Monday, 1 May 2017

The politics of demonisation

Something has been going wrong in the politics of Scotland. To be more precise, something has been going wrong in discourse about politics in Scotland. There is a nastiness about. It isn't a particularly recent problem, but has crept in gradually over the last few years and particularly during and since the 2014 Scottish Referendum. It affects parliamentary debate, comments on social media and the critique provided by journalism. This nastiness sometimes coalesces in the demonisation of particular people and their supporters.

This demonisation came to a head this week, with the attacks on Ruth Davidson and other Scottish members of the Conservative party about the so-called 'rape clause'. Can I immediately point out that I have never voted Conservative and cannot see myself ever doing so. I find much of their political philosophy abhorrent though I have occasionally found myself reluctantly respecting particular members of their party. Also, I should point out that I am appalled by the benefit cuts introduced by the Conservative government and by their actual and potential impact on vulnerable members of our society.

Nevertheless, I have been uncomfortable about the viciousness of much of the reporting and debate about the 'rape clause' issue for some time, though I thought I was alone in this. However, a couple of days ago I read a post on the blog The Wee Flea, called 'The Rape Clause and the Descent of Scottish Politics', which made me realise that others thought as I did. It gave me the confidence to express my own views publicly.

The 'rape clause' is attached to the arrangements for reducing families' tax credits (not child benefit) for third or later children. Whereas for people like me, the real story is the negative impact on families of across-the-board reduction in support, for the nationalists and, indeed, some other parties, the main story has been the steps taken by the Tory government to mitigate these negative effects by introducing special arrangements to support families undergoing particular stresses. Now, don't get me wrong, I am absolutely not saying that these tax credit cuts are right. What I am saying is that the furore over the 'rape clause' has been out of all proportion to the issue and to those affected by it - a minuscule number. While some politicians have made well-argued cases, many others have engaged in invective and smear.

Let's deal with the number first. We are talking about women who have been raped (or coerced into sex, if you want to broaden the reference) but who have: 1) not reported it to the police, 2) not visited the pharmacist for the morning after pill (emergency contraception), 3) not had an abortion when they found out they were pregnant, or 4) not had the child adopted but 5) have decided for whatever reason to keep the baby. That is their right: no one would argue with it. Compared with the total number of families with three or more children who are likely to suffer once this legislation starts to take effect, this is, however, a tiny number. Why the obsession with this small group rather than ALL families affected? The uproar is not about their right to claim: that is accepted.  It is about HOW they claim.

Well, that brings me to the next point. The concern being expressed, which I understand, is that these women will have to report to a third party such as a GP rather than simply self-disclose. Now I appreciate how painful this experience might be. However, are we really saying that there should be no check on the veracity or otherwise of such claims? This at a time when people with mental and physical disabilities are having to drag themselves across cities or make journeys in rural areas poorly provided with public transport in order to go through rigorous, often demeaning and sometimes insensitive health checks so that they can receive their benefits? Now I am not saying that I think that raped women should be similarly humiliated. Nor am I saying that the method chosen is the right way to verify the claims or that Davidson has argued her party's case well. However, what I am saying is that there is a general understanding that public funds contributed by taxpayers should not be dispensed unless reasonable care has been taken to ensure that they are going to those with a genuine need and a right to them.

However, mine is just one view and I respect those who hold different views for which they may have good reasons. It is a dreadful issue and there is no 'right' answer which is 'fair' to everybody. This post is not about whose view is 'right'. It is about the demonisation of people who hold differing views from ourselves.What has been appalling has been the self-righteous pontificating and emotional grandstanding - not by everybody, but by a notable but very vocal few. Deliberately manufactured hysteria. Indeed, Nicola Sturgeon has even paraded the issue for the delectation of an American audience, who have no role in this issue, do not understand its context, and whose current government is hardly known for its compassion, liberalism or humanity. The SNP MP Pete Wishart circulated a disgraceful mock up of a ballot paper, with Liberal Democrat candidates identified as 'wankers' and the Tory as the 'rape clause candidate'. He has now withdrawn it, but the damage has been done.

What I do not respect is the kind of treatment meted out in parliament, in the press and in other contexts to Ruth Davidson and others. The tone of the debate both in the parliament and in the press, has been dreadful, with Davidson's name constantly being coupled with the word 'rape' as if she were personally responsible for the distress caused these women. This is politics at its nastiest. Davidson is in an awkward situation. She either has to support her party publicly or resign, a situation many politicians are faced with at one time or another. While the clause was designed to support rather than humiliate, it has clearly backfired. Nevertheless, Davidson is right to point out that a ruling party which has specifically refused to accept devolved responsibility for the welfare budget is in no position to complain about the UK government's decisions when it could, at least, mitigate them.

Let us not forget that the Nationalists themselves are notorious for enforcing loyalty on their own elected members. It took some time, for example, for the news that Alex Neil and possibly others had defied their leaders' instruction and voted Leave in the EU Referendum to emerge. Rumblings against the SNP's authoritarian approach to party governance and the suppression of debate in parliamentary committees are only now beginning to be expressed. The situation of politicians having to support aspects of their party's policies with which they do not themselves fully agree goes back to the very birth of politics itself. Only the other month, a whole troop of Labour MPs voted against Article 50 and their own personal views on their leader's instruction.

Demonisation has become a feature of our world, not just our country. Right wing groups such the party of Marine Le Pen, Hungarian political leaders, UKIP and others continue to demonise whole groups of people such as refugees. Tabloid newspapers in Britain do the same, adding benefit recipients and teenage mothers to the list of those deemed beyond the pale. Their faux-moralistic stance is very popular with readers, with the result that in Scotland as well as the rest of Britain these newspapers easily outsell the quality broadsheets.

Scottish politicians and their hangers-on inveigh against 'toxic Tories', the hangers-on including even hitherto-respected journalists like Iain MacWhirter as in yesterday's unpleasant Herald article: My ten point plan to keep the Tories toxic. The article did not even pay lip service to any sense of balance or to a journalistic responsibility to ensure that the writer's own prejudices do not undermine the paper's service to its readers.

Such people and groups carry out witch hunts against individuals, like Ruth Davidson. Of course it happens in England as well, but as I live in Scotland it is the situation here which bothers me, particularly given the self-righteous tone of much of current Scottish politics. The intent is the same: to destroy through smear, innuendo and invective, the reputation and standing of people whose identity differs from that of the majority group or whose views differ from those of the party in power. Government by witch hunt.

Yesterday evening, I opened my Facebook feed to find that a friend of mine had 'liked' a disgraceful meme circulated by the propaganda site EU Citizens for an Independent Scotland. The meme was a decontextualised quotation from a piece of writing by George Orwell: 'English Fascism is likely to be of a sedate and subtle kind (presumably, at any rate at first, it won't be called Fascism)'.

There is nothing inherently wrong with the quotation, which is interesting, though difficult to read much into out of context. However, the propaganda site had attached the quotation to a photograph of Theresa May in front of members of her party. Now I am appalled by May's leadership of this country and loathe current Tory policies; however, Theresa May, though increasingly right wing in her attitudes, is not a fascist, nor is she moving towards fascism. Indeed, to suggest that she is, is to trivialise real fascism. Fascist states are dictatorial, suppress opposition through violent and coercive means and control all state structures. The creator of the meme clearly has little understanding of the true horror of totalitarian states.

The government of this country is the government of four nations. It is not 'English'. As someone who IS English, I find this meme offensive and divisive. I do not think George Orwell would have expected it to be extracted from its surrounding text and used in this way. He certainly was not thinking of 'English' in comparison to 'Scottish'. Yet, it was one of a dozen similar memes which appeared on my Facebook feed yesterday alone and have done so at various times over the last few months. Such memes are stupid and childish and are usually only read by occupants of the same echo chamber unless, as in this case, they are 'liked' or commented on, in which case they appear on other people's FB feeds, like mine. I wrote about the impact on me and the implications for my family of one of these memes in a previous post, Looking each other in the face. I am horrified that a handful of my FB friends consider it appropriate to commend such poisonous propaganda.

Taken separately, such twisted memes are of little significance. Both Ruth Davidson and Theresa May will survive these attacks and worse. They have, after all, chosen a political life. That does not, however, make such attacks acceptable. Furthermore, they contribute to an overall tone in political discourse which poisoned the 2014 independence referendum and is now poisoning the current political climate. It is hardly surprising that many voters are turned off by politics and the insults, invective and prejudice it generates.

Demonisation has happened before in other contexts. We saw it in the treatment of Alistair Carmichael when his office leaked a memo, leading to nationalist mobs gathering outside his home. The vicious attack on the BBC's Nick Robinson, when he asked a question of Alex Salmond, the phrasing of which that hardened politician didn't like led to similar demonisation. The mob marched on the BBC to close down political challenge by the media.

Attacks on the media continue, now extended to all the BBC, including Laura Kuensberg, an able journalist. The result of this trend has been an increasing blandness in both coverage and commentary, and a reluctance to confront the SNP in particular to the hard questioning and level of scrutiny given to every other political party. I am sure Jeremy Corbyn would love to be treated with the deference accorded Nicola Sturgeon and other members of her party. They are usually just asked to deliver a set piece to camera, with minimal challenge.

Salmond himself frequently uses phrases such as 'London-based media', a form of thinly-veiled racism. The aim is to discredit objective journalism and discourage debate. The logical conclusion of his position is that no journalist based in another part of the British Isles, let alone another country, should be allowed to query or comment on issues within Scotland. Logically, that should mean that all foreign correspondents should be withdrawn from all countries, and all reporting on major international events in Syria, the USA or the Ukraine should cease. Scotland above all, should never be submitted to the kind of scrutiny and critique by professional commentators on behalf of British taxpayers and voters which are accorded other parts of Britain. Salmond is hypocritical. He currently presents a programme for a London-based radio station. He also works for the Russian propaganda site, Pravda Radio, for which he has produced 40-odd programmes to date. For this work, he is 'London-based'.

Vile insults and vicious demonisation by elected politicians give nasty trolls and the producers of the distasteful memes which fill up my FB feed a kind of permission to express borderline racist views and engage in personal invective. By all means, disagree with Ruth Davidson and the Tories, but please avoid the demeaning and demonising rhetoric which have filled both newspapers and social media in recent weeks.

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