Clearing the Scottish Fog of War

Gerry Hassan

Sunday Mail, June 28th 2015

This has been a momentous news week. The Greek crisis; Britain and Europe; the human desperation at Calais; and the related tragedy in the Mediterranean.

While this has been going on Scotland has had its own mini-ripples which pale in comparison. There was the controversy over Royal Family funding and the Crown Estate in Scotland, and at the same time, the ongoing problem of cybernat abuse and social media misbehaviour.

The Royal story saw a whole range of UK papers run front-page headlines stating ‘Scotland to cancel funding for Queen’ and ‘Scots won’t pay £2m bill for Queen.’ The most over the top came from the London ‘Times’ which in an editorial entitled ‘Insurrection’, claimed that the Scottish Government was leading a ‘rebellion’.

Trouble was no such story existed. The papers had been victims of a Buckingham Palace media operation to flush out the SNP on changes to the Sovereign Fund – what the Civil List is now called. In so doing, they seemed to believe what they wanted to and confused a number of basic facts – such as the fundamental difference between the Sovereign Fund and the Crown Estate.

There were echoes in this of the earlier stramash when the ‘Daily Telegraph’ printed a memo of a meeting with Nicola Sturgeon and the French Ambassador, without checking with either.

The similarities between the above and the disparate actions of cybernats might seem few. Cybernats say much more vile things, are uncontrollable and unaccountable, with the First Minister recognising this week the unacceptability of their actions.

With all the qualifications there are some commonalities between these two worlds, which neither will particularly like. First, there is a mindset of faith in much of this, of selectively interpreting the world in the way you want to. This is in the famous quote about George Bush’s presidency based on rejecting  ‘a reality based community’ and believing that ‘we create our own reality.’

Second, this limits the terms of public debate. It narrows the range of permissible opinion. It forces people to choose sides, and distorts the entire terms of engagement for everyone.

Finally, the most siren voices always claim the problem is the other camp. This is a contest for legitimacy and power: about whose voice can claim the moral high ground. Thus, parts of the traditional media judge social media by the standards of its most outspoken participants; while, many on the internet view broadcast and print media as one organised conspiracy.

This costs us dearly. There are dead end debates in what way it is appropriate to criticise the Scottish Government. The media feel any criticism of the SNP is seen as an unscrupulous attack while some Nationalists think most of the press is out to get them.

What gets missed is an in-depth discussion of public life, the achievements and shortcomings of the SNP in office, and proper policy and ideas. Instead, there is a mutual standoff based on trying to catch ‘the other side’ out.

Some elements of this nation think that the most important issue, at a time of public spending cuts and global instability, is trying to prove the link between some cybernat abuse and the First Minister. Others that it appropriate to name call people you disagree with as ‘quislings’ and ‘traitors’.

The SNP were once a party of outsiders who viewed establishment Scotland warily. They are now the dominant party. That means being able to debate and scrutinise their record. The current face-off between the most pro-union and pro-independent parts of the country, willfully prevents the terrain emerging for this to happen.

A proper debate involves being able to empathise with your opponent and put your feet into their shoes, not to agree with them, but to be able to understand them and better inform your own views.

That basic human decency is missing today. Some unionists have tried to delegitimise Scottish nationalism over the years: asserting ‘Scotland has gone mad’ or in the case of David Starkey comparing the Nazis and SNP. Some Nationalists think that all unionists are wrong headed, brain washed or worse.

‘Never hate your enemies, it affects your judgement’ said Michael Corleone in ‘The Godfather’. Robert McNamara worked in the Kennedy and Johnston administrations in the 1960s. Talking about the US and the Vietnam War, he said that ‘the fog of war’ led to the Americans dehumanising their enemy, which is always a mistake. He contrasted it with the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 when the US and Soviets didn’t start a nuclear war because the Americans had a way of understanding the Soviet leader Khrushchev.

Scotland is playing for less dramatic stakes. But our own ‘fog of war’ between those who act intemperately hurts all of us. It is the responsibility of the ‘quiet Scotland’ of the 99.9% of us who doesn’t get carried away to stand up – and say enough is enough. We want a proper discussion on our future.