The empathy gap: divided Scotland and the problem of fantasyland Britain

The inflammatory and absurd rhetoric of the London political elite is a good example of why the vote should be a Yes.

Gerry Hassan
1 February 2014

It has become part of the commonsense account of the independence campaign that there is a problem with some of the more vociferous, partisan supporters.

In one perspective, frequently spun in the mainstream media, this problem is predominantly, if not exclusively, about the ‘cybernat’ phenomenon. Numerous examples are brought out, from comedian Susan Calman facing invective for comments on independence, to incidents with Chris Hoy and Susan Boyle being verbally abused online.

Yet to pose the ‘cybernats’ as the sole problem, as Labour bigwigs such as George Robertson and George Foulkes do, is fundamentally disingenuous. Another serious issue is the way that mostly Labour figures describe independence and the SNP. Alistair Darling talked of independence as a ‘road to serfdom’, Gordon Brown of it leading to Scotland becoming the equivalent of a ‘British colony’, while Ian Davidson stated with confidence that the vote had already been won and all that was left was the simple act of ‘bayoneting the wounded’.

We can argue, as I would, that there is an imbalance in this. The ‘cybernats’ are mostly if not exclusively lone operatives typing away furiously into the night in their bedsits, whereas Darling, Brown and Davidson are elected public figures with the first two having global stature. They should know better, yet their comments above represent how a whole host of Labour politicians describe the independence cause, which tells something about their Manichean and deeply insecure view of the world.

The more important point than who is more responsible than the other is to reflect on the empathy deficit prevalent in large parts of Scotland. Too many people are happy to berate others for the simple reason that they disagree with them, and are prepared to use vile, aggressive, threatening language.

This isn’t of course unique to the independence referendum and should not be talked about in isolation as it often is. Instead, we need to take a good look at our society and the wee hard men and women who feel it appropriate to abuse others, insult and threaten anyone who they dislike or feel threatened by.

If we look across society we can note the levels of male violence and abuse of others, ubiquitous sexism, racism and prejudice, and the attitudes revealed by the fall of Rangers on both sides of that bitter divide.

But we have another serious challenge and set of prejudices to deal with in present day Scotland. That is the barefaced cheek and arrogance of an increasingly self-satisfied, insular, and out of touch London political class and how they feel they can describe and comment on Scotland.

There has always been an element of Scotophobia in the London political classes and elites, but now it has gone virulent and it isn’t just about us, but about the nature of London and the rightward drift of British politics. Basically, the London elites now see themselves as presiding over the economic powerhouse of UK plc, the global city of the global kingdom which is how they imagine London and the UK.  This nexus of power, wealth and privilege increasingly has less time and patience for the rest of the UK, let along a troublesome ‘restless nation’ province still attached to the idea of a welfare state and public services.

The rise of this new intolerant version of the UK is a fundamental break with all we have known with post-war Britain and even modern Conservatism. Instead, an emerging, dystopian vision of a ‘fantasyland Britain’ is being articulated, shaped by the idea of a transatlantic and far east facing UK, shorn of the shackles of the statist, moribund European Union.

A few examples show the scale of prejudice. Take the episode of ‘The Wright Show’ of November last year which, in a 19 minute studio discussion of four people, did not feel it had to be hindered by the inconvenience of one solitary fact on the subject. Presenter Richard Madeley made repeated statements about the entire debate being driven by anti-Englishness, asking one caller, ‘Are you a bit, or a lot anti-English? Do you not like us very much?’ The entire item saw the Scots referred to as something external and other: as ‘them’ denoting some kind of cultural divorce on the part of this bit of England.

None of his three guests challenged any of this, instead happily agreeing and going further. We are talking, in case anyone hasn’t watched it, in one instance of Katie Hopkins – she of ‘I wont let my kids speak to kids who have names which means they might be poor’ and ‘let’s cut off all foodbanks’ fame. There is an even wider issue in this about what passes for commentary in the media and about the level of expertise (meaning in some neanderthal ignorance) which passes for getting on in the public gaze these days.

Then there was Charles Moore in ‘The Spectator’ whose touch of class and certainty about his place in society does not prevent his ignorance of Scotland (apart from the odd country estate) restrain him from wading in. A couple of weeks ago he compared Alex Salmond to Robert Mugabe, feeling it somehow appropriate, just because some of his pals and his own pastimes might be inconvenienced.

This example is worth mentioning because prejudice and ignorance once articulated gives others license. Following Moore’s musings, along came the reflections of Damian Thompson in the ‘Daily Telegraph’ a week and a half ago. Thompson cited Moore on land reform and then mentioned land confiscation, the obligatory Mugabe reference, and contrasted the SNP and Salmond with the perils of overbearing leadership leading to dictatorship. There were lots of other gratuitous references, but these were at least historical about Hitler, Mussolini, the Nazis and fascism; all of the other ones were about present day Scotland.

Twice I politely asked Thompson on twitter to explain his apocalyptic language about modern Scotland; all I got was silence. Even more interestingly, Iain Martin, former ‘Scotsman’ editor, stated to me that he was ‘amused by your utter bafflement when you encounter views you don't agree with’. When I responded, pointing out that I read the ‘Spectator’ and ‘Economist’ every week, asking why he thought such language permissible, he fell suddenly reticent and quiet.

This is serious stuff and will get worse before the independence vote come September. What we are facing is a London political and media class who increasingly present an intolerant, narrow, nasty version of the UK, in tune with the prejudices and self-interests of the global class and winners who inhabit and shape the corridors of power in Westminster, the City and the cheerleaders of rightwing opinion in the media, lobbying and think tanks.

They profess that the union they talk about in such terms is one that they wish to maintain and cherish, as in the self-trumpeting hyperbole of the UK being ‘the greatest nation state and partnership humanity has ever produced’. Well, maybe for them it seems self-evident that this is true, but for the rest of us, this is a sectional, incestuous, elite driven view of the UK far from reality.

Scotland can do something about this, saying this is not our country and future. What would be helpful for all of us north of the border, and a majority south as well, is if the political forces on either side of the independence question could join the rest of us in common cause, and say, enough is enough. We don’t want your virulent, asocial, poor hating, welfare destroying and stigmatising vision of the world, with its ‘Back to the Future’ mentality pulling us back to Dickensian Britain.

We have a serious empathy deficit in places in Scotland, but let’s have the insight to understand that the more threatening empathy gap is to found in what passes for mainstream opinion in Westminster, Whitehall and the City. It is an ideologically blinkered dogma out to destroy and denigrate everything which once made people feel proud to be British. Recognition of this should be centrestage in all of our deliberations in Scotland over the next year. We have to counter it, challenge it and ultimately defeat it, for the sake of all Scottish, English, Welsh and Northern Irish citizens, all of which has huge consequences beyond constitutional issues.

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