Stop manufacturing outrage and let’s channel some real anger instead

Joyce McMillan wrote with her usual acuity and passion on something which has troubled me also.  Effectively, she was expressing her concern that while Scotland fiddles, the world burns.  Scotland is too busy picking fluff from its constitutional navel – and the UK is about to join us – to notice that the rest of the world has caught a nasty cold which may or may not turn out to be the plague.

She’s right.  And there is evidence aplenty of this in operation.

This week, there has been more bankers-behaving-badly stuff.  Just like Groundhog Day, condemning bankers’ bonuses has become an annual event to look forward to.  With Antony Jenkins, the Barclays’ boss, announcing that he will waive his bonus, they have largely spoiled our sport.  And as we rush to tug our forelocks in gratitude, we can ignore the very nasty, possibly illegal allegations circulating about the nature of Barclays’ relationship with Qatar at the height of the financial crisis.

Now there is one.  All the big banks’ bosses have waived their entitlement except for Antonio Horta-Osorio, CEO of Lloyds banking group.   Give it up gracefully, pal:  the longer you hold out, the louder the calls will be.  And frankly, your bank doesn’t need any more bad publicity, what with it being investigated in the Libor scandal and its shares being downgraded to “sell” in the last few days.

We’ve become rather inured to the banks’ excesses: how else to explain the low-key reaction to the big financial story of the week, that of the FSA deciding to limit liabilities for the interest swap scandal. I won’t bore you with the details, largely because I’m not sure I understand them.  But it goes something like this:  yet another cunning wheeze dreamed up by boys and girls far too bright for their own good to make money out of thin air goes wrong and costs lots of people a lot of money and ultimately for some, their businesses and their livelihoods.

Having been found out – again – efforts are now underway to protect the banks from the full-scale of their misdemeanours.  Everyone is a wee bit feart of the scale of this one – the FSA investigated 173 out of a possible 40,000 products sold and concluded 90% had been mis-sold – and trying to contain the fall-out.

Clearly, the banks are still viewed as too big to fail, even when they continue to play fast and loose with theirs and everyone else’s money.

This isn’t the first and it won’t be the last financial scandal.  Until we get someone – anyone – prepared to make reining in the worst excesses of the banks a top political priority and relentlessly beat the drum on behalf of the little people – consumers, taxpayers, pensioners and benefit recipients – every year, will see another calumny visited upon our economy.

And even though there is little chance of that happening anytime soon, why don’t we do something ourselves?  When, exactly, do we reach the point when as citizens, we say enough.  When do we allow ourselves to get angry? Individually, we can all lob a verbal grenade or two in their direction but why no proper displays of collective anger?

We are well capable at manufacturing outrage when it suits us – and it suits some of us very well.  This weekend’s commentary reflects on the reactions generated by two controversial political cartoons and the internet is a cacophony of anger and rancour from both sides (and even within the same sides) of the constitutional debate.  And in the day-to-day of the big stuff in people’s everyday lives, none of it matters a jot.

Part of the problem is a lack of political leadership on this matter – and as Joyce McMillan points out, on the really big issues of climate change and resource challenge.  Our politicians are in full-on avoidance mode.  The UK Government thinks it is playing a clever game, alternately wagging the finger, issuing idle threats and simpering gratitude, as the Chancellor did in response to Jenkins foregoing his annual bonus.  But we all see through it for what it is – the politics of pretending to be on our side when really being on theirs and their own.

The Scottish Government is strangely silent on a matter which would allow it to play its London grievance card legitimately and potentially to some effect.  Here are the big, nasty banks – global entities one and all – aided and abetted by a supine UK government which would rather protect their interests, than those of the tens of thousands of small and medium-sized Scottish businesses which are the backbone of our economy.  Another reason to vote yes, no?

UK Labour is at that stage of the electoral cycle where the objective is to offend no-one, so therefore avoids saying anything much about anything at all.  Meanwhile, Scottish Labour appears so incapable of coherent thought that it manages on the front page of the Sunday Herald to condemn the sums involved in public sector redundancy packages while on the next page object to the loss of a quango which paid its members for attendance.

Yet, its behaviour is symptomatic of the wider malaise.  Why get worked up about the big stuff that is costing public sector jobs, service cuts and savage welfare changes when there is a spat de jour to be pinned on the SNP about the consequences of austerity?  Frothing at the mouth over nothing very much for narrow political gain was never so easy nor pointless.  No vote on something as big as constitutional change is going to be won on the back of a tally of party political points scored.

The constitution matters, of course it does.  But so do other things and these other things make us all feel angry, impotent and bewildered.  Manufacturing outrage on the meaningless is a trite and dangerous political game.  Particularly when your country and her people need you – now, not after the referendum.

After all, we share more on common causes and values in relation to these bigger threats and maybe it’s time our politicians reflected that.  Maybe it’s time for them to lead us better on what unites rather than divides us.  Enable us to channel our anger at the appropriate targets collectively and it might even result in a more edifying and substantive constitutional debate all round.


13 thoughts on “Stop manufacturing outrage and let’s channel some real anger instead

  1. That of course should be “likely” not “likelier” in my last post

  2. Peter

    I would very much like a Constitution Commission to be set up now to take submissions. This would direct the debate into the correct avenue as well as underlining the fact that the process only reaches fruition following a YES vote. The SNP has, through the late Neil McCormick and the late Alan MacCartney, produced very substantial potential contribution to such a body.
    The more we talk now about the things we can do independent the more we are likelier to get there

    • I am very much in agreement with you. But there is always the danger that with talk of post-independence constitutional arrangements and policies the essential nature of the referendum will become fog-bound by confusion.

      We must constantly stress that the referendum will not define the character of an independent Scotland. The purpose of the referendum is to decide what forces will shape that character.

      There is a strand of discourse in Scotland – and I point no fingers here – which at the very least gives the impression that fundamental matters such as would be covered by a written constitution might be determined prior to independence. Which raises very troubling questions about who is going to be making such profound decisions given that there is no apparatus for the people to do so this side of restoring Scotland’s rightful constitutional status.

  3. The SNP and The YES campaign are entirely correct to take the position that the constitution can only be dealt with following a YES vote in 2014 and the security that gives us to discuss constitutions from the safe position of having secured our independence .
    There is however nothing to prevent us discussing energetically now what should be in a constitution of an independent Scotland. That carries the argument for independence forward
    The Icelandic success in providing a constitution after consulting its people widely is often quoted as a reason why we should be writing one now. Iceland however is already independent and had the luxury to do these things from that safe position.
    To try however to determine the clauses of a Scottish constitution at this point is potentially very divisive and could lead to some people voting NO.
    What we have to present to our people is the prospect of them being able to take part in a free and open constitution debate after they have secured the independence that lets them do so.

    Don’t you think that perhaps our enemies will notice an opportunity to divert us on this issue at the moment

    • Well said! There is surely no harm at all in discussing a written constitution. And setting up the process by which this constitution might be formulated is unquestionably a very important step which can be taken right now. But we must assiduously avoid this impinging on the referendum campaign.

      Bad enough that we have the distraction of post-independence policy issues muddying the waters We don’t want people wondering what constitutional provisions they are voting for in the referendum as well as being perplexed about what economic policy they are choosing.

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  5. You are getting very close to identifying where the SNP has gone wrong.

    All this dissatisfaction should naturally be getting channeled into the Yes movement because it is all symptomatic of the current constitutional settlement. Yet, it isn’t because the SNP has not lifted a finger in nigh on 20 years to explain that everything any government does is underpinned/constrained/enabled by the constitution.

    Although we snootily smirk at the supposed personality based politics of the USA, there are few of its citizens who do not understand this point. It helps that they have something written down, of course; something tangible to point at and loftily flaunt but, nevertheless, they all know that amending the constitution is as big as it gets and any change will ripple right through the body politic.

    We continue to have this notion, which is perpetuated by articles like Joyce McMillan’s, that somehow the constitution is a luxury item to be discussed once everything else is right. She does a disservice to the importance of the debate and it plays into the hands of the constitutional conservatives in whose company, despite her recent protestations, she seems destined to remain.

    The NHS is a perfect example. Yes, we have the power to run it as we see fit in Scotland. But only within the constraints of a budget determined by someone else. In the long run, this can only be fixed through constitutional change otherwise our concept of what is right for the NHS will be compromised by our inability to raise the funds from the right sources to pay for it.

    When will we learn that it is only getting the constitution right that will enable us to get everything else right and keep it right?

    • You might formulate the most exemplary constitution ever devised, it would mean nothing without the power that only independence will deliver.

  6. I am always mildly irked by the facile notion that because somebody comments on one issue, they must inevitably be “ignoring” some other issue. Also irksome is the related and equally facile notion that we shouldn’t be discussing one issue because there is some other issue that is of vastly greater importance.

    A common manifestation of this defective thinking is the all too often heard attempt to rationalise one crime by reference to some more serious offence. You’ve all heard the version which goes something like, “Bloody police shouldn’t be bothering me just because I’m driving drunk at twice the speed limit when there’s rapists and murderers out there!”. The extension of this “logic” – that no crime should be prosecuted so long as the accused can point to some greater act of infamy – unsurprisingly escapes those who are shallow enough to advance such puerile arguments.

    Of course, real people in the real world are not so one-dimensional. Most of us are quite capable of being angered or amused or intrigued or perplexed by numerous different things all at the same time.

    On the subject of facile assumptions, here’s another one. The assumption that outrage must be synthetic simply because it is manifested in a political context. Not that there is no such thing as manufactured outrage contrived for political purposes. Just look at the proliferation of words like “fury” in newspaper headlines. What is facile is generalising from this to the point of imagining all outrage to be false.

    Speaking personally, I am not someone who rises to anger easily. I do not say this in a boastful way. It just happens to be my nature. In large part, I think, my placid demeanour is due to a lifelong tendency to analytical thinking. If one is given by long habit and practice to picking an issue apart in the search for explanations, one tends to be less prone to knee-jerk reactions and the perils of unbridled emotion.

    Think with the neurons, not the hormones! That’s my motto!

    Having said this, I do cherish the capacity to be angered. There are situations where outrage is fully justified. I have little patience for those who evince a world-weary cynicism in the belief that this betokens sophistication. I have no shame in admitting that I actually cried with frustrated, impotent rage as the British state and its American masters unleashed their “shock and awe” assault on the people of Iraq.

    The important thing is that the level of anger should be appropriate to the context. The anger I feel at the behaviour of economic and political elites is not of the same type or order as the anger I feel at some cartoonist offering a lazily, insultingly ill-thought comment on Scotland’s politics. To imagine that the two are either mutually exclusive or necessarily equivalent is… well… here’s that word again… facile.

  7. Here’s a conundrum that somehow from my uninformed position strikes right at the heart of all of this.

    Q. “Who do the big banks and the Treasury owe all this money to?”

    A “Nobody. The money doesn’t actually exist. They invented it.”

    As some comic ( I think it was Tommy Tiernan) with a particularly firm grasp of the matter said. “Why don’t just find the guy we owe all this money to and shoot the bastard.”

    Which is the same as letting the banks go bust, which is exactly what we should have done.
    I posted this all over the place as this crisis unfolded a few years ago. A lot of folk in Iceland had the same thought. They secured the debts and deposits of their own people, let the international spivs and speculators in the banks go rot in hell and ploughed their resources instead into their working economy.
    And the rest is history…………..

  8. You make a good point. While Newsnight Scotland looks nightly for a new and ever more dull take on the independence referendum there is all sorts going on around us. The PM seems determined for us to leave the EU and the substance of his nationalism is essentially that he feels it makes us all too well paid and puts to many restrictions on the aforementioned banks.

    The YES campaign feels like its floundering by trying to respond to the No Campaign’s ever more ludicrous requests for impossible detail. Actually they should be building a narrative based on the nonsense going on all around us. Austerity, Tory naval gazing, etc… A failure to articulate how independence could make a difference on the the ground will result in a failure to connect with the electorate and ultimately a lost referendum.

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