People – and let’s remind ourselves that this term encompasses politicians – are complicated. And contradictory. They can be right and wrong at the same time. They can be simultaneously clever and stupid. Being both perceptive and blinkered; thoughtful and mindless; humane and heartless is effortless easy for most people. Including politicians. What makes politicians different from the generality of people is that they are professionally contradictory. They deploy contradiction as a means of manipulation. Duplicitousness is not a character flaw in political actors. It is an essential skill.
It is for this reason that we must attend very carefully to what political actors say. Political actors being not only politicians, but any person who acts effectively in the political sphere. It includes those who speak on behalf of politicians, those who craft their messages, those who mediate the messages and those who analyse and comment on the messages as presented to the public. We must be active consumers of these messages. We must listen critically. Democracy works to the benefit of the people only to the extent that people make informed democratic choices.
The propagandist’s job is to manipulate the public perceptions on which these democratic choices are made. The tools of the propagandists trade can be turned to ensuring that people are genuinely informed. More commonly, and more significantly, the huge apparatus of manipulation enabled by mass communication is used to falsely inform the public. Propaganda is mostly associated with misperception and misinformation. To counter this it is necessary that each one of us develops an awareness of propaganda and an ability to see through manipulative messages. We can only be immune to the tricks of the propagandists’ trade insofar as we are aware of their methods.
Whatever else Nicola Sturgeon may be she is first and foremost a politician. There may be some who perceive her as somehow standing out from the herd of political actors. An exception. But perceptions can be manipulated. We should always be wary of our perceptions. To better see the reality we should first question our own prejudices and preconceptions before closely examining the politician’s message. People, and therefore political actors, are complicated and replete with contradictions. They can be honest and at the same time dishonest. Their messages can inform even as they deceive.
These thoughts were prompted by Nicola Sturgeon’s piece in the Sunday National today. A curate’s Easter egg of a statement. Taken as a whole, it shows evidence of an impressive ability to analyse and describe a situation. She presents an accurate and therefore scary account of where stands Scotland at this time and rightly stresses the crucial nature of the looming election.
Johnson’s elevation to Number 10 is significant too because, in the shape and character of the government he leads, we see undoubtedly the most hostile administration to Scotland’s interests in modern times…
No pretence here. This is manipulative only in the sense that it seeks to better inform people about our nation’s predicament. That predicament is dire and urgent. Sturgeon evidently knows this. But as we read her words we should bear in mind that she more than anybody has delayed addressing a predicament that has existed at least since the tragedy of the No vote in 2014.. Obviously, Sturgeon does not acknowledge the years of procrastination and dithering for which she is responsible. She would rather we forget that. So she throws this veil of truth over the truth of her failures. She is simultaneously forthright and deceiving.
Let’s look at some other parts of Nicola Sturgeon’s message.
I believe there should be a referendum within the first half of the next parliamentary term.
Doubtlessly correct. Also deceptive. Given the threat that she identifies, action to counter that threat is urgently required. A referendum within the next two and a half years will not be timely, as Sturgeon seeks to imply. It will be at least three years late. More importantly, this is designed to be perceived as a promise that there will be a referendum in the first half of the next parliamentary term. It is not. As will be clear to active consumers of political messages, it is no kind of undertaking at all. The words ooze plausible deniability.
Sturgeon hopes that her statement will be seen as a commitment to urgent action. She provides the notion that those blinkered by their idealised perceptions of Sturgeon can take and inflate into a binding promise. But to the vanishingly little extent that it is a promise at all, it is one that she can easily wriggle out of. We have to wonder why, if the situation is as perilous as she describes, she is so reluctant to give a real promise while at such pains to be perceived as doing so.
The contradiction comes immediately after the not-quite-a-promise.
I’ve been clear there will only be a referendum once the Covid crisis has passed.
There’s the get-out clause. There is no way she can know that the Covid crisis will be “passed” in the next five years never mind the next thirty months. The term “passed” isn’t even defined. Elsewhere Sturgeon has hinted that she will wait until the World Health Organisation (WHO) declares the pandemic over. She has also said action to save Scotland from the British Nationalist threat will only be taken when the pandemic and its economic aftermath have been dealt with. Having just said “there should be a referendum within the first half of the next parliamentary term”, she now says she has no idea when the referendum might actually take place.
Here’s another contradiction.
But independence is not, as our opponents claim, a distraction from recovery – it is essential to it, in order to equip our Parliament with the full powers needed to drive our long-term recovery and build a better, fairer nation.
How can the restoration of Scotland’s independence be essential to managing recovery from the pandemic yet wait until the pandemic (and its aftermath?) hs been dealt with. This simply makes no sense. But it makes no sense for a purpose. If the message causes confusion about what is is intended or proposed then the politician can choose whatever meaning is expedient in the moment.
Looking through the propaganda fog what we discern is that Sturgeon is not quite promising action on the constitutional issue at whatever time she chooses. The obvious truth of the statement conceals the truth that Sturgeon is making no commitment whatever as to what actions she will take or when. But those who decline to look beneath the varnish of truth can be convinced that she is saying something completely different. And they can convey that false message to others.
The term ‘propaganda’ is derived from the Latin word for ‘propagate’ or ‘spread’. Propaganda message are meant to insinuate themselves into the public consciousness. The lie is told, not by the political actor who initially conveys the duplicitous message, but by those who repeat the false aspect of that message. The skilled politician doesn’t lie. They simply provide the cues for lies told by their supporters – wittingly or otherwise.
Let’s wind this up with some other examples of contradiction and jarring inconsistency in Sturgeon’s column. Jarring, that is, for those who are aware of the inconsistency and able to identify the contradiction.
But there can be no shortcuts to independence, and we cannot hope to bulldoze our way there. Calm persuasion of our fellow citizens, including the many who are open to independence but not yet convinced, is the way forward.
The message begins with a straw man. Nobody has ever suggested such a thing. The only point of this remark is to undermine the credibility of those who question Sturgeon’s approach to the constitutional issue. Or offer alternative approaches. We are, by Ms Sturgeon’s account, all naive fools who imagine there might be such a thing as a “shortcut” to independence. That we are not talking about shortcuts at all is of no consequence. That Sturgeon surely knows this takes this comment very close to the line dividing the straw man from the outright lie. Some would contend that it crosses that line.
Nor are we proposing that we “bulldoze our way there”. This is another straw man. The intention is to portray as foolish and reckless those who do no more than observe that there is no route to independence which does not involve confrontation with the British state. Incredibly, Sturgeon continues to believe – or behave as if she believes – that the British political elite will collaborate in the dissolution of their ‘precious’ Union.
This passage ends with a restatement of her conviction that the campaign strategy which will be effective going forward is the campaign strategy that has so signally failed to take public support for independence to whatever level it is that Sturgeon considers sufficient. It’s one of those pronouncements that are superficially wise and statesman-like but which don’t survive being placed in the context of real-world politics. Much like the naive notion that the British state will cooperate honestly with a process which will almost certainly end the Union.
I shall finish with a couple of statements which sum up the confused and confusing nature of Sturgeon’s column.
A simple majority for a referendum is all that is needed and all that is ever required for a democratic mandate to exist…
The plain truth. A pointed statement of fact, obviously aimed at puncturing the fallacy of a ‘supermajority’. There has to be something for everyone. This is not intended to correct those who embrace this fallacy. Rather, its purpose is to pull back those who have not yet fallen into the fallacy, but might. And to make it difficult for those who recognise the fallacies in Sturgeon’s own thinking to dismiss the entire article. Something for everyone to agree with.
As if by design, we end with an example of the fallacies which inform Sturgeon’s approach to the constitutional issue. And it’s a whopper!
I believe that there is a growing recognition, privately if not yet publicly, within Whitehall and Westminster that if this election does return a Holyrood majority in favour of a referendum then at that point trying to simply deny that democratic reality becomes unsustainable, and from a Unionist viewpoint, quite possibly counterproductive as well.
This is the kind of inanity which drives me to despair. It is a grotesque misreading of the situation. A misrepresentation of reality. It’s insanely stupid to suppose that British opposition to ending the Union will ever become “unsustainable”. The Union gives them the power to sustain that opposition indefinitely. Saying that it will somehow become “unsustainable” in time is just another way of kicking the can down the road.
Why do we have to wait for the British state to abandon its opposition anyway? If restoring Scotland’s independence is as essential and urgent as Sturgeon rightly claims, then surely we must act to do so despite British opposition. That opposition will never end. The British state will have to be forced to accept the ending of the Union as a fait accompli.
Having picked through bits of Sturgeon’s article, what message will be taken away by those who read the words with a critical mind? What I see is that while she correctly appraises the situation and accurately identifies the required outcome of the election, she is not prepared to do what is necessary to ensure that outcome, because she is not prepared to commit to the action which will ensure that Scotland’s independence is restored. Were she to commit to that action then no independence supporter could possibly have good cause not to give their votes to the SNP.
If Sturgeon wants the SNP restored to its status as the party of independence than she has to be the leader of the party of independence. She has to behave like the leader of the party of independence – and by necessary implication the leader of the entire independence movement. That means committing to a course of action which actually leads to the dissolution of the Union.
Nicola Sturgeon has one remaining chance to turn things around. She can out-Salmond the Alba Party and bring the voters back to the SNP. She can incorporate the Manifesto for Independence in the SNP’s election manifesto. That’s the message we’re waiting to hear.