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Time to Take the Piss
Nationalism is ridiculous, so ridicule it.
Life in Scottish politics is an exhausting, screeching, visceral nightmare. Every intervention by politicians has the volume turned up to 11. Nuanced discussion is drowned out by the din of the belligerents in the flag wars shelling each other. It is both preposterous and humourless.
Those of us who think that nationalist politics are ridiculous should try harder to communicate that. Things that are ridiculous demand ridicule.
How often have you used humour to diffuse an angry argument? Would you rather talk to the angry loudmouth in the lounge at a party or to the funny guy in the kitchen? If we change tone every now and then, and try to have a bit more fun, there might be more chance of being heard amid the noise.
Taking the piss is important for a deeper reason, which Saul Alinsky nailed in the 19070s. For those of you who don’t know him, Alinsky is the Moses of the American left. His writing draws on his experiences as an organiser and offers practical advice for campaigners. One of them was about the power of ridicule in politics. He wrote:
A sense of humour is incompatible with the complete acceptance of any dogma, any religious, political or economic prescription for salvation.
Nationalism demands total faith in the dogma that the answer lies in dividing us from the ‘other’. That devotion is why they are so brittle when questioned by the media. For them it isn’t a policy or a politician being criticised, it is their faith. It runs deep. The British Election Study found that half of SNP supporters, the core of true-believing nationalists, agreed with the statement "when people criticise my party, it feels like a personal insult”. This figure was twice the average of other parties.
Nationalism demands reverence for the nationparty (the lack of a space here isn’t a typo). Ridicule reminds us that democracy demands irreverence. When you get someone to laugh when you make an argument, they are acknowledging a truth within it. This is so important for taking on nationalism. We have to question, criticise, and imagine other answers where nationalism insist there is only one truth.
Those of us who reject the politics of division should be better at taking this piss out of nationalism because it is literally ridiculous. We should be careful to mock politics and not be personal. We also need to be better at taking the piss out of ourselves. We’ll be more attractive for showing we recognise the ridiculous in our own ranks.
Whatever the Song, They Sing the Same Chorus
As a practical example, take the Deputy First Minister John Swinney this week. Interviewed on the BBC he argued that exiting the UK was the answer to the once-in-a-lifetime health and economic crisis.
There is a response to this based on reason, and it’s certainly important to point out that removing ten billion pounds from our economy overnight isn’t an answer to a shrunken economy. Or that cutting the equivalent of the entire hospital budget from our public spending isn’t the answer to a heath crisis that will last for years to come. Or that creating a hard border with England that will cost jobs isn’t the answer to the highest unemployment in a generation. Or that a global pandemic clearly demands cooperation and risk sharing with other countries rather than a retreat into them-and-us.
There is also a response that is based on ridicule. To a hammer everything is a nail and to a nationalist everything is independence. It is laughable to suggest that now is the time to pile crisis on crisis.
Someone on twitter (sorry I can’t find it to credit them), put it well: no matter what the song is, the SNP always sing the same chorus. Watching Swinney’s interview reminded me of Louis Griffin stood for election in Family Guy. She realises politics is easier playing by populist rules. No matter what the question, she gives the same answer.
The unquestioning acceptance of simplistic politics is a largely unexploited and unattractive feature of nationalism. Nobody wants to be one of those gullible audience members taken-in by Lois. We should ridicule the SNP when they offer the same answer to every question so people see what is happening.
There was a simple example of how to use ridicule this week. Columnist Alex Massie wrote an excellent piece making the rational argument against exiting the UK.
Johanna Cherry, who uses her power as a parliamentarian to champion underdogs like Alex Salmond, shared his article with this question.
Cherry forgot that no question is ever rhetorical on twitter. The response across twitter was obvious and repeated.
This works because it uses ridicule to make the bigger strategic point about Scexit not being an answer to Brexit and highlights the nationalist lack of self-awareness.
Ultimately Scotland will remain in the UK because we win the economic argument, but humour will be needed to dismantle a brittle nationalist hegemony that takes itself far too seriously. There is plenty to work with. This is the political movement of Sack Jackie Bird demos, use pens paranoia, teacakes boycotts, BBC weather map conspiracy theories, secret oil fields and Angus MacNeill.
There’s a place for outrage, and there plenty about nationalism that is outrageous, but it’s also ludicrous. This debate isn’t going away any time soon, so we may as well have fun.