The journalism on display in the Irish Times regarding the UK’s handling of BREXIT has provided – hopefully will continue to provide – a blast of ‘fresh air’. I have come to appreciate – to enjoy, to be informed by and provoked into new thinking by – the likes of Fintan O’Toole. Last week’s (28 May) opinion piece by Una Mullally brings together insights into the current state of politics and society in the USA and the UK, the two nation-states with THAT so extra special ‘special relationship’. And she does not pull her punches!
The author takes a pop at the UK media; the British political class and its surviving social class structure; the legacy of Britain’s violent colonial history; and British exceptionalism.
The article is entitled:
‘We need to pay very close attention to what is happening in Britain now
A nation that does not confront its national identity will not be able to move forward’
Examining all this through the lens of an independent mind in Scotland, the article resonates but also grates. The journalist lumps everything said about the UK into just one ‘Britain’ or ‘British’ bag: there is a (lazy?) implication of a one-nation Britain adhering without differentiation to her targets. However, it would be a fair challenge to ask: how justifiable would a counter claim of ‘but things are different in Scotland’ actually be? How well informed is the majority here about, for example Scotland’s heritage and sense of national identity to argue convincingly either way: and in some quarters being too concerned, too well informed about our nation’s past and about identity may even attract the ‘narrow’, the ‘blood and soil’ nationalist insult.
Here we focus only on Mullally’s opinions regarding the media and exceptionalism.
On the British media
Some of what is written on this topic will be painfully familiar to the TuSC. Notable are the repeated, approving references to ‘context’, that watchword of the TuSC!
“The British media has a role to play in de-contextualising what is important. When all you have are scandals, nothing becomes scandalous, and the likes of Cummings and Johnson are able to deflect and ignore the concept of culpability.”
“… British political media orbits scandal like a swarm, subsuming online hysteria, and meanwhile the hive is left unattended, so god knows what’s happening that’s actually real, that’s genuinely important. Soon, all you have is a succession of crises, and very little information. It’s not that having a cast of increasingly ridiculous and incompetent villains makes the Tories less capable of playing the media, in fact it makes them more equipped to do so. Remember: the lower they stoop, the lower the public’s bar for their behaviour also falls.”
Raising the public bar is not a bad mission for the TuSC!
On the “soap opera” that is British media coverage of politics, Mullally states: “All the while, knowledge and comprehension of systems and processes is lost. There is little context in the episodic churn.”
“How can one be shocked by something Cummings does? He’s Dominic Cummings. Boris Johnson is the prime minister. What did they expect? Send in the clowns, and you wake up in a circus.” Indeed!
The article points out that British ‘exceptionalism’ leaks into many parts of Britain’s society. She writes of ‘Britain’s so-called “former glory” which the “Year Zero-ists of Brexit were so desperate to restart.”
And she admits regretfully: ’On Monday, David Lammy tweeted, “Remember when the UK was respected around the world? Now imagine how we must look today.” Lammy is a rare British politician who has consistently stood up against the trolling of society the Tories enjoy so much. But even he cannot escape British exceptionalism. When was the UK respected around the world, beyond superficial Anglophilia, which is – red flag – primarily an American pursuit?’
Mullally argues that: “The process of rebuilding can only happen if there is a period of profound self-reflection, a real and honest acknowledgement of who you are, and why you are.”
Is ‘Britain as England’, are British Nationalists/Unionists capable of this? One might have thought that after the narrow escape in September 2014, those wedded to their ‘precious Union’ may have engaged in serious and urgent ‘self-reflection’ in order to find ways to heal division and remove future risk. We know nothing on the sort happened!
And Mullally adds this on: “.. the personal propaganda cycle that colonialism instigates. It creates a false hierarchy of superiority rooted in fictions about magical personal and national prowess.”
She acknowledges in conclusion: “Other countries need to pay attention to modern Britain. What has happened is instructive. Accepting plummeting standards in media, possessing a pathological deference to posh bullies, being ignorant of one’s history, accepting inequality as some kind of natural law, celebrating buffoons, and a blithe and arrogant exceptionalism is the real downfall, not Dominic Cummings’ lies.”
Every voter in Scotland needs to pay very close attention to ‘modern Britain’ and to do so urgently. Whatever Britain has become and in whichever direction it is choosing to go, Scotland has very limited influence or power and as we know to our cost with successive Westminster governments we don’t vote for, limited electoral power in Westminster. But, as a country, we do have choices which do need to be made. We do still have agency, at least for now!