I presume most readers are aware of Hans Christian Anderson’s classic tale, “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” An emperor rather obsessed with fashion is always on the lookout for the most flamboyant and outrageous garments. Two con-men catch wind of this, and hatch a scheme: they claim they can weave delicate fabrics so fine and sheer that they would appear invisible to the unworthy and stupid. The credulous emperor commissions them forthwith, and the two “weavers” set to “work,” pantomime weaving & sewing these nonexistent garments. Obviously the Emperor, his ministers, and his officials cannot see a thing – yet rather than speak & be thought unworthy or stupid, they went along with the con. Once finished (and several bags of gold heavier) the “weavers” pantomime dressing the nude Emperor up for the big parade. As with the ministers, officials, and the Emperor himself, the townsfolk also go along with the con, loudly commenting on his finery as he passed. This farce continued until a little child – who, being a child, is not yet susceptible to pluralistic ignorance – loudly comments “the emperor has no clothes on!” His understandably mortified parents attempt to save face, but once the truth is elucidated, it’s hard to suppress. Whispers became murmurs, hubbub became commotion, until eventually all the crowd were exclaiming the same as the child – “the emperor has no clothes on!” And the emperor, vain and proud to the end, realises that he’s been had… but still marches on, while his sycophantic nobles continue holding his nonexistent train aloft.
Imagine if, at the end of the story, rather than point and laugh, breaking the spell, the adults keep up the pretense. They continue to compliment the Emperor on his finery; they still treat the Emperor as a wise and intelligent ruler; they perpetuate the illusion even when explicitly pointed out to them. Because, to those people, it is less frightening to continue the illusion than face the facts – they were ruled by an idiot who was swindled by a con-man.
Such an alternate ending is sounding darkly familiar.
There’s a term in psychology for the phenomenon Andersen articulated so brilliantly: pluralistic ignorance.
Pluralistic ignorance occurs when people erroneously infer that they feel differently from their peers, even though they are behaving similarly. As one example, imagine the following scenario: You are sitting in a large lecture hall listening to an especially complicated lecture. After many minutes of incomprehensible material, the lecturer pauses and asks if there are any questions. No hands go up. You look around the room. Could these people really understand what the lecturer is talking about? You yourself are completely lost. Your fear of looking stupid keeps you from raising your hand, but as you look around the room at your impassive classmates, you interpret their similar behavior differently: You take their failure to raise their hands as a sign that they understand the lecture, that they genuinely have no questions. These different assumptions you make about the causes of your own behavior and the causes of your classmates’ behavior constitute pluralistic ignorance.
On this day where we commemorate the end of one of the most horrific wars in world history, the UK government is preparing to extend and possibly exacerbate the most devastating death toll to blight these islands since that war. On a day when we’re supposed to honour the lives lost in the struggle against fascism, tyranny, and evil, ideologues whose opinions are not far removed from those nightmares – some even direct descendants – now enjoy the privilege of being “alternative viewpoints” and “dissenting opinions” rather than foes to everything humanity holds dear. A day that’s meant to remind us all of the darkness of decades past is to be whitewashed with patriotic bunting and cloying nostalgia.
And next Monday, despite practically the entire rest of the world doing things differently and doing things better, and despite all this information being easily known and accessible, the UK Government and its heralds in the mainstream media are brazenly not just preparing for more people to die, but actively encouraging those deaths.
And still, faced with damning, devastating, irrefutable proof that membership of the United Kingdom & adherence to its models means that Scotland (as part of the UK) is counted with the states whose response to the pandemic was among the worst in the entire world… there are still those who say “well, it would be even worse if Scotland was independent.” Because, after all, the Prime Minister thinks it. The Opposition Party Leader thinks it. The Coalition Party Leader, when elected, obviously will think it too. The leaders of their Scottish Branches think so an’ all. Even the leader of the party that wanted to take the UK out of the EU thinks it would be terrible. So do so many very rich and very influential people.
This Death Cult of the Union is so severe that, faced with the concrete knowledge that the UK has catastrophically and criminally failed to deal with the pandemic, it is still more important to stick with that catastrophic, criminal UK plan than to allow Scotland to possibly do soemthing different. It is difficult to see a starker presentation of this grotesque reality – the political integrity of the United Kingdom is more important than the lives of people living in Scotland. There is no way to spin it otherwise. The UK has proven itself a disaster – it has proven, unequivocally, that a “Four Nations” approach will continue to be a disaster – and shows zero indication of averting further calamity. It is not “political” or “partisan” to point out the facts that the UK Government have allowed thousands upon thousands of UK citizens to die. It doesn’t matter whether it’s incompetence or design when the result is the same.
Of course, there’s a bitter irony too – the same people who demand all four constituents of the UK should leave Lockdown in Lockstep are exactly the sort of people who would abandon Scotland to save England without an iota of hesitation.
There’s an old Maya Angelou quote: when someone shows you who they are, believe them. The UK Prime Minister and his cronies have shown us exactly who they are. They have shown they lie about anything and everything. They have shown they are more interested in their money than other peoples’ lives. They have shown they are exceedingly comfortable on the subjects of eugenics, fascism, war criminality… and that’s just the stuff we know about. They have taken off their masks, revealing their true selves to the UK… and nothing happens.
I’m ashamed to say that the Scottish Government’s response has also been sorely lacking in several key areas. The “four nations” approach – a uniform state-wide directive which several actual countries don’t follow – just means all four countries suffer the same avoidable crisis. I wish I could say I didn’t see this coming, but I’ve found myself taken aback by the Scottish Government’s apparent timidity in the face of the UK Government’s brass-necked intransigence – and their apparent credulity in thinking they would behave any differently.
A while back, at SNP Conference, John Nicholson told us all how the SNP MPs were making real differences not just for Scotland, but the UK Parliament as a whole. He talked about his Turing Bill, and was pleased to say that the UK Government Party’s whips were not only open to the idea, but actively encouraging – they offered to work with him and the rest of the SNP and other parties to make it work. It all looked great. Then the UK Justice Secretary Sam Gimyah filibustered the bill, striking it down without even a vote… because the UK Government didn’t want the SNP to steal their thunder.* Even at conference, I couldn’t believe that Mr. Nicholson seriously seemed to think that the UK Government were genuine in this – they must’ve had something planned, some way to embarass and chastise the SNP, especially after their epic 2015 victory. Yet something that seemed completely predictable seemed to take the SNP by surprise.
I’ve been aghast at some of the things I’ve seen from people who I thought knew better: former Depute Leaders praising and working with with the architects of Better Together; Cabinet Ministers reciprocating false praise from despicable people; MP spokespeople supporting UK Government-directed propaganda & like-minded groups; longtime public servants souking up to the landed gentry; through it all, the SNP seem to be intentionally setting themselves up to fail. Ian Blackford has become a laughing stock in Westminster for his insistence that “Scotland will not accept” whatever injustices or outrages the UK Parliament hands down, yet never actually seeming to do anything of consequence about it. “Scotland’s voices will not be shouted down” – except when we are, repeatedly, constantly, interminably, usually quite literally. “Scotland will not be dragged out of the EU against its democratic will” – yet here we are, out of the EU despite Mr. Blackford’s solemn protestations. “Scotland will not be held hostage by a Tory government” – what on earth do you call our current situation?
This sets a dangerous, terrible precedent. The message Westminister takes isn’t “oh, the SNP are actually trying to be reasonable, perhaps it would be fortuitous of us to work with them in the spirit of cooperation” it’s “oh, they’re not big brave rampant lions, they’re just paper tigers who’ll sit down and do as they’re told once we put the pressure on.”
It wasn’t always this way. There was a time when the Scottish Government was brave: where they were willing to defy the UK Parliament, powerful neighbours, even the goodwill of the international community, because doing the right thing was more important than doing the easy thing. When the Justice Minister Kenny McAskill was faced with the choice to release Abdelbaset al-Megrahi on compassionate grounds, powerful forces all around the world were trained on him – and, ultimately, he made the humane choice, despite the outrage of presidents and warmongers. When a certain future president tried to pressurise the Scottish Government out of building wind farms in the waters off his golf-course, they carried on regardless. When public opinion was against them (thanks to decades of corporate lobbying) the Scottish Government still went on with the public smoking ban, and measurably improved public health in the process. As recently as two years ago, the Scottish Government defied pressure from multinational salmon companies to withhold incriminating photos in the interests of “public image.”
Our Scottish Government has been brave in the past, and they can be brave again. Not for the sake of difference; not for the sake of petty partisan pride; not even for the optics. There is a difference between being seen to be doing the right thing, and actually doing the right thing. Come Monday, the Scottish Government face a choice: do they do what is easy, or do they do what is right? The lives of thousands of Scots depend on it – and I hope, dearly, that they show some of the spine that I thought they had.