The power myth will soon be all that’s left of modern politics

The latest episode of This American Life has got me thinking about the dynamics of modern politics, and not just the 2016 American presidential elections, but the upcoming referendum on the UK’s place in the EU.

In the episode, we’re introduced to Alex Chalgren, a young Trump supporter with a troubled background. A gay black man adopted by an evangelical, Cruz-supporting Christian family, who loves Alex but cannot reconcile this with his sexuality, his life has been described as an “impotent man [seeking] power”, a person whose circumstances have never been entirely in their control.

That last sentence describes us all, doesn’t it? We are the captains of our souls, but we are not the masters of our fate. Disenfranchisement is the cloud that hangs over all of Western politics, hiding the silent masses of people sick-and-tired of political business-as-usual. The politician that harnesses this swirling vortex of despair, hate and fear has an almost unlimited power source, if they can transmute it into a seemingly positive force.

The SNP have been extremely successful in this practice in Scotland, capitalising on the independence referendum to engage sectors of the electorate who had never seen the inside of a polling booth, and destroy the competition in last year’s elections. Donald Trump is crushing his rivals in the Republican primaries, scooping up voters from almost every demographic, and Bernie Sanders is a strong second to Clinton, an unthinkable socialist in the top tier of US politics.

A common theme to all these successes is empowerment. Alex Chalgren paraphrases Frank Underwood in House of Cards, when he says

a fool goes after money. But someone that really seeks to control goes after power…

The message is pretty simple. You feel powerless.  I have power, vote for me and let me give you some of it. Trump’s power-persona, carefully constructed in simple sentences, spiced with hatred and accented by bullying and insults, is attracting the disempowered vote and dumbfounding the GOP establishment. The SNP’s principal cause of Scottish independence is the ultimate empowerment for a small nation, with historical baggage and a Tory government that very few Scots voted for. Even Sanders’ roaring rhetoric against the 1% imbues him with similar tough-talking attributes as Trump.

What will decide the EU referendum in the UK is the fight for the disempowered. The Out campaigns have a simple message of returning UK “sovereignty” and repealing apparently unending legislation. The In campaign have a much tougher job.  Firstly, they need to prick this “sovereignty” balloon (how can you have true freedom to legislate in a market economy, when you need to satisfy regulations to export goods to Europe? And will being out of Europe really protect us from the dreaded TTIP?).  Michael Gove’s recent statement supporting Out is typical of those made by the Out campaign, and this response is an excellent example of how to completely invalidate them.

Secondly, the In campaigners need to convince us that regulations exist to facilitate fair and free markets while protecting our social, human and natural capital.  A post-Brexit Britain would be far more prone to lobbying resulting in deregulation, destroying the environment and eroding UK citizens’ rights.  In fact, studies indicate it would have to do this to mitigate losses to GDP on Brexit.

We bought into the EEC ideal in the 70s (and the EU latterly) because we thought it would empower us to create a peaceful and prosperous Europe, free of continental war at last, with a cleaner environment, healthier and happier citizens and a better future for our children. The world has changed a lot since then, and we’re facing unprecedented migration, climate change and dangerous extremism, challenges on a scale we haven’t faced since the Second World War.  It’s not surprising that the EU is showing signs of strain. It may have its failings, but to leave it is to ignore its great successes and its potential for further success, throw the baby out with the bathwater, and step back from our closest allies when they need our support the most.

The challenge now for the In campaign is to win the disenfranchised – I wish them the very best of luck.  But it leaves the future of political discourse looking fairly bleak. It feels like the old practice of debating individual policies is rapidly disappearing, and the election victories are going to the man who looks best when they don the purple (and yes, I use the word “man” deliberately).  And if it finally goes, we’ll just be voting for the “strongman” – and history has taught us where that will lead.

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Dear Better Together: I was going to vote No to Independence, but you’re pushing me away

When the referendum was announced, I felt quite strongly that Scottish independence was a silly idea.  I’m hardly a fan of the current UK Government, but I believed in the Union as something that, on balance, Scotland benefited from, and contributed positively to.  Yes campaigners may be quick to point out that statistic about how many Westminster election results bore no relation to Scottish voting data, but I’m fairly sure that I could find more than one Scottish-sized sample of voters in the UK who were “irrelevant” in the final tally.  Anyway, with such a poor voter turnout, how can any of us complain that British politics has stopped being representative? And how would an independent Scotland do any better? Would rural communities be in thrall to the Central Belt, as the UK seems to be to the South of England?

So I was moderately certain of my answer: I didn’t want to see a positive relationship binned because of some recent, admittedly moronic decision-making.  As the Scottish Government announced their policies in dribs and drabs, I scoffed along with the Better Together campaign.

Then the Yes campaign’s White Paper, Scotland’s Future, was released.  At over 600 pages, it’s a fairly large time sink to go from cover to cover, but given my major complaint against voting Yes was a lack of facts or answers to policy questions, I felt that I should listen to what they had to say.

Most of the facts in the document refer to the present, and rightly so – facts pertaining to the future violate the laws of physics.  It is easy to criticise it as

a) an SNP manifesto (because parts of it are), and

b) as a “wishlist” for Scotland’s future political framework, predicated on negotiations with bodies like the UK government and the EU, apparently because people seem to have forgotten “wishlist” is another word for manifesto.

All political decisions are based on uncertainty – it seems to me the Better Together voices are hooting about uncertainty after independence, without dealing with the uncertainties about where the UK is going.  I believe that Scotland and the UK as a whole should remain in the EU, but that is potentially subject to an in-out referendum in the future.  Any ballot is embedded in uncertainty, regardless of which way you vote (and even if you don’t vote at all).

The thing that bugs me most about the whole debate so far is its depressingly predictable trajectory of positive and negative campaigning.  The whole situation is admittedly biased from the start (“Yes” being a positive word and “No” being a negative word), but it seems to me like Better Together have accepted their fate, and much of their campaign appears to be deconstructing the Yes campaign’s White Paper.  While the Yes campaign have dedicated pages and pages of positive copy to Scotland’s Future (with a healthy side of negative jabs at Westminster), all I could find from the Better Together side was a few paragraphs on a website.

The White Paper is a vision for the future of Scotland.  You might not like aspects of it (I found parts I wasn’t sure of), some parts may simply not stand up to the evidence, but you may like some parts of it.  One thing I particularly welcomed was the discussion of a written constitution for an independent Scotland.  It’s all well and good to point out where the numbers don’t add up, but the Yes campaign can point to this paper (plus its supporting documents on fiscal and defence policy) and say to the No campaign: “where’s yours?”

At that point, it doesn’t matter if the White Paper is made of congealed pixie dust – its mere existence shows the electorate that one side is more engaged than the other.  Better Together need to produce a vision for the future of Scotland inside the UK.  Given their cross-party membership, they probably need to produce several.

At the beginning of the debate, the electorate were hungry for facts and policies, so that they could make an informed choice.  The Yes campaign have made their case well, couched in the language of hope (and hope used well is a powerful political tool).  There is a growing feeling of malaise and distrust towards politicians, and a sense that any figures can be massaged to look better or worse.  Exchanges like this, between Yes Prime Minister’s PM Jim Hacker and Cabinet Secretary Humphrey Appleby, are practically aphorisms:

Hacker: The statistics are irrefutable…

Humphrey: Statistics? You can prove anything with statistics.

Hacker: Even the truth.

Humphrey: Yes… No!

Thirty years later, TV’s most famous Scottish political animal is the foul-mouthed Malcolm Tucker, which does not really help matters.  My laboured point is that the electorate don’t care about the details, mostly because they don’t trust them.  They care about the message that the Yes campaign is sending – that an independent Scotland would move away from unpopular policies, stash its vast oil money in an Energy Fund and become an affluent Nordic clone, with mountains of free childcare, bus passes, university degrees and puppies.

The No campaign needs a message of its own.  Do you want a written constitution? Let’s discuss it at UK level, I suspect there are a lot of people who might like the idea.  Tuition fees? Let’s find a better solution.  Rural broadband and 4G distribution are not problems unique to Scotland.  Improvements to the distribution of Common Agricultural Policy rebates? Of course that’s a good idea.

In short? Better Together, stop scoring own goals, and give me some powerful reasons to convince me that the UK is the place to be long-term, not simply reject something that doesn’t yet exist.

I Agree, but Occupy it How, and for What?

It’s hard to know what to say about Occupy Wall Street (and its sister movements across the world) that hasn’t already been said.  That’s partially why I haven’t written anything about it yet.  As the movement settles into its third month of action, making its way to Washington D.C. through seemingly horrific scenes of apparent police brutality, it continues to undergo sustained attacks from the conservatives (with a lower case c).

I’ve been pretty ambivalent about the whole thing, to be honest.  I think the reason I haven’t been able to come to a conclusion about them is because of how nebulous the whole thing is.  Apart from the admittedly pithy “we are the 99%”, I haven’t been able to divine the purpose of #OWS.

Continue reading I Agree, but Occupy it How, and for What?