Robin McAlpine: Unionists – there's no high ground in the gutter

CommonSpace columnist and Common Weal director Robin McAlpine says unionists must stop trying to dehumanise their nationalist opponents

IS this really how you want your public discourse, unionists? Are you incapable of pursuing your political beliefs without engaging in a focussed, intentional and corrosive strategy of delegitimising the very existence of your opponents?

In case you missed it, Sadiq Khan, Douglas Alexander and Claire Heughan want you to believe that the aims of the Scottish independence movement should be placed in the same category as the aims of Nazis and separated fundamentally from the aims (acceptable, civilised) of Labour, the Lib Dems and the Tories.

Is this really what you want, unionists? A politics of smears, devoid of respect for your opponents? Would you like to hear examples of what that would sound like if we started applying it to you?

This has been going on for a long time now, and I've written about it more than once. I was aware of it when I was in the Labour Party in the 1990s and leader George Robertson regularly pulled out his 'tinderbox nationalism' line.

Because Douglas Alexander has a solid track record of hatred towards those whose skin isn't white like his. He was at the heart of an administration which incinerated and mutilated more than 100,000 people with dark skin and, well, none with light skin.

Alexander was part responsible for a foreign and defence policy which saw the widespread death of people of colour known to be innocent of any crime as an acceptable sacrifice to be made. I am not aware that Alexander even once saw the death of an innocent white person as an acceptable sacrifice.

Surely we must conclude that the life of a white person is worth more to him than the life of a non-white person? The parallel between Alexander's beliefs and that of white supremacists is clear.

Or what about Claire Heughan? As far as I can tell she has contributed not so much as one penny to the French healthcare system, but happily contributes to a British NHS for British people. Her disregard for the lives of innocent French children stems directly from her determination to draw a line between us and our closest neighbour, to divide us and to treat 'them' as an 'other'.

For her, suffering or pain is not the basis for compassion. Compassion should be based solely on the passport you hold. The parallels with xenophobia are clear.

But in its modern form it can be traced back (I think) to Johann Lamont's contributions to the Scottish Parliament from about 2012 onwards.

And as for Sadiq Khan – we'll, he's been Mayor of London now for nearly a year and in all that time he has done not one thing for the people of Newcastle. Not one, tiny thing. Every time he says 'the people of London', we know exactly what that coded, dog-whistle means – fuck those Geordies.

His hatred for Geordies is simply appalling, the false barriers he erects between ordinary people in London and ordinary people in Newcastle speaks volumes about his selfishness. The parallels with the blood-soaked 1534 siege of Münster, in Westphalia, surely couldn't be more obvious.

Now for the sake of literalists out there, some context. I grew up in a small town, a place where it is simply impossible to exist if you do not learn how to live beside and respect people who have views different from your own (it's hard to exist in a bubble when there are only three pubs...).

I also grew up in the peace movement, in an ethos where respectful engagement with those you disagree with was a fundamental part of the philosophy of peace and reconciliation.

I believe in plurality. I believe in the need to accept differing opinions. I believe in knowing the danger of listening only to your own views and never those of others. I believe in respect for people who believe honestly and sincerely in something you don't.

There was a very clear moment when she started, week after week, to call her nationalist opponents liars, something which is usually against parliamentary principle precisely because it creates an atmosphere in which people cannot work together.

Many times in my life I have criticised people on the left for using the phrase 'Tory scum'. It is a dehumanising, delegitimising phrase which should be beneath us. Call their policies scummy by all means, but respect their right to believe something you don't.

There are of course lines that can be crossed here – politics which are based on the fundamental 'inferiority' of someone else are exactly the kind of exclusive, hate-politics I am decrying here. I do not respect them one bit.

But if someone is to be condemned for crossing a line, they must have crossed the line. You don't get to redraw the line conveniently around them just because you've got a local government election coming up and are faltering woefully in the polls. That's just cheap and nasty.

I know that Douglas Alexander doesn't hate black people. I know he's not a racist. I know Sadiq Khan doesn't hate the people of Newcastle. I'm pretty sure Claire Heughan doesn't really hate the French. I don't believe any to have crossed the line.

And importantly, you will not find me engaging with political rhetoric which suggests they have, irrespective of how convenient it might be to me at any given moment. I consider myself to be above such things – and frankly in post-financial crisis, post-Brexit Britain I think I've got rather more effective lines of attack on their political position.

The aim was clear – my opponents aren't wrong, they're mendacious and outside the norms of acceptable politics. It's an 'enemy within' strategy.

This has been going on for a long time now, and I've written about it more than once. I was aware of it when I was in the Labour Party in the 1990s and leader George Robertson regularly pulled out his 'tinderbox nationalism' line.

But in its modern form it can be traced back (I think) to Johann Lamont's contributions to the Scottish Parliament from about 2012 onwards. There was a very clear moment when she started, week after week, to call her nationalist opponents liars, something which is usually against parliamentary principle precisely because it creates an atmosphere in which people cannot work together.

The aim was clear – my opponents aren't wrong, they're mendacious and outside the norms of acceptable politics. It's an 'enemy within' strategy. (Lamont is an honest politician – she followed bad advice.)

For me it reached its peak in a Brian Wilson Scotsman article from the time of the referendum (to which I can't find a link) when he wrote that after a No vote there should be a concerted move made to use every possible mechanism to force supporters of independence out of Scottish politics for good.

It was an appalling sentiment, but I'm afraid it is par for the course for the person who more than any other (in the mainstream) typifies smear and hatred as politics by other means.

It doesn't even matter if Sadiq Khan was right or not (he wasn't). It matters that, as part of preparation for a local election, he knowingly and purposefully linked his opponents to a delegitimised, dehumanised philosophy of hate.

And above all, this whole thing is intellectually bereft. Are we seriously to believe that the borders that exist are god-given and it is only new borders which divide human from human? Is the Republic of Ireland fundamentally racist for dividing the British isles?

Should we invade and conquer to right this grievous wrong? Should Sweden invade Norway? Am I supposed to be cheering on Russia for challenging that horrible, divisive border with Ukraine?

Did I miss a class on political theory which covered the view that any administrative unit based on an identified territory is exclusionary and therefore an act of violence? You know, like absolutely every administrative unit of government in the world anywhere, ever?

Ms Heughan, in her article, seeks the intellectual high ground by throwing the word 'mythos' around. Sorry Claire, an intellectual looks at the counterfactuals and addresses them, too.

The UK has no mythos? That mythos isn't derived from 'Rule Britannia, God Save the Queen, Britons Will Never Be Slaves (and if others are, that's not our problem)'? Every 'imagined community' has a mythos. If you are to argue that the Scottish independence movement inside the UK is racist on the basis of mythos, you should really take at least a cursory glance at the mythos from which it seeks to separate itself.

Sure, "man to man the world o'er shall brothers be for 'a that" is a mythos, a founding belief that in reality it is very hard to live up to. But it beats the hell out of 'British Jobs for British Workers'. You choose your flawed philosophy, Ms Heughan, and I'll choose mine.

Unionists need to cleanse themselves of this poisonous tactic in the same way as the independence movement has sought to do. The alternative is a road which soon reaches a dehumanised politics which we should all fear.

From the start it was never the independence movement which sought to create division within Scotland nor animosity with the people of England. It was the unionists who, the more we said we had love and respect for England, told the English we were lying. It is Ruth Davidson who has made an entire career out of talking up conflict and division in a nation she claims to represent.

There is now long-standing evidence that Scotland makes different political choices than the UK as a whole; wanting a chance to follow those choices is a perfectly respectable position.

Others believe that the UK is, well, better together. That, too, is a perfectly respectable position that I not only recognise but have some genuine empathy with. In the end, I just disagree. Can I not be treated with the respect with which I seek to treat you?

When I was in Berlin in January I had an afternoon off. I spent five hours in the German history museum. Naziism begins not with flags or guns or concentration camps, and not with difference, disagreement and division.

It begins with the delegitimisation of your opponent. It quickly becomes the dehumanisation of your opponent.

It doesn't even matter if Sadiq Khan was right or not (he wasn't). It matters that, as part of preparation for a local election, he knowingly and purposefully linked his opponents to a delegitimised, dehumanised philosophy of hate. Steve Bannon would nod in appreciation.

Unionists need to cleanse themselves of this poisonous tactic in the same way as the independence movement has sought to do. The alternative is a road which soon reaches a dehumanised politics which we should all fear.

You can pretend it is the high ground all you want – the gutter is the gutter.

Picture courtesy of Robin McAlpine

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