Nation to nation: the problem of speaking for Britain

The BBC's flagship politics show, Question Time, gives an insight into the closed elitist mindset of the metropolitan political classes and their cultivated ignorance towards the nature of the UK.

Question Time is the BBC’s flagship UK political programme, or at least once was. Now with populist current affairs programmes such as ‘The Week in Politics’ and ‘The Daily Politics’ we are dealing with a crowded marketplace.

Question Time is still a programme which aims at a wider public audience than the political anorak classes (like myself). It reveals in its style and content much about the state of the nation, the state of our politics, and public anger, disenchantment and occasionally optimism. Across the years of watching it since its inception you can easily mark the changing tides and modes of politics: the ineptness of 1980s Labour, the slow disenchantment with Thatcher, and the rise and fall of New Labour.

It also tells us much about how the BBC itself sees the people, democracy, politics, the UK and the nations of the UK.  Up until now the BBC has had an uncomfortable, bumbling relationship with devolution, constitutional change, and the remaking of the UK, and in particular the emergence of a distinct Scottish politics.

They have at points tried to answer this with John Birt management speak and cue cards reminding London staff to occasionally mention that this or that measure is only about ‘England and Wales’ and talk internally about ‘nations and regions’. This is clearly a ticking off exercise and mask which barely conceals a sense of incomprehension about what all the fuss is about.

This brings us to last night’s Question Time in Glasgow. First, there was the experience of Nicola Sturgeon, Deputy First Minister of Scotland, being told by the chair David Dimbleby when she raised the subject of ‘fiscal autonomy’ that the programme was ‘for a UK audience’, a point he repeatedly made to shut her up.

This then saw Hugh Hendry (not the Scottish Labour MSP but the Scots-born hedge fund provocateur) talking about the idiocies of ‘fiscal levers’ and how it would not help the construction industry or create one new job. He clearly had no idea what he was talking about, but was able unchallenged to witter away at great length.

All of this wasn’t a one off because five minutes later when Sturgeon dared to mention the subject of Scottish independence – the official policy of Scotland’s Government – she was told by Dimbleby not to raise it.

Dimbleby’s third insight into the nature of the UK was in a question about the use of torture, where he allowed himself to bring up the Scottish Government’s release of al-Megrahi, and then brought in each of the other four panellists – bar the Deputy First Minister of Scotland.

Apart from Dimbleby’s three strikes – ‘Question Time’ was dominated in time, priorities and noise by talking about the government’s proposed cuts to housing benefit. This was completely taken up with a discussion about London and the housing market and economy of central London, a pivotal issue for the British political classes and media, but as a London topic – a minority issue if ever there was one to the vast majority of the people of the UK.

This is about more than one episode of a programme, ‘Question Time’ per se, or the conceit of a Dimbleby.

It is instead about how the BBC and wider media and political classes don’t get – and increasingly don’t understand the nature of Britain – and importantly to us north of the border, Scotland’s status, place and voice.

Once upon a time there was a patrician, gentleman’s Britain – the BBC, the Churches of England and Scotland, Tory and Labour parties, captains of industry – who understood the complexities, shared and different histories and patchwork nature of the UK.

Now there were obvious problems with all of this – its elitism, closed social order, oppressive sense of deference, and lack of democracy. Yet what has replaced it is a political system – and economic and social order – which does not understand the nature of the UK and serves the interests of a narrow little class of people within it who inhabit or identify with the fulcrum of power, privilege and wealth of a part of London and the South East.

All of this began to become clear in late Thatcherism and then Blairite New Labour, but it has become explicit, dogmatic and frightening under the Cameron-Cleggist project of ‘progressive Conservatism’. This has become a project to remake Britain into a society about and for the winners, and to see those who don’t fit into this doctrinaire worldview as needing to be taught a lesson, punished and disciplined to conform to the new order, and as an example to others.

Where in all of this is it still possible to speak, ‘nation to nation’ and to dare to ‘speak for Britain’? I have my doubts any of this is possible, given the dislocation, disconnection and deep inequalities which divide UK society.

What is true is that a profoundly intolerant, arrogant, insensitive sort of brutish, bullying Britishness can be found in some of the citadels of power. Mostly this is still covered in the language of dealing with the deficit, and occasionally talking about ‘fairness’, but only a few months into this government, something more ugly is beginning to become visible behind the mask.

The BBC’s top echelons – the Mark Thompsons of this world – have positively decided to identity the corporation with the corrupted political order which so distorts Britain, and position the Beeb’s elite management and talent as part of this coalescing of the ‘winners’ of Britain plc.

Where does this take us is into a messy, fragmented, disputatious politics, which is seldom heard on the BBC, but which given the political climate, will find voice and form.

Then there is the issue of the nature of the UK and Scotland’s voice. I don’t think it is possible for the UK media, political class and elite opinion to develop a nuanced, subtle, informed understanding of the UK; it just isn’t going to happen; they believe that their bunker-like Westminster mentality is a rich, pluralist, cosmopolitan view of the world, unsullied by the unreconstructed lumpenproletariat who live out in the sticks.

Change can only come from without. That requires taking action, and in Scotland’s case it means creating our own media spaces to develop our national conversations and debate. Maybe the slow hollowing out of the mainstream will make enough of us realise that we have to show initiative, take some power and create our own alternatives.

About the author
Gerry Hassan is Research Fellow in cultural policy at the University of the West of Scotland who has recently been awarded his PhD on political and cultural contemporary debate in the public sphere of Scotland. Gerry is the author and editor of numerous books including ‘The Strange Death of Labour Scotland’ and the just published 'After Independence' (co-edited with James Mitchell). His 'Caledonian Dreaming: The Quest for a Different Scotland' was published in April 2014. His website is: www.gerry.hassan.com