David Jamieson argues the coming period will see constant pleas from the elites for public endorsement of a false egalitarianism.
The latest campaign advertisement from ‘Scotland Is Now’ begins with a young woman staring out wistfully onto an empty coastline, next to a lighthouse, and speaking softly of “space in our hearts” and at “our workplaces” for European friends.
The advert is a Scottish Government initiative combining public funding with industrial interests in tourism, universities and other forms of big business. It launched on January 1 to mark the end of the transition period for the UK’s exit from the EU.
It does so with a typically ostentatious flourish in which all the ruling ideas of Scottish society – the prevailing Scottish ideology – are out in full play.
At its crescendo, the film makes the following hallucination about the common course of Scottish and European society: “Most of all, you’ll find us right here with you as we heal our planet and strive for a future that is fair to all.”
Not at all by chance, the same two talking points appeared 24 hours later in a statement by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon on the SNP website: “Indeed, looking at the big challenges, aside from COVID, facing the EU, such as the climate emergency and building a much more inclusive ‘well-being’ economy, Scotland has much to offer.”
The common left-wing response to claims by centrist actors that they are advancing ‘fairness’, ‘equality’ and ‘well-being’ is to say that this is language without substance – talk and no trousers. But this is to miss the point.
The ideological force of such claims is very real. It allows various constituencies to construct imagined political and moral boundaries between themselves and others, and to convince themselves that the opportunist, elite political project to which they feel attachment is meaningful and substantive.
Most thinking people, upon hearing that present day Scotland and Europe are moving towards fairness or economic equality will not take the claim literally. They won’t compare rhetoric to the empirical record of, say, the last 15 or 30 years of life in our society.
If they did, they could only note the ballooning of wealth and income inequality across Europe in this time. The real trajectory is only driving us away from equity, both within and between European countries. And no one is arguing that there is anything fair about Greek workers being hammered for German banks, or the austerian terms of the Irish bailout, or tens of thousands of refugees drowning in the Mediterranean.
On some level, all those who claim the EU is moving towards greater equity know this is not true. What matters instead is the sloganeering itself, the vague projection of distant aspirations, as soft as the focus of the campaign film. This is the stuff of ideology, and it is enough to construct a bloc of invested parties. Some of them are members of the ruling elite with real material interests in EU membership. Most are bought-in on the level of ideology itself – on tenuous hopes of progress in a desolated political landscape, and for the reassurance that tribal political identity provides.
We can further divide this majority into sub-constituencies. Among those supporters of Scottish independence for whom both the movement and its final aim are real priorities, prattle about the imaginary virtues of the EU or liberal-dominated Scotland are tolerable so long as independence itself seems proximate. This large and increasingly vocal element drew much opprobrium in 2020 for a waning interest in the homilies of official liberalism.
Another, thinner but nosier layer of SNP support appears won completely to the awful humming of political buzz-phrases and ‘influencer’ talk. This element is more firmly situated in the professional and civic orders, which aggressively re-enforce and amplify the ruling ideas.
This Scottish ideology is not, of course, restricted to Scotland. It is perhaps more intense here than in most of the West. Scotland is unusual in having a parliament with no fewer than six liberal-centrist parties, all of whom would sign-up to the vision presented by ‘Scotland is Now’. There are those in wider Scottish society who stand outside official ideology, but they are rarely if ever represented in public institutions.
Still, versions of this same body of ideas dominate the European Commission, and will shortly return to the White House. With a Brexit deal achieved, nationalist tub-thumping at Westminster will also now be relegated below even its current jokey and caricature stature.
An older form of capitalist ideology still haunts the imaginations of some. Left-liberal intelligentsia still flinch from forms of traditional authority that have largely subsided or fallen into disrepute. The powerful today are less likely to mobilise mass support by demanding sacrifice to the nation, to a Monarch or to God than they are to moralise to us about fairness or equality.
We applaud key workers through the economic crisis and then ignore the pay cut (again, this doesn’t mean the applause is meaningless – it achieves precisely what it is supposed to). Even wars are launched for personal freedom and women’s rights.
The persecution of dissidents is, likewise, advanced with the language of liberation. Where once socialists were a Godless, rootless conspiracy of perverts and home-wreckers, now they are antisemites, reactionaries and authoritarians trapped by tradition in a dark past (usually the 1930s or 70s for some reason).
In the coming year, the only meaningful dissent will be ranged against this contemporary form of ruling ideology, and the policies and social relationships it legitimises. This will prove a difficult, even impossible transition for some after years of juvenile ‘Resistance’ style anti-Trumpism and People’s Vote hysteria.
These forms of politics rely, like dodgy WW2 analogies, on the ease of re-winning old battles. Any coward can kick a throne that was first knocked-over decades ago, just as any moron can be an atheist four centuries after Spinoza. The real, and so necessary challenge, is to understand and combat the real rulers of our time.