Kevin McKenna’s perspective on Scottish politics, while better than most, continues to be marred by a tendency to succumb to the cosy consensus of the mainstream British media. He correctly identifies the way Brexit has altered the whole dynamic of Scotland’s constitutional debate. But only insofar as that debate is conducted in the language of economics. He perceives the opportunity that the grim car crash of Brexit offers to the SNP. But hardly rises above the salacious, sensationalist style of the British gutter press as he describes this opportunity only in terms of political scavengers feeding on economic roadkill.
Of course, McKenna is far from alone in imagining independence is entirely a matter of economics. Large parts of the Yes movement regard the issue in the same way. Not a few prominent SNP politicians come at the whole subject of Scottish independence as if it was all about the money.
The anti-independence campaign’s principal weapon has always been doubt. In order to most effectively deploy this weapon it was necessary to move the battle onto the ground of high finance, where the British state could field its cavalry of ‘independent economic experts’ bearing lances of doom-laden data; wielding swords of portentous statistics; protected by the armour of corporate media; augmented by journalist mercenaries; supported by the spear-carriers of the British political parties; provisioned by the quartermasters of big business; blessed by the priesthood of broadcast punditry; cheered on by a rag-tag rabble of banner-waving British Nationalist zealots, spittle-flecked bigots; posturing patriots; prostituting functionaries, attention-seeking celebrities and forelock-tugging sheeple. Such was the army sent forth by the ruling elites of the British state on a mission to defend their power, privilege and patronage. Such was Project Fear.
The constitutional issue was reframed as an economic problem which the Yes campaign had to solve while the No campaign reserved to itself the exclusive authority to unilaterally and arbitrarily redefine the terms of the question so that no answer was ever correct or sufficient. And there the debate remains. Having followed the British state’s forces onto the battleground of budgets and borrowing and debt and deficits and currency and credit and money and markets, the independence movement now faces the daunting task of shifting the debate back where it belongs – in the realm of constitutional justice.
You can’t address democratic deficiency with an abacus. You can’t solve the issue of sovereignty with a slide-rule. You can’t answer a constitutional question with a calculator.
For commentators such as Kevin McKenna, Brexit impinges on the constitutional question only in terms of its economic impact. The advantage to “the Scottish nationalists” is crudely represented as a chance to exploit the economic consequences of a catastrophe wrought by a weak, inept and irresponsible British political establishment totally in thrall to a manic clique of zany xenophobes, demented isolationists, deluded exceptionalists and nut-job nativists. There is little room left for discussion of the constitutional aspects of the Brexit process. And little enthusiasm among political journalists for exploring those aspects.
The tragedy is that so many of those who should be leading the independence campaign are instead being led into this same shallow, simplistic analysis. There is a view, apparently quite widely held within the SNP and the wider Yes movement, that the cause of restoring Scotland’s independence is best served by having the Brexit fiasco run its ill-fated course in the callous hope and justified expectation that the ensuing economic suffering will drive Scottish voters to the lifeboats of secession.
Other than passing mention of the fact that Scotland is being dragged out of the EU against the will of it people, there is little or no acknowledgement of a constitutional dimension to Brexit. Among all the talk of imminent economic catastrophe, there is no very evident appreciation of Brexit as an impending threat to Scotland’s democracy. In the case of political commentators such as Kevin McKenna this is merely disappointing. In prominent SNP politicians it is disconcerting and distressing.
Which brings us back to Mr McKenna’s perspective on Scottish politics, and his propensity for shovelling the same dross as the mainstream British media, even if speckled with the odd glint of distinctive perspicacity. In his closing paragraph we find recognition of the massive grass-roots Yes movement whose existence is rarely, if ever, acknowledged by London-centric media accustomed to associating the independence issue entirely and exclusively with the SNP.
But McKenna immediately spoils the impression of an astute and informed journalist by dropping back into the narrative of the mainstream British media. Having risen above the herd by mentioning the “network of Yes groups all across Scotland”, he promptly rejoins it by talk of these groups “demanding more autonomy from SNP central control”. As anybody even marginally involved in the Yes movement will confirm, there is not now nor was there ever anything even vaguely resembling “SNP central control”. Indeed, a common and persistent complaint throughout the first referendum campaign was of inadequate direction from either Yes Scotland or the SNP.
If Kevin McKenna genuinely supposes the Yes movement is merely a tool of the SNP, and isn’t just saying this for effect, then he is woefully ignorant of the facts.
McKenna’s sadly distorted view of the Yes movement is only confirmed by talk of Yes activists’ “abuse of independence supporters who do not favour the SNP”, as if this was a prevalent attitude among independence campaigners and a ubiquitous feature of their online rhetoric. There is certainly widespread criticism, even condemnation, of those who advocate for British Nationalist parties and politicians while purporting to be part of the Yes movement.
From time to time, disapprobation of this duplicity may be expressed in robust terms. But, if one is properly mindful of the hypocritical contradiction involved in claiming that urging people to vote for British establishment parties is consistent with the aims of the independence campaign, then the criticism and condemnation is entirely warranted. Resorting to the term ‘abuse’ is a well-establish device by which those so inclined seek to obscure and divert attention from the real issue.
If Kevin McKenna truly had a finger on the pulse of Scottish politics then he might sense a growing rejection of the idea that independence is an economic issue rather than a constitutional matter. He might detect increasing dissatisfaction with the ‘wait until the ordure enters the air-con’ approach to Brexit. He might notice a greater emphasis on the constitutional implications of Brexit.
He might even discover that, contrary to the fallacy he perpetuates, the Yes movement is tending more and more towards acceptance of the fact that the SNP is the de facto political arm of the independence movement. There is increasing recognition of the crucial role of the party in providing the effective political power that is essential.
He might find that it is this pragmatic appreciation of the part which the SNP must play which is driving criticism of those who continue to insist that independence can be achieved by some alternative means – the details of which are never explained.
Were Kevin McKenna more attuned to the everyday realities of Scottish politics and less influenced by the cosy consensus of his colleagues in the British media, he might observe a change in the whole tenor of the constitutional debate. He might feel the tide turning.
Things have changed. But not only because of Brexit. And probably not in the limited and superficial ways Kevin McKenna imagines.
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