Christopher Silver reflects on fear as a powerful political weapon in the 21st century
Our world is fragile and precarious. Markets tremble, alliances strain, leaders become impotent and people suffer. Insecurity is both the condition of our age and a useful political expedient.
As was made explicitly clear after the event, it was the markets that determined the outcome of the 2010 general election when the current coalition was formed.
Though the nervousness displayed by the City is likely to be important in forcing an outcome for this year’s contest, this time round there are other, equally volatile forces at play that could also be decisive. In particular, the fraught reality of events in Ukraine and the Middle East.
In recent decades, few elections have been fought against the backdrop of such an unstable geopolitical scene. A paper thin ceasefire on the fringe of Europe and further American resolve to combat Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq are only likely to see these issues intensify as we edge ever closer to May’s vote.
The warnings about escalation have become stark. Notions of European solidarity and security have been thrown into flux by recent events. Such a crisis can easily stifle a will to experiment in domestic politics.
All of this is likely to throw the SNP’s policy on Trident centre stage. If the party’s rise in the polls is borne out and it wins a tranche of new seats at Westminster, it must move into any negotiation with Trident renewal as an irrevocable red line.
Opposition to Trident is a fundamental and unavoidable part of the party’s identity and it was one of relatively few hard policies that underpinned the wider Yes moment. It may well have influenced the party’s success in the west of Scotland.
Fundamentally, the SNP’s non-nuclear policy is at the crux of what differentiates it from the Westminster consensus. Politically, it must defend this stance at all costs. But doing so during a period of frantic post-election deal making will be extremely challenging.
Jingoism and hysteria
It seems improbable that unionist parties will not seek political capital from this state of affairs. Talking tough on defence became a favourite trope during the referendum. Ruth Davidson’s jingoism was second to none, while Labour politicians were also prone to hysteria about cataclysm and the ‘shattering’ of the second power in the west.
Both Robertson and Davidson conjured up the threat from Russia as the ultimate menace. It’s not hard to see why this became a pivotal argument. Putin’s actions have set back nuclear disarmament by a generation at least. His strategic desire to cripple the hegemony of NATO brings with it the possibility of a nuclear confrontation in the form of a high stakes gamble aimed at splitting the alliance for good.
As a result the renewal of Trident will be presented as a hard and necessary political reality and opposition to it as reckless, naive and ultimately weakening the ramparts of Europe. The threat that was missing since the fall of the Berlin Wall is back and seems more real than ever.
Tragically, for those committed to disarmament, the absurdity of using a weapon designed to flatten Moscow to take out a terrorist training camp had almost brought about its obsolescence. That window has now closed. Russian aircraft are testing the UK’s airspace and the country is seeking to militarise the Arctic. The use of tactical nuclear weapons is an important part of Russian military doctrine in the event that it wishes to de-escalate a conventional conflict with NATO.
The full significance of current global events is generational: children born at the tail end of the Cold War, like myself, face the imminent prospect of living in a world in which a proxy war is waged by the world’s two largest nuclear states. The cosy assumptions of the 1990s are a distant memory. In their place, a world order that was always inherently unstable has reintroduced the politics of brinkmanship and militarisation. Though in some respects, they never really went away.
There is also a wider point here. No amount of referendum energy can avoid the fact that Scotland, with its own permutations, is indeed a small boat navigating a global scene that seems ever more hostile and unlovely, ever more filled with that crucial elixir for stopping all initiative dead: terror.
Project Fear hasn’t gone away
As a result it seems likely that for Scottish politics, Project Fear hasn’t gone away, it’s simply resting. But its inevitable return is not just the result of a bleak international outlook. It’s also about the chronic inability of unionist politicians to establish a clear narrative about what the union is actually for.
The origins of union were about Protestantism and territorial integrity: establishing a secure British land mass that offered a unified entity immune to the travails of war torn mainland Europe. All of that historic baggage finds its latest expression in a major conundrum facing the unionist parties. Specifically, how to develop a positive and popular political expression of Britishness.
But in a world that is warming, shrinking and burning, fear remains the one fail-safe option. Fear that Britain’s enemies will want you to vote SNP, fear that independence will be back on the table and the precious nuclear umbrella might lose a rib in the process. Fear that the world is too dark and complex for Scotland’s voice to figure in the wider scheme of things. Fear of ourselves and our own failings.
We may not like to admit it but our current world order is built on fear. As a result it is often irrational and contradictory. The moral difference between those who use violence as propaganda and those who use it in a more secretive manner, is one that would be absurd to dwell on. There are different forms of atrocity in this world and I would struggle, I am sure, to watch the CIA’s methods on film, even though such acts are carried out in the name of preserving our collective way of life. Making men with broken feet stand in order to extract information from them, fills me with the same kind of sickness felt on hearing reports of the latest video from IS.
The Atlanticist establishment made a vast, and potentially fatal mistake in the early years of the twenty-first century. It declared open ended war: not on a state, not on a specific group or ideology, but on fear itself. Or more precisely fear’s more eye catching and demonic cousin: terror. So absurd was the hollow geopolitics of America and her allies, that it wasted billions of pounds of treasure and thousands of lives on a largely theatrical exercise in claiming that a behaviour premised on our reaction could be militarily stamped out.
Today sees a terror that is ever more determined and pervasive and it is the self declared bitter fruit of a disastrous foreign policy championed by the UK.
Ironically, the legacy of aiming the most sophisticated array of armaments in human history at terror, also validated years of largely unchallenged expansionism by Putin. Terror, as an enemy, can be found in any locale, it can be amongst us, an enemy within, or a bedraggled and excluded force at the frontier that needs annexed. It was the catch all phrase used to excuse a relentless and brutal war in Chechnya. A war largely forgotten in the west that paved the way for military excursions into Georgia, and ultimately the Crimea and Ukraine.
Putin is canny enough to understand that any system that sets itself up as a moral crusade is bound to fail. Atlanticism has become a belief and can only comprehend itself in a flattering light. The contrasting reality of the west’s crashing failure in its self-appointed moral role provide the ever sardonic Russian President with an easy ideological target. NATO’s strategic aims are clear and are embodied in Article 5. That defining article has only been invoked once, not by a European state seeking protection under the nuclear umbrella, but by the United States. It was used to invade Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11. Thereby stretching the notion of the alliance as primarily a defensive body to absurdity.
In Britain, with insurgency on both the left and right, the coming general election will be defined, not by the markets this time, but by the demands of geopolitics. A hasty solution will be cooked up in Whitehall and taken back to the people on the following basis: if Britain is to be safe she must have a strong government. Such a mandate should be shunned by all progressive politicians.
Living in a world of nightmares
Politically, we live in a world of nightmares, not of dreams. In reality, Labour’s now hardened tendency towards realpolitik and Atlanticism will become one of very few reliable implements it can use to slash the SNP’s insurgency. As detailed polling on more powers has revealed, mainstream opinion in Scotland seems to favour the devolution of virtually all governmental powers to Holyrood, with the exception of defence and international relations.
This is why of all the red lines that the SNP must draw in post-election negotiations, Trident must be the most solid. A coalition with a pro-Trident party would lead to a split far more damaging than that around NATO membership. No amount of power or influence is worth such a trade off. For it is in such bleak times that collective moral compass is most needed. The alternative is to allow our politics to become shaped, yet again, by our fears.
When the Scottish Government released the man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing, Abdelbaset Al Megrahi, it was denounced by many as an act of madness. Others understood that choosing compassion in the face of violence is perhaps the only sane option in a world still recklessly premised on various forms of mutually assured destruction.
Such decisions are the marrow of nationhood. When we think like our enemy, we lose. Terrorism wins when it causes us to act in its own image: whether that terror comes from the threat of a genocidal nuclear arsenal or an individual with an automatic weapon, its victory is signalled by the acceptance of violence as inevitable.
The overriding hope that Scots of my generation cling to is that there might be a better order of things than one that meets violence, with violence, atrocity, with atrocity. A strong political expression of this in the coming election is vital.
Christopher Silver is currently writing a book, The Case for a Scottish Media, you can support this project here.