Conveniently unchangeable

Here you come upon the important fact that every revolutionary opinion draws part of its strength from a secret conviction that nothing can be changed.

George Orwell – The Road to Wigan Pier

George Orwell can always be relied on for a thought-provoking quote. It’s many, many years since I read The Road to Wigan Pier, so I can’t claim to have any recollection of this little aphorism. I encountered it in some corner of the web that I wandered into on one of my virtual sojourns. Don’t ask me where. But it must have made an impression because it was still rattling about in my head a couple of days later. Almost as if it was nagging me for attention. So I’m giving it some that was going spare.

Having given it some thought I think I now know why these words lodged so stubbornly in my mind. It will hardly surprise anyone to hear that for “revolutionary opinion” I immediately read “restoration of Scotland’s independence”. I reckon advocating the abolition of the Union counts as a revolutionary opinion. Unionists certainly seem to think of it as such. But it was this idea of such views drawing strength from futility that I found simultaneously intriguingly counter-intuitive and strangely familiar. The feeling that it should be wrong, but isn’t.

I know it isn’t wrong because it relates to something in my own experience. Something I’d been puzzling about in some nook or cranny of my cluttered mind for some time. When no less a figure than George Orwell urges you to drag a thought out into the light for a bit of scrutiny, what else can you do?

In fact it didn’t take much scrutiny to figure out why this quote spoke to me as it did. For some time there’s been something curious going on in the minds of some Yes activists. I refer to the people who believe they are part of something which has the power to transform Scotland having defeated the efforts of the British state to preserve the Union. People, moreover, who reckon they can manipulate the voting system so as to win list seats and do something useful for the independence campaign once in Holyrood. These are people endowed with an uncommon belief in themselves. People convinced that they possess powers extending to the borders of the supernatural.

However, suggest to these people that they might usefully apply this power to restoring the essential political arm of the independence movement and mighty is the scoffing. Can’t be done! They won’t listen! They’ll never change! The only thing that distinguishes their conviction that nothing can be changed from that referred to by George Orwell is that it is far from secret. They’ll proclaim the inherent incorrigibility and innate immutability of the SNP leadership at the drop of a Tweet. They will reject outright any possibility of altering by so much as the proverbial bawhair the SNP’s approach to the constitutional issue. And do so at the same time as insisting they can take a new party from a standing start to somewhere over 10% of the vote in a single election. All as part of a project which aims to do nothing less than save an entire nation from the scourge of rabid British nationalism.

Am I the only one who sees a contradiction here?

What Orwell’s insight did was start me wondering whether there might be some kind of positive, constructive tension in this contradiction. Even if it was no more than the kind of cussed contrariness which bids people of a certain character to defy the odds. Could the ‘cunning plans’ of the list parties be drawing strength from a conviction that nothing can ever change the SNP? Or is it more likely that they have found it necessary to convince themselves of the absolute intransigence of the SNP leadership in order to rationalise their ‘cunning plans’ to game the voting system? Plans which only make sense if the SNP isn’t part of the calculation.

I think Eric Blair (George Orwell) was on the right track, but slightly wide of the mark. Revolutionary opinion draws part of its strength not from the conviction that nothing can change, but from the expedient conviction that alternatives to that revolutionary opinion are infeasible. If one has set upon a particular position or course of action – or ‘cunning plan’ – then it is rather convenient to hold the view that competing positions and alternative courses of action are unworthy of consideration.



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Misplaced concreteness

I do believe that dismissing their efforts as “gaming the system” should not be the knee-jerk response of any movement embracing diversity and democracy.

Ruth Wishart

But apparently you believe it’s OK to dismiss as a “knee-jerk response” the arguments of those who question the feasibility, utility and wisdom of pop-up parties exploiting understandable dissatisfaction and impatience with the SNP’s handling of the constitutional issue.

The pro-independence troops comprise hundreds of thousands of true believers, but within that overarching ambition lie very many different views as to how it might be most effectively realised. This is no more than healthy.

Ruth Wishart

For a movement, perhaps. But it’s not “healthy” for a campaign. A campaign needs to be unified, focused and disciplined. In many ways the very opposite of a movement. People must decide whether they are content to be part of a diverse movement which supports the idea of independence or whether they want to be part of a campaign to actually get Scotland’s independence restored. It is, of course, possible to be both. But if the former gets mistaken for the latter then the latter is fatally undermined.

The enemy being anyone who has demonstrated the absolutely criminal behaviour of disagreeing with your view.

Ruth Wishart

That is one of the all-time great cop-outs. It’s saying you don’t have to deal with my arguments against your position because my arguments are prompted solely by the fact that you are disagreeing with me. It is making the debate about the disagreement rather than about the position that is being disagreed with. It is making the difference in views the issue so as to avoid having to deal with criticism of the content of those views.

Should I add “black-and-white thinking” to the ridiculously long and ever-growing list of things that don’t “help the independence cause”? Or should I consider the possibility that there’s more than a bit of black-and-white thinking involved in regarding black-and-white thinking as a necessarily bat thing. In fact, it is very often helpful to reduce a disputed issue to its basic elements. Abstracting an issue from “life, real life” can be an effective way of clarifying the matter. What is important is to remember that your abstraction must fit back into “life, real life” when you’re done with it. So long as one assiduously avoids what Alfred North Whitehead called the fallacy of misplaced concreteness black-and-white thinking is another tool in the analytical thinker’s toolbox.

Which, not at all coincidentally, is precisely the fallacy which characterises the diverse notions of a ‘cunning plan’ that will circumvent the voting system and flood the Scottish Parliament with pro-independence MSPs. Proponents of these ‘cunning plans’ afford to the outcome they desire a concreteness which rightfully belongs only to an objective assessment of what the ‘cunning plan’ is actually capable of achieving in “life, real life”.

I have explained this fallacy elsewhere. I shan’t repeat myself here. I would, however add a further point to what I’ve previously said about the ‘Cult of the Cunning Plan’ misidentifying the problem as being a lack of pro-independence MSPs. Another mistake they make is assuming that the ‘SNP 1&2’ strategy has failed. It has only failed if one defines success in a very particular way. Think more deeply about what the slogan is for and why it is such a powerful campaign message and it becomes clear that the strategy has actually been quite successful.

In another of those unremarkable non-coincidences, dismissing the ‘SNP 1&2’ strategy as a failure turns out to be an illustrative example of black and white thinking.



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