This week saw some very welcome news that the UK Electoral Commission is, finally, going to carry out an investigation into some of the more “curious” elements of the Leave campaign. This is not old news, nor fighting old battles. We won the EU Referendum handsomely in Scotland but, as I did upwards of 40 public meetings, published countless letters, articles, tweets and the rest, I was adamant that there was something shonky going on.
First published in The National, 23 November 2017
The Leave campaigns (note plural, there was at least three) pretended to hate each other, and I daresay a few individuals in each of them did, but in retrospect that was all just a way to distract and gain attention from a media that fell for it hook line and sinker. In fact I think we were dealing with a highly sophisticated interlocking campaign that shared data, had a dubious attitude to financial accountability, and used social media in ways that the rest of us need to get our heads around fast.
I would like to see a better explanation of who won, how they did it, who paid for it and who’s making money out of the chaos so far and the chaos yet to come.
The UK Electoral Commission getting into it is welcome, but I think we need a lot more. Which brings me to the actual subject of this week’s column – Hillary Clinton’s remarkable book, What Happened, which I have just finished reading.
For Scotland’s politicians I think a few chapters should be obligatory reading.
I’ll confess that, although I was vaguely conscious that her politics were probably closer to mine than to a Republican’s, Clinton had always struck me as a bit packaged and focus-group shaped.
But this book comes across, to me at least, as a personal, honest and genuine reflection on how the US election came to be won by a billionaire white guy who positioned himself as the anti-establishment candidate.
Correction. A billionaire, misogynist blawhard who boasted about sexual assault. And we know well enough from his dealings in Scotland he promises much but delivers little.
Clinton wins me over entirely when she writes about the role of women in politics. We’ve come a long way, but we’ve plenty distance to go yet. While I don’t see gender, or any other attribute, as any sort of qualification, the issue remains in progress, and some of her personal accounts were eye-popping. But where she really stuck a chord was her honest frustration that she never got her point across because of a blizzard of chaff thrown up to deflect, distract and denigrate her personally and whatever ideas she proposed.
She goes into, to great depth, the way a hollowed-out and polarised news media, coupled with an uncontrolled social media, undermined the discussion she wanted to have about what America needs. She also, convincingly, points the finger at Russia as a key player in co-ordinating all the different aspects of the campaign against her.
I’ve been worried about the media in Scotland for a long time. I’ll deal with almost anyone to get a point across, and I’m not shy of a quirky story to get some press. But so many of my friends in the media are under so much pressure: the emphasis is on things that are happening and on processing stories rather than things that matter.
Look at the last week. With all the things going on in the world, is the biggest news in Scotland really Kezia Dugdale in the jungle? The checks and balances which should have ensured US citizens were well informed instead often inflamed tribalism, with many not looking outside their own echo chamber.
And, as for Russian involvement, we’ll be hearing a lot more of this in the coming weeks and months. There’s no question that the explosion in social media is open to abuse, our laws are not fit for purpose and far too many folks are far too trusting of “facts” online.
In the Leave campaign I think a fair bit of activity was paid for by spivs and speculators, but we cannot ignore the fact that the UK possibly leaving the EU is clearly in Russia’s interests. I do not doubt there are some decent sorts at Russia Today and Sputnik (and I’m pretty sure I’ve been on both) trying to put in an honest shift, but let us not forget what the organisations are. They exist as part of a sophisticated network to produce content that promotes the foreign policy of President Putin’s government. They turn a blind eye to, and attempt to distract from, Russian aggression in Ukraine and Syria, and from desperate policies at home against minorities.
Clinton has done us a service in detailing questions the Russian government has to answer, and a decent job of contextualising their influence on the US presidential campaign. Scotland’s politicians would do well to learn from Clinton’s experience.