On Anti-Anti-Politics

Sunday National, 13th February 2022.

When Keir Starmer was mobbed by anti-vaxxers on Monday, the Labour leader was huckled to safety by a police patrol. The motley crowd cried him a “traitor.” One man shouted that he should be hanged, several times. The footage also recorded shouts of “paedophile protector.” It was an ugly scene – and you can’t blame Starmer for feeling a little fazed by the vitriol.

The incident was promptly seized on by Boris Johnson’s critics to suggest – essentially – that the Prime Minister had geed-up this mob by suggesting in Parliament that Starmer had “used his time” as Director of Public Prosecutions in England “prosecuting journalists and failing to prosecute Jimmy Savile.”

You would imagine there is enough Number 10 scandal to be going on with, without persuading yourself that a cheap smear tossed out by a Prime Minister in a tight spot makes him responsible for the leader of the opposition getting waylaid by zoomers. But deliberate incitement was the immediate charge.

Because we lack political imagination, everything now has to be Trumpian in British politics. Dishing out baseless parliamentary slurs is apparently the same as inciting your armed supporters to assemble outside of Congress, telling them that Something Must Be Done to save the republic from its internal enemies. Johnson is now so disliked that many of his detractors are now willing to believe anything of him. A sense of proportion also seems to have been misplaced along the way. Sometimes a lie is just a lie.

What makes me uneasy about these kinds of arguments is that they all too readily descend into the broad denigration of “divisive” politics of the kind we heard from Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale this week.

The bien pensants have been handwringing about the alleged loss of civility in British politics for a while. Having been appointed to head up the non-partisan think-tank Reform Scotland, Lord McConnell got in on the game this week, telling BBC Radio Scotland that the “coarsening” of political discourse “is horrific and it has been horrific for a while.” His timeline of incivility, predictably, begins with the first independence referendum. He continued:

“We have seen two terribly divisive referenda in 2014 and 2016 which saw politicians afterwards, rather than heal the wounds and bring people together, keep the divisions going to feed their own base and keep their own support. For a decade or more I think there has been a general lack of senior politicians at different levels, not just in London but elsewhere as well, who seem to be willing to unite people, talk to people who have a difference of opinion and drop the personal slanging.”

One response might be: incivility compared to what, exactly? Horrific in whose terms? Do you remember the golden days when Margaret Thatcher was civilly turning the police on miners, giving officers the opportunity to live out their medieval fantasies by participating in baton charges? Those undivided days of the 1960s, 70s and 80s when Northern Ireland was on fire? Or perhaps the we should look back to the New Labour years for guidance, when Westminster was indulging itself in civil debates about civilly sending planes to flatten civilian populations in the middle east? I don’t know about you – but it seems to me bad tempers are sometimes justified.

Critics like McConnell are always careful to emphasise that they value honest disagreements and say they want a more open political conversation. But when you dig a little deeper into their interventions, you tend to discover a more basic queasiness about high stakes issues being debated seriously at all, with all the heat as well as the light that this reliably generates.

You might think Brexit was a mistake. You might think it was a grave error for David Cameron to decide to organise the vote in the first place. You might disagree with Scottish independence. You might have been disturbed and surprised by the large percentage of your fellow citizens who supported the idea. But both of these referendums touched on political issues where there was – and remains – substantial disagreement in the wider society about fundamental questions of how the UK and Scotland are governed. The processes may have amplified these differences, but they did not create them. Sigmund Freud gave us a useful idea to work with here. He called it “the return of the repressed.” In people, so in politics.

You can ignore the major fissures running through the body politick – but there’s no point trying to deny their existence. Or indeed, treating these ruptures as if they materialised out of thin air, or only appeared because of the beastliness of your political opponents. Decades of Eurosceptic reporting and campaigning – often from Labour politicians pandering to tabloid anxieties about human rights, refugees and immigration –  led to 2016’s Brexit vote. Decades of political friction – often generated by Labour politicians – helped keep the question “who governs Scotland?” alive.

There is no willing these political differences away or convincing yourself the high-minded thing to do is to suppress these tensions in the name of disagreeing more politely about lower-stakes political issues. Hard choices like this are the essence of politics – and politicians who don’t like it are in the wrong game. Although Lord McConnell frames his contribution in terms of responsible politics, it is really a girn about having to deal with the world as it is, rather than a more comfortably mannered fantasy-land.

As political positions go, this one belongs on the Glasgow Coma Scale. I don’t know what to do with politicians who imagine their function is to minimise social disagreements. Rude politics is about recognising social conflict and reckoning with it in a peaceful way. It is about channelling social tensions into practical resolutions – or at least compromises we can live with for the time being. Because conflict is inevitable. People have conflicting goals. Any society has to make choices about where the benefits and burdens of our shared life fall. It creates winners and losers, losses as well as gains. Any politician who tells you “I’m on everyone’s side” is either deceiving themselves, or on manoeuvres.

You’d think the democratic socialist in Jack McConnell might understand some of this. The history of the labour movement is the history of challenging – often angrily challenging – inequalities. It is a history which often made powerful people feel uncomfortable, which only achieved anything because of their discomfort.  If you are someone who has been casually beggared by the government, it you are one of the people feeling the bite of its decisions to cut benefits, freeze pay, hike national insurance, or wreck your business through Brexit – your exchanges with our political masters may not be to their taste. Try looking these people in the eye, and asking them “what are you getting so worked up about?” What do you expect the punters to say? “I politely disagree with your decision to ruin my life, but will defend to the death your right to do so?”

One last irony of McConnell’s national nostalgia is that it articulates a familiar longing for the restoration of what might once have been called “civic Scotland,” where Scottish Labour could be confident of its domination of Westminster constituencies, civic government and civil life across the most populous parts of the country and, after devolution, of the Scottish Parliament itself. There might be fringe Nats and fringe Tories to contend with during these happy days – but Scottish Labour was always “home.” The 2014 referendum ruptured not only the party’s coalition of support, but also its perceptions of this country and its politics. Some day, I reckon they might consider forgiving us.   

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