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By Jason Michael
Words shape the worlds we live in. They shape our social and political realities. Right now the British government and the media are using a certain word set to mobilise public opinion against the independence movement. This often leads to violence.
Back in 2011, during the Irish presidential campaign, Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness proved beyond all doubt his formidable ability as a seasoned politician. In late October of that year, in a televised debate on RTÉ One, he fed his opponent – the businessman Seán Gallagher – a series of verbal ques in his interrogation of Gallagher’s shady political dealings until, at last, the entrepreneur uttered the words, “if he gave me an envelope;” a phraseology that had in itself become a cypher for the cronyism and petty political corruption of the lasts days of Ireland’s Celtic Tiger. McGuinness had, in a single stroke, ended the presidential ambitions of the daring of Ireland’s Fianna Fáil establishment.
Language – as Noam Chomsky will tell you – is all-important in a political world where power has to gain the consent of the public at large. McGuinness had not bamboozled Gallagher into a false confession. Quite on the contrary, he employed a specific vocabulary that shaped how his opponent would formulate his answer. By effectively controlling his thought world McGuinness framed the discussion and masterfully led his rival into saying the words that sealed his fate.
On this island we are witnessing the British government and its allies in the fourth estate trying to play the same games, with regard to the Scottish National Party and the Scottish independence movement, with the British public. The entire unionist apparatus has developed a strategy of repeating loaded stock phrases; terms like “narrow nationalists,” “divisive politics,” “playing at politics,” and so on, as a method of framing – through its repetition in the mass media – how people, not only in Scotland but in the whole of the United Kingdom, think about the SNP and Scottish nationalism. This potent use of language becomes memetic, with ordinary people adopting it as their own – regardless of its factual reliability – without knowing exactly from where it came.
As a received opinion then, this becomes the seedbed into which more pernicious ideas can be sown. We do not, for example, refer to the government of Britain as the “Tory government” or that of Germany as the “Christian Democrat government,” but a trend has developed in British political and media discourse of referring to the “SNP government” – and not “the Scottish government.” This is not just a turn of phrase. It is a manipulation. In calling it the SNP government the British establishment are building atop the foundations it has already laid, delegitimising the Scottish government as an administration usurped by narrow and divisive nationalists who are, at most, only ever playing at real politics.
Beside this there are other, more dangerous, trends developing in the language of the unionist establishment. This was well illustrated by Allison Pearson when, writing for the Telegraph, she called Nicola Sturgeon – Scotland’s First Minister and leader of the SNP – a “liar and a traitor,” before demanding she be beheaded. In itself this is appalling; such rhetoric after the brutal politically motivated murder of Jo Cox during the EU referendum campaign is beneath contempt. But it is still deployed as an accumulative element in the larger linguistic and idea-forming assault on the Scottish government and the independence movement.
In the short term such tactics can be very successful, undermining trust in the target and so – in a democracy – weakening its ability to maintain power. In the long term, when the intended target has already consolidated its powerbase – as is the case with the SNP in Scotland, this approach is worse than useless. It merely highlights the power play and exposes the fact that the aggressor has run out of rational arguments. Ultimately it betrays the weakness of the side that uses it.
Yet none of this removes the inherent dangerousness of this as a political tactic. In a hyper-securitised state – such as Britain has become – where successive governments have increased their control over the general population using phantom fears of international terrorism and external religio-political threats, this tactic is life threatening. Any population that has ingested, over a protracted period of time, the continual state propaganda of fear inevitably succumbs to paranoia – a key ingredient of the right-wing Brexit vote. Fear and paranoia, when infused with hyperbolic patriotism and a state-militarism – as has and is happening in the UK, necessarily results in hatred and violence directed against the perceived threat.
This was certainly what happened in the case of Jo Cox where her killer was shouting “Britain First” and “death to traitors” during his frenzied attack. It is also true that this manufactured paranoia and fear has played a massive part in the sharp increase in Islamophobic and xenophobic attacks across England and Wales since the Brexit vote. The language of the British government and the pro-government media has given people these thoughts, or at the very least has equipped them with a linguistic-mental framework with which to arrive at and confirm this thinking and these actions. Furthermore, tied – as it is – to notions of security and patriotism, this state and media discourse justifies these actions as patriotic. The state is giving them permission.
Scotland has no lack of people of a unionist political disposition who might be persuaded to use violence in order to protect Britain from division and treason, and so this state and media driven language poses an increasing threat to those within the independence movement who may be identified as “enemies of the state.” We know already, from the immediate aftermath of the 2014 referendum result, that there is indeed the potential for this in Scotland. If it can happen on the streets of London and West Yorkshire it can happen here.
What this means is that we have an obligation to challenge irresponsible and dangerous language when it is used against us – when it is used against anyone – by the British state and media. Typically the police and the judiciary will not involve themselves in disputes of a political nature, unless they cross the threshold of actual threats and violence. But by then it is already too late. This defence must be mounted by us ourselves, and we cannot afford to be relaxed in our vigilance because it is all too apparent that this tactic serves the interests of the most powerful actors.
Sadiq Khan: “The rise of populist and narrow nationalism”
2 thoughts on “Britain’s War of Words”
My fears in a nutshell. I must say my first thought at Pearson’s headline was the Queen of Hearts in Through the Looking Glass – unhinged. I know the internet was otherwise but, the unionist response continues to be petulant and patronising at the same time.
I wrote this in July 2014, before Indyref1 and – crucially – way before EURef.
The UK media and British Nationalist politicians didn’t heed the warnings from a past, probably too distant and obscure for their pitifully short sighted mindset, and we saw blood and death on the streets of England.
This can’t happen again, because Scots and the rest of the planet won’t take it meekily.
The consequences would be unimaginable.