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By Jason Michael
People like the former political editor of The Guardian, Michael White – the guy who claimed independence was about ethnic cleansing, want us to start using their words to describe our actions. Here’s what that really means.
There are about as many supporters in the Irish Republic for the idea of an Irish exit from the European Union as there are advocates for Ireland’s return to British rule – precisely none, and yet not so very long ago the BBC in London was making a big deal over “Irexit.” Britain’s strategy with regard to Ireland – a perpetual thorn in its side – in the Brexit process has oscillated between thinly veiled threats masquerading as a wooing and outright anti-Irish racist vitriol. At some stage in Whitehall’s developing game plan someone came up with the Trojan horse idea of Irexit, essentially a fake news item designed to manufacture a desire to leave the EU in Irish public opinion.
In spite of the British media’s attempts to sell this idea through the Irish voices of Ray Bassett, a former Irish ambassador to Canada, and the former Professor of Banking and Financial Services at University College Dublin, Ray Kinsella, the plan went bust. The Irish have long since figured out the purpose of the propagandistic paddywhackery dreamed up in London. Little Englanders singing It’s a Long Way to Tipperary was a similar tactic, aimed at roping Irish lads into fighting Britain’s pointless patriotic war in 1914. It never really worked. The Irish had a better idea.
England has an obnoxious habit of reinventing the wheel when it comes to the language used to describe other people’s business, but this is far from being a benign but annoying cultural trait. Language is never neutral, and this is all the more true in political contexts and during times of conflict. Those who control the language of the situation – an essential component in the narrative – also control how it is understood and how events are interpreted. England, as a state that has always employed a grand strategy with respect to the politics of its neighbours, feels an almost irresistible urge to control the language of the politics around it, and this it does through the agency of its powerful media and cultural or soft power apparatus.
3 years on, still waiting for a "modern form of Home Rule", "as close to federalism as you can get" or lets just ca… twitter.com/i/web/status/9…—
pmcrek (@PiratesForIndy) September 18, 2017
Scotland was told that “Devo Max” rather than Home Rule was on the table during the independence referendum campaign. On the face of it this was of course maximum devolution, to all intents and purposes a synonym for Home Rule – except for the fact it wasn’t. It was the term “Home Rule” that had been on the lips of those advocating devolution for most of the twentieth century. This was the language of the 1913 Home Rule Bill, of Labour Party Policy through the 1920s, of its break-away Independent Labour Party after 1932, of the Scottish National Party until 1942, and of the Scottish Covenant Association from 1942.
Home Rule had then and has now a definite and settled meaning. It had a concrete model in the 1922 establishment of An Saorstát Éireann, the Home Rule of the Irish Free State. This was the Home Rule envisaged by the mothers and fathers of devolution in Scotland – de facto state autonomy joined to England only by a shared head of state as a steppingstone to full independence. Towards 2012 it had become clear to England that this was the natural trajectory of Scottish devolution, and indeed Home Rule – denied as a third option on the 2014 ballot by the British government – was again on Scottish lips. London would not offer it because it knew it would be accepted.
England had to change the language. It had to offer something that looked and sounded like Home Rule without ever actually being Home Rule. So it offered Devo Max, an utterly meaningless neologism that was capable of meaning at a whim whatever London needed it mean. It could do this because it had effectively taken control of the language of Scottish political discourse. Once we in Scotland adopted it we were caught in the trap.
The power comes through the control of the language, because language controls the narrative. Language holds the power. It's a gateway.—
📎(((Alpha)))📎 (@ChancellorAlpha) September 17, 2016
Just like Pepsi Max, the low-calorie, sugar-free alternative to real Pepsi, Devo-Max not only infantilised our political thinking, it became the low-cost, substance-free alternative to Home Rule. It was a stalling tactic, and it worked.
Ultimately, however, this fugazi killed Home Rule. In the time following the September 2014 vote those who would have happily opted for this third option, having seen through the deceit, moved in their opinion to favour complete independence. In 2014 talk of a Scottish Republic was limited largely to the radical fringe. Now an independent republic seems to be the favoured position of the majority in the independence movement. Independence rather than Home Rule has now become the focus of London’s propaganda machine’s attention.
Given that this word, “independence,” resonates throughout the movement and is very much the hinge of Scotland’s current political lexicon, it has the power almost in and of itself to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Our use of the vocabulary of independence is shaping how we think of it politically and culturally, and how we are imagining our nation’s future. In a word, our use of this word is moving it as a concept from mere reification to concretisation. In effect, then, we have ensured England cannot use this word in its ideological war against us. Those in power in London know that their use of the language of independence to combat independence would be like fighting a conflagration with turpentine. Thus they have set about revising the language.
“Scexit” has entered the field. This isn’t quite the #Sexit of sexy socialism. This is a fundamental reframing of independence as a Brexit-like Scottish exit from the United Kingdom rather than the affirmation of nationhood-to-statehood that independence describes. Just as Brexit requires Europe in order to have meaning, Scexit requires England. Scexit, as an imposed terminology, makes Scottish independence about England – whereas “independence” was and is only ever about Scotland.
Angry Scotland 🏴 (@AngryScotland) March 21, 2016
What is more is that as a ringer for “Brexit” – a political reality in the making loaded with the baggage of parochial small-mindedness, thuggish xenophobia and racism; a politics rejected by Scotland yet being imposed on us – it sounds ugly to the Scots ear. Scexit is a ploy to make independence as repulsive to us Scots as Brexit. In tandem with this strategy of language revision London has launched an inversion in the fabrication of a “UK single market,” put into play to persuade us that the British market is somehow analogous or similar to the European single market from which it hopes to pull us. Paul Kavanagh has already broken down this myth and exposed it for the manipulation it is.
In Scotland we have been operating with our own discourse language. At times, as we have seen in the case of Devo Max, this has been subverted to our cost. Our struggle is ideological. This goes without saying, but we must remember that while there is no ideology without conflict of ideology, each ideology functions only with its own specific and authentic language. When an opposing ideological force successfully distorts its foil’s language, everything – the meaning, the narrative, the discourse, and even the vision – is changed and the movement moved by it loses its direction. England has been doing exactly this for centuries and it is doing it now.
If it is independence we want then we must embrace and defend the language of independence and all the ideas that have grown from our use of this word. We must defend against every effort to subvert how we speak of what we are doing and how we think of what we are doing. Without this praxis what we are doing as a movement will be – and in short order – derailed. When it comes to Scottish politics and our political discourse as a movement we must drink from our own wells.
Language and Propaganda – Noam Chomsky