Nationalism offers a simplistic way to understand a complex world. Those of us who oppose it need to be as good at offering people ways of feeling smart.
HMS Glasgow will shortly be launched into the water that runs through that city.
In fact, it will really be lowered into the water on a semi-submersible barge, but soon a huge warship, nearly seven thousand tonnes of grey steel, will be there for all to see on the Clyde. Over the coming years it will be followed by another seven ships, after the Royal Navy confirmed a further £4 billion order which secures thousands of jobs for the next decade.
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This should be awkward for the SNP who have spent most of the last decade telling people that these ships will never exist. Nationalist politicians lined up, backed by their house newspaper, to cry treachery.
But, you might say, wasn’t this just putting pressure on the UK because they care about the future of shipyards? No, because the SNP want to close these yards.
Since the referendum in 2014 Scotland’s naval shipyards have been kept open because they have been working on ten ships: The Prince of Wales aircraft carrier, five River Class patrol ships, three Type 26 frigates, and one Type 31 frigate. A further nine frigates have been ordered and will keep the yards working into the 2030s.
I have often said we should take the SNP at their word when they tell us what their plans are. Compared to these nineteen ships either being built or on the order books, the White Paper in 2014 said that Scotland would take two frigates and two patrol ships from the existing Royal Navy fleet. The workers at these yards would quite simply have nothing to do right now.
We can also say with confidence that a passion for the future of Clyde shipbuilding isn’t what animated the SNP’s angry campaign. Those same politicians who have pretended to be furious over a decade of imagined betrayal had literally nothing to say when the head of government-owned CalMac travelled to a Turkish shipyard last month to start cutting steel for new ferries. These ships won’t be built at the Clyde’s last commercial yard in Port Glasgow because the SNP has so badly mismanaged their future, but these performers couldn’t care less.
The SNP exist for one reason only: to make people in Scotland feel aggrieved. Their position on shipbuilding is a reminder that their aim isn’t to remedy grievances, it is simply to exploit them. There’s a criticism to be made of the UK’s shipbuilding strategy, but the party wants no naval shipbuilding, and which has plunged commercial shipbuilding into crisis has no useful part to play in it.
For the SNP this wasn’t ever about shipyards or shipbuilders, it was about blaming imaginary enemies for imaginary betrayals. Theirs is a politics that has no need for real-world solutions.
This is why Nicola Sturgeon can write in the pages of the FT this week:
complaining about Brexit border costs, when she wants to erect the same border to three times more trade;
expressing concern about the UK’s fiscal sustainability, when her own black hole would be proportionately three times bigger than the one Jeremy Hunt has to fill;
and criticising economic instability, when her own plan is to spend a decade as the only advanced economy without a the insurance policy of a central bank.
She’s simply not playing by the same rules as other politicians. When the only purpose is politicise a problem you don’t need to worry that your own plans would make those problems far worse.
We Need to Get Meta
How can a political movement that is so utterly interested in whether it’s politics are connected to the real world be so electorally successful?
I think it helps to think of nationalism as a conspiracy theory. Political conspiracy theories are so powerful because they are reductive. The complexity of the world is confusing, often overwhelmingly so. When someone comes to offer a simple solution it is a relief from the anxiety of trying to understand a rapidly changing world. When you come to accept that an outsider group, acting against the interests of your own group, is to blame for everything, you can view everything through that frame.
Political conspiracy theories combine this comforting simplicity with a feeling of superior sophistication. The same imaginary group who act against your interests don’t want you to know the truth. By accepting the theory’s analysis of the world you become elevated above the sheep who want to bamboozle you with the complexity of facts and analysis.
Take this example by SNP President, and supporter of wholesale NHS privatisation, Mike Russell, which appeared in The National this morning. After a week when the SNP have been widely criticised for having faked their central economic claim on renewables his response was to say this of his critics:
“Put simply, their game plan is to talk Scotland down, making it out to be a benighted wee place, too poor and too devoid of resources and talent to survive without being propped up by the strong and stable UK.”
An argument about economics is turned into an appeal to emotion framed as a conspiracy. The outsider group are insulting you by expecting that economic analysis published by our government shouldn’t be faked. He wants people to think that ‘they’ are working against ‘us’. For Russell it is not enough to discount the evidence presented by his opponents, you have to be angry that anyone would even dare present such evidence. His aim is to discredit anything his opponents say.
Those of us on the other side of the argument need to be better at providing our own explanation for what is really going on beneath the surface of the political debate. Political strategists talk about this as a meta-narrative: an overall story that connects together other smaller stories. For example, when nationalists try to escape scrutiny of the gaping holes in their own economic case by framing their opponents as unpatriotic outsiders working against Scotland, we need to tell a simple story that explains why it is that they are doing this.
For me the bones of such a meta-narrative are:
Whenever we talk about economics, nationalists try to make it about emotion. Someone confident about their economic argument doesn’t have to pull that trick.
They want you to be angry that we are even asking questions about the cost of leaving the UK because they don’t want you to ask those same questions.
They have to do this, they have to discredit their critics, because they still don’t have answers. They want you to turn on us so that you don’t turn on them.
Scots didn’t vote against independence because they don’t believe in Scotland, we voted against independence because we didn’t believe in the SNP’s plans.
People in Scotland are canny. We’re not daft enough to fall for the SNP’s trick. We won’t let out hearts rule our heads and we’ll keep asking these difficult questions.
To sink nationalism we need to offer an alternative to the emotional gratification provided by their conspiracy theories. It isn’t enough to offer competing information to what the SNP say, we need to also create the emotional framework for voters to process the arguments coming from both sides. We want voters to feel smart for seeing the SNP’s tactics for what they really are: a cynical attempt to deflect voters attention away from the economic disaster they want to create.
If we can do that then the constant denigration of opponents can become a defensive problem for the nationalists instead of the source of so much aggression.
For reasons that should be obvious, as I was writing this I thought of this poem, Scottish Pride, by Joe Corrie:
It’s fine when ye stand in a queue
at the door o’ the ‘Dole’
on a snawy day,
To ken that ye leive in the bonniest
land in the world,
The bravest, tae.
It’s fine when you’re in a pickle
Whether or no’
you’ll get your ‘dough’,
To Sing a wee bit sang
o’ the heather hills,
And the glens below.
It’s fine when the clerk says,
"Nae ‘dole’ here for you!"
To proodly turn,
and think o’ the bluidy slashin’
the English got
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