Critical friends

Critical friends
Lallands Peat Worrier

Whenever media commentators talk about SNP supporters or politicians being uncritical drones, I always assume they either have few Nationalist friends, or spend too much time on Twitter. In July,Iain Martin argued the party was turning into a "sinister personality cult". Today, Stephen Daisley writes that "the nationalist movement desperately needs critical thinking right now. The SNP megachurch brooks no heresy. MPs and MSPs genuflect to the leadership on all questions of doctrine." 


Now, I like critical thinking. A confident Scottish Government should welcome it. The best laid plans of mice, men, and governments – gang aft agley. Good intentions generate perverse consequences. Political discourse in Scotland remains oddly zero sum, reluctant to grapple with the fact that to privilege some values, others must be sacrificed. All of this needs to be exposed. All of this needs to be examined with more confidence, and less gormless snark. As one of life’s natural heretics, and as an SNP supporter, I wish Scottish life had a more confident, more carefree public sphere in which ideas could be batted back and forth with gayer abandon. 


I wish our politicians – and yes, our academics too – were a bit less frit about putting their heads above the parapet. I wish more of them would brave the – very modest – storms and floods of daring to have an opinion in public. But the same press that frets about the Nationalist cyberlegion consistently pathologises political dissent. I can entirely understand the journalistic incentives behind this. Splits, divides and rebellions make for much more dramatic copy — but the political media does a remarkable amount to foster and perpetuate the anxious, spinning, on-message culture some of its outriders purport to despise. So much, so banal. 


But sometimes I wonder if the indiscreet, blood-drenched tribalism of the Scottish Labour Party has spoilt our journalists and broadcasters. In the absence of self-destructive leaks, or internecine, anonymous intra-party briefings, it’s assumed that Nationalists are uncritical moonies; that we’ve drunk the Kool Aid and have lost our wits. I’m yet to meet the SNP supporter with a brain who doesn’t have parts of the party’s platform and record they have their doubts about. Such is the fate of participating in a mass-membership party. Compromises are stuck. You won’t approve of everything which finds its way into the policy platform. Unprecedented scenes, etc, etc.


Take your pick. Justice, health, education, Nato, international military interventions, Europe – I’m yet to meet the SNP sympathiser with their wits about them who doesn’t harbour independent views on the SNP’s government’s record, and some question-marks and black-marks against it. Some of the most interesting and dramatic party barneys have never been reported. Can you find uncritical, unreflective diehards? Of course you can. But Stephen Daisley is conflating the absence of critical views with the absence of any inclination to share them with the Daily Record. "The war of all against all" may be a cherished tradition in Labour Party management, and a boon to the harried hack with a deadline to file, but it has little to recommend it. 


These themes are back in the media today, after former Salmond SPAD Alex Bell published a fiercely critical piece on the economic arguments for independence on his new platform, The Rattle. The economic basis of the article has been criticised. But bracketing these questions, my own objection to Alex’s piece is more basic. Where is the emotional intelligence? The overt purpose of the piece is to call on SNP sympathisers to look critically at the government’s strategy, both in terms of devolved policy, and to reflect on the sometimes harsh lessons of 2014, to re-examine the arguments uncritically and unsentimentally, unencumbered by attachment to the failures of the past, courageously and without illusions. Grand. A fine ambition. I agree. 


But you will never persuade anyone of anything by opening with the gambit, "you are an idiot and all your cherished viewpoints are self-evidently false." Nobody ever even earned a hearing with such a gambit. Hard truths must be communicated softly. Persuasion is almost always better achieved by seduction rather than conquest. Given the purpose of this intervention – and I don’t doubt Alex’s intentions are good and constructive in this respect – it is remarkable that he chose to pitch his criticisms in this way. His rhetoric alone green-lights SNP sympathisers simply to ignore its points, fair and unfair, compelling and misplaced though they may be. Which is, presumably, exactly the opposite of what was intended.

The "cocaine of the politically active, fun to join in but dulling the senses, jabbering on at a hundred words per minute while disconnected from self awareness"? Consciously or unconsciously, deliberately or quite by accident, alienating condescension leaks from every clause. Alex writes as if Daisleyvision was true, as if he is addressing biddable numpties without a skeptical spark in their heads. This is persuasion with a flamethrower. And it is disastrously ineffective. 


Invective is fun. Invective can be gratifying. But from someone trying to persuade other people, from someone trying to open minds to challenging questions rather than slamming them tight shut? It is disastrous, just disastrous. The unempathetic way in which Alex has couched his case ensures it cannot now receive a fair hearing or fair scrutiny. He has given anybody reluctant to address the issues he has raised every excuse to shrug off his argument uncritically. The article’s lack of emotional intelligence blunts, rather than sharpens, his challenging case.  If this is persuasion, and an honest attempt to coax folk into a more self-critical stance, it has all the subtlety of a mashie niblick between the eyeballs. Which is a shame, as both Alex and Stephen are right to this extent: the SNP really does need its critical friends.


Source: Llalands Peat Worrier