Ears of tin

Language matters! We tend to think of language as a means of expressing our thoughts and feelings. We are perhaps less inclined to consider how language shapes our thoughts and feelings. In fact, these are two sides of the same coin. We choose what we say and how we say it for the purpose of conveying a particular idea. Generally speaking, the intention is to give the listener as accurate a reflection as possible of what is in our own mind. In the perfect communication episode the result is identical images in the minds of both speaker and listener. Perfect communication is all but unknown, however. Accidental miscommunication is common, As is wilful deception.

Language has no conscience. It doesn’t care whether what is being conveyed is a true reflection of the speaker’s mind or a false image planted for whatever reason. Language is merely the tool. It doesn’t care how it is used. It can fashion a falsehood more readily than it can create a precise facsimile. The latter is constrained by testable reality. The former is limited only by the speaker’s imagination and linguistic skill. Language contains all the truth there is. And every lie there might be. Language matters.

Propagandists know the power of language. They know how it works both to convey truth and to plant lies. The find in language their greatest single instrument of manipulation. Their skill – and hence their utility to power – lies in crafting the communication which will make the listener think a particular thought and feel a particular emotion. The adept in the ‘dark arts of propaganda can produce thoughts and feelings to order in the minds of entire populations. Such is the power of language.

It stands to reason that if language is to be used to manipulate, then it will serve this purpose better the more it too can be manipulated. The more flexible and nuanced the language, the more readily it can be shaped to trigger the desired response. The more different ways there are to say approximately the same thing, the more likely it is that there will be a way of saying it which will be useful to the propagandist. English is a very ‘rich’ language. One word can have many meanings or senses and there can be numerous words with broadly the same meaning. English is a veritable treasure trove for the propagandist. With such a rich palette they can surely mix just the colour they want people to see,

It seems that even Boris Johnson – or his advisors – is acutely aware of the power of the English language. Johnson is hardly known for the subtlety of his own thinking or for great verbal dexterity. But it is not necessary that a politician be a great thinker and orator for them to possess an instinctive awareness of the power of language. Johnson appears to be blessed with just such native cunning. Behind the bumbling and the superficially clumsy gaffes there is an innate awareness – derived from generations of immersion in the British culture of power, privilege and patronage – that expectations of the bumbler are low enough for the discrepancy with performance to be negligible; and that being gaffe-prone allows one to say things that the more diligent politician might consider too impolitic. Johnson may not be clever. But he has cleverness at his disposal.

Kirsten Oswald, not so much.

If reports are to be believed – and they are all too credible – the instruction has gone out from the office of the Prime Minion that the component nations of the UK are to be elided from the language employed by the British state. There is to be no more talk of ‘four nations’. There is to be but one nation recognised in British English – ‘Great Britain’. Thus, the inconvenient reality of England-as-Britain’s annexed territories will be expunged as efficiently as anything ‘rectified’ by Winston Smith in the course of his duties at the Ministry of Truth. Scotland will simply cease to exist… officially. This is not a new idea, of course. The thinking of the British political elite is not where one first looks for novelty. But it is all the better for being tried and tested. The whole concept of ‘Great Britain’ was a refinement of the ‘Greater England’ project resorted to when the distinctive identities of the annexed territories turned out to be stubbornly resilient. It served England-as-Britain rather well for several decades. But that pesky Scottish distinctiveness just kept on reasserting itself. Hence the devolution experiment which the British political elite now considers a ghastly failure to be rectified forthwith and by any means.

It is important not to go down the route of thinking in terms of conspiracy. Conspiracies are common. Successful conspiracies are, by definition, unheard of. For the most part, however, the successful conspiracy is unknown because they are almost all known. They are known because, by definition, a conspiracy involves two or more people. And the most effective way to ensure a conspiracy fails is to involve two or more people. Which is why police and security services fear the ‘lone wolf’ perpetrator much more than any collective effort. People conspire. People conspire all the time. But those conspiracies so very rarely come to fruition that it’s appropriate to use the term ‘never’. Conspiracy is, however, an emergent property of organisations. what appears with hindsight to be ‘obviously’ a conspiracy is in fact no more than the outcome of a sufficient number of people in an organisation with sufficient influence and sufficient commonality of purpose to produce that outcome. It is not necessary for any of the individuals in question to have met or communicated. Traced backwards, it looks exactly as a conspiracy would if it was an actual conspiracy.

To give one well known example of conspiracy as an emergent property of the political system, it is often claimed that the electoral system for the Scottish Parliament was contrived to prevent the SNP taking power. It wasn’t. It was contrived to keep the Scottish Parliament weak. Or, at least, what the British political elite think of as week. It was intended to prevent any single party forming a government. Initially, the single ‘party’ that might have formed a government was British Labour in Scotland (BLiS). So if the voting system was intended to ‘penalise’ anyone it was BLiS. The devolution experiment was only acceded to by the powers behind the power in England-as-Britain on the strict condition that the Union could never be jeopardised. Hence, the experiment is deemed to have failed and must be brought to a swift, decisive and permanent end.

If you will indulge this digression a little longer I will cite another example of a ‘phantom’ conspiracy. Observing the SNP’s incomprehensible squandering of momentum and opportunities which might have resolved the constitutional issue in Scotland’s favour long ere now; as well as the fractiousness and factionalism which is fragmenting the independence movement, many see the hand of the British political elite at work employing the old ‘divide and defeat’ strategy. The British political elite only wishes it could control events and development to such a degree. In reality, there was no conspiracy. No agent provocateurs planted in the SNP hierarchy or the Yes movement. These were neither necessary nor sufficient to produce the disruption and disintegration of the independence movement we are now witnessing. There has been no British conspiracy, however neatly this can be made to fit the facts if one applies hindsight and imagination. All the British had to do was play for time and the natural process of decay would do the rest. This required no Machiavellian brilliance from Boris Johnson. Which is probably just as well. It was what the British did because it was all the British could do. They had no choice but to keep dragging the thing out in the hope – or warranted expectation – that something would turn up. It did. But just because what is happening to the independence movement works to the advantage of British Nationalism it is a mistake to assume that the British Nationaliists brought it about.

Back to what I was saying about language and its power and how Boris Johnson (or underlings) recognise that language has power both in what is said and what is left unsaid. And how none of this seems to have occurred to Kirsten Oswald. The British know that an issue and perceptions of that issue can be defined by the language used to refer to and discuss the matter. They understand the manipulative effect of emphasis and de-emphasis. Kirsten Oswald simply reads her lines without thinking about the effect or even the meaning of what she’s saying.

I feel another digression coming on. Bear with me. I think this one might be illuminating.

If you want an example of how thoroughly an issue can be defined by language then you won’t find a better such example than the 2014 referendum. A referendum is a good place to demonstrate the manipulative power of language because it is to an unusual extent an event isolated from the rest of our political discourse. A referendum is (or should be) a single-issue democratic event. It has a discourse all of its own. It is therefore possible to exclude external influences and observe a direct causal relationship between significant components of that discourse and their effect on the nature of events and developments. There is no more significant component of the referendum discourse than the question being asked. It is possible to state with a very high degree of confidence that the entire referendum campaign as well as the constitutional issue itself was determined by a question which made independence the contentious issue. If you doubt this, try imaging how the campaign might have unfolded had the Union been made the contentious issue. Even if the outcome was the same, it is certain that the campaign would have been markedly different if the question on the ballot had made the Union the thing that had to be defended rather than independence the thing that had to be justified.

The use of language as a propaganda tool in defence of the Union as attributed to Boris Johnson is easy to understand. Don’t talk about Scotland, and it’ll be as if Scotland doesn’t exist. It is an obvious strategy to augment the oppressive unionjackery which has come to infest Scotland. It sometimes seems that there is not a ‘Great British Phrase’ in the entire ‘Great British Political Lexicon’ which cannot have the ‘Great British Prefix’ appended to it at every contrived ‘Great British Opportunity’. Welcome to the ‘Great British Northern Annexed Territory’ formerly known as [redacted].

No need, I think, to spend any more time on that. Eight out of ten to Boris for effective propaganda. How does Ms Oswald do by comparison? Let’s recall what she said in response to this report.

In equal measures this just shows how panicked the Tories are about the SNP’s election victory in May, how arrogant they are with their power, and how out of touch they are with the people of Scotland.

It also shows how their promises of Scotland being an equal partner in a four-nation UK within the EU have completely turned to dust. They quite simply cannot be trusted.

Independence is now the only way for Scotland to achieve equal partnership from a Westminster Tory government that thinks it can treat Scotland any way it likes and get away with it.

The first thing to note is how familiar it all sounds. Had you not been told that this was Kirsten Oswald speaking you might be forgiven for thinking it was Ian Blackford. Or any one of countless SNP spokespersons both identified and anonymous. I reckon the party has supplied Ms Oswald and her colleagues with an app which composes their statements for them using a selection of pre-approved sentences. If they’ve updated to v2.0 then there is an algorithm which will vary the wording in an attempt to reduce the rote repetitiveness. But it really doesn’t help because it adds nothing new. It just rearranges the well-worn rhetoric that surely nobody listens to any more. This alone makes Kirsten Oswald’s response a very poor realisation of the potential power of language.

More specifically, we have the Tories identified as the ‘enemy’ in the fight to restore Scotland’s independence when in reality it is the entire British state, all its agencies and all its apparatus that is ranged against us. Reducing the constitutional issue to the level of a party-political dispute only diminishes that issue. The reference to “the SNP’s election victory in May” does the same thing while associating Scotland’s cause exclusively with the SNP. The app can be excused its failure to take account of feeling within the Yes movement. It’s just an app. Kirsten Oswald, on the other hand is to the best of my knowledge and despite any appearance to the contrary, not an app. She should be aware of how such language is only going to fan the flames of tribalism currently running like a wildfire through the independence movement. Evidently she is not. At which point we must remind ourselves that she is the SNP Deputy Westminster Leader, Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Equalities), and Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Women).

Look at that first paragraph again. If you’re not too detracted by the jaw-dropping hypocrisy of Ms Oswald accusing the Tories of being out of touch with the people of Scotland (see previous paragraph) then you may notice the contradiction which make the statement nonsensical. Consider! If the Tories (she means the British government but the app isn’t programmed to say this) are both arrogant about their power and oblivious to the mood of the Scottish people, what might be making them “panicked”? If, as Ms Oswald strongly implies, the Tories are both supremely confident of their ability to overcome and blissfully unaware of the seriousness of the ‘Scottish problem’, how is this compatible with panic? If the arrogance and lack of awareness are true, then the panic must be false. Duh!

Of course, however clumsy and amateurish it mat be this is meant to be propaganda. Truth and falsity are not hugely important. It is not the veracity and accuracy or even the coherence of what is said, but the effect it has on those who receive the communication. Unless the effect Kirsten hoped for was perplexed irritation, then she scores nul points here.

The way we regard such language and how it affects us is a personal thing. It’s very subjective. The daft contradiction in the first paragraph is an objective fact. But it will affect individuals in different ways. Some won’t even notice the folly. Some will notice but be untroubled by it. The statement is calculated to create or aggravate a sense of grievance. It just isn’t very accurately calculated. By the same token, you may not concur with my take on the second paragraph. But this only serves to underline how poorly formulated it is. A professional politician really should be sure of how their words are going to be received – to the greatest extent that this is possible.

All I take from that second paragraph is a spotlight being thrown on the SNP’s failure to act either to prevent Scotland’s people being stripped of our EU citizenship despite voting emphatically to retain it, or to deliver a new referendum. Two things that have been repeatedly promised over a period of at least five years, depending on where you measure from. I have to assume this wasn’t Kirsten Oswald’s intention. I cannot believe she actually wanted to remind us of the SNP’s failures and failings. But if it had that effect on me then it’s likely to have been received by others in a similar fashion. Even those who don’t see it as I do must be struck by the reference to what is now ancient history. The statement either backfires wounding the SNP or it induces only ennui where it was supposed to get folk riled up. Kirsten has yet to score anything but own goals.

My reaction to the final paragraph was a string of profanities such as even I am reluctant to report verbatim. Let’s just say, FFS! If Scotland’s cause is about achieving “equal partnership” with “a Westminster Tory government” then I’ve been getting it seriously wrong for sixty years. Note also how the wording implies that this parity with British Tories is in the gift of that “Westminster Tory government”. Our equality has to be obtained from them. WTF! This is the language of deference to the authority that the British state claims over Scotland and its people. It is most assuredly not the language of a any independence movement worthy of the name. Why then is it the language of the self proclaimed ‘party of independence’?

Evidently, it is not only that “thinks it can treat Scotland any way it likes and get away with it”!

Language matters. Language can be massively powerful. It would be gratifying if the SNP could harness some of that power and use it in the service of Scotland’s cause. Instead, we get statements such as this from Kirsten Oswald which show an unaccountably lackadaisical attitude to language and a baffling disregard for the message that is received. It also demonstrates that when it comes to what the Yes movement is saying the SNP has a tin ear.

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11 thoughts on “Ears of tin

  1. Excellent! My single word, strangled use of language that my left-school-at-fifteen-66-years-ago edyicayshin allows me…

    Liked by 2 people

  2. The first part about the uses and misuses of language was excellent but I think you underestimate Kirsten Oswald. It seems to me that her statement said exactly what the SNP intended.

    The SNP = the Scottish independence movement.
    When they talk about independence they really mean more devolved powers within the UK, or even independence in the UK whatever that means.

    Real independence means taking real decisions and taking responsibility for the unpopular but necessary ones. Sturgeon doesn’t do unpopular.

    Without Westminster to blame Sturgeons GRA focused clique wouldn’t survive long.

    You are also spot on that the British state didn’t need to conspire against the independence movement, time did that and Sturgeon has spent 7 years kicking the can down the road.

    Liked by 5 people

  3. Interesting profile of Johnson in the Atlantic that focuses on his abilities at shaping narratives that voters like to hear : The Minister of Chaos: Boris Johnson knows exactly what he’s doing. He’s unprincipled, politically talented and dangerous.

    The SNP are a very successful party if one counts holding onto power at Holyrood, although at this point one might argue that’s more by default than enthusiasm. I find it impossible to read the Atlantic profile of Johnson and find the same energy, imagination and danger in Sturgeon and the current SNP. They are not going to make things happen. They are quite happy to plod along as they are. Their narrative is a defense of stasis. And it’s not sustainable.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Adding to the above. The game the SNP are playing at the moment is no more principled than the one played by Ruth Davidson and the Scottish Tories or Scottish Labour Maybe the pretense that it is otherwise makes it less principled. It is one that values comfort and position in the established order. But it’s not sustainable as the established order is collapsing. The SNP’s choice is to take risks and play big on the constitutional issue or be crushed by Johnson and the Tories. In March, Sturgeon said “Alex Salmond is a gambler. It is what he enjoys doing. But this is not the time to gamble with the future of the country.” Whatever one thinks of Salmond and his wagers, better to have a horse in the race than one in the stable.

      Liked by 3 people

  4. “Language is merely the tool. It doesn’t care how it is used. It can fashion a falsehood more readily than it can create a precise facsimile”.

    Given this admission, how can anyone trust a word you have to say on this or any other matter. Such is your “manipulation” of Ms Oswald’s statement, I look forward to hearing you explain how black is really white and the Moon is just the Sun at night.


  5. Excellent post Peter. I remember my school days with what appeared to be a semi revolutionary “home rule” messages spray painted on motorway bridges etc and subliminally thinking that’s what Scotland needs. However home rule to me at that time was, as you said, what I thought to mean Independence. Later I realised what a lie that really was. In reality the Liberals/Lib Dems were the Trojan horse of choice for the English state then. The current SNP leadership have been highjacked by the very same type of thinking which your post powerfully illimunates. The current SNP leadership do not really want independence and would be happy to accept “home rule” if it secured their individual prosperity and a level of autonomy disguised as Independence. All the SNP need to do is to convince the Scottish populance to believe their agenda is about “real” Independence. Painfully I have come to the conclusion that Sturgeon will never deliver real independence. We need Alba to be the bright Star in the north that sets our people free.


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