Can we exit post-truth politics in Scotland?
Duncan Hothersall, editor of Labour Hame and popular target for angry mobs on Twitter, thinks Scotland is in the throes of a dishonest politics and the route out is the route to reconciliation.
“If Scotland increases taxes, Westminster would just cut the block grant and we’d be no better off.”
“The White Paper’s economic plans didn’t rely on oil revenues. Revenues from oil are a bonus, not a requirement.”
“Scottish Labour policy is decided in London, and Scottish Labour is run from London.”
These statements have several things in common. They are frequently made in the febrile and unsourced environment of social media. They are repeated thousands of times, made into stylish graphics and shared by thousands of like-minded individuals. And they are flatly untrue.
We are in a phase of post-truth politics in Scotland, in which accuracy and honesty is considered a reasonable sacrifice if one can damage one’s opponent. And that stems from the fact that Scottish politics is now the politics of two tribes at war – and in war, the first casualty is truth.
It hardly needs saying, but the source of this tribal war is the last three years of binary division in Scotland created by the independence referendum. Constructive debate and the finding of common cause was happening over that time, but it was happening strictly in one of two silos: with us or agin us.
Unfortunately, the network effect of social media combined with the sorts of Truther assertions made above leads to a relentless fuelling of angry personal invective. We’ve seen it against Margaret Curran. We’ve seen it against Clare Lally. We’ve seen it, even, against a nurse who dared put her head above the parapet to back Labour’s plans to invest more money in our struggling Scottish NHS.
The nature of social media and the nature of present political debates have combined to create a perfect storm in Scottish politics, and the effect it’s having is profound. People are genuinely making value judgements about parties and people being “against Scotland” or “for Scotland”. And people are now applying that logic to the upcoming general election, as if it was a vote to choose between those two positions.
In fact, this election is a vote for who should form the next government of the United Kingdom – the country which we just democratically decided to remain a part of. And there’s a real danger that subverting the vote in Scotland to be a way of “sending a message to Westminster” risks delivering precisely the last sort of government that most Scots want.
So how do we extract ourselves from this self-destructive political phase?
We have to challenge the purveyors of invective and falsehoods with facts and rationality. But that alone will not help; the tide comes relentlessly, endlessly. We have to offer a positive vision for the Scotland we want to see. But even that will not do it if it is subsumed in a sea of angry tribalism.
No, I think we have to consider how we can generate an active process of reconciliation. An amnesty. A finding of common ground. Because the great irony lurking beneath the tribal warfare in which we’re currently engaged is that we’ve immersed ourselves in constitutional battle because there are so few other political ideals on which we disagree.
Labour and the SNP talk up the virtues of “balancing the budget” as much as each other. We attack the SNP for blaming cuts on others, and the SNP attacks us with the pretence that we back Tory austerity, but the reality is that both parties want a fair welfare system, economic growth, fair pay and fair tax, and both recognise that a balanced budget is necessary to deliver them.
We agree on the bedroom tax, though we endlessly score points off each other as to whose representatives missed which vote. We agree on social justice, LGBT rights and gender equality, though we often prefer to point at the minority of representatives on each side who oppose these things, rather than the majority who support them.
Clearly, the run-up to a general election is not the moment when bitter rivals are going to turn swords to ploughshares and start joining hands and singing round the camp fire. So let’s not create unrealistic expectations for what can happen in the immediate future.
But to my mind, the state of Scottish politics is unsustainable, and sooner or later – my fervent hope is for sooner – we are going to need to stand together and say enough, to the tribalism, the bunker mentality and the personal attacks.
Because while we shout at each other, the people we all got into politics to try to help – the poorest, the marginalised, the abandoned – are being let down. And that is a tragedy for all of us.