Thursday 26 June 2014

Scotland's Vote 5: On Cynicism and Anger

A good friend recently accused me of "petty, cynical, negative sniping" in relation to the independence referendum.

(I really do consider him a good friend, but he is firmly in the Yes camp, and may have been annoyed by my recent criticism of the SNP.)

In the words of George Carlin:
Scratch any cynic and you will find a disappointed idealist.
I believe wholeheartedly in the power of government to make people's lives better. I am glad I live in a country with universal free healthcare and a myriad of other public services, from firefighters to restaurant health inspectors to primary schools. I am perfectly willing to pay my taxes if it means the other human beings around me are treated with a basic level of kindness, fairness and decency.

There's a lot to complain about, and in some ways it's not as good as it used to be; but it's still better than the conditions for the majority of people alive today, or practically anyone a few hundred years ago. I'm very grateful for this. I try not to take it for granted.

Government is not a plaything. It has enormous power for good or ill over all of us, and it has the greatest effect on the most vulnerable. It deserves to be taken seriously.

Disagreement is inevitable, even healthy. It is better to have conflicts openly debated than smothered in a bland consensus which says, for instance, it is too difficult to apply major reforms to the British banking sector. I am happy to see arguments between opposing views, as long as the audience is not treated with contempt.

I know better than to expect rarefied philosophical debate from politicians. They are interested first and foremost in getting elected. It's easy to blame this on our modern, media-driven age, but that's not entirely true. Newspapers in the 18th and 19th centuries were just as vicious, partisan and salacious as anything in our modern media landscape.

Mark Twain, who knew about politics
and dishonesty in the good old days.
Source: Wikipedia

Politics is a rough business. At worst, it hosts grifters who just want to enjoy money, power and fame for their own sakes. At best, it's an arena for men and women who really do want to make the world a better place and have some good ideas for doing so. The NHS was not handed down from a mountain on stone tablets; it exists because dedicated people put in the work of planning, debating, and persuading to get the votes to make it happen.

Even with the most lofty goals in mind, politicians must master the dark arts of persuasion and dealmaking. Otherwise they will be no more than lonely voices in the wilderness, with no chance of putting their ideals into practice. I think it's that tension which makes politics most interesting to me.

The independence referendum is no ordinary election. Scotland is deciding whether it wants to be part of a United Kingdom with England, Wales and Northern Ireland. It has not done anything like this for 300 years. It may be a very long time before it does so again. I think it is right and necessary to hold the participants to higher standards than in a normal campaign.

Of course there will still be low political tactics deployed by both sides. The stakes are high, and the temptation is to use every weapon in their arsenals; but there are boundaries they should not cross. Thankfully, everyone involved recognises this to some extent.

The SNP could be doing a lot more to stir up anti-English resentment; but to its great credit it has largely kept to a broad, inclusive, civic form of nationalism. It welcomes residents of Scotland who were born in England or elsewhere, as equal citizens with valuable contributions to make. For its part, the UK political establishment has recognised the SNP's right to hold a referendum and pledged to abide by the result. By way of comparison, at present Spain is attempting to prevent Catalonia from holding an independence referendum; and the USA fought a civil war to prevent its southern states from seceding.

When does political campaigning go too far? That is a matter for personal judgment; but as I've explained at length, in my view the line has been crossed. I think the most important example is the SNP's handling of the currency issue, but there are many other cases on both sides.

I don't like being lied to, and I don't like people assuming I am ignorant or stupid. I don't like arguments with gaping chasms in their logic. I will put up with it to a certain point because it is the way of the world, but sooner or later it makes me angry.

"I think you need to be more explicit here in step two."
Not good enough for a decision of historic importance.
Source: NIH, originally Sidney Harris in The New Yorker

When that happens, I freely admit that I tend to sound cynical and negative. My admiration for Mark TwainHunter S Thompson and the Gin and Tacos politics blog is showing here. I at least try to keep a sense of humour in my anger. Laughter is a useful safety valve when things get particularly annoying.

On one point I must contradict my friend: I am not being petty.

Far from it. I am thinking, reading and writing about the most important political event Britain has seen in my lifetime so far. I am not doing this because I expect to be paid or become famous. I haven't even put any advertisements on this blog, and I have a day job writing bioinformatics software which I enjoy very much and have no intention of giving up.

I am writing because I care about what's going on. In part it is for my own personal satisfaction; if some of my readers find it interesting and entertaining, that's great too.

Having said that, there is much more to my thinking than anger and cynicism. So I will make a commitment: Sometime before the referendum on 18 September, I will publish two posts. They will cover the cases for and against independence for Scotland, in the most positive way I can manage.

In the meantime, there will be more film reviews and cute cat photos; and I don't rule out some more angry and cynical commentary on politics, because that will always have its place.

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