The truth? You can’t handle the truth.
Sorry, of course you can. You, the thinking ‘Yes’ voter: principles whittled down to their flawless core; numbers thoroughly cross-checked; widely-read and open-minded, with a Keynesian willingness to change your stance when the facts demand it. It’s no wonder you’re enraged – baffled, even – by a media that seems incapable of providing the balanced, honest analysis you crave. That’s what we all like to tell ourselves, anyway. But what really makes pro-independence campaigners so angry about so-called “media bias” is that the narrative offered by the mainstream press is woefully incompatible with our own. This doesn’t mean we’re any more rational, any more informed or any more self-aware than those who are paid to misrepresent the facts – it just means our own story, or our own myth, doesn’t have the same appeal as the one offered by the professional storytellers in the media. In fact, sometimes we’re all too willing to tear down our own myths and leave nothing in their place.
The coverage of the debate – and the debate itself – over an independent Scotland’s place in the European Union is probably a new low point in the independence campaign. This week’s Observer carries an article announcing an “intervention” in the debate from Herman Van Rompuy, the EU President once described by Ukip leader Nigel Farage as having “the charisma of a damp rag and the appearance of a low-grade bank clerk.” Van Rompuy’s reportedly “recent” characterisation of independence campaigners as naive, dangerous “separatists” was in fact part of a Q&A session from over a year ago, and it’s unlikely that Van Rompuy would have been clumsy enough to make a similar statement in a post-Edinburgh Agreement political climate. His personal opinion, for that is all it is, will also be largely irrelevant when it comes to deciding how Scotland should enter the EU, because his final term expires in November 2014 – far too close to an autumn referendum to have any impact. This is not how The Observer’s Daniel Boffey presents the story, nor is it how The Scotsman presented it when they finally caught up. Van Rompuy’s now-antiquated contribution to the debate is portrayed as an important development – one that builds on and drives forward the central theme of the modern narrative about independence.
That modern narrative is a myth, just like the narratives of every other mass-produced media product. The ‘truth’ of politics is too big to be caged within the margins of a newspaper or sandwiched between advert breaks on TV. It is a tangle of historical determinism, psychology, secrecy, strategy and luck that takes decades to unravel. So journalists and politicians construct their own grand, defining political odysseys, balanced unsteadily on a grain of truth.
Between 2007 and 2010, David Cameron, George Osborne and their tax-dodging backers invented one of the most powerful myths of modern politics. All of a sudden, Britain’s debt wasn’t the result of an immensely expensive banking bailout, but the result of a decade of irresponsible debt-fuelled spending – conveniently avoiding the essential fact that when the recession hit, public net debt as a percentage of GDP was 5 points lower than it had been when Labour took office in 1997. That myth has enabled the Conservatives to win an election (just), slash public spending and create an increasingly pervasive public faith in the insane dogma of state-shrinking economics, while almost completely ignoring the need for much stronger regulations on the banking sector that caused the crash that created all that post-crash debt. It’s a myth that’s been repeated across the western world to justify the austerity agenda that suits big business and the right wing so well, and the carnage it has visited on everyone else shows the terrifying power of the stories we’re told by politicians and the media.
The story we’re told in Scotland today is a confused one. On the one hand, Better Together’s emphasis on “uncertainty” and the need for “answers” has stuck, and it exposes the soft underside of the Yes campaign on an almost daily basis. Europe, currency and, to a lesser extent, “economic uncertainty” dominate the modern narrative, completely overwhelming the efforts of Yes campaigners to sideline these issues as things to be decided in the 2016 elections. We have no defence against it, because for us, we don’t see the need for one – opportunity trumps uncertainty. But the story has been told. Like any successful folk tale, it is passed on to colleagues, friends and family, warping and growing as it squeezes through the boundaries of the media formats that propagate it. On the other hand, the narrative abhors a vacuum. It needs “facts” to survive, so Van Rompuy’s comments are dredged from the depths of recent history and thrust, squinting, into the limelight. When facts are found simply to fit a narrative, they lose the context that gives them truth and gain a dangerous, arrogant potency. This fusion of opaque semi-fiction and naked misrepresentation is at the root of modern anger about the Scottish media, but it is an inevitable byproduct of a culture that demands fast, easy information for every minute of the day and every place in the country. Mass-produced, mass-consumed objectivity is oxymoronic, and it is incompatible with the nature of our society.
This is no claim to the high ground. The pro-independence camp is often equally guilty of creating myths and refashioning the facts to fit them. Take our insistence on the difference between scary, intolerant, right-wing Tory England and calm, centre-left, liberal but “radical” Scotland, a dichotomy built on very little evidence. We point to electoral maps of the UK that show an ocean of red in Scotland, and a patchwork of blue, orange and red below the border, and proclaim for ourselves a brave new consensus of justice and cooperation while Fred Goodwin walks freely through the corridors of his enormous, bonus-funded home and 20% of Scottish children live in poverty. This is a wonderful illustration of the power of our own myths. That sea of red – soon to be yellow, perhaps, but it’s largely a change of style, not substance – is the full stop at the end of a book we’ve been writing since the 1980s. This is a myth that we at National Collective and others, Gerry Hassan in particular, have often been keen to debunk.
But it’s a good myth. It’s not just “good” in the sense that it has a broad, effective appeal and deep roots in the Scottish mentality; it’s also a myth that can make people do “good” things. It stops us voting Tory, which will always be good, because they will always be wrong. It strengthens our national identity through the semi-illusion of political consensus. It creates an exclusive and appealing rhetorical architecture for the left and centre-left that is unmatched by anything the right can offer. As England slid from a centre-left postwar consensus into three decades of Thatcherism, the nationalist myth of Scottish social democracy helped us construct our Maginot Line at Holyrood (interpret that metaphor as you wish), and it lives on in the case for independence and the language of a dominant SNP. It’s not perfect, by any means, but it’s ours. It works. It’s a “good” myth.
That’s why it’s good that Yes Scotland are building their campaign on the rhetoric of social democracy and compassion. While that narrative may be an exaggerated or even fabricated part of our real national psyche, the importance of those things in the minds of Yes campaigners is obvious. It’s also good that ours is a creative campaign, raised up on a wave of support from Scotland’s artistic community. Popular culture is the single most powerful tool that exists for creating stories about ourselves, and a cultural community that overwhelmingly favours independence will be essential in telling the story of Scotland’s past, present and future as the campaign accelerates over the next two years. We need to tell a story of a future Scotland that is exciting, prosperous and progressive, but we also need to tell a story about the opposition. As long as they demand “certainty” without offering any themselves, as long as they peddle “narrow nationalism” while accusing us of the same, and as long as they offer us the inevitable prospect of another vicious Conservative government somewhere down the line, we should make it clear that these things are at the very heart of British unionism.
Our story needs to be global. Independence is an opportunity to build a new nation in an era ripe with transformative international potential. We can be a symbol of change, resistance and political imagination for nations across the globe. Why not strike back at the EU narrative? Spain’s opposition to automatic Scottish entry is based on the illiberal suppression of Catalonian self-determination – why not make the EU a moral issue? They can threaten us, bully us and lie to us, but we’ll create a narrative that places us on the moral high ground. When Better Together look for their arguments against independence in the cynicism of diplomats from Belgium and Spain, we should condemn their shameful opportunism. When George Osborne threatens to exclude us from sterling (something he’s completely incapable of doing), we should recognise and defy him as the bully that he is, and demand acceptance into the monetary policy committee as a symbol of future cooperation between two equal nations. Scotland’s tradition of resistance is another part-myth, but it’s a good one. Let’s use that too.
Finally, the media have to be more responsible. Myths are a tool to affect change, not to sell papers. When the direction of the media narrative is entirely dictated by the basic instincts of the consumer, we end up with a national psyche moulded to some of the worst aspects of human nature: greed, blame, misogyny, xenophobia, witch-hunts, laziness and morbidity. They don’t report the intricacies and enormities of what’s actually going on – that can’t be realistically attempted without years of hindsight – so they have to tell a story. That story should be one of hope, progress and collective endeavour, not the black comedy we’re currently watching unfold. The simplistic and bloodthirsty style of Scotland’s modern myth-makers is something our society should be both ashamed and afraid of. When the canvas is smeared in primary colours, the finer shades and brushstrokes of our society are excluded, and the innate and delicate beauty of democracy is lost. If you must make a myth, make it a good one – and if you’re going to lie, please lie responsibly.