Thinking the Unthinkable

Those deluded and pseudo-patriotic enough to support EU withdrawal love to accuse people like me of “whataboutery”, an insult which hurts sufficiently that I try not to accuse others of it (although in some cases, on other, largely unrelated issues, it is almost unavoidable, as for example when alleged Marxists dismiss the victims of the Iranian state as “inconvenient”).  Those who believe EU withdrawal is a universal national panacea rather than the Union-unravelling chimaera it would actually be love to invoke the concept of “the art of the possible”; that what they talk about is possible and what I talk about isn’t.  They don’t always even deny that the EU is in no way or sense whatsoever the greatest threat to our “sovereignty”; they simply say, in that nauseating shrugged-shoulders way (in no culture but that of England could a party like the modern-day Conservative Party even exist), that they are concentrating on threats that actually can be reversed or turned around and I am not.

Apart from defining the terms and criteria of the anti-EU whingers – the cynically anti-political nature of it all – it also reveals their desperately narrow political horizons.  The other, far more profound and far more total, changes could still, even now, actively be reversed if only anyone had the will.  Reversing the tides of media deregulation and American-led pop culture, and of the hollowing out and stripping to nothing of our public culture and institutions, would of course require a deeper and more profound effort, a far greater commitment to changing every aspect of our lives, which is precisely why the whingers aren’t prepared to commit themselves to it – the only change they’re prepared to make is one which involves ticking one box on one day and then just doing everything exactly the same way they’re used to, which is a big part of the reason why their cause is so useless, hollow and empty.  But it is all perfectly possible.  It would simply require a genuinely patriotic government at Westminster, and we have not had one of those which was strong or potent enough to do anything on those lines, whether in the Tory or Labour traditions (if indeed we have had one at all, in either tradition) for thirty-six years.

But that’s not my fault.  It’s the whinging Europhobes’ fault, absolutely, entirely, 100%.  But I’m not going to be blamed for what I am (which is really another way of letting them define me, which I have fought against for so long).  It’s not my fault that they can only see what is directly in front of them, not what might be.  It’s not my fault that their outlook on the world is so mundane, banal, predictable.  Above all else, it’s not my fault that they are not prepared to think the unthinkable.

(apropos what I wrote below, it occurs to me more and more that the strange and overnight resurrection of Williams’ career and his first solo TPL entry, which did absolutely no business at all for its first two months, was a direct response to the wheels dramatically coming off the Oasis bandwagon at exactly the same time; in other words, he filled the gap Liam had left, and probably would always have left once the Blair government actually existed.  No doubt TPL will get to this and come up with a reasoned analysis of it, when the time comes.  But enough of that.)

Murdoch by other means: the SNP’s strange crossover

I have already written – here and elsewhere – about Rupert Murdoch’s desire to isolate inconveniently semi-socialist outposts from the core of the Anglosphere and separate them geopolitically so as to provide much less inconvenience to him.  I suspect nobody is more pleased at the thought of the SNP leaving the UK in response if it leaves the EU; the West divided into a United States of the Anglosphere and a United States of Europe, with the United Kingdom partitioned between the two, would be the conclusion of his life’s work.  But the SNP have, to a very substantial extent, brought this unholy alliance on themselves; specifically, they have not fully realised how similar – even if they espouse it for different reasons – much of their rhetoric is to classic Murdochian ideas, and do not really have the right to complain that they are being used for geopolitical reasons, promoted and pushed so as to help other forces within a Great Game which, at root, has very little to do with Scotland.

I do not dispute that many SNP members and voters are genuine Scottish patriots; I do not dispute that many of them feel a genuine revulsion at neoliberalism and all its works; I do not dispute that many of them feel they have the best possible intents at heart.  I do not challenge the fact that the British state and its institutions have often treated Scotland appallingly, as much on the Left as on the Right.  I may disagree with them about whether or not their aims can be achieved without disastrous effects on the very existence – the very right to exist in their own country – of a very substantial number of people who know no country but England, but I do not doubt their sincerity in what they claim to believe.  But, and it is a very big but indeed:

National self-determination has to include a cultural element or it is nothing, and it also has to recognise where the main threats to its nation’s cultural sovereignty come from – and just as importantly, where they don’t come from (even if they once did).  And the SNP at times remind me of the owners of the Croke Park GAA stadium in Dublin in an era which already seems far distant, who before they allowed soccer and rugby to be played there (leading to one of the key reconciliations of 2007), still forbade “English sports” but happily allowed American stadium rock bands to perform there.  Both have suffered from a tendency to fight old battles so long and so far that they have lost sight of where the real intrusion is coming from now.  And in that respect they are very useful and convenient for Rupert Murdoch, much of whose drive and determination comes from the exaggeration and perpetuation of a mythical “establishment” long after it has actually ceased to exist, and appealing to Anglo-British (increasingly, openly English nationalist at least in rhetoric, though Anglosphere nationalist in practice) populist patriotism while selling a wholly foreign culture draped in the Union Jack or, increasingly, the Cross of St George, and trusting in the ability of the lumpenproletariat not to know the difference.

If others do something alarmingly similar elsewhere, just dressed in a Saltire, who can blame Murdoch for lending them his fervent support, the better that they can be used for a deeper geopolitical goal?  More specifically, the SNP and Murdoch share a profound enemy: the BBC.  The SNP will make maximum levels of political capital out of age-old resentments – many of which undoubtedly existed historically for huge and justified reasons, and may well still do so in some cases – about an institutional bias against Scotland and specifically towards south-east England.  I do not doubt that the BBC, in common with other London-centred old-establishment institutions, has in the past treated Scotland poorly and contemptuously on occasions, perpetuating nasty, played-out, unfunny jokes and stereotypes.  But attitudes are fundamentally different now; even if largely by default, the BBC has become far more committed to areas which it relatively ignored in the past (which was part of the reason why ITV tended to do better the further you got from the south-east in the duopoly days; Scotland has at least, and very much unlike northern England, retained the mass-audience commercial channel which “hammocks” the big English or globally-rooted hits with its own output, though not everyone in northern Scotland has been happy with Grampian’s absorption, something which Sky of course rendered much harder to avoid).  It is wholly unfair, in my opinion, to suggest that there is as great a cultural bias and disapproval as almost certainly existed for much of the BBC’s history.

Most importantly, the obsession with the BBC as the sole and only threat to Scotland’s cultural self-determination does not simply play into Murdoch’s hands – even if its origins are different, and even if it would keep the principle of public broadcasting alive in a way he would not, and even if the SNP’s idea of public broadcasting could be far more blatantly state-controlled because Scottish definitions of Leftism were never really influenced by libertarianism as English ones were in a way which pushed elements in the English Left towards their own kind of “same means, different ends” ambiguity about Murdoch – but it ignores the, by any standards, far greater threat to the things a reasonably culturally conservative social democratic nationalist party is supposed to defend by the proliferation of deregulated broadcasting, a door which he largely pushed open and has continued to gatekeep.  Are Scotland’s Historic Market Towns (where romantic nationalism was once strongest, but which came through for the Union when they had to) and its former heavy-industrial areas (where the new nationalism has its strongest core of support) really full of people adopting the speech, manners and dress sense of Reithian formality (and there is another irony: the BBC’s roots are very substantially in a kind of Anglo-Scottishness which England and Scotland have abandoned in about equal parts and revolted against in directions which may seem oppositional in every sense but which are brought together by Murdoch’s desire to use them both) such as have been greatly compromised even in their longest-lasting heartlands in the same era which has seen Scotland gain ever greater autonomy (and which indeed declined largely under the influence of the same government which authorised that autonomy) or the speech, manners and dress sense brought through the global tide of deregulated media, which have far fewer historic ties to Scotland and far less meaningful connection to any idea of Scottishness, but which – as in Ireland – are sometimes embraced as a “lesser evil” (The Stage and Television Today digital archive confirms that at a time of intense frustration and anger in Scotland in the wake of the rigged 1979 referendum and the effects of Thatcherism, Dallas was more likely to be the BBC’s most-watched programme in Scotland and Northern Ireland than elsewhere, which undoubtedly reflects the fact that the BBC’s own output had more of a Home Counties vibe at the time than that produced by the ITV companies combined, but also reflects an outlook which, if transferred from the closed broadcasting environment of 1982 to that which exists in 2015, is every bit as pseudo-anti-establishment as that of Murdoch himself) and which, every bit as much as in England, you can’t get on the wrong side of if you want the most circulated newspaper to support you?

And that is before we even get to the effect of Sky on how even the leading clubs of Scottish football have fallen so far behind financially in modern times (I am wholly aware of the problems built into the Old Firm’s existence, and I would not wish the way Rangers have been treated by successive owners even on that part of the working class, by far the most problematic for people like me throughout history, and I think the Scottish top flight has probably been better off without them, though it would be better off still if the team rooted in an equally ahistoric, and now deprecated, view of Ireland rather than England-as-Britain, could be challenged seriously for the title, but the fact that Rangers, and to a lesser extent at that point Celtic, once had a comparable income and financial clout to even the leading clubs in England, and well above that of the middling and lower sides in what was about to become the Premier League, seems almost unbelievable now, and it isn’t the BBC which has caused that situation).  Worse, there might even be a tendency within the SNP which thinks Murdoch is really Scottish simply because of his surname and ancestry, and feel that his struggle with the old paternalistic English establishment – which he has perpetuated in his mind long after it ceased to exist out of sheer fear of being exposed as an establishment titan in and of himself – is also their struggle, equates the two in its mind (just as Welsh nationalism generally and Plaid Cymru specifically are stunted at birth in most of Wales by the basic inability of any movement which says “we were here first and the English are really German” to make any moral claims to be above those in England who say “we were here first and people of Pakistani descent who know no country but England are really Pakistani”, you can’t really condemn English Murdochians who effectively say, with the usual racial inferences of that kind of Anglosphere nationalism, “all white Americans are really English” if you’re willing to make similar claims yourself when it suits you).

Show Murdoch anyone who makes their central enemy, the guiding force of their hatred, the mythical enemy of BBC / Home Counties Englishness (which has in reality been utterly compromised and weakened for three decades – when I happened this week to re-read Philippa Pearce’s Minnow on the Say, a book I wrote about, sort of, in a former online life fourteen years ago, I found it harder and harder to believe that it seemed relatively normal to me as a child, something that I could imagine happening at least the day before yesterday, just as I find it harder and harder to believe that Eleanor Graham’s Puffin Book of Verse, a book which among much else clearly articulated Reithian Anglo-Scottishness, seemed comparatively unremarkable and almost easy to get my head round – in line with the silent and almost entirely unacknowledged, but of course intimately Murdoch-led, transformation of Toryism into neo-Whiggery) as if 1955 had never ended, and he’ll love them in a heartbeat and never let them go.  Show him someone who recognises the vastly increased challenge that deregulated multichannel broadcasting poses to the maintenance of national cultural sovereignty (in any nation, anywhere in the world, and in this context both to the United Kingdom, for those who still believe in it, and to its constituent parts for those who believe in those in and of themselves) and he’ll make it his life’s work to freeze them out and isolate them from any kind of power, permanently and for good.

The SNP have done the former obsessively for decades, vastly exaggerating its power, strength and potency in the modern day in exactly the same way that the incarnation of The Sun which painted Nicola Sturgeon as some sort of Communist holding the country to ransom continues to do, arguably more than the version of the paper which hailed her as a conquering hero.  It has never lifted so much as a little finger to do the latter.  I have no doubt that its wariness on that point comes from a desire to seem as inclusive and right-on as it can, as indeed do many tendencies of thought in modern England which in the end, in the harsh geopolitical realities in which we live, come out as implicitly and accidentally pro-Murdoch.  I have a good deal of sympathy for the argument that any feeling on the SNP’s part that a return to the BBC/IBA model in an independent Scotland would be implicitly totalitarian and quasi-fascist comes from a place far closer to the soixante-huitard English deregulators of the Left – Marxism Today when Sky launched from Astra, basically, and it could still be imagined to be what Marx thought mercantile capitalism could be – than to the full-on cynicism of the Cameron/Osborne position.  But facing the Anglosphere, from its core to its fringes, as it is as opposed to how everyone who thinks like me wants it to be, how can the SNP, truthfully and honestly, complain when the global oligarch of neoliberalism sees it as a force he can work with?

If the SNP had realised that their central aim, however well-meant and however well-thought-out in and of their own terms, could so easily be used by forces which I have no doubt that many of its members and at least its longer-term supporters despise, and had sensibly and empirically adjusted some of its tactics in response – placing more emphasis on the damage done to a putatively independent Scotland’s cultural sovereignty by the scale of the global mass media, and moving away from the absolute, unrelenting emphasis on attacking the BBC out of a sensible realisation that there were stronger and more powerful anti-BBC forces against whom, if it came to a battle of anti-BBC positions, the SNP would have no chance whatsoever – I could admire it with far fewer doubts and far fewer reservations.  As it is, the party is fatally compromised.  Undoubtedly honest in what it believes, and undoubtedly genuine in some of its ideas.  But still fatally compromised by Salmond’s Faustian pact with forces which could make mincemeat of the party if they wanted to, which could in the end render it as desperately trapped as those in England most likely to feel an affinity with it as long as they are unaware of that pact’s full implications.  Which is the ultimate extreme definition of being desperately trapped, I think anyone could agree.