Editorial: Please Lie Responsibly

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.

Oh, and stop stealing our ideas.

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There are 18 comments

  1. Alex Gallagher

    “Please Lie Responsibly”

    This reads like a particularly long-winded and confused attempt to convince yourselves that “Their” lies are nasty but “Our” lies are good.

    Of course you could just change the rules so you don’t get fun’ oot lying in the first place…..

    http://www.heraldscotland.com/mobile/politics/referendum-news/how-ministers-rewrote-the-rules-to-hide-lack-of-eu-legal-advice.19321139?_=55d9138c1ae1a52ed31ff750ab37b10d8e800991

    1. Peter A Bell

      I’m sure you did so quite unwittingly but you have provided a perfect example of the kind of nefarious, malign myth-building that the article refers to. The Herald piece which you cite is entirely designed to deceive. There is but one fact in it – the fact that the ministerial code was revised. Other than that, it is all concocted out of distortion, innuendo and unsupported assertion intended to take the gullible from a single unremarkable fact direct to a conspiracy without the inconvenience of having to actually think about anything.

      The Herald piece is fundamentally dishonest. And it is dishonest for a dishonourable purpose.

      The reference to “their lies” and our lies” is also interesting. Many people seek to appear to be taking a “balanced” view by refusing to point to some piece of anti-independence dishonesty without also acknowledging some supposed or alleged dishonesty on the part of the pro-independence campaign. In doing so they too are being dishonest by portraying a totally false impression of equivalence in terms of both the extent and the severity of the dishonesty being deployed.

      Typically, numerous examples of serious and blatant Bitter Together dishonesty will be “balanced” by reference to some occasion when somebody on the YES side of the debate may have misspoken. People think it smart and sophisticated to maintain that “they’re all as bad as each other”. In fact, such notions are shallow and facile.

      The debate on Scotland’s constitutional future is unquestionably being debased. But there is a readily identifiable guilty party in this. The article above is right to acknowledge the qualitative contrast between the myths being constructed by the two sides in this debate. It arguably does not go far enough in emphasises differences in the methods used in the myth-building process.

      The NO campaign to date has relied entirely on dishonesty, distortion and obfuscation seasoned with smears and scaremongering and decorated with banal jingoism and the faded baubles of British imperial glory. I challenge anybody to find anything remotely comparable in the YES campaign.

  2. Peter Thomson

    Sadly Gerry Hassan often reads as if he has lost the plot with his UKania – a bit like this editorial.

    Yes Scotland now has full charge of the media and general campaign and what appears to be true is the media can not handle this. This is because the ‘Yes Scotland’ is a cross party and no party organisation which appears to confuse BBC Scotland researchers for a start. We will find out tonight (5th November) if BBC Scotland has got their head around this with their refusal to allow Blair Jenkins to appear for ‘Yes Scotland’ in the ‘Big Debate’ – apparently Alstair Darling is threatening to throw his toys out the pram if Blair Jenkins appears because Mr Jenkins does not represent a ‘political party’.

    The clear threat of the ‘Yes Scotland’ is it only releases official statements that have been objectively evidenced by independent sources which is probably why New Labour hacks in Guardian Towers dug up the Rompuy quote – there is a growing credibility gap in the ‘Better Together’ camp’s negative campaigning, reliant as it is on misinformation and ignorance of the issues. Take this week’s rehashed 10,000 jobs at risk in Scotland if Trident goes according to Better Together then Yes Scotland only goes and finds out from the MoD only 500 folk at Coulport and Faslane are employed on Trident, of whom 129 are actual MoD employees, a hundred odd are USN technicians employed as ‘civillians’ to maintain and fuel the Trident missiles themselves. The rest are employed by ‘subcontractors’ like BAE etc.

  3. Allan

    > these issues as things to be decided in the 2016 elections

    What would happen between a Yes vote and the 2016 elections? Presumably the task of negotiating a withdrawal from the union would start before 2016, or would there be two years of “as things are” before those negotiations would start (which themselves presumably will take a year or two to run)?

    1. Peter A Bell

      Negotiations would start immediately after a YES vote. The timetable from then on would depend on how the negotiations proceed. Preparatory work is being done now so that the Scottish government can expedite matters. Whether the UK government will be so well-prepared is questionable.

      1. Allan

        Sounds good – I would have expected the wheels to start immediately, and very pleased to hear that ground work is being done now.

        However, this does mean that questions which will arise during the negotiations need to be answered now. The article specifically says that Europe and currency are matters for the 2016 election, but surely they will be the most fundamental points in the negotiations, and thus this referendum is our chance to not only vote to make our own decisions, but also to cast our option on the negotiating position.

        1. Peter A Bell

          The simple fact of the matter is that some questions cannot be answered in advance of the referendum. Part of the dishonesty of the anti-independence campaign lies in their efforts to deceive people into believing that there are definitive “answers” on matters such as EU membership. And leading people to believe that the Scottish government has these “answers” but is refusing to divulge them. The plain truth is that many things will not be known as an absolute certainty until they are negotiated. And nobody will openly negotiate on the basis of circumstances that remain hypothetical until the people have spoken.
          What we do have are political certainties. Things that we can work out from what is known with varying degrees of certainty. Scotland’s continuing membership of the EU is as close to being an absolute certainty as makes no difference. If you doubt that, ask those who deny the validity of the SNP’s position to present a persuasive rational argument for either of the alternative scenarios. They will be unable to do so. When you have excluded the impossible and the improbable, what you are left with is the “answer”.
          Currency is less certain. This is simply because there are more viable alternatives. The sterling zone proposed by the SNP stands as a qualified political certainty. It has a lot going for it in terms of mutual benefits to Scotland and rUK, but there are difficulties. And further difficulties could be contrived for purely political reasons. This should not be a matter of great concern because, as I say, there are at least three other “answers” to the currency question which are perfectly viable. Some would argue, preferable, e.g. an independent currency.
          The unionists are doing their utmost to make independence look like a big scary monster. It isn’t. What problems there may be – and nobody denies that there will be problems – are massively outweighed by the possibilities that independence offers. And while we might be well-advised to be cautious about some of the more wildly ambitious hopes expressed for Scotland’s future, we should always be very, very, suspicious of those who would use fear as a weapon against aspiration.

          1. Allan

            Thanks for the reply. Perhaps a promise of an immediate election after a Yes vote, where the parties could then say what they their negotiation stance will be, where we can all then vote on that, might be the most democratic option then? Certainly I don’t want negotiation to be done on my behalf without representation until 2016 (after all the big decisions have been made).

          2. Allan

            Sure, but if we don’t debate these issues just now (the article specifically says such a debate on currency and Europe can wait until 2016) how can they be negotiated before 2016 without the Scottish people having had their say?

          3. Allan

            Fantastic. I was just confused by the assertion that these items should not be considered as part of the referendum, which I’ve heard a number of times, not just in this article. Certainly answers to questions such as currency and Europe (or at least the proposed direction) will directly effect my vote.

          4. Peter A Bell

            There should be no confusion about what we are voting for in the referendum. It is not any particular policy or raft of policies. The referendum is solely about Scotland’s constitutional status. The referendum is not about what is decided for Scotland but who makes those decisions. All the policy positions expressed within the Yes Scotland campaign represent the possibilities that independence affords us.
            We will not be voting YES for a new nation, but for the opportunity to build that new nation.

          5. Allan

            But the problem is that if there is a Yes vote, it is the current government who will be negotiating to implement their policies. Not until 2016 would be have a say (other than through the normal representation).

            Lets say for example (hypothetically) I have three preferences for currency:

            1. Independence + Euro
            2. Union + Sterling
            3. Independence + Sterling

            If we vote Yes, the current government will negotiate for my least favoured option. Since they won’t negotiate for the number 1 option, I’d want my number 2 and have to vote no.

            Hence I’m a little confused about trying to separate the issues, when they appear to be inherently bound together since negotiations would start immediately with the current government’s policies.

          6. Peter A Bell

            The SNP will not negotiate in isolation. The Scottish government is always answerable to the Scottish Parliament. And besides, if you want any options at all then you have to vote YES.

          7. Allan

            With a majority they will be able to implement their policies directly. But yes, I very much take that point. The SNP were voted in with a majority after all! Thanks for the discussion.

  4. Alex Gallagher

    @Peter “There is but one fact in it – the fact that the ministerial code was revised.”

    There at least two facts – the fact that the code was revised and the fact that the revised code allowed Eck to hide behind a formulation that kept the truth from the voters.

  5. taranaich

    I realise the article is a year old, but I just cannot leave this alone (especially since Dougie Alexander highlighted it):

    “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.”

    The ONLY way this sentence makes sense is if you are referring to the electorate of England rather than the government, because comparing Holyrood to Westminster and claiming it to be a dichotomy built on “very little evidence” is preposterous. But even IF you were suggesting that the English electorate aren’t as “calm, centre-left, liberal but radical” as Scotland, then why on earth have they voted in scary, intolerant, right-wing Tories (red and blue) for the past 30 years?

    Of course England as a collective isn’t a monolithic colossus of Tory voters, but to claim that there isn’t a substantial difference between the electorate of Scotland and England *as a whole* is ridiculous. How can you call the compassion and social democracy of the Scottish government “an exaggerated or even fabricated part of our real national psyche” when we have, as fact and actuality, free prescriptions, free care for the elderly, nationalised NHS, free tuition, independent Scots Law, and all manner of demonstrable differences which what’s been happening in England since 2010? Why do we have to “invent” the idea of the EU as a moral issue when it already IS a moral issue to deny EU citizens the rights they’ve enjoyed for 40 years after meeting the criteria for decades?

    We do need a myth, a narrative, to counter the lies put against us – but our myths need not be fictional at all.

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