Saturday 14 November 2015

The hope of hell

I am an atheist. I have no religion. I have never found the need for it. There is no gaping hole in my existence which cries out to be filled by cant and superstition. Which makes me an equal-opportunities hate-figure for all the diverse creeds which provide the fertile soil in which take root the poisonous weeds of fundamentalism, fanaticism, and extremism.

I embrace no concept of heaven or hell. The world in which we live provides sufficient of both. But I hope the people who brought their mindless, murderous hatred to Paris believed in hell. I hope they believed, with the same demented fervour which drove them to commit these acts of heartless savagery, in the promise of unspeakable eternal torment.

I hope that, in the irreversible moment when they triggered the device by which they thought to escape to glory, the realisation came upon them that they were actually destined for the hell of their darkest fears.

I hope they knew the terror they sought to inflict on others.

Most of all, I want all those who would follow them to know that this is their fate. In the very moment of your death, the core of humanity that dwells within even the worst of us will rise up and inflict a retribution more terrible to you than any that might be imposed by a court of law; a vengeful enemy; or an offended deity.

In the moment of your death, you will know unfathomable despair and the endless hell you have created for yourself.

I am not a particularly good person. So I am able to take a bit of comfort from such thoughts without much guilt.

Friday 13 November 2015

A “Pick ‘n’ Mix” Parliament?

There are a number of problems with the notion of orchestrating voters in order to create a "Pick 'n' Mix" parliament. Others have tackled the psephological aspects. I would suggest that not the least of the problems is illustrated by the lack of any consensus about outcomes. It seems form ll of this that, even if it were possible to achieve coordinated tactical voting - which it really isn't - the result would remain unpredictable.

Superficially, the idea of having a large number of non-SNP pro-independence MSPs seems attractive. And ridding our parliament of as much as possible of the British parties is obviously desirable. But there is reason to question how effective a group of "Other Pro-independence" MSPs might be. In the first place, what chance is there that they would, in fact, be a group. This is the infamously factional and fractious left that we're talking about. Experience tells us that they are likely to expend more of their energies on internecine squabbling and partisan point-scoring than in working together towards a common goal.

We have to wonder, too, if these non-SNP pro-independence parties actually share a goal, either among themselves or with the SNP and/or the broader independence movement. Much has been made of the diversity of the Yes campaign. And rightly so. But the thing that unified the diverse parts of the Yes campaign was a straightforward, no-strings commitment to independence which was not conditional on any particular political agenda. Of all the pro-independence parties, only the SNP maintains this stance. For all the others it's a matter of "independence if" and "independence but".

When we talk about the potential effectiveness of these non-SNP pro-independence MSPs we have to be clear about the context. As the opposition at Holyrood they would have to try very hard to be worse than British Labour in Scotland and the other British parties. It would certainly be good to have an opposition which was doing more than just throwing a ludicrously protracted tantrum at having been dispossessed of the power and status to which it presumes entitlement.

But in the context of advancing the cause of restoring Scotland's independence, there is reason to doubt that these other pro-independence parties would have much impact. Principally because the British media would simply airbrush them out of the picture altogether. Cast your mind back to the referendum campaign and ask yourself how often Yes Scotland or any of the myriad organisations and groups operating under the Yes Scotland umbrella were even acknowledged. As far as the Brit-centric mainstream media was concerned, it was all about the SNP and Alex Salmond. The same attitude would prevail in relation to RISE, Solidarity etc. To the considerable extent that being effective in the independence campaign requires a significant media profile, these parties and their MSPs would be only marginally effective as they were denied any media profile at all.

Look at the way the Westminster elite have sought, with some success, to sideline and exclude the SNP group at Westminster, despite their massive democratic mandate. A handful of Green/RISE/Solidarity MSPs at Holyrood will be as nothing by comparison.

The only exception to this media blanking of the entire Yes campaign other than the SNP was when one or other of the Yes groups or organisations did something that could be spun as embarrassing to the SNP. Likewise, any non-SNP MSPs at Holyrood after May would only ever find themselves getting any media attention if they were sniping at the SNP administration. They would, in effect, be used as sticks to beat the SNP, and little else.

And we have good cause to suppose that these other pro-independence parties would lend themselves readily enough to being thus used by the British nationalist propaganda machine. Far too many of their supporters appear content to take their cue from the British parties and the British media rather than formulate their own rational and nuanced critique of the SNP. If all we are going to get from the Green/RISE/Solidarity contingent is a dumb parroting of "SNP BAD!" drivel then we'd find no improvement over the British parties at Holyrood. Indeed, it might be argued that we'd be worse off. At least we can attack the inanity of the British parties' anti-SNP propaganda without being seen to condemn another part of the independence campaign.

That these other pro-independence parties are guilty as charged will be proved by their response to these remarks. That response will consist almost entirely of an echo of the unionist line that exposing the distortions and dishonesty of the anti-SNP propaganda equates with a claim that the SNP "can do no wrong". More thoughtful people will realise that refuting one allegation, or even a series of allegations, in no way implies a total absence of imperfection. But it is much easier to eschew such thoughtfulness and go straight to idiocies about "blind allegiance".

To summarise, I see two very big questions looming over the notion of a "Pick 'n' Mix" parliament. Is it even feasible? And even if it was, would it be of any great utility to the independence campaign?

My expectation is that Scotland's voters will, for the most part, disregard all the conflicting and confusing pleas for cunning tactical voting. I think they will make their choices in much the same diverse ways as ever. I am not about to join in with those who presume to tell people how to vote. Not least because I am perfectly aware that I will be ignored. And deservedly so. I would say only this. In the SNP we have a force sufficient to shake the British establishment. That force has been created by the people of Scotland, and it is at their disposal. It is our big stick.

As I have found occasion to remind people, the SNP offers the ONLY path to independence. It is the agency by which the people of Scotland will achieve the goal of securing their nation's independence. Without the SNP, that simply isn't going to happen. You can be non-SNP and pro-independence. You cannot be anti-SNP and pro-independence. Bear this in mind both in the campaign for the Holyrood elections and when you vote. Think very carefully before being tempted to set aside the dull, misshapen, imperfect but very, very big stick that we have in favour of some smooth and shiny but rather small new stick.

Thursday 5 November 2015

The immaculate innocence of journalists?

A recent piece on the excellent Lallands Peat Worrier blog contained the following less than flattering assessment of mainstream political journalism,

Understanding the politics of devolution increasingly demands that we understand the law of devolution. Regrettably, most of our key commentators and opinion formers still haven't the nearest, foggiest clue about how the powers and reservations of devolution are delimited. And more frustratingly still, they tend not to stir themselves to find out. Instead, they spend their time discussing political tactics, impressions, aspirations, court politics -- and as a result, allow politicians to peddle guff unchallenged.

On Bella Caledonia, Peter Burnett begins his review of George Gunn's book, In The Province of the Cat with a justifiably scathing attack on an article in The Economist,

These attempts to portray a lawless government north of the border in an article supposedly about the crofting industry in Caithness and Sutherland are not reportage, but are unsubstantiated and un-referenced opinions reliant on undemonstrated assumptions. Nobody is interviewed and the article quotes nobody, cites no external sources and presents no evidence that its author, Jeremy Cliffe, has even been to Scotland.

I, too, have found cause to write of "toxic media" and "the agenda-serving distortion of facts and downright dishonesty that is increasingly commonplace in the British media, and increasingly resented by audiences".

All of which is by way of providing context for something which caught my attention in one of Kenneth Roy's increasingly bilious columns for Scottish Review. Bemoaning the declining fortunes of newspapers in general, and what he inexplicably regards as "quality" Scottish newspapers in particular (The Scotsman!?), Roy remarks,

What surprises me is that this is the case at a time when Scotland is supposedly politically conscious and active as never before.

The entire piece is pretty much one long whine about how awful it is that the public are being derelict in their duty to provide secure and lucrative employment for self-regarding, self-important scribblers by purchasing newspapers in the quantities that once they did. But this one sentence seems to encapsulate both the dumb refusal to accept that journalists themselves bear any responsibility for the decline of the print media, and a telling illustration of the kind of observational and analytical failure that has contributed to that decline as surely as any social, economic and technological factors.

It simply doesn't occur to Kenneth Roy that the new political engagement in Scotland, far from being anomalous in relation to the decline of newspapers, goes a long way to explaining why people are abandoning traditional media in droves. He has found something rather puzzling. But he declines to reflect upon it. He utterly fails to ask the obvious questions about the possibility of some kind of causal link between rising political awareness and diminishing interest in what people such as himself have to say about politics.

It's not as if such a link is at all implausible. It makes perfect sense to suppose that, as political awareness and engagement increases, so does the capacity for more critical consumption of political messages, including those served up by "key commentators and opinion formers". Indeed, one wonders what political engagement might look like if it did not include an  ability and readiness to actively scrutinise the perspectives and interpretations offered by political journalists.

And it seems perfectly reasonable to suppose that, should more critical consumption of media messages lead to dissatisfaction with the product, then consumers will turn to alternatives. A proposition made all the more credible by the fact that such alternatives have lately become available in the form of what Kenneth Roy rather contemptuously dismisses as "social media", but is in fact a range of online sources of information, opinion and analysis which is growing in size, diversity, sophistication and, crucially, authority.

There is a train of reason here which appears to have totally eluded Kenneth Roy. If I can immediately identify this gaping hole in his analysis, so can others. Having found what he has to offer so badly flawed, why would we not seek something better elsewhere?

As others have noted, this kind of inadequate, inept and often maliciously biased commentary is hardly uncommon. It makes up the larger part of the content of the politics pages of what Roy, however laughably, deems to be "quality" newspapers, as well as other "respected" publications. But it no longer goes uncontested. "Her Majesty's Press" no longer pontificate with impunity. And, all too evidently, they aren't happy about it.

The road to ruin

Of course, failure to identify (or determination to deny?) the role of journalists in plummeting newspaper sales, as described in the first part of this article, is only part of the story. If you omit one highly pertinent question, such as "who?", then you miss other highly relevant questions that arise from the answer to that question - such as "how?" and "why?". Seeking answers to such questions would take far more space than is available. But, with all the usual caveats about the risks inherent in over-simplification, there is no harm in offering a few thoughts on the matter.

It's something of a chicken-and-egg question whether it was budget cuts which precipitated declining standards and falling sales, or some other permutation of these three things. What is reasonably certain, however, is that political editors became increasingly reliant on material fed to them by the political parties to fill the spaces between advertising. That then becomes the norm. Genuine insightful analysis and commentary gradually becomes the increasingly rare exception. Because it is effortful.

In such an environment, political contacts are ever more valuable commodities. Until a point is reached at which these contacts are all but totally dictating the content. No political writer can risk losing the "inside sources" which were once mere accoutrements of their trade, even if very useful.

The need to pander to the machinery of the "major" parties, being common to all political journalists, a cosy consensus develops among them based on what is required to satisfy the beast. Newspapers now have a political agenda which is indistinguishable from that of the British establishment. Dissent or challenge is only possible to the extent that this is within the bounds of the faux rivalries between and among the parties of the British establishment.

This situation might dodge along for a fairly long time. But something happens to disturb the comfortable arrangements between the political press and the Westminster elite. There arises something which is perceived to be a serious threat to the structures of power, privilege and patronage which define the British state. Structures in which the mainstream media are inextricably enmeshed.
The Scottish National Party wins an outright majority in the Scottish Parliament and a referendum on Scotland leaving the UK becomes inevitable.

This is seismic! Among many other effects, such as the explicit acknowledgement that the rivalry among the establishment parties was all but entirely a fa├žade, newspapers were put in the position of having to choose sides. Not that this posed much of a dilemma for them. The media, being part of the British establishment, was bound to defend the British state.

At first, this makes little difference as the threat posed by the referendum is not taken too seriously. The line taken by the British establishment - and, therefore, the British media - is a kind of paternalistic, lightly mocking condescension which, nonetheless and not in all cases or at all times, sought to at least pay lip service to the fact that this was a democratic process.

Then we saw the rise of the Yes movement, mass political engagement by people determined to challenge the status quo, and an inexorable narrowing of the polls. Within the British establishment, complacency turned to concern; then to fear; then to panic. The mocking condescension of the early weeks and months devolved into a campaign of increasingly vicious smear, lies, distortion, scaremongering, threats and empty promises. A campaign in which the vast majority of the British media colluded eagerly.

Prompted by the need to defend the old order and the old ways that served them moderately well, newspapers abandoned any pretence of impartiality or balance or reasonableness or even honesty to conduct what history will record as arguably the most savage peace-time propaganda campaign since the darkest days of the Cold War.

The newspapers had given themselves over to be transparent instrument of established power. Political journalists had abandoned professional integrity. The media had given itself licence to behave in all manner of reprehensible ways on the grounds that it was being done in the interests of "the nation". Conduct which would otherwise have been universally condemned as deplorable was held to be justified in defence of the established order. While everything said by the Yes campaign either went unreported or was grotesquely distorted, nothing said by Better Together, the British parties or the UK Government was ever in any meaningful way scrutinised.

It worked! Enough doubt and fear was engendered amount Scotland's voters that, when added to the hard core of ideological (and ultimately violent) British nationalists, led to the tragic No vote.

The British establishment thought that would be an end of things. There would still be the "nuisance" of the SNP to be dealt with and, obviously, the threat from Scotland would have to be neutralised by various means, such as undermining confidence in major institutions seen as symbolic of Scotland's distinctive political culture and using devolution legislation to effectively cripple the Scottish Parliament and Scottish Government. But it was anticipated that it would soon be exploitative business as usual.

Some see the election of a Tory government in London as significant. But as far as "dealing with" the situation in Scotland is concerned, it made no difference which of the British parties was in power at Westminster. All shared the same imperative - destroy the SNP, and put the people of Scotland back in their box.

It wasn't going to prove so easy. Events in the wake of what had at first appeared to be a calamitous referendum outcome showed that, far from subsiding, the tide of democratic dissent in Scotland was stronger than ever. Project Fear, rather than being wound down to a background hum of grinding negativity and denigration of all things Scottish, had to be kept spinning at full tilt.

Newspapers had no way out. Having committed to Project Fear, they could not now abandon it. Having chosen the path that they did, they could not now change course without acknowledging their willing collusion in the shameful campaign mounted by the British establishment against the peaceful, lawful, democratic movement to normalise Scotland's constitutional status.

Unable now to retrieve any semblance of the professional integrity which was abandoned in order to defend the ruling elites of the British state, the British media are predictably artful. They move to make their present condition the new benchmark for journalistic professionalism. Hence, we have an episode of journalistic debasement so despicable that even some journalists were moved to condemn it elevated to nomination for a prestigious award.

The submission by The Telegraph for the accolade of a PressGazette British Journalism award of the iniquitous smear against Nicola Sturgeon in which Scottish Political Editor, Simon Johnson, conspired in the most scurrilous manner imaginable with the then Scottish Secretary and now disgraced but tenacious Liberal Democrat MP, Alistair Carmichael, and its acceptance by the panel of judges, marks the point at which the shark is well and truly jumped.

Whether or not the "story" wins, the very fact of being an accepted nominee gives the journalistic profession's stamp of approval to the complete absence of any professional standards involved. The bar has been lowered to accommodate the gutter-crawlers of the British press. On a good day, The Scotsman and even the Daily Record might aspire to this new standard.

The political press has failed the people of Scotland in the most abysmal manner. It is dealing with this ignoble failure by redefining it as noble success. Is it any wonder that, as Keneth Roy acknowledges - while blaming everyone except journalists - the decline of newspapers in Scotland appears to be terminal?

Is it at all surprising, given the depths to which the old media has sunk, that people are turning to alternatives such as blogs and independent online news websites?

Whether this is to the detriment or otherwise of democracy and society is a question for another day. No matter how obvious Kenneth Roy imagines the answer to be.

Monday 2 November 2015

Bonkers like a Britnat!

So, Chris Deerin's message is simple. We should ignore all the tangible, objective evidence - much of which he helpfully lists for us - and take his word for it that Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP are doing it all wrong. That she and her party are enjoying almost exclusively positive outcomes is irrelevant. The reality of their disastrous performance may be hidden to lesser mortals, but all has been revealed to Deerin.
That the fortunes of political parties and personalities wax and wane is a truism so banal that Deerin and his fellow British nationalist commentators cannot help but look extremely silly when they attempt to put a sheen of profundity on it. The notion that, in politics, success is no more than a harbinger of failure is too slickly facile to gain any purchase on the thoughtful mind, regardless of the fact there may be just the faintest whiff of truth about it. The all but unavoidable response to such vacuity is the thought that there really must be more to it than that.
And, of course, there is. But Deerin is so consumed by fantasies of the SNP's downfall that he is blind to pretty much anything other than his own wishful thinking. He fails, for example, to see that the things he perceives - or seeks to portray - as folly on the part of the SNP administration are actually the strengths which underpin its success. Because he has bought entirely into the grotesque caricature of the SNP concocted by the British media, he expects the party to be doing the wild and crazy things that would surely be done by the cartoon characters cavorting in his head.
The SNP has failed only in that it hasn't lived down to the ludicrously low expectations of its more fervent detractors. The SNP has let down Deerin and his like by being too ordinary. Where the British establishment's slavering attack dogs had hoped for the haphazard pyrotechnics of a catastrophically mismanaged firework display, the SNP has delivered only the steady, reliable glow of street-lights. where the British nationalists eagerly anticipated administrative slapstick, the SNP has performed with quiet competence.
Deerin and the rest persist in referring to Scottish Government failure in the areas of education, health, policing etc. precisely because the anticipated failures have not materialised. Therefore, they have to be majicked into existence by the power of repetition in the British media. To the point where even otherwise perspicacious and honest journalists like Iain Macwhirter succumb to the propaganda.
The SNP has frustrated the British establishment by the very caution that Deerin complains about so piteously. They have deftly avoiding providing their opponents with ammunition, leaving them flailing around in ever more desperate and transparently obvious efforts to spin "SNP BAD!" material out of thin air.
People notice. The likes of Chris Deerin flatter themselves that they mould opinion. That they exercise significant control over the way the public perceive the world of politics. But, to whatever extent that may once have been the case, it no longer is. Certainly not in Scotland. People who were engaged and politicised by the referendum campaign see with their own eyes rather than through the distorting lens of mainstream media they long since learned to distrust. They notice the widening gulf between the breathless tales of endless crisis, incompetence and corruption peddled by the media and their actual experience of life in Scotland under an SNP administration.
The popular verdict on the SNP is that, "they're no bad". People actually rather like the quiet competence. They don't want grand schemes. They just want things to be OK. Although they might not use the precise words, most people credit the SNP with principled pragmatism. An unspectacular capacity for management and a preparedness to consider possible solutions unconstrained by dogma.
People in general don't object to the fact that the SNP is committed to seeking independence for Scotland. They are certainly not as horrified by the idea as British nationalists fearful about the consequences for the structures of power, privilege and patronage with which they are comfortably familiar.
People actually like the fact that the SNP is unified by a purpose other than partisan advantage and personal advancement. The idea of a political party with a positive aspiration has considerable appeal.
People find it easy to believe that the SNP will put the interests of Scotland and its people before all other considerations because they see evidence of this all the time. Just as importantly, they see nothing which strongly contradicts this belief.
Chris Deerin wants to tell all these people that they are wrong. And that is really all he has to say. As he suggests, it might sound bonkers. And there may be a very good reason for that.