Monday, 25 January 2016

Making welcome sense of the Scottish 'blog war'

As many observers of the Scottish independence scene will know, a small 'war of words' has broken out on social media between some of its key sites.

Yet, while many will regard this as an unfortunate deterioration of Yes politics, it can be seen, more readily, as a healthy outpouring and illuminating debate.

Readers can get up to speed with the issues and arguments via these pieces:

GA Ponsonby, Newsnet: Battle for the ‘list’ vote: why backing RISE won’t help independence

Stuart Campbell, Wings Over Scotland: AMS for lazy people

Mike Small, Bella Caledonia: Shsh for Indy

James Kelly, Scot Goes Pop: EXCLUSIVE: Read the article on "tactical voting" that Bella Caledonia refused to publish

Mike Small: A reply to James Kelly

James Kelly: Response to Mike Small's Facebook post  

Angela Haggerty, CommonSpace: Why a hectoring online fringe is putting the achievements of the Yes movement at risk

After a short lull, Mike Small has also now restated his case in this Sunday Herald piece: Shouting down those who don't share your narrow vision is about as far from the spirit of the Yes movement as you can get
Small laments an apparent shift from the "joyous chaos" of referendum engagement to a now more censorious party politics and stifling containment:  
What seemed best about the Yes movement's openness, diversity and free thinking now seems to be being corralled into a stupefying dead certainty. An air of negativity hangs over much of the remnant movement.
Valid observation. But the fact that we're having this very debate highlights the still considerable capacity within the broad Yes movement for mature self-examination.   

Hard as it is, amid the hubris and rancour on display here, it helps to distil all these issues and exchanges down to three relatively distinct questions.

1. Should Yes movement people be taking a quiet line with regard to SNP policies and positions - should we be prepared to 'Shsh for Indy'?

Surely not. We shouldn't be keeping quiet or acting passively at this vital point. On the contrary, this should be viewed as a most crucial time for open, constructive and challenging discussion, a new flowering of views. The 'let's get to indy first' argument, advanced by GA Ponsonby and others, is neither practical nor desirable in promoting a still-maturing indy project. The beauty and inspiration of the independence movement is still about real civil participation, not quiescent parties and dormant politics.        
It's also misguided to think this in any way harms the SNP. The key point of such criticism is to encourage more progressive thinking and leftist policy within the SNP as the leading indy party. That, in every sense, is a work in progress, just as independence is a process, not an ending. It's not just about saying it's better to travel than to arrive. It's about living and learning from the journey itself, in better anticipation of what's to come.

One needn't adopt particular defences of the respective sites in these exchanges. There's merit in all the arguments, giving that same vital food for independent thought. Nor should we indulge the 'oh, let's all just stop this divisive spat and concentrate on indy and the real enemy' line. There's a great big valid discussion to be had here, even if it would be enhanced by a serious curtailing of some ugly invective.

As a blog with distinct positions on these matters, Bella are within their rights to pitch their own perspectives, and even to exclude that which conflicts with those core views. Bella editor Mike Small had no obligation, in this regard, to publish James Kelly's response piece. However, Bella can't, at the same time, claim to be some completely open forum. For all his efforts in mediating the Bella case for hosting diverse voices, Mike Small erred in his editorial handling of the proposed Kelly piece for Bella. Either say up-front that you won't publish such material in honest protection of your own space, or publish it without qualification (allowing for reasonable presentation) as part of an agreed format for dialogue. Again, though, this should be treated as part of the same generous learning curve rather than the subject of rival recrimination.

Likewise, while GA Ponsonby and Wings Over Scotland have a similar right to protect their own blogs from questioning commentary, they've chosen to attack Bella and Rise in an over-barbed manner. The impressive James Kelly blog has also resorted to some caustic denunciations of Bella and Rise in the course of his otherwise laudable argument over the problems of tactical voting.

It's a lamentable irony that the very social media we hope to see as a growing and serious alternative to ego-driven corporate media should be acting in such hostile and territorial ways. While the actual debate around all these issues has been energising, any endeavour towards a true alternative media comes with the need for more humble acceptance of one's own 'status' and positioning.

2. Is it desirable to have other left/green indy-promoting parties sharing the Holyrood parliamentary space?

Yes. So long as there's a working SNP majority to spearhead and advance the indy project, there should be nothing to fear from the participation of other left, indy-supporting voices. They/we are a core part of the movement, and were vital in helping to build the '45'. In this regard, Bella are making a legitimate case in promoting Rise as part of that same dynamic politics. Whatever people think about the standing and viability of such parties - Rise, Greens or Solidarity - there's no persuasive evidence that the presence of any other progressive-minded, indy-supporting MSPs would be detrimental to the SNP, the Yes cause or political atmosphere at large. For left-thinking SNP supporters, it should be a welcome enhancement of their own political agenda.

3. On the coming Holyrood election, is voting SNP (constituency) and left/Green (list) a rational tactic or an irrational gamble?

This is by far the hardest question to address. The above two answers favouring fair criticism/encouragement of the SNP, and the case for other left/Green representation, should lead naturally to support for a 'split' vote.  However, both James Kelly and Stuart Campbell have made impressive cases showing that there is, indeed, a substantial element of risk under d'Hondt, or the Additional Member System (AMS) for Scottish elections.

Various exchanges between Kelly and Rise have ensued, with Rise's Craig Paterson outlining the party's case via Bella. Taking-up Stuart Campbell's repeated warnings on the gamble of a 'tactical' vote, further useful debate can be viewed here. Angela Haggerty and James Kelly also engage the issues in good constructive manner in this Bateman Broadcasting podcast.

All that can be said with reasonable certainty is that there is no certain formulation to adopt here.  So, on this particular question, voters will have to think very carefully about their options.

Paul Kavanagh, aka Wee Ginger Dug, resolves his dilemma, to a certain extent, by returning to the case for voting according to conscience and localised factors. I'm broadly with that view. But, in the final analysis, people will have to weigh a number of speculative issues relating to the strength and worthiness of candidates, together with their assessment of how well the SNP are likely to fare at given constituency levels, whether they think this might deliver or threaten a safe enough SNP majority, and whether such numbers call for 'safety first' or offer room for an alternative choice on the list. Hopefully, closer statistical projections will become available as the election approaches, helping to shed further light on how best to proceed. Good luck to voters with all of those deliberations.

But, whatever the difficulties, none of this should be seen as an unwelcome task. Unlike the archaic Westminster system and blatantly undemocratic FPTP, we, at least, have scope here for a more imaginative use of the franchise. Like the need to embrace reasoned criticism and common left-indy participation, any 'calculation' here, however flawed, should be regarded as an educational experience.


Anonymous said...

Gaming d'Hondt is nuts, as James Kelly points out. It would require what mathematicians call 'perfect knowledge' - you would need to know *before* the poll how all constituency votes would be cast in order to determine how best to use your list vote - that is obviously impossible.

I agree with most of what you say, but I think the real problem is the d'Hondt (AMS) system. Make it STV and just rank the candidates. Sorted.

AMS allows completely anonymous people to become MSPs, and I know from personal experience (25 years in the SNP, most of them as a constituency convener) that many of them are self-seeking rascals, or glove puppets for more senior politicians. This problem is so severe that in my own constituency a non-aligned group are trying to arrange a hustings for list candidates, in the expectation that if the voting public gets a look at at them they will run a mile.

I won't be giving the SNP either of my votes, purely on political principle. If they lose their Holyrood majority it's just a necessary evolution on the way to independence.

Matt said...

Nice one