Still reflecting on PIcamp …
I’ve come down a little from the euphoria of a great, stimulating day, and being exposed to alternative views, expressed live from real people, instead of via the printed word and the media.
In the opening address and introduction, Mick Fealty said that there were important lessons that all of us in the devolved regions could learn from each other. That core statement alone made me sit up and think hard. He went on to say that in London, with possibly the highest concentration of think tanks in the world, virtually nobody was addressing the problems of the devolved regions, with Dublin being no better.
Amen to that, I silently echoed – it’s among the reasons that Scotland wants to be independent. But then the thought that I hold down at the back of my mind, but which insistently pushes its way to the front came up – what if Scotland never achieves its independence, or only achieves it in a generation from now, or even longer?
What do we do in the meantime?
Wear a kilt, whistle Scots Wha Hae and watch re-runs of Braveheart?
Or as the Americans would say, whistle Dixie …
Northern Ireland is deeply divided over the Union, and Wales, to my ear, is often strangely muted. But Scottish nationalists have to live in the present, whatever their aspirations for the future, and they have to live cheek by jowl with unionists and alternative viewpoints over how our democracy and our society is run.
It is all too easy, sitting blogging at my computer, to reduce the people who don’t share my world and national view as cardboard cut-outs, put here to confuse me, and to be knocked down by words. But as I listened to, say, Shuggy, with his calm, considered, articulate and open style, I remind myself that, until 2007 I was, like him, a Labour supporter, and for many more decades .
My definition of a Scot is not an ethnic one. By genealogy, I am more Irish than Scots, although I was born in Scotland and lived most of my life in Scotland, except for about ten years in England. So, ethnically, I am a Celt, although some British historians would deny that such an ethnic grouping exists. A Scot to me is, politically, someone who has decided to make his or her life in Scotland – to live here, to work here, to retire here, regardless of ethnic or geographical origins. I am deeply and instinctively anti-racist, and I am not a blood-and-soil romantic nationalist, although I am proud of Scotland’s traditions, achievements and history - well, most of it. I am not a Gael, but I admire and respect the Gaels.
Mick Fealty: Can we, as ordinary citizens or denizens of the blogosphere, or wherever we come from – Is there some kind of social good that we can drag out of this? Something that fills the demand at the centre of the political space. Our local regional politicians are still trying to learn how to ride this political bicycle …
A big gong rang in my head – a Bombardier Billy Wells, J. Arthur Rank type-gong – and shook the fillings in my teeth. This was the question, refined by Mick for the location in Edinburgh, into “Can Scotland harness the power of its own blogosphere?”
Mick defined it as being about conversations, and again the gong rang for me – the realisation that perhaps there was more of the megaphone about my approach to blogging – the American police chief shouting through his bullhorn at the perp to come out with his hands up …
(In spite of these multiple mini-epiphanies during the intro, I felt my input lacked the new spirit in the syndicate sessions. All I can offer by way of explanation is this – I spent my life in mainly adversarial industrial relations with powerful trades unions, and in commercial negotiations, especially in American industry, where those on the other side of the table played hardball. I can be a bit blind to my impact on others who have a more consensual style from the outset of a discussion. I am accustomed to having to seize the floor in the debate with powerful adversaries, and I regret to say that there is an old Glasgow East End element in me that says people are much nicer if you first kick them in the balls, then help them up saying “It doesn’t have to be this way …” But I’m not too old to learn …)
After an unfortunately prophetic (by about 24 hours!) remark about the Irish economy and banks, Mick handed over to the panel.
Caron Lindsay (Caron's Musings) opened by offering her raison d'être for blogging and twittering – the village nature of Scottish politics and the need for a conversation. Since a conversation is what I rarely have on my blog, although often on my YouTube site, this caught my attention. In spite of a general determination in most of us not to be “tribal in politics”, as Caron put it, party affiliations came up pretty damn quick, as she gently referred to her LibDem affiliation and the LibDem perspective. I don’t criticise her for this – most of us present were tribal in one way or another, and I will come back to this later.
(I give my usual health warning to readers who have got this far – I’m not usually in the game of brevity – like Montaigne, when I try to be brief, I become obscure – and I often don’t use a short word when a long one will do. However, Twitter, which I’m new to, is forcing brevity on me, as does the YouTube comments section. But I hope there is still a place for a longer, more discursive style!)
Caron pursued and developed her theme of engagement, and spoke of involving people who had no experience of politics, for which she has my admiration, since it is something that I have, in the main, failed to do.
The old political adage came back to me yet again, that in terms of a vote, we are all equal in a democracy, but, until the blogosphere and Twitter, we have not all had a voice. Both of these concepts of course carry within them dilemmas for even the most ardent democrats. As my old American boss used to say “One of the sad features of democracy, Pete, is that even a******* have a vote.”
Caron, in her gentle consensual, effective and truly liberal style, clearly wants that voice to be heard, wants to educate and wants to help. That humbled me, and I knew immediately why Mick had invited her to speak.
The mike – and the baton – passed to Shuggy. Shuggy appears to wish to be totally incognito, both on his blog and in person. I respect that, and assume that it relates to his job, and in the light of the later news that a civil servant might lose her job for some admittedly rather unguarded and vacuous twittering, caution is understandable. Since I have no employer, I only have the libel laws to fear, so I can be relatively free with my identity. But you’re up there for all to see on Vimeo now, Shuggy…
With immediate frankness, he confessed that he did not know the answer to the question the Mick had posed for the seminar. (Nobody else knew either, but the fog was dispelled a little by the PIcamp day.) His initial rationale for starting to blog was very close to mine – personal therapy! Again like me, Iraq had been a catalyst for Shuggy, and the blogosphere’s revelation that support and opposition cut across left and right affiliations. In my case, it ultimately causes a cognitive dissonance and eventually led to me abandoning Labour after fifty years of support and moving to the SNP.
His contention that the right wing libertarian view in Scotland was not well represented in the media seemed to me to be dependent upon how you regarded The Daily Mail and The Sun, but I’ll let that one alone for the moment …
Shuggy talked about partisanship in the Scottish media and the blogosphere, which fitted well with the consensual, reaching out across boundaries theme set by Mick and developed by Caron, but it depends on one’s view of what partisan means.
The dictionary define it as strong supporter of a party, cause or person. I am proud to be partisan on the right to life (not in the abortion context, where I support a woman's right to choose), democracy, freedom of speech, anti-racism, equality under the law, anti-sexism, the death penalty, torture, habeas corpus – in fact, the whole liberal with a small L gamut of belief.
But I think what Shuggy meant was partisanship on the political means for defending or obtaining some of these objectives by political action. Politics, however, must be, to some degree, about partisanship, and I am also partisan about Scotland’s right to independence if a majority of its people want it, about deliberate lies in politics, about the evils of the military/industrial/political complex, about our membership of the European Community, about the negative aspects of being shackled to America’s foreign policy, about the nuclear deterrent, about nuclear power, about the erosion of legal freedoms, and a whole range of other things.
I also have a highly tuned antenna that detects arguing for consensus politics rather than ‘partisanship’, when what is really meant is “Let’s all be nice and not challenge the status quo” i.e. the current power structure and Establishment consensus. But I don’t think anyone on the panel was suggesting anything like that – they were arguing for a less strident, abuse-loaded blogosphere that permitted rational debate and the recognition that if we can’t have our own way, we must somehow find a way forward. That is the essence of negotiation (my own speciality) in any sphere, and the alternative to negotiation is conflict and sometimes violence.
I do fear that we will see more of the Millbank-type confrontation unless something changes in the nature of the stance being taken by the Coalition Government of the UK and the Labour Opposition. And I must be partisan here, and say that the failure to reach a consensus on how to remedy Scotland’s abuse of alcohol problem lies squarely at the door of the Opposition parties in Holyrood – a shameful, politically expedient episode in Scottish political and social life.
Sorry to break ranks on consensus, guys, but there are lines to be drawn …
Shuggy went on to comment on the fact that the blog that generates most hits often does so for trivial reasons, or for reasons that are inexplicable. We’ve all been there! Shuggy wants the blogosphere to “play to its better side” and I say amen to that.
He remarked upon perhaps the thorniest issue facing Scotland – and the UK, although it prefers to put its head in the sand over it – the issue of Scotland’s independence: Shuggy made the valid point that cheap abuse and points scoring (of which I have in the past been guilty more than once!) doesn’t really advance the argument. He’s right – it doesn’t. As I frequently say to more extreme nationalist posters on my YouTube channel, abusing the very people you must convert to your cause to win independence won’t cut it – only rational argument will do that. (This very point was challenged in syndicate discussions that I was a part of, on the basis that emotion mattered as much, or perhaps more than rational argument. While accepting the fact of that proposition, it worries me, because nationalists, whether they are Scottish, Welsh or Irish – or United Kingdom nationalists (that’s what unionists are) are adept at exploiting emotion, and the dangers of that are plain to see, as any student of history (as Shuggy is, I think) knows.
Shuggy closed by a plea for “a space where we can have a more intelligent conversation”, something that he is clearly eminently capable of, and one in which, with all my partisan failings, I would like to participate. Thanks, Shuggy …
James MacKenzie opened by suggesting that the aims of blogging and Twitter were being “overblown”. He recognised the reality that the Scottish audience for SNP blogs and tweets with a purely Scottish dimension were of necessity much lower than those that embraced, say, a UK Labour agenda. He quoted his own blog as getting 3,000 people a month.
(The Ancient Order of Moridura, my blog, gets about 800/1200 pages hits a week, but I have no demographics for that – I don’t know, for example, whether its the same core audience returning each day, or what the proportion of new readers it contains etc.)
James observed that these were tiny numbers, “smaller even than the circulation of the Independent in Scotland”. He didn’t believe that this would be where the main political discussion in Scotland was going to happen, and argued for recognising the limits of our ambition – “can’t expect to suddenly do it right and speak to everyone …”
This raised the basic principle of objective setting in my mind, as practised in industry and commerce – ambitious but realistic. If you don’t aim high, you will be limited by your targeting. Where does ambition stop and realism take over? It sounded a bit too cautious and a little defeatist to me. The Four Minute Mile would never have been run – and subsequently bettered – if less than four minutes hadn’t been targeted.
James felt that it had been overstated, but still had a purpose, which seemed to be, in part at least, to test other parties’ responses to policy initiatives. “Self-selecting and only appealing to the really connected, by and large …” and “Let’s not be carried way by changing the world by blogging.” James later developed some of these ideas in syndicate.
You may be the realistic one, James, and you may be right. But I found your approach too low-key, lacking in dynamism, and self-limiting. Having recently read the story of Google’s spectacular rise, I felt I heard the echo of the pessimism about Google’s future and Web commerce in general expressed by some at its inception. Sorry, James, but thanks for what maybe was a necessary wet towel on the foreheads of old optimists like me.
And so to Peter Geohegan, who began by talking about the Irish blogosphere compared with Scottish models. (His input came almost on the eve of very depressing news about Ireland’s economy, sadly.) He felt that there was a lot that Scotland could learn from Ireland, particularly since the financial crash.
Clearly there is, but the lessons learned are currently distorted by political axe grinding over the independence issue – not least by me, in a recent blog – but the next few days may face all parties with a very harsh and undeniable reality if Ireland is forced to seek a bailout from Europe.
The unionists say Scotland could not have survived its near-crash but for a UK bailout, but faced with the choice of a UK bailout or a European one, I would have infinitely preferred a European one – the UK is bailing out a smaller vessel on board while the water may still be rising in its own hull. It also begs the question of who caused the crash, and whether Scotland would have needed any help if it had been independent since the last independence referendum.
Peter referred to the recent emergence of blogger/economists on to the national debate, commenting on the rush to economic literacy by journalists in the wake of the banking crisis. The blogger/economists in Ireland up to that point were seen as “sniping from the sidelines”, but the media quickly started to turn to them for advice, etc.
He amusingly referred to his mother, previously uninterested, now watching Vincent Brown, “the economic equivalent of Vincent Dunphy”. Peter said that the blogging voice has now succeeded in penetrating the national debate. “There was a gap in the market, and the bloggers were writing articulate, intelligent and well-thought out content and material …” Bloggers had “been able to educate the media and penetrate into the national debate” that Ireland is having.
Peter added that the Irish media before this had tended to avoid disrupting the Government control of the dialogue. (Echoes here for me of the Irish media’s historical deference to the Catholic Church’s control of comment, effectively colluding in some appalling human rights abuses, a collusion that has long since ended, mercifully.)
“Is it possible for bloggers to influence policy?” Peter asked, and gave his own response – “It’s too early to tell”. The general election coming up in Ireland next year would show whether the bloggers could really influence the outcome.
The same question might be asked in Scotland about the 2011 Holyrood election. Peter’s view was that this may be the time, especially in the light of the spending cuts, for the Scottish bloggers’ voice to make its impact. In a rapidly changing situation “people wanted new voices to get on board”. They can “educate the mainstream media and bring new issues on to the table”.
Peter Geohegan concluded an extremely valuable input by commenting on the British-based media on Irish political debate, especially the Financial Times. “The London-based press exercise a very strong pull on the social, political and economic discourse in Ireland.”
I am really grateful to Peter for a trenchant and thought-provoking analysis of the possible relevance of the Irish new media experience to Scotland at this critical times for both small, but vibrant countries – one proudly independent but severely challenged, the other divided on the question of independence, with perhaps equally challenging times ahead.
And he has left me, and perhaps others at PIcamp with a template of sorts for bloggers in his words, slightly recast by me to fit Scotland -
“There is a gap in the market – bloggers must write articulate, intelligent and well-thought out content and material to be able to educate the media and penetrate into the national debate that Scotland is having.”
Thanks, Peter – for me, your input crystallised the essence of the debate, and my thinking at least.
So I feel we must move from the Nuttersphere, perhaps from the Cosysphere (where too much emphasis on consensus and non-partisan approaches might lead us) to a true Blogosphere, and from Spitter (of bile) and Twaddle (of irrelevancies and cosy in-group chat) to a great, focused and relevant Twittering that will swoop down on Scotland and the traditional media like a great cleansing wind.
Thanks again to PIcamp and Mick Fealty and Paul Evans for making it all possible. Now that the rather incestuous self-congratulation after a great day is over, let’s reflect -and ACT!