You may hear clever people refer to the “art of politics” from time to time.
What they are actually talking about is all of the disingenuousness that goes on and the level of brass neck required to successfully execute it with a straight face. The ability to consistently say one thing and do another. To divert the public mind to the shortcomings and hypocrisies of your opponent while exhibiting similar defects of character yourself.
Friendly and full of noble intention some of them may be, but these are senior politicians. Therefore, one group cannot be more virtuous than the other because the process of becoming a senior politician places them all on the same ambivalent moral terrain. It then becomes a question of preference on our part as to what are we willing to turn a blind eye to.
All senior politicians must assume a certain level of ignorance in you just in order to carry out their daily business. In fact, it’s part of their job-description, this professional cynicism. It’s what defines modern political orthodoxy.
Which is why I don’t buy it when they pretend to be our friends or claim to be offering an alternative to the old tricks that came before. After all, their entire profession is rooted in an assumption that we, the shapeless masses, need to be managed: guided by their lights, sculpted by their chisels.
Every senior politician U-turns and every senior politician lies. In fact, you have to be able to do both, simultaneously, to rise high enough to become a prominent political figure.
Therefore, the only rational posture for a critically engaged citizen to adopt in relation to a political class is one of hostile scepticism – and that includes the sect we vote for.
A new era of politics? Bah
Yet the real joke here is that we think we have undergone a quantum shift in political consciousness and the Scottish people no longer suffer fools gladly. But in this endless game of partisan political football we are the fools.
Debate between parties is not about informing us nor is it about raising our collective political consciousness. It’s about weaponising our grievances with the system by over-simplifying every aspect of our lives.
Sturgeon posing with The Sun the day after it endorsed her is all the clarification you need that you are not dealing with anything new or different in the SNP. While their political objective may be unique the manner in which they have tried to realise it places them on a par with New Labour in terms of public relations obsessed cynicism.
A blind acceptance of this places us on a dangerous trajectory as a citizenry. We must demand more of ourselves and more from our politicians.
Our minds are awash with brand driven slogans masquerading as political ideas. What looks and feels like a spontaneous wave of political opinion is actually the first stage of a campaign strategy which is about imbuing the public with soundbites to repeat to each other like arguments they’ve formed of their own volition.
The terms of the debate are decided at executive level. The vast majority of us take our cues from there – many journalists and bloggers included.
Thousands of people have only just taken an interest in politics and their naivety has been, somewhat, exploited by a wall of SNP marketing that depends on them not fully understanding what’s going on. You only have to look at how many people seriously entertained the notion Sturgeon was the victim of a Unionist plot when confusion grew out of her ill-advised photo-op with the Murdoch tabloid.
Educated, well-meaning people were seriously flirting with the idea that The Sun tried to set Sturgeon up because her virtuous public image is such that they could not comprehend why she would cosy up to Scotland’s biggest selling daily. What more evidence do you need of the low level of critical consciousness masquerading as a democratic awakening?
Take, for example, one message constantly hammered home by the SNP machine. This notion of ‘standing up for Scotland’.
On the surface it sounds pretty virtuous. It sounds pretty tough and rebellious. But if you have no emotional ties with the SNP then it just sounds presumptuous and manipulative.
The idea of ‘speaking (or standing) up for Scotland’ is designed to create the false perception of mono-opinion; the idea we all think and feel the same.
In reality Sturgeon doesn’t even speak for half of Scotland. She speaks over it. In reality there’s about a million people out there who don’t even vote never mind support the SNP.
In reality, social inequality is far too extreme in this country for one party to be able to speak for all of us. And then there’s all the people who don’t vote SNP or who voted No. Does the SNP speak up for them too?
‘Standing up for Scotland’ is a slogan thought up by advertisers and strategists; designed to be repeated over and over until it’s seared onto the back of your mind. Nothing more.
While it could be argued these tactics are just a means to an end, what cannot be argued against is the proposition that this is old politics at work. ‘Things can only get better’ and ‘Big Society’ go before it.
Change we can believe in…
See the recent poster campaign featuring the First Minister’s declaration that ‘We all benefit most’ from SNP policies. Not only is it grammatically absurd but worryingly cynical. How can we all benefit most? And does this not equally mean we all benefit least?
The SNP has rebranded itself as an alternative to the old cynical noise of UK politics whilst deploying the same cynical tactics with even more ruthless efficiency. Worse, they have so far shown no real intention of wanting to inform the Scottish people of anything beyond the usual narrow terms of political engagement. In fact, the opposite. We see an effort to over-simplify things further.
A strategy it may be but it’s dependent on assuming the ignorance of broad swathes of the Scottish electorate. Or am I just missing how clever and revolutionary all of this is?
Yet we give them a free pass because of independence. We turn a blind eye because it feels new and we’re jaded from what came before, forgetting this is just another predictable cycle in Western representative democracy. We behave as if calling out their bullshit might upset them in some way as opposed to remembering they are literally our servants.
If you need another clue as to how mainstream the SNP has become just look at what it actually does with its power; tweaking knobs and dancing around the edges of problems. They use it to moralise around Tory policies while triangulating Tory voters with promises of low tax. They use it to shout down and discredit Labour while adopting or re-adopting Labour policies like extending housing benefit to 18-year-olds or protecting free bus travel for the elderly or barring tax-avoiding companies from bidding for public contracts.
They bend over backwards to re-assure everyone that despite their unprecedented power things will not change that much and not to worry.
So when you talk or write about Tories and bankers and the elite and the MSM and how they are all scum please remember the SNP is just as subordinate to those amoral forces as any other Westminster party except it has cultivated a false belief in you that it is not.
Nothing screams that more than Nicola Sturgeon posing with The Sun. Yes, other politicians have posed with The Sun. Yes, it’s no big deal. But what that tells us is that she has to engage in the same, often underhand, political tactics as every other mainstream politician. Therefore, we should assume that she will be just as slavish to the lobbies and special interests that tower over record wealth polarisation, rising social inequality and environmental destruction. This is important to recognise because Scotland will not be insulated from this if we go our own way. On the contrary, we will be even more susceptible and less able to resist such forces in the early days of a new nation.
The real spirit of independence
I’m not making an argument against independence or the SNP. I am making a case for rigorous critical thought.
This critique is not to say Sturgeon isn’t an effective and accomplished politician and leader or that the SNP harbours malign intentions towards the Scottish electorate. Far from it. The SNP brought about a referendum that activated a national passion for politics and democracy the likes of which many of us have never seen. This critique is indicative of my high expectations of the SNP and what it can deliver on our behalf.
It’s in that spirit that I criticise them fearlessly in spite of the upset it undoubtedly causes.
Labour’s slow descent was partly catalysed by the public’s eagerness to turn a blind eye to its creeping pragmatism while blindly returning it to office year after year, believing there was no alternative but the Tories.
In light of the SNP’s continued electoral buoyancy, some of us are simply encouraging the critical gaze to be cast a little more broadly and deeply. This does not threaten independence.
It guarantees it.
Photo of Holyrood at night © Rob Bruce