Welcome to Borissia

Living in Scotland, I tend to greet news of a Downing Street reshuffle with a shrug. How does it affect me? How does it affect Scotland? Isn’t shite still shite no matter how much you rearrange the turds? I have to remind myself that, because of the Union, these people exert extraordinary, totally unaccountable and invariably baleful influence in matters which should rightfully be the exclusive province of people we actually elect. We are therefore obliged to take at least some heed of what manner of individuals hold senior positions in the government of England-as-Britain. Or what I have lately taken to calling Borissia. I may occasionally fall into the habit observing the comings and goings of British politicians much as I would the wrigglings and squirmings of pond-life under the microscope, but it is as well to be mindful that this pond-life bites.

I read that the current Minister for the Constitution, Chloe Smith, is slated to be declared the new Minister for the Union and, tempted as I may be to note this tidbit of info-gossip and move on, I also read that Ms Smith apparently takes the view that the people of Scotland are neither worthy of nor entitled to news presented from a Scottish perspective. The British news is good enough for us. She isn’t about to encourage the idea that Scotland is distinctive in any way. It just the northern territory of Borissia.

Scotland’s cause being purely a constitutional issue it’s maybe a good idea to keep a watchful eye on Chloe Smith. In the Borissian government, the Minister for the Constitution is the official champion of British Nationalist ideology, and Minister for the Union is a diplomatically dishonest euphemism for the Minister for the Subjugation of Scotland.

I read that someone by the name of Rishi Sunak is the new Chancellor of the Borissian Exchequer having formerly been Chief Secretary to the Treasury – a role I inevitably associate with one Danny Alexander now Sir Daniel Grian Alexander having been duly rewarded for his part in creating the false prospectus on which the people of Scotland voted to give the Borissian government licence to do as it will with Scotland.

I know nothing of Mr Sunak other than that he is the MP for a part of Borissia called Richmond and that he must be a British Nationalist or he wouldn’t have been given the job. Of much more interest is the reason there was a vacancy. His predecessor resigned because of Boris Johnson’s intention to create a joint set of economic advisers for the Treasury and Number 10; a move that would further concentrate executive power in the hands of Johnson and his very special adviser, Dom Cummings. We have to refer to them as Boris & Dom now as they are at least as much an ‘item’ as deserves the ampersand. It’s surely only a matter of time before some wag hack with a depleted imagination coins a joint name for them – Bordom or Doris, perhaps. Which would be marginally less excruciating than The Johnster and The Cumster, I suppose.

But we should take this seriously. The combination of Boris Johnson and Dom Cummings may be revolting, but it is revoltingly successful. While BoJo plays the chief clown in the Borissian State Circus, Cummings is pulling strings and levers behind the scenes with such deftness that Boris & Dom have each and both got pretty much everything they want. There may not appear to be a plan. But what if the plan is to appear to have no plan whilst cunningly progressing a cunning plan cunningly concealed by cunningly contrived chaos? What if the shambles of the Brexit process was exactly what was needed to create the conditions for centralising power and upgrading Borissia from satirical epithet to stark reality?

Suppose someone was mounting a coup in the UK. Isn’t control of the treasury the first thing they would think of, given that there’s no need for them to take over the TV and radio stations? Exaggerated as it may seem, isn’t that thought enough to give one pause? Bear in mind that Boris & Dom haven’t only absorbed the team advising the new Chancellor of the Exchequer, they have installed someone they know is amenable to such external influence (control?) over his department. And, perhaps more importantly, removed someone who was evidently minded to resist such a move. And do so publicly.

The Treasury represents a constraint on executive power. That constraint has at least been loosened. We should ask ourselves why?

It seems that Alister “Union” Jack is to stay on as Downing Street’s man in Scotland and titular head of the unelected and unaccountable shadow administration created by the Borrissian government to take over powers stripped from the Scottish Parliament. Thus, my somewhat tongue-in-cheek prediction that Ruth Davidson would be installed as de facto Governor-General of North Borissia. Perhaps BorDom & Doris felt that the task of defanging Holyrood still required the skills and attitude of a predator rather than the gloss and grooming of a show animal. Or maybe Ruth has set her sights somewhat higher. Having lost her crown as Queen of the BritNats in the annexed lands of North Borissia, perhaps she’s not content with her reward for loyal service to the shrivelling Borissian empire. Maybe elevation to the Dead Stoat Cloak Club isn’t enough to satisfy that ravenous ego. Maybe she has her eye on another throne to replace the one she lost. Betty Windsor might be wise to review her security. Maybe employ a food-taster. Definitely don’t accept apples from cackling crones. Just saying.

The more likely explanation is that Jack the Lackey is being kept on because he’s just the man for the job. Unfortunately for the people of Scotland, his job is treachery. His remit is to undermine and then dismantle Scotland’s democratic institutions. In practical terms, his function is to roll out a series of ‘UK-wide common frameworks’ which increasingly impinge on and arrogate the powers of the Scottish Parliament. Alister Jack squats in Queen Elizabeth House like some obscene arachnid charged with sucking the juices from Scotland’s distinctive political culture until all that’s left is a dessicated husk no longer capable of being a nuisance to the Borissian state and its rulers.

We have to know this. We have to know that turds are being rearranged for a purpose. We have to realise that this purpose has only dire consequences for Scotland. If we value Scotland’s democracy and identity as a nation, we have to be prepared to defend them. We can’t afford to suppose that a cabinet reshuffle in London has nothing to do with us.

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A vacancy for vacant

This being a political appointment the normal rules probably don’t apply to the task of selecting someone to fill the role of Secretary of State for Scotland. Or, at least, not to the same extent. Usually, one would first define the role in order that a set of criteria could be established. This must still happen. But the established criteria may well be set aside in favour of considerations which have more to do with relationships of power within the ruling party than finding the best person for the job. And we have only the Westminster rumour-mill as our guide to who is in line to benefit from the Prime Minister’s patronage and who is looking like a loser.

Let us suppose, for the sake of something to write about if nothing else, that patronage was not a factor and that the choice of Secretary of State for Scotland was being made in an entirely pragmatic manner. In such imaginary circumstances, a detailed job description would be essential. Only then would it be possible to figure out what it takes to be an effective Secretary of State for Scotland.

What constitutes effective is, of course, a function of the job description – which will include one or more aims. We are asking what an effective Secretary of State for Scotland must achieve as well as what is involved in doing the job. The incumbent will be expected to deliver on some policy objective.

The post of Secretary of State for Scotland was originally created when the Union was imposed on Scotland. It was abolished in the wake of the 1745 ‘rebellion’ when the military occupation and brutal repression made explicit the fact that the Union was in, in reality, annexation of Scotland by England. The post was revived in 1885 and upgraded to full Secretary of State status in 1926.

Originally, the Secretary of State for Scotland was supposed to be Scotland’s man in the British cabinet. (Only one woman, Helen Liddell (Lab) has ever held the post.) It was almost entirely a sop to public opinion in Scotland – an attempt to make the Union seem less unpalatable. Notwithstanding the token nature of the job, a few individuals did good work on Scotland’s behalf. Tom Johnson springs to mind. And, perhaps, Willie Ross. But these successes tended to be more than offset by the likes of notorious liar Alistair Carmichael and just plain notorious Jim Murphy.

Overall, it has never been entirely clear whether the Secretary of State was Scotland’s man (or Helen Liddell) in London or London’s man in Scotland. Any doubt on this count has now been dispelled. He (or theoretically ‘she’) is now definitely and unabashedly the British government’s representative in Scotland. He represents the interests of that government and of the Union. In no sense does he (Sorry Helen, but I have to stop this.) represent Scotland’s interests. Quite the contrary. According to the British government’s website,

The main role of the Scottish Secretary is to promote and protect the devolution settlement.

Other responsibilities include promoting partnership between the UK government and the Scottish government, and relations between the 2 Parliaments.

Secretary of State for Scotland

The language disguises a far harsher reality. While it is certainly the job of the Secretary of State for Scotland to “promote and protect the devolution settlement” this aspect of the role must be understood in the light of what devolution means. First regarded as a way of killing Scotland’s burgeoning independence movement ‘stone dead’, devolution was always more about formalising the withholding of powers than devolving them. It would never have been permitted had it been thought that it might actually empower Scotland. It was only allowed because the British establishment was persuaded that it would not jeopardise the Union. In fact, it was maintained that it would strengthen England-as-Britain’s grip on Scotland.

Best laid schemes etc. Suffice it to say that it didn’t quite work out as anticipated. After the No vote in 2014, many commentators – myself included – considered it likely that the British political elite would use the power handed to them by No voters to abandon or at least roll back the devolution ‘experiment’. This would have been very controversial, of course. In fact, the Brits did a rather clever thing instead. Taking advantage of the Smith Commission and subsequent ‘reform’ of the Scotland Act, they sought to weaponise devolution against the SNP administration in Edinburgh. That didn’t go so well either. The Scottish Government deftly avoided all of the fiscal and political traps that had been laid for them. Or, at least, mitigated or deferred the impact of measures intended to undermine the Scottish Government and make the SNP unelectable. Then it would have been back to British business as usual. Scotland’s voters had other ideas.

This brief history was necessary in order to better understand what the role of Secretary of State for Scotland now entails. The incumbent no longer has to pretend to be representing Scotland’s interests – although the media may still portray him in this light. Today, the Secretary of State for Scotland is first and foremost the defender of the Union. His task is to ensure that the Union is preserved – at whatever cost to Scotland. Post-Brexit, his task is to implement a British Nationalist ‘One Nation’ solution to the problem of Scotland.

As soon as the first SNP administration was formed in 2007, the fate of the Scottish Parliament was sealed. If devolution was not to become the threat to the Union that the British establishment fears, Holyrood had to be reined-in. The Secretary of State for Scotland has a crucial role to play in this. He is to head a shadow administration which will take on powers stripped from the Scottish Parliament under the guise of managing the Brexit aftermath. What qualities and abilities would a person require in order to do this job?

Obviously, they would have to be ruthless and thick-skinned – uncaring of how they are perceived by the people of Scotland who have realised the true nature of the Union. The individual concerned will be actively betraying Scotland every moment that they are in office. They will necessarily and inevitably come to be despised by all but the most fervent British Nationalists. Although the ‘Jock-bashing’ may make them popular in England-as-Britain, their name will be cursed in Scotland.

This suggests that it should be somebody with a pathologically diminished self-awareness. Somebody who will do what is required of them in return for personal advancement. Somebody with a craving for the prestige of high office but lacking the talent to make it on merit. Somebody who can be bought.

The candidate needs no particular skills. The infrastructure of the shadow government is pretty much complete. What is needed is a ‘face’ to front the project. Someone with a bit of charisma. Someone with a measure of superficial charm. Importantly, someone who is media-savvy. Someone who can ‘sell’ what is being done to Scotland’s democracy. All of which rules out the present incumbent. Alister Jack was chosen because of his business experience. He was considered ideal as the person to manage the seizing of the Scottish Parliament’s ‘assets’- its powers – and managing their adoption and operation by the ‘UK Government in Scotland’. A functionary.

It is likely that the rumours of his removal have been prompted by the realisation that the machinery of the shadow government is better left in the hands of technocrats and civil servants. The project doesn’t need a manager. It needs a figurehead. Alister Jack is certainly not the kind of person who is likely to impress Dominic Cummings. And he has a great deal of influence with Boris Johnson.

We now have a job description and an idea of the kind of person who would be ideal for the role. The Secretary of State for Scotland needs to be venal, mercenary, ambitious, shallow and heartless with good media skills, fluency in the language of politics, a winning personality and a photogenic face. Someone who has mastered the art of the photo-op. Someone who can trivialise the most serious of issues and treat trivialities with undue solemnity and melodramatic indignation.

Someone who has not the slightest compunction about lying brazenly and who has a natural talent for hypocrisy. Someone who can flip from one position to another with consummate ease and hold to both effortlessly. Someone neither fazed nor embarrassed by inconsistency and contradiction. At the same time, they must not pose any threat to Boris Johnson. It must be someone who is liked within the party but who has no large following. It must be someone who can easily be sidelined should the occasion arise. If they are Scottish or can carry off the pretence of speaking for Scotland, this would be a bonus.

Dear readers! I give you the next Secretary of State for Scotland – RUTH DAVIDSON!

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All hypocrites together

Does anybody other than Jo Swinson believe that Jo Swinson might be the next British Prime MInister? She obviously believes it with all her mendacious, duplicitous, hypocritical heart. How else might she revoke Article 50 absent a new referendum on the matter – a so-called “peoples’ referendum”. Which, we note in passing, continues to be official Liberal Democrat policy despite the fact that Swinson made no mention of it.

Of course, she was speaking in Scotland. Like all British politicians, Swinson has two faces – the one she shows to voters in England, and the mask she puts on when she ventures north. In Scotland, she must occupy the throne recently vacated by Ruth Davidson. She must don the crown as ‘Queen of the BritNats’. She must strive to be the champion of British Nationalism in Scotland, because she is chasing the same votes that the ‘Ruth Davidson Say No To Indyref2 Party’ took in 2017. The votes of the most ardent British nationalists.

Although she has yet to be formally crowned by the British media, Swinson is the de facto ‘Queen of the BritNats’ and, as such, she must be as fervently opposed to a new independence referendum as her lately de-pedestalled predecessor. To avoid the accusations of hypocrisy and double-standards which inevitably follow from supporting a new referendum on EU membership whilst opposing a new referendum on restoring Scotland’s independence, Swinson has hit on the brilliantly simple tactic of omitting any mention of official Liberal Democrat policy on the former in the hope that nobody will contrast it with her opposition to the latter.

But then, we all do that, don’t we? We try to conceal or minimise inconvenient truths. I’m guilty myself. Look at how I’ve avoided alluding to the discomfiting hypocrisy of the SNP criticising Swinson for prioritising ‘Tory Brexit’ over Scotland’s cause.

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A vacancy for vacancy

I have never had anything at all flattering to say about Ruth Davidson. Not just because she’s a Tory, but because she is the kind of political careerist I despise. Somebody who is content to be used by established power in return for the paltry baubles of celebrity status and media attention. Until now, apparently.

What has changed? Not her domestic situation. She was well aware of the kind of commitment she was making when she and her partner decided to start a family. Unless she’s pregnant again, nothing has altered in that regard. If it was going to take time for the realities of juggling family and career to hit home, that time elapsed long before now.

According to that fount of all political wisdom, Tom Gordon (The Herald’s Scottish Political Editor), Davidson returned to Holyrood in May ready to “claim Nicola Sturgeon’s throne”. Let’s hope that fount has an efficient flush.

It’s not Davidson’s domestic circumstances that have changed. Nor is it credible that she’s just appreciated the difficulties of being a mother and an MSP. What has changed is the political context.

I might have found a smidgeon of respect for Ruth Davidson if she’d had the courage to state that the Boris Johnson regime is indefensible. But then she would not have been where she was if she had been a person given to strong convictions.

The good news for the British Conservative & Unionist Party in Scotland (BCUPS) is that they will have no difficulty finding a new ‘leader’. Cast an eye over the British Tories squatting in the Scottish Parliament and you’ll find plenty of people who have neither principles nor self-respect.

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The cuckoos

Those of you who are not hampered by British Nationalist blinkers cannot have failed to notice the ease with which Nicola Sturgeon bats away the opposition’s attacks at the weekly First Minister’s Questions (FMQ) sessions. In part, this is because she is well-briefed, intelligent and quick-thinking. But it is also because her adversaries are none of these things.

It is said that, in court, counsel should never ask a question unless they know the answer. Heeding the sense of this, I long since adopted the habit – now second nature – of ‘testing’ statements prior to publishing them. I always ask myself how I would respond if I were on the other side. There have been many occasions when I’ve had something ready to post on Twitter but, pausing with the cursor on the button, I have opted to delete instead because I’ve thought of a great comeback which just might also occur to my interlocutor.

Richard Leonard, Ruth Davidson and Willie Rennie all regularly make utter fools of themselves at FMQ due to their evident inability to reflect on what they are saying and consider how the First Minister might respond. Mainly, this is because their ‘questions’ are not constructed as genuine enquiries made for the purpose of eliciting information or clarification, but as partisan thrusts essayed for the purpose of scoring points – and providing the British media with sound-bites. But the fact that they continue to play the clown-troupe week in and week out bids us suppose that there must also be an element of stupidity involved in their obvious inability to learn any lessons from their regular humiliation.

As it is for the leaders of the British parties at Holyrood, so it is for all of the British politicians squatting like fat cuckoos in the Scottish Parliament. Just as Rennie, Davidson and Leonard are too arrogant to suppose their utterances require some consideration, and too deluded to feel humiliation when they are slapped down by Nicola Sturgeon, so their underlings emulate this total lack of self-awareness.

The Tweet shown in the image at the top of this page appeared on my time-line this morning. It was posted by British Conservative & Unionist Party (BCUPS) cuckoo, Rachel Hamilton MSP. One of those people you sort of think you might have heard of but can’t quite place. When they’re doing really daft stuff there’s a tendency to get them mixed up with Kirstene Hair. Anyway! Whoever she may be, she posted that Tweet doubtless thinking herself quite the political operator. I posted the following response.

If you genuinely cared about protected status for Scottish foods you wouldn’t be dragging Scotland out of the EU on the ragged coattails of your Beloved British state. You have shown where your loyalty lies. And it’s not with your constituency or Scotland. #DissolveTheUnion— Peter A Bell #DissolveTheUnion (@BerthanPete) July 12, 2019

It occurred to me later that, so obvious was this rejoinder, the great wonder was that Kirstene Rachel hadn’t foreseen it. Surely even a BCUP politician would have seen where this was going had they taken the trouble to think about it for a moment. But she didn’t see. Because she didn’t think. Because she doesn’t care. And that is the lesson which we take from all of this.

British politicians in Scotland just don’t care. They don’t have enough respect for the Scottish Parliament to care if what they come out with at FMQ is so abysmally dumb as to warrant a virtual skelp from the First Minister. They don’t have enough respect for Scotland’s people to care if the hypocrisy in their Tweets is so sickeningly obvious as to elicit an entirely predictable response. They exhibit the casual arrogance born of knowing that their utterances will never be subjected to scrutiny by the mainstream British media. They are so lacking in self-awareness as to be blithely unaware of how ludicrous they appear.

Surely Scotland deserves better than these British cuckoos!

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A nightmare scenario

As ever, Andrew Tickell does an excellent job of taking us through the rules and procedures of the Scottish Parliament. His account of how Nicola Sturgeon might force an early Scottish general election is intriguing. But there is one possible twist to the hypothetical tale which either hasn’t occurred to him or, more likely, was considered too outlandish even in an age of bizarre politics – the Grand Coalition.

Suppose that, when Nicola Sturgeon resigns as First Minister, instead of “the ridiculous spectacle of a Davidson-Leonard contest” envisioned by Andrew we had the rather less amusing spectacle of the British parties in Holyrood forming an alliance sufficiently workable to avoid “complete ungovernability”?

Is this really so difficult to imagine? It may not be easy to see such a Grand Coalition working in the longer term, but how long would it have to last in order to foil Nicola Sturgeon’s devious plan to bring about an early election? If the British parties could cobble together any kind of administration and keep it limping along for even a few weeks, Ms Sturgeon would be left looking every bit as foolish as Theresa May did in the aftermath of he snap UK general election in 2017.

There was a time when a formal association between the two main British parties – even at the North Britain branch level – would have been unthinkable. But that all changed in June 2012 with the formation of Better Together / Project Fear. That set the precedent. It is now not possible – or, at least, not sensible – to discount the possibility of a Grand Coalition of British parties in the Scottish Parliament.

Such an alliance would be justified in terms of a shared British Nationalist ideology which readily overcomes the already uncertain political differences between the British Conservative & Unionist Party in Scotland (BCUPS) and British Labour in Scotland (BLiS). Because we’ve seen it before from their predecessors, it is all too easy to imagine Leonard and Davidson sharing a platform festooned with Union flags; and to hear the grandiloquent speeches about a shared determination to “protect our precious Union” and “save Scotland from the evil of the SNP”. Rhetoric which would be echoed by their respective bosses in London, both of whom would eagerly seize the opportunity to play the ‘unity’ card in the hope of trumping the Mad Brexiteer insurgency threatening the cosy two-party arrangement which has served the British establishment so effectively for decades.

If the thought of a Grand Coalition of British parties wresting control of Holyrood from the Scottish parties doesn’t give you nightmares then reflect for a moment on the damage such an administration could do. Think of the ways it could use even temporary power to advance the ‘One Nation’ British Nationalist project. The possibility of such an alliance may be remote. But the prospect is horrifying. Could Nicola Sturgeon afford to take a chance?

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In place of truth

David Mundell

There is certainly hypocrisy in David Mundell’s screeching U-turn on the matter of his willingness to serve under Boris Johnson. Just as there is dumb arrogance in Ruth Davidson’s bombastic pronouncements on the subject of a new referendum – her actual authority being in inverse proportion to her pomposity. Similarly, it is difficult to explain Richard Leonard’s dire performances at First Minister’s Questions (FMQ) without including stupidity as a significant factor.

But is there something more to all this than rank hypocrisy, vaunting arrogance and abysmal stupidity? Is it, perhaps, a mistake to dismiss such things as mere gaffes or to discount them as just evidence of the kind of character flaws which seem ubiquitous among British politicians? When taken together with the various form of dishonesty by which the British media allows the gaffes to go unreported and the character flaws unremarked, might we be looking at a much larger phenomenon?

Some time ago. in an article for iScot Magazine called ‘The death of truth’, I wrote,

It seems not enough to say that truth is being supplanted. That it is being overwhelmed by a “narrative contrary to reality”. For all its vivid persuasiveness, the concept of a “vast, permanent chasm between reality and perception” is wanting. Possibly because it leaves reality distanced, but intact. And the sense I get is, not of truth being set-aside or distorted or obscured, but of truth being demolished. Obliterated. Eradicated.

Not that I am suggesting some Orwellian plot to murder truth. But if making the concept of truth indistinct and elusive serves the agendas of a sufficient number of people with a sufficient amount of influence then what emerges from their behaviours and interactions may be all but indistinguishable from a conspiracy.

What is certain is that the British establishment has developed doubt as a powerful weapon in its propaganda arsenal. Pretty much everything that British politicians do seems designed to foster uncertainty. The British media does a bang-up job of spreading that uncertainty. This results in a generalised erosion of confidence, not only in politicians, but in the entire political system. It also leads to much confusion among voters and, at the very least, a reduced ability to make informed choices.

When people are confused and uncertain they are more easily led. Or steered. They are more readily deterred from effecting change. They are more averse to anything that can be portrayed as a risk. They are more inclined to favour the familiar and cling to the status quo.

An atmosphere of uncertainty and confusion also makes people more susceptible to anyone who offers a risk-free option. Or an option which, with the help of the media, can be portrayed as risk-free. It was doubt, generated and exaggerated by Better Together / Project Fear, which the British political elite deployed so successfully in the 2014 independence referendum. It was the plausible promise of a simplistic certainty that launched the Brexit fiasco.

Pervasive doubt leaves space for manufactured truth. When truth is diminished, reality is defined by the loudest and most intrusive voices. Last week, Mundell said he wouldn’t work with Boris Johnson. This week, he says he would. Next week, nobody is sure what he said – or when he said it.

Nicola Sturgeon is First Minister. She has the authority of that office. She has the democratic mandate. Ruth Davidson is treated by the British establishment – particularly the media – as if she has the same status as the First Minister. She is presented as speaking with similar authority. She is allowed and enabled to claim a mandate that she doesn’t possess. Keep this up for long enough and with sufficient intensity and the distinction between First Minister and nonentity is blurred. Davidson’s pronouncement are afforded a weight they cannot legitimately have.

At FMQ, Richard Leonard persists in asking questions about reserved matters. This may be, wholly or partly, attributed to stupidity. But, deliberate or not, it has the effect of causing confusion about the powers of the Scottish Parliament and makes it easier to blame the SNP administration for the deleterious impact of British government policies.

Leonard’s evident stupidity is appalling. Davidson’s pretentiousness is offensive. Mundell’s hypocrisy is disgusting. The British media’s dishonesty is despicable. But put all this together and you have a phenomenon which is quite frightening.

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If your fridge could scowl

It is always disappointing when The National appears to be picking up bad habits from the Unionist press. There is no “row” here. Ruth Davidson’s duplicity, mendacity and hypocrisy have been amply confirmed. As have her inability to grasp how democracy works; her difficulties with simple arithmetic; and her contempt for the Scottish Parliament. There is no debate about any of this. No discussion, never mind a “row”.

Nor is there any great controversy over what she says. Davidson can stand in front of a mirror practising that look of grim gravitas for the remainder of her ignominious political career. The reality remains that she does not now, nor will she ever have, the authority to dictate terms to Scotland’s democratically elected government or to impose conditions on Scotland’s right of self-determination. The deeply furrowed brow and dour set of her mouth say more about her ability to get into character on cue than about her standing in Scotland.

Ruth Davidson is a nonentity. She may be taking a turn at being leader of the official opposition at Holyrood, but given the way she and the other British politicians squatting in the Scottish Parliament conduct themselves, that title does nothing to enhance her status.

Anybody who can be replaced, even temporarily, by Jackson Carlaw is not a person of significance.

If Ruth Davidson is so insignificant, why does she have such a high public profile? If you are asking that question, you have it the wrong way round. Davidson has been given a high public profile because she is insignificant; but, for the purposes of the ‘One Nation’ British Nationalist project, the British establishment finds it expedient to have her decked with the trappings and treatment associated with seniority.

The matter of status is important. In a properly functioning democracy, where all legitimate political authority derives from the people, status must be earned. It is in the gift only of the people, and must be won from them. But that takes time and effort. It requires talent and ability and the attributes of personality and character which combine to make charisma. Wouldn’t it be more ‘efficient’ if a suitably tractable individual could be given the appearance of those qualities and properties? What if those abilities and attributes could be applied to a person as paint is applied to woodwork? What if the desired image could be manufactured? What if the image could be tailored to the individual and, more importantly, the purpose for which that individual is being used?

Fortunately – or regrettably, depending on your perspective – the art and science of the marketing industry has provided the tools for the job. Those tools have been developed to the point where status is now a commodity to be purchased – like electricity or internet access. Celebrity can be mass-produced and celebrities can be manufactured like motor vehicles – each specified for a particular market. Would you like yours camp with sequins? Or serious in a suit? Or down-to-earth in shirt-sleeves and chinos?

Ruth Davidson is just such a product of the image industry. Her status is as illusory as the ‘gifts’ of somebody off of one of them reality TV shows. She is an appliance being used by the British establishment for a particular purpose. Like a toaster or a washing machine. She has no more claim to genuine political status than your vacuum cleaner. And rather less authority than your radio alarm clock.

Why would a fridge-freezer be the subject of a political “row”?

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The power of doubt

One takes a chance describing anything as novel. It may be a cliché to say that there is nothing new under the sun, but such things get to be clichés for a reason – there is an element of truth or wisdom in them. What we do get are new twists on old phenomena or practices. New ways of doing the same old thing. Or the same old thing adapted to a new purpose. The modern understanding of the term ‘propaganda’ is little more than a century old. Borrowed from the Catholic church, the word acquired its political sense during the First World War. Initially, it was not a pejorative term but simply referred to material or information propagated to advance a cause. We can immediately see the commonalities between the words ‘propagate’ and ‘propaganda’.

The word may be relatively new. But the practice surely isn’t. Propaganda is a modern term for something that is as old as politics. And politics is at least as old as civilisation and probably as old as our species. If there is anything new under the sun, it certainly isn’t propaganda. Such novelty as there may be lies, not in the practice, but in its formalisation.

It was almost certainly wartime propaganda which gave the word its negative connotations. There is, after all, no reason why a cause must be honourable or the material and information used to advance a cause necessarily honest and accurate. And if the cause is survival in an armed conflict it is easy to justify production of dishonest material and dissemination of false information.

We should be wary, however, of unthinkingly dismissing propaganda as malign or rejecting its use as reprehensible on account of these negative connotations. Propaganda needn’t only be used to further bad causes. Joseph Goebbels is recognised as one of history’s great propagandists. The methods he developed and deployed served a truly vile ideology. But those same methods can be adapted to benign purposes. We may not be comfortable with the thought that we are promoting our obviously worthy cause using the same basic tools as were used by the Nazis. But we should bear in mind that those tools have been around for millennia and have served many causes, not all of which were as objectionable as that promoted by Herr Goebbels.

That said, a cause my be considered objectionable without it being remotely comparable with Nazi ideology. Although, because it’s all politics, it is always possible to find similarities if you are sufficiently intent on doing so. And sufficiently imaginative. That goes for the form of British Nationalism now gripping English-as-British politics as much as for any other political ideology. It is not particularly difficult to make comparisons between the words and actions of fervid British Nationalists and the work of Joseph Goebbels. But such comparisons are superficial and trivial. Because they can always be made, they can never tell us anything useful about the cause being advanced.

Any situation in which propaganda is being deployed can be made to look ‘evil’ if that is what suits the propaganda purposes of those describing the situation. But ‘evil’ is an empty term. It does not explain. In fact, it is most commonly heard when explanation is being most energetically avoided.

We need explanations. We need understanding. We cannot manage affairs without properly comprehending them. We can only participate effectively in democratic politics to the extent that we are able to see through the fog of propaganda. We can only hope to avoid being manipulated if we have at least some familiarity with the methods used to manipulate us. There may be an argument for teaching the basics of propaganda in schools. Although it might not be deemed socially acceptable to use ‘Goebbels on the Power of Propaganda’ as the text.

We swim in a sea of mediated messages. It makes evident sense that each of us should know as much as possible about the processes involved in mediating those messages. Feel free to slap anyone who derides media studies. Media are only slightly less consequential to our lives than air, food and water. Snorting derisively at the study of media makes about as much sense as dismissing study of the respiratory system. Or poo-pooing study of the digestive system. (Pun unabashedly intended.)

The understanding we need comes from analysis. Dispassionate, objective analysis – if at all possible. It comes from asking the pertinent questions. When politicians speak, we should do more than just listen to the words. We should ask probing questions about what is being said. Why is it being said? Why is it being said at this time and in this manner? Why those words? Why this message? Why this messenger?

How am I supposed to understand the message? How am I supposed to react to it? How am I reacting to it? Why am I reacting to it in this way?

What is the immediate context? What is the wider context? What is the obvious purpose of the message? What is the less obvious purpose?

What is the content of the message? How does that content relate to established facts and reasonable assumptions?

It sounds like a laborious process. But, with some practice, it becomes automatic. It is possible to develop the ability to filter politicians’ words through an analytical mesh almost in real time. At the very least, there is an awareness that the message will have to be filtered through that mesh at some point if it is to be properly understood. That awareness alone is a shield against manipulation.

As I write this, the media sea is thick with the bombastic, bilious utterances of British Nationalist politicians. The contenders for the role of leader of the British Conservative & Unionist Party have been launching their campaigns at the same time as the ‘Queen of the BritNats’, Ruth Davidson’ is desperately trying to keep the crown on her head. Or is it the media desperately trying to keep her in the role to which they appointed her? It’s the kind of parasitical symbiotic relationship where it’s difficult to know who is using who.

My sense of it is that Davidson is regarded by the British establishment as no more than a convenient tool; made all the more convenient by the fact that there really isn’t anybody else available. So, just when it looked like Ruth was about to lose her lustre, another dollop of turd polish was applied and she is back to enjoying a prominence she is no doubt foolish enough to suppose she has earned by her talent and ability rather than her willingness to be exploited.

But what about those utterances? What is that all about? What do we find if we ask the kind of questions referred to earlier? Afforded a platform by the BBC, Davidson said,

If she [Nicola Sturgeon] puts it in a manifesto that she’s going to hold another referendum and she wins a majority outright, then she can negotiate with the UK Government in the same way as happened last time.

But she doesn’t get to just, in the middle of a parliament where she’s lost her majority, get to stick her hand up and say I’m going to re-run this referendum again and again until I get the result I want.

The National

I don’t intend to essay a detailed analysis here. I just want to point out that, whatever the words say, this is propaganda. It is a message crafted for a manipulative purpose. And, like much propaganda, it works on a number of levels.

It is a rallying cry for hard-line Unionists in Scotland. The British parties in Scotland long since abandoned any hope of taking votes from the SNP. They are all now squabbling over that Unionist vote. Increasingly, they are also trying to keep people within the Unionist fold. They recognise that many have started to question the Union, having been given ample cause to do so by Brexit and the general ugliness of British politics. Even formerly committed Unionists are now less convinced of its efficacy. Questions are being asked about how the Union serves Scotland. Questions are being asked about whether the Union serves Scotland at all.

But there is a deeper purpose to this propaganda. And it has to do with doubt. And this is where we find something that at least looks novel.

Old-style tyrants ruled by terrorising those who might might be a threat to their power and status. But terror is both debilitating to a population and expansive to maintain. So, established power now relies on a lower level of fear that keeps the population functioning and which can be maintained at virtually no cost using mass media. Doubt!

People react, often in unpredictable ways, against being made to feel afraid. Especially if it is constant. But they can readily be persuaded to regard doubt as no more than sensible caution. The most effective propaganda is that which gets people to, not only succumb to being manipulated, but actually participate in the manipulation. If the propaganda can work on existing risk aversion to create or amplify doubt, then people can be discouraged from acting in particular ways. At population level, this discouragement is effective power.

Arguably the greatest advance in social engineering came with the realisation that there is no need to make people afraid in order to manage them. You only have to make them uncertain. Stalin would be feeling really stupid right now. But he could take some comfort from the fact that he lacked the essential tool for generating an atmosphere of doubt – the mass media.

(incidentally, but importantly, this atmosphere of doubt fits very nicely with an economic system which derives its energy from insecurity, inequality and imbalance. An economic system powered by precariousness can always use doubt as fuel.)

If we want to see an example of doubt being used to manipulate people we need look no further than ‘Project Fear’. Or ‘Project Doubt’ as it would have been more appropriately dubbed by those engaged in the anti-independence propaganda effort if they had been a bit more thoughtful. The entire exercise was aimed at weaving a suffocating web of exaggerated and irrational doubt using threads spun from reasonable concerns and normal resistance to change. With the willing cooperation and active participation of the mainstream British media, the exercise was successful.

Whereas coercion is defined by the removal of choice, doubt absolutely requires it. There must be two narratives in order that people can be made uncertain about which they can rely on. Counter-intuitively, these narratives don’t have to be particularly distinctive. Look at how difficult it so often is to distinguish between the narratives of the two main British political parties. Look at the confusion this causes. Confusion is the close cousin of doubt.

In the long-term, of course, this doubt and confusion is highly corrosive. It eats away at trust in democratic institutions and processes. We can see this in its current effect on English-as-British politics. But the British political elites are not given to thinking in the long term. As we watch the best and brightest that the British political system has to offer stumbling between soundbites we may feel nostalgic for the days when they used to stagger from crisis to catastrophe. If we are old enough, we even may look back longingly on the dimly remembered time when British politicians’ vision extended as far as the next election.

Ruth Davidson’s job is to provide the framework for an alternative narrative. Up to a pint, it doesn’t really matter what she says. It only matters that the media are able to report it as a competing narrative to be set against whatever the Scottish Government says. Davidson has been imbued by the media with a faux authority precisely so that she can be set against Nicola Sturgeon. Two narratives. Two ‘leaders’. Plenty of scope for the media to manufacture doubt as to which is true or real.

Of course, one of those narratives is almost entirely false. (There has to be a kernel of truth in any well constructed lie.) And one of the leaders is actually a fraud. A fake. A creature built entirely of media hype and a cog in the British state’s propaganda machine. The dishonesty of the narrative and the falsity of the figurehead are things glaringly obvious to most people in Scotland. But that doesn’t matter. The propaganda doesn’t work on the basis of a distinction between true and false, but on the basis of their being a distinction – regardless of what the distinction is or the nature of what lies either side of that distinction. The alternative narrative exists only so that the propagandists, and those who take their cue from them, can say, “But what about this?”.

Cast your mind back again to the 2014 referendum campaign and Better Together. Recall how their narrative involved a series of questions that were cycles through endlessly while responses were ignored by the media and British Nationalist kept repeating that there were no answers. The questions didn’t have to be sensible. All that mattered was that there be questions. Because questions imply doubt. The more so if the response to those questions was an attempt to find an answer that would be deemed acceptable. The diverse and long-winded answered only served to amplify the doubt.

None of this may be new. It almost certainly has parallels in past campaigns. What does seem novel, however, is the intensity of the effort to generate doubt, and the degree to which this effort seems coordinated. But there is one facet of this ‘culture of doubt’ which strikes me as being a recent development. And Ruth Davidson is to be found in this strand of British propaganda as well. I refer to the blurring of the distinction between winners and losers in elections and referendums.

We are all familiar with the massive media effort to portray Davidson as the winner of the 2017 UK general election. If you only read British newspapers or watched the BBC in the days and weeks following the vote, you could be forgiven for thinking the Tories had won the vote in Scotland and that Ruth Davidson was the new First Minister. That is how brazen was the lie and how intense was the effort to sell that lie to the public.

But this has now become a commonplace of what passes for political journalism in the British media. After any poll, their is a narrative which seeks to afford the losers a status equivalent – at least – with that of the winners. At its most effective, this propaganda line can have people actually believing that the losers are the winners and vice versa. Look around social media and you’ll find no shortage of people prepared to insist that the SNP lost that 2017 election, despite the fact that, by every meaningful measure, the SNP came out of the election in exactly the same position as it went in.

But the point here is that this kind of total deception is not necessary. The propaganda is effective even if all it does is produce a small doubt. Because, using mass media, that doubt can translate into the manipulative power by which people are managed.

This form of social management may not be new. But it is kinda scary.

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Ruth Davidson, who supposedly wants us all to stop talking incessantly about independence, never stops talking about independence – claiming that Nicola Sturgeon never stops talking about independence and wanting her to stop talking about independence.

Meanwhile, the people who never want to stop talking about independence accuse Nicola Sturgeon of not wanting to talk about independence; want her to start talking about independence; and want want Ruth Davidson to stop talking about stopping independence.

There’s a reason we don’t see much political satire on TV these days. It would be too difficult to distinguish between an episode of Spitting Image and an edition of the Andrew Marr Show.

But – and I’m going to shock you here – Ruth Davidson is right. She’s right accidentally, coincidentally and for the wrong reasons. But, this being Ruth Davidson, she has to take what she can get. It’s unlikely she’ll ever do better.

She’s right to talk about independence all the time because the constitutional issue is, ultimately, the only issue that really matters. All other political questions always come back eventually to the matter of who decides. We all should follow Ruth Davidson’s example. We SHOULD be talking about independence all the time.

The First Minister of Scotland and leader of what is effectively the political arm of the independence movement certainly should be talking about little else but the constitutional issue. Because any and all other issues facing Scotland crucially depend on how we answer the question of what constitutes legitimate political authority in Scotland.

Ruth Davidson will, of course, insist that the people of Scotland answered this question in 2014. She will obdurately continue to insist on this no matter how often it is explained to her how the right of self-determination works or how it is possible for a referendum to produce a result, but not a decision. As I wrote some months ago,

Scotland’s 2014 independence referendum is illustrative. While it was perfectly clear that a Yes vote meant independence by way of a reasonably well described process, there was no indication whatever of what a No vote meant. Initially, it was said to be a vote for the status quo. As the referendum campaign progressed, however, all manner of stuff was hooked onto the No vote – up to and including ‘The Vow’.

In practice, a No vote meant whatever the British establishment wanted it to mean. This turned out to be pretty much the opposite of everything that had been promised. And something very, very far from the status quo that was originally offered. Thus, the referendum produced an indisputable result, but no decision. Because the No option was effectively undefined, a No vote in the referendum could not settle the issue. There was nothing to settle on.

Alpacas might fly

Superficially, the 2014 referendum result may seem to imply the people of Scotland opting to forego the opportunity to be a normal democratic nation where important decisions affecting people’s lives are made by a parliament and government they elect. From the self-serving perspective of British Nationalists, the 2014 referendum result had to be interpreted as the people of Scotland saying they wanted ultimate political power to lie, not in their own hands, but in the hands of the British political elite of which Davidson flatters herself to think she is a part.

No account of Ruth Davidson’s character would be complete without the terms ‘superficial’ and ‘self-serving’.

To be scrupulously fair to Davidson, there is little to indicate that she is intellectually equipped to comprehend that a referendum might produce a result without a decision. It is certain that, being immersed in and suffused with British political culture, basic democratic principles such as self-determination and popular sovereignty must be alien and anathema.

Ruth Davidson is what she is because that is what the British establishment requires her to be. She is what she is because that is what she had to be in order to serve the British ruling elite and, thereby, have some kind of political career. She is what she is because that is all she is capable of being.

Ruth Davidson never stops talking about independence, not because she recognises the importance of the constitutional issue, but because it’s the only thing she supposes she understands. The tragedy is that she really, really doesn’t.

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