what we want to say, what message we want to get over rather than getting dragged into pointless wrangles over things that don’t actually matter to the indepedence debate but that it suits our opponents to focus on. And of course we also have to realise that this independence campaign will not be fought and won in the Scottish Parliament or indeed in Westminster.

  18. Donald Adamson says:

    Indy, I do see your point more clearly now and thanks for elaborating it here. I’m not suggesting, incidentally, that election campaigns are irrelevant! As you know, there are good reasons why all political parties allocate substantial time, energy and resources into their campaigns. They can be and often are decisive. My point, as I argued earlier, is that in the 2011 election, Scottish Labour was largely discredited before the campaign began and that, even if the SNPs campaign had not been so successful it would still, in my opinion, have won the election, though perhaps with a less emphatic victory.

    Why am I so confident about this? Your own post provides a few reasons but there are numerous others. I would identify four broad underlying (domestic) reasons for Scottish Labour’s difficulties but numerous other (domestic and non-domestic) factors fed in to this election result and, ultimately, influenced many Scottish voters, many of which had little to do with the campaign itself or even with domestic politics. To avoid an excessively long reply I’ll only expand on the first two broad factors and briefly mention the other two.

    I agree wholeheartedly with your point about the “three pillars” of the SNPs campaign. The point I would make, though, is that two of these pillars were based on the first broad reason that I would cite for the SNPs success in May, i.e. the SNP was the incumbent government. In other words, you can only promote your record and the competence of your team if you are in government in the first place. But I think the impact of this first factor goes a lot deeper than that.

    Here, I would only cite two other factors (although there are others), to illustrate the point. First, the other side of this is that Scottish Labour was widely perceived to be an ineffective opposition. Interestingly, in much of their public post mortem on the election result, many in Scottish Labour have themselves conceded this.

    The other factor here was just as important, though, in its impact on the 2011 result. That is, the task of the SNP in its first (minority) term was to demonstrate its competence as a government to the Scottish electorate. As you said of the SNPs success on crime so, in other policy areas, the policies were seen to be “working” or at least working well enough to increase the confidence of many voters in the SNPs competence to govern. I do appreciate your point that these and other messages needed to be reiterated on the doorsteps and that this made a considerable contribution to the scale of the SNPs victory. In the process, I would argue that what the SNP also achieved from 2007, to a great extent, was to exorcise the bogeyman of ‘nationalism’ among many swing voters. Once the short campaign phase began, with more voters ‘switched on’ to the campaign and under more pressure to make a decision, this factor of incumbency, with its associated benefits for the SNP, proved decisive.

    The second broad factor I would cite, to support my argument that Scottish Labour was largely discredited before the election campaign began, is the 2010 British general election result. Here, too, there are numerous factors that could be cited but, for reasons of brevity, there are two that deserve attention here. First, it would be difficult to overestimate the demoralising effect that this defeat had on Scottish Labour. They had a resounding victory in Scotland of course but there’s the rub. They had done their bit, they had delivered in Scotland and now, here they were, Scotland’s largest party, out of power at both Holyrood and Westminster, facing a rejuvenated Tory party in England and an increasingly confident SNP in Scotland.

    But the second issue here is, again, just as important. That is, the impact of the 2010 British general election on both the SNP and the (non-Tory) Scottish electorate. I don’t think that it was just the Scottish Labour Party that was demoralised by the 2010 British general election result, many of their (former) voters were also. For some older Labour voters, the Tory victory raised the spectre of Thatcherism again. That is, the prospect that the 2010 result might be ushering in another generation of Tory rule. This and other issues related to the effect of the Tory victory in Scotland, had a pretty devastating effect on the credibility of Scottish Labour, particularly given their emphasis in the 2010 British general election campaign that the only way to keep the Tories out in Scotland was to vote Labour.

    This election result, I believe, also energised the SNP. It added a new sense of purpose to the party, as well as to the broader independence movement, after May 2010. I would say that the eleven months before the May 2011 election were more decisive for the SNPs victory than the election campaign itself. Obviously in providing the quotations from the SNP in my last post I wasn’t implying that these few quotations were decisive! The point being that these and similar quotations could be and were amplified thousands of times up and down the country over the last twelve months up to May 2011 in a wide range of contexts – public exchanges on TV and the printed media, social media, press conferences, party conferences and so on – and that, cumulatively, and it’s this cumulative process that I’m arguing for, the damage was done to Scottish Labour before the election campaign even began.

    The third broad domestic factor that I would cite is the legacy of New Labour. Here, again, there are numerous factors that need to be accommodated but a couple deserve attention. I would argue that this has created more difficulties for Scottish Labour than it has for Labour in the other nations of the UK. In fact, it may be that the New Labour legacy causes as much problems for Scottish Labour as the Thatcher legacy caused for the Tories. Not only did it bequeathe a policy vacuum to Scottish Labour, consummated in Jack McConnell’s “do less – but do it better”, it meant that, given that it was only a matter of time before the Tories got back in to power at Westminster, when the inevitable occurred, there was no ideological space left in Scottish politics for Scottish Labour to inhabit, particularly after their defeat in 2010. This is one of the reasons why Scottish Labour took so many confusing messages into the campaign itself.

    The final broad domestic factor I would cite is devolution itself. Again, there are many issues here but to demonstrate the point I’m arguing I would cite the remarkable fact that since the creation of the Scottish Parliament there has been almost an exact correspondence between the number of voters that Scottish Labour has lost (in Scottish elections) and the number of voters that the SNP has gained and that this, too, has been a cumulative process. This has, on the one hand, undermined the credibility of Scottish Labour in Scottish elections and, on the other hand, has enhanced the credibility of the SNP over the last decade.

    To broaden this out beyond the scope of Scottish politics, and as I indicated earlier, there were also a number of non-domestic factors which, I would argue, fed in, cumulatively, to the SNPs success – with the caveat that it’s impossible to measure the cognitive impact that these had on Scottish voters last May. Often, we don’t understand ourselves how we are influenced in the decisions that we make.

    I’ll only cite a few of the more obvious ones here. The crisis of neo-liberalism has encouraged oppositionalism in politics, and the SNP has benefitted from this in Scotland. The impact of the crisis of neo-liberalism, particularly given that it was a Labour government that took us into this crisis, has further accentuated the crisis in the British state. Indeed, listening to the Scottish Tory grandee, Malcolm Rifkind, on Newsnight the other night defending Britain’s role in the world was like listening to the dying gasps of a dinosaur.

    Another factor, that perhaps needs a bit more caution to be exercised before citing it, is the Arab Spring. Nationalists in Scotland are not being shot, tortured and incarcerated by an oppressive regime and it’s important that we never forget this critical difference. But like the crisis of neo-liberalism, the Arab Spring has also encouraged oppositionalism. Again, it’s impossible to measure the cognitive impact of these events on Scottish voters but it illustrates the broad point I’m making here that social, political and economic change, including change in voting patterns (the former feed in to the latter in numerous ways), is a cumulative process and has many different sources.

    I would also cite, among other things, related issues like public perceptions of globalisation, an increasing willingness of more people to look outside the limited horizons of the UK to make a comparative evaluation of Scotland’s position in the world, the responses of nation-states to the financial crisis, the growing trend of the fragmentation of larger states, as a few of the other factors that have, to a greater or lesser extent, had an impact on voters’ underlying intentions and perceptions.

    Many voters in an election campaign don’t tell canvassers, pollsters etc their inner thoughts and, of course, one of the reasons for this is that some voters in campaigns genuinely don’t know themselves how they are going to vote. What I’m saying then, is that although the SNPs campaign may have been decisive in the scale of the victory, I don’t see how anyone could dispute that, it just isn’t plausible to argue that all or even most of the damage was done (to Scottish Labour) in the campaign, whatever voters were saying in public.

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