THE next few months are going to challenge us like we’ve not been in a while, and we’ll need to keep the heid. Those who want to see the UK leave the EU at all costs have had their orders – make this as scary as possible so that regular folks walk away. Anyone who cares about democracy, the rule of law, public service and public life in Scotland, or indeed our near neighbours, is going to need to focus on common cause with people from other parties and countries to defend what is good against what is coming.
First published in The National, 8 February 2018
There is a wholesale, sustained, deliberate and organised attack under way on the UK’s democracy – as well as on devolution in Scotland and Wales, and (though I think as more of an afterthought than an objective) the peace process in Northern Ireland. We need to pay attention to it and not be distracted by chaff, for there is a lot of it about, but I think we are starting to see the playbook now.
Public trust in the institutions that underpin a civilised public life has been systematically undermined. It started with the media. Now don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty things about the media in Scotland I think need changed, but if we do not have a free and fearless press we’re in trouble. There have been too many attacks on journalists individually and collectively, so that faith in journalism itself has been eroded, leaving people vulnerable to echo chamber tribalism.
But let’s be honest, faith in journalism has been undermined in part by journalists themselves, either of their own volition, acting under orders, or through succumbing to groupthink.
There is a decadence to the UK’s public discourse, an irresponsibility that needs to be reined in with some honest critiques. We all need to play our parts as honest citizens, not sing along with the band just because it is, this time, the opposition getting a doing.
Remember the “story” about David Cameron and the pig’s head? Or Johann Lamont saying “in Scotland we’re not genetically programmed to make decisions”? Or any number of stories about Jeremy Corbyn? Or Frenchgate? Or the most recent, flaggate? All with a common tactic, they were good tales, and even if they weren’t strictly true they were too tasty for the opposition not to repeat and pass on with relish.
I don’t know what David Cameron did with a pig, but does it not seem strange to you there was no denial, no outrage, yet, suddenly, seemingly no consequences? Remove his name from it and does it not just sound like nonsense? Ms Lamont said “we’re not genetically programmed to make decisions one way or the other”, a pretty obvious statement to my mind, but the shortened misleading version was leapt upon by people just too keen to have a pop. Flaggate, the personal attack last week that Nicola Sturgeon had somehow ordered the UK Union flag torn down from public buildings, was a textbook ad hominem attack, and within hours the line was “well OK she didn’t, but she would do, and isn’t it awful the Nats are banging on about flags again”?
And on EU stuff, at a time when the press needs to be more fearless and more probing than ever, we’re seeing big chunks of it acting as megaphones for an industrial-scale spin operation. In many cases I can understand why. The EU has a lot of subtlety to it, and in an attempt to tell a compelling story the urge to simplify is clear. But if it is not right then it is misleading, and there’s too much of it about, leaving people poorly informed and unable to hold those in power to account.
But parallel to this we’ve seen industrial-scale spin operations against the judges as “enemies of the people”, and on politicians as either quislings or traitors. I’m accused several times a day of only fighting Brexit to preserve my “cushy job in Brussels”. Seriously, try it for a week, see how you get on!
I’m doing this because I’m doing what I think is right, but isn’t it a great way to dismiss absolutely every point I make? Most recently, and worst, we’ve seen attacks on civil servants as untrustworthy and part of an establishment plot to undermine Brexit’s mythical purity. All aspects of a functioning democracy are being attacked. In the last couple of days we’ve see the next phase, manufactured attacks on Brexiters.
In the same way as the Brexiters and their mouthpieces were all over what turned out to be a fictional Muslim rampage at a Christmas market in Germany (remember?), reports of an attack on Jacob Rees-Mogg were all over the internet in minutes, and we’ve seen a few copycat efforts since. We saw the same in Trump’s campaign, and I suspect there’s more to come. I’ve seen MEPs in Strasbourg desperately trying to provoke rows, all on camera, all designed to flood your newsfeeds with anger and bile, making this even more unpleasant than it is already.
The autocrat’s playbook is actually a pretty simple one, and technology has made it easier than ever: reduce every argument to black and white, make sure people are as ignorant as possible, remove, undermine or dismiss all voices of moderation by presenting them as goodies or baddies, hog the media and public’s attention to drive people away from participating in the debate in weary acquiescence.
I think Brexit, in England especially, has a lot of people beaten and disengaged. “I don’t like it, but just get on with it and make it go away” is a regular theme in my inbox these days.
Well, it is not good enough, sorry. If we all back away we’ll just leave them to it, because they’re not giving up. There’s an argument to be won, and a lot to be defended. Scotland deserves better than these shysters. So does the UK.