Angry Politics

One of the funniest byproducts of recent political campaigns in Scotland has been the irresistible rise of Angry Salmond. Starting off as a parody twitter account, and now aspiring to the status of monetised meme, Angry Salmond has epitomised the irreverence of the Yes campaign and the new, metamorphosed SNP. This parody celebrates rather than satirises the utopian element in pro-independence politics – a tweet such as the one below, posted on the day of the referendum itself, somehow manages to affirm rather than undermine the cause.

Angry tweet

And the funniest thing about Angry Salmond is that he isn’t actually all that angry. Sure, he swears a bit and insults his – and the SNP’s – opponents, but he does so from underneath a pink beret and from behind some very silly sunglasses. When people dress up as Angry Salmond for photos – as they do – they always make sure to smile. The anger, such as it is, is just part of the schtick.

Motiveless malignity

But there has been a lot of genuine and serious anger, apparently, in Scottish politics over recent years. The good folk of Scottish Labour, in particular, have been picking it up through their naturally well-attuned antennae. Douglas Alexander was keen to point out that the party was the hapless victim of a mystifying upsurge in popular rage. Just recently, Yvette Cooper has suggested that Scotland was lost to Labour in a paroxysm of ‘anger, fear and division’.

The suggestion that this anger is inexplicable is, of course, both an excuse and an accusation. Firstly, it clears the speakers of any blame, allowing them to continue to pose as its injured and slightly bewildered victims. At the same time, it enables them to insinuate that such anger is – to use a phrase – motiveless malignity, an arbitrary evil unleashed upon a blameless world. Both these implications can be used to support the claim that, being unprovoked or causeless, it is in essence irrational – and thereby beyond the scope of a proper, legitimate politics.

The SNP surge in recent months, like the surprisingly high Yes vote before it, has too often been written off as a kind of demonic possession, a palsy of unreason. This has often accompanied the assertion – and it remains, despite the instances showcased by an eager press, only an assertion – that SNP supporters are disproportionately likely to engage in this kind of angry behaviour. The antics of the ‘Scottish Resistance’ at one of Jim Murphy’s peculiar little rallies during the election campaign, for example, fitted easily into this frame – the most widely circulated image appeared to show a patient, smiling Murphy facing up to the aggressive snarl of the serial protester Sean Clerkin.

Murphy and Clerkin

Mad and angry opponents are easy to dismiss, of course – you can, like Jim Murphy appears to be doing here, look past and over them. Visible and audible anger will often put you beyond the pale, triggering an injured appeal from your opponent to the rules of ‘civilised debate’. Thus Murphy here channelled his own fury into fanning the flame of confrontation just so he could be seen to rise above it. But does this mean that ideal or proper politics is not passionate? That it is, or ought to be, a matter of affectless rational debate and calculation? Hardly – that would be sheer technocracy, and you don’t have to subscribe to a fully fledged theory of moral sentiments to recognise the utter inhumanity of such a picture. We would be like Jonathan Swift’s implacably rational horses, the Houyhnhnms of Gulliver’s Travels – and as Swift unnervingly implies, a politics of untrammelled reason is a particularly dangerous form of madness too.

I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore

So it would be weird for someone invested in politics not to feel, sometimes, a quite properly political anger. It’s ok to be utterly furious, to be as mad as Charlotte Church and as angry as Laurie Penny. But acknowledging that such anger, like all the other energies of our limbic system, has an entirely legitimate place in politics – which is not the same, of course, as issuing a blanket licence for all kinds and varieties of angry expression – means that we can’t just look past and over it when it manifests itself, as too many in Scottish Labour seemed to want to do in the aftermath of the referendum. It isn’t something to be explained pathologically, or dismissed as beyond the scope of reasons entirely. In fact, it may be an entirely reasonable response.

But that in turn means that those of us who were angry owe others an explanation. Why were we all so ragingly furious with Scottish Labour? As far as I know, there hasn’t yet been an attempt at answering this question in any kind of robust way. All sorts of reasons have been mentioned or suggested by commentators, but we’re still looking at guesswork or anecdote. So if this is where we have to start, then I suppose my testimony is as good as anyone else’s – perhaps better, in fact, since I was a long time Labour voter and one time member who stuck an X in the box for Ian Murray MP a mere five years ago.

I would like to say that it was Labour’s long term slither rightwards or its disastrous foreign excursions that infuriated me – but the feeling usually provoked by those was despair. During the referendum what enraged me most was the alacrity with which Labour threw itself into the business of proclaiming, even appearing to revel in, the relative weakness of Scotland’s social and economic prospects as an independent polity. This was the most vital nutrient sustaining ‘Project Fear’, of course, and was repeatedly spiced by statistics, reports and what was often portrayed as disinterested commentary. In March 2013, Labour gleefully offered up to the media a leaked ‘Top Secret’ Scottish government document which seemed to portend gloom and doom. They did so with the sole aim of distracting from the strength of the preceding year’s accounts, as tabulated in the annual GERS report and released the same day. If I was asked to date the moment at which I began to harbour intense ill-will towards the party with which I’d formerly identified, that would be it.

Shooting the messenger

How sad that sounds, in all senses of the word. After all, the document was not spurious, even if its media presentation was fanciful, and it was only one phrase in a long and doleful song. The next year, the worsening GERS figures themselves showed up the scale of the potential difficulties (Labour cleared the decks to give these prominence, naturally). The IFS chipped in with their equally grim prognostications. Surely, the right response to such numbers was a calm, dispassionate reassessment of the credibility of the case for independence? Surely I should have concluded – perhaps with a wistful shake of the head – that Darling and his Better Together friends were bang on the money? Ah, it was a nice idea, but it’d never work. Meanwhile, let’s get back to the real world… So why not respond like that? Why instead nurture increasingly choleric feelings towards the Labour messenger merely presuming to bring us the news?

It’s this sort of apparent illogicality that perhaps leads Labour folk to talk about cults, madness, a ‘surge of nationalism’. It’s perhaps why they’ve tried the tactic again, in the recent general election campaign, by seizing on projections suggesting that full fiscal autonomy, too, would wreck the public finances. This is hardly surprising: unionist voices have long sought to argue that the Scottish economy is too weak for its public finances to survive without subventions from elsewhere. GERS itself began life under a Tory government keen to stress the ‘union dividend’. Like all previous and subsequent attempts to use the figures to silence demands for greater political autonomy, it hasn’t worked. It doesn’t work. It never will.

Why? Because it misreads the emotional element in the response such a presentation of the ‘facts’ elicits from too many of us. We don’t like to be told that we’re mendicants. We bristle. We are affronted by, indignant at, the suggestion. Even if we accept the figures, we resist the status they appear to confer. Why are we beggarly? Whose fault is that? And if we are beggars now, the argument blossoms, then we’re going to bloody well turn things around. We want the power to transform ourselves. The more we’re told we’re feeble, the louder we demand the powers we need to grow into our own capabilities.

That ship called Dignity

There’s a good word for this kind of response. It comes (bear with me) from Plato’s account of the tripartite soul in The Republic. There, one of the three vital elements driving conscious human life is identified as ‘thymos’. It’s hard to translate exactly, and it’s been unhappily claimed for dubious theories of masculinity in recent years, but it’s usually rendered as ‘spiritedness’, or something similar. Plato suggests that it is responsible for our sense of dignity, of self-worth. It ensures that we respond to affronts by recognising them as such, that we become indignant at a threatened loss of dignity. And if we are stymied, mocked or belittled, the thymotic response is anger.

It seems to me that there is a fundamentally thymotic thread to Scottish politics these days. In Plato’s account, the different parts of the soul are most obviously apparent in their conflict with each other, and the thymotic element has had plenty to contend with here over recent years. Needless to say, thymos could be dark, dangerous, or destructive. But as spiritedness, the kind of cheeky but forceful self-assertion lightly epitomised by Angry Salmond, and evident throughout both the Yes campaign and the subsequent SNP surge, it isn’t that at all. In the word ‘gallus’ – starkly prominent in one of the SNP’s election broadcasts – we even have our own roughly equivalent term. Labour’s panjandrums must once have understood the alignment of thought and feeling that such a concept denotes, as well as its particular, local meaning and relevance, but now they can do no more than blink with incomprehension as they rub us up the wrong way. No wonder we seem so strangely furious to them – and so furiously strange.

Published by James Loxley

Researcher, teacher and writer based in Edinburgh.

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