There are certain schisms in politics so great that they latch onto every debate going, looking desperately for reasons to claim ownership of one camp or the other. Two such schisms are those of post-2014 Scotland and post-2015 Labour – and two such debates, are those concerning the BBC’s output north of the border and who should lead Britain’s largest trade union.
The BBC’s recent twin announcements – that plans for a “Scottish Six” have been abandoned but Scotland will get it’s own (evening) channel and a 9 pm bulletin – have their merits and deficiencies that could easily (and should properly) be discussed and argued over without any mention of the constitution. In modern Scotland however, such an aspiration is a pipe-dream.
Many unionists are enraged by the idea that Scottish television paid for by Scottish licence-fee payers should reflect life in modern Scotland. They do not arrive at that perspective however by evaluating the offer on its own merits, but by viewing it narrowly as a massive kowtow to the SNP and nationalism. They argue Scotland having a different news programme from the rest of the UK will sow division. They argue that Scotland hearing the news from a relevant perspective “like a normal sovereign country” will normalise the idea of independence.
They do not stop to consider whether the status quo – where English health and education stories (though not irrelevant to Scottish viewers) are treated as national stories and given top billing, and cricket scores are main sports headlines while Scottish football and rugby are begrudgingly paid lip-service (to say nothing of the shinty) – might actually serve to highlight the massive imbalance of size (and influence) amongst the home nations, and fuel a feeling of sideline-isation amongst swathes of the population. They cannot fathom that unionism needn’t be imported from London, that the best approach to keeping Britain together might be “unionism with a Scottish accent”. They bemoan the SNP “monopolising” Scottishness, then bemoan the idea of a Scottish Six on the grounds they can’t see a difference between Scottishness and Scottish nationalism.
The contest to be the next General Secretary of the Unite union is another case in point. Len McCluskey believes that the best way of getting a good deal for workers is through vigorous engagement in politics. Gerard Coyne believes Unite members are better served by a less political union that is more focused on traditional syndicalism, that internal Labour politics is an unhelpful distraction from fighting for members’ interests.
There is a worthy and legitimate debate to be had here. Instead, it has been reduced to a daft, tribalist competition between “Blairites” and “Corbynites”. Those on the right of the Labour party will not entertain the idea that for employees to prosper, their sphere of influence must extend beyond the factory floor. Those on its left, that unions might be able to secure more for their members were they – along with striking workers sacrificing wages vital to their families in order to fight for justice at work – not so easily dismissed as part of the “radical far left” political scene.
Unionism/Nationalism, Corbynism/Blairism, are just two of the domineering divisions that impose themselves to polarise a myriad of otherwise innocent debates – in the coming months and years, no doubt Brexit/Remain will colonise a great many smaller arguments too. But however strongly we may feel, however divided we may feel, if we are to move forward we must strive to treat emerging issues with the stoicism, seriousness and independence they deserve.