A man walks past the statue of Robert Bruce marking the site of the battle of Bannockburn. Photo: Getty.
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A shattered union: the final days of the Scottish referendum campaign

If Britain cannot work out how to stay together when so much unites us – language, culture, shared sacrifice, blood – the portents for the 21st century are dark indeed.

Early on the morning of 5 September, two days before a poll put Yes Scotland ahead for the first time in the referendum campaign, Gordon Brown was reacquainted with Westminster when he delivered an impassioned speech to a small gathering of admirers in the Attlee Suite at Portcullis House. He was among friends and he seemed relaxed, even if he looked ashen and deeply tired. There was something monumental about him, with his big, bulging head, his large rugby player’s hands and narrowed eyes, a modern-day Gulliver back in the land of the little people. As he returned reluctantly to front-line politics, the former Labour prime minister’s mission was nothing less than to save the United Kingdom, and in the days that followed, it seemed at times as if he was dictating policy to the Conservative-led government.

For nearly an hour, Brown spoke with a Gladstonian fervour, without notes and in complete sentences, about why the UK was unique in the world, a model of multinational interdependence in an age of globalisation. “No nationalist should be allowed to split it asunder.” He cited John F Kennedy’s celebrated 1961 inaugural address (“Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country”), mentioned the fallen of the First World War, the English, Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish soldiers who fought and died together and who were buried side by side, and made the familiar economic case against independence and for British social justice. It was a bravura, even romantic performance, imbued with deeper historical resonances and a sense of moral purpose of a kind entirely absent from the vocabulary of Alistair Darling, the leader of the struggling cross-party Better Together campaign.

This was a Brown seldom glimpsed during his premiership, and perhaps most strikingly only late in the general election campaign of 2010 when, knowing he was beaten, he gave a fiery speech at a London Citizens interfaith event, as if impending defeat had liberated him into being the politician he knew in his heart he was or could have been.

Darling, for all his good intentions, is a technocrat; he shrinks when he ought to expand. He uses arid management speak when poetry and passion are called for – compare his low-toned closing statement to Alex Salmond’s inflated rhetoric in the second televised referendum debate on 25 August, a debate that marked a turning point in the campaign and a narrowing in the polls. Darling warns continuously about the macroeconomic risks of independence but never rouses himself to speak about what the United Kingdom has represented through its long history – its purpose, its achievements – and why it must change if it is to survive. Nor does Darling, as Brown did in his Westminster speech, call for a new “statement of national purpose”. Of course, issues such as the currency, pensions and North Sea oil revenues are fundamental – but much more than relentless questioning was required from the Yes campaign, because nationalism ultimately is as much about the heart as the head. It’s about identity and codes of cultural belonging; about self-perception, self-determination and the feelings a nation has about itself – something
approaching a sense of enraptured togetherness. It’s about what the novelist Irvine Welsh has called the “metaphysical hope that the world could be made into a better place”, hence all the discussion about Scotland being remade as a Nordic-style social democracy, however fanciful it might be.

There seems to have been too little understanding of the deeper trends and long-term structural forces cleaving the United Kingdom: the end of empire, deindustrialisation, the decline of cross-border working-class solidarity, the weakening of Protestantism and of the trade unions, as well as a general anti-politics, “stuff them” attitude.

In his speech, Brown said that “Britishness” had lacked a central, driving purpose, something comparable to the American belief in freedom and opportunity for all or France’s revolutionary commitment to liberty, equality and fraternity. There is something in that. For the profoundly Scottish Brown what really unites the people of these islands is a “shared British com­mitment to values of liberty, fairness and social responsibility”.

What attracts me about Britishness is its very plurality and ambiguity; it’s an inclusive, civic, non-racial identity as welcoming now (though it once wasn’t so) to a black Londoner as it is to a Glaswegian Muslim Asian. Indeed, part of what it is to be modern and British is to have and be relaxed about compound identities, to share sovereignties in supranational institutions (the UK, the EU) and to pool resources.

I grew up in a house in a quiet cul-de-sac in an Essex new town. Among my immediate neighbours were three Sicilian families from a poor rural community. They had come to England after the Second World War in search of security and opportunity. Their children, my friends, were born in England but they struggled to call themselves English. They supported the Italian national football team and rampaged delightedly through the street when Italy won the 1982 World Cup in Spain. And yet, they were confidently, unapologetically British. I once tried to convince one of my friends that he was Sicilian, English and British. He almost agreed; I say almost because the word “English” seemed to stick amen-like in his throat as he attempted to define himself as such in response to my prompting. He just couldn’t say the word or describe himself as English. “I’m British,” he said.

Scotland has experienced nothing comparable to the levels of immigration of England – one sees few black or mixed-race faces there, though you hear many eastern European accents – and so many Scots do not quite understand why Britishness means so much to so many people from minority backgrounds and why they fear it being ripped away from them. Britishness is a wide umbrella under which so many of us can shelter happily in spite of our differences. We would be bereft without it, drenched in uncertainty and confusion.


What of the London question? The capital city of the imperilled state is much maligned – it is Alex Salmond’s “dark star, inexorably sucking in resources, people and energy”; it is Vince Cable’s “giant suction machine draining the life out of the rest of the country”. The dominance of financial turbocapitalism has certainly unbalanced and distorted the British economy, resulting in grotesque inequalities and an insanely inflated property market in the south-east. But that is only one version of London, the city of the financiers, rentiers and tax-avoiding, deracinated plutocrats. There is also the gritty, creative city I know well, with its admirable diversity and thrilling possibilities, a city of interconnecting urban villages and of resilient people trying to make their way even when the system seems rigged against them. This London is liberal and open and votes Labour in defiance of much of the rest of the English south. It overwhelmingly rejected the small-minded nationalism of Ukip.

London remains the ultimate global city, Europe’s only megacity, a teeming, vibrant, amorphous, polyglot metropolis that is still recognisably the place that H G Wells described, at the height of empire, as “the centre of civilisation, the heart of the world”. I agree with Danny Dorling, the NS contributor and author of All That Is Solid: the Great Housing Disaster, that London too much dominates the national life. However, that’s an argument not for breaking up the United Kingdom but for decentralisation, radical economic reform and a plan for national reconstruction. That’s an argument for harnessing the wealth-generating potential of London for the good of all.


A week before the 2011 Scottish general election the New Statesman published a leader in which we warned of the consequences of a victory for the Scottish National Party, which seemed to us highly likely. A few days later, Ed Miliband said to one of my colleagues: “Why is Jason writing about Scotland?” He got his answer when Labour, the last truly national British party, was deservedly routed, a result that set us on the road to Thursday’s referendum.

If ever one needed an illustration of Labour failure this was it: the party had grown so complacent in its Scottish heartlands that it couldn’t see the ground was shifting beneath it and that it was about to be swallowed up in an earthquake.

The referendum campaign has reinvigorated the non-Labour left – Gerry Hassan, the author of The Strange Death of Labour in Scotland, calls the new pro-independence groupings “third Scotland”, because they occupy their own space and are affiliated to no party – just as the Yes campaign has engaged much of the wider population. There has been a ceaseless flow of energised debate on social media and elsewhere online, led by websites such as Bella Caledonia and the anti-neoliberal Common Weal project, which has published its own manifesto for economic and social transformation.

“The more politically engaged people are in Scotland, the more inclined they are to vote Yes,” Hassan told me. “I still feel culturally British; I just don’t feel any loyalty to the British state. Nor am I attracted to the SNP machine view of Scotland – it’s too technocratic, too optimistic, and there’s a lot of people out for preferment after the referendum. Then there are the myths about Scotland – that it’s more egalitarian, more civic. Of course all nationalisms aren’t completely civic.

“This is an existential moment for the British state . . . And you know, Labour could have told a story about Scotland and Britain that would have outflanked the SNP on the left. They could have had a classic Labour message in a modern setting.” He paused. “There’s just a chance that a high Yes vote might [yet help] redraw the nature of the United Kingdom. Wouldn’t that be a wonderful and unique British compromise? Scots don’t want to give up on being British unless they really have to.”

Even the centre right, for so long embattled and embarrassed in Scotland, has perked up. Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Conservative leader, who recently made the case for full fiscal devolution for Holyrood, is considered to have had a far more convincing campaign than her Labour counterpart, Johann Lamont, who is presiding over a calamitous loss of faith in Scottish Labour.

The debate, for and against, is being carried out in town squares, in village halls, in offices, clubs and pubs, on the doorstep. There are divisions within families, even between husbands and wives. Tens of thousands of voters have returned to the register, including many who “disappeared” from it at the time of the poll tax, the memory of which continues to motivate the nationalists in their hatred of the Tories. The Yes campaign, driven by the zeal of the true believer, and with its vastly superior ground operation, has been particularly active in the old working-class Labour strongholds of Glasgow and the central belt. Alex Salmond is tremendously popular among the poorest Scots, who understandably feel they have little to lose by voting Yes. They are hardly being well served by the status quo.

What we have been witnessing over the past year or so is a nation’s democracy renewing itself, and all of us who live in these islands should be grateful, because the complacent and smug London elites – political, financial, media, bureaucratic – are finally being forced to take notice. But it could already be too late.

During the referendum campaign, more than any other London publication, the New Statesman has reached out to the nationalists. We collaborated with Alex Salmond on a special issue of the magazine, Scotland: in or out (28 February 2014), and in March the First Minister came at our invitation to Westminster to deliver the New Statesman lecture “Scotland’s Future in Scotland’s Hands”; it was then he popularised the metaphor of London as the dark star. I had also visited him in June last year at Bute House, his official residence in Edinburgh’s magnificent New Town. That afternoon the First Minister explained to me how he intended to approach the referendum. Back then he was physically much heavier – he began a crash diet last Christmas – and he seemed a little breathless as we spoke, as if he’d just hurried up some stairs. There was much speculation then at Holyrood about his health. Not that he seemed bothered.

He told me we were merely passing through the “phoney war” stage of the campaign. He was relaxed that Yes was a long way behind in the polls – and he remained so when he came to London in March, with the polls largely unchanged. He repeatedly referred to the 2011 Scottish election, when the SNP came from behind in the final two weeks to win an astounding landslide victory. “Part of [being positive] is getting your party into the attitude in a campaign that, if it applies itself properly, it can win,” he told me. “Since 2007, that’s what I’ve done and since 2007 I haven’t lost a national election.

“We’ll approach the referendum in the same way we approached these two Scottish elections. And that is, we will set a vision for the people. I’ll certainly hypothesise on the future and I shall do so on the basis of success, not failure.”

Salmond has been true to his word and yet his “optimism strategy” – his brand of “Borgen nationalism” – has often seemed ludicrous. He admits no doubt. In spite of Scotland’s entrenched social problems, lack of intergenerational social mobility and dependence on high state spending, he promises only success for his country. The newly independent nation would be as wealthy as Norway, which chooses to remain outside the EU and produces almost twice as much oil as Scotland does with an almost identical population. (Child poverty in Scotland is also more than double that in Norway.) And Salmond wants to wrestle sovereignty from Westminster while being entirely relaxed about surrendering it to the EU.

The First Minister is a Celtic Dr Pangloss, forever proclaiming that all will be for the best in the best of all possible worlds. The No campaign and the Westminster parties have attempted to call his bluff and to call him out – but still the polls are narrowing in his favour.

“My view is that the Union can be saved once,” Adam Tomkins, John Millar Professor of Public Law at the University of Glasgow and an adviser to the No campaign, told me. “If No win narrowly, as they did in Quebec [by 51 per cent to 49 per cent in the second of two independence referendums] in 1995, the British state must reinvigorate itself – and that means more devolution. If circumstances require us to have a second referendum in a parliament or two’s time, Yes will win by a country mile.”


With less than a week to go to polling day, Alex Salmond is just where he would wish to be, on the shoulder of his opponent with the final bend fast approaching. He remains slightly the underdog and yet seems increasingly confident that he can win, having seized the momentum after a sustained late surge. And even if he loses, he would still have won a kind of victory: the independence movement is stronger than it has ever been and the anti-Westminster forces it has unleashed cannot be contained.

It’s just possible that they could be rechannelled for the ultimate good of a reconfigured, federal or neo-federal United Kingdom – but only if Westminster is properly serious about creating a new constitutional settlement that attempts also to address long-held English grievances. (There is, too, somewhere in the near future, a final reckoning to be had on the EU.)

If the Westminster establishment is serious about far-reaching reform of the kind being proposed in a blind panic and about addressing the decline of parliament, then Alex Salmond, whose political mission from the outset was to break the Union, might end up creating the conditions in which it could be remade and thus saved. For now, as we enter the last days of the referendum campaign – perhaps the last days of Great Britain – those of us who do not have a vote, who loathe neoliberalism but who feel culturally British and believe in the multinational ideal of the United Kingdom, for all its flaws and incongruities, can only watch and hope that pragmatism will hold sway so that Scotland is not lost as Ireland was before it.

These are dangerous and unstable times, with the beginnings of a new cold war and the Middle East in flames. As John Gray has written, we are witnessing the return of classical geopolitics – “a struggle for resources between contending empires not unlike that in the late 19th century”. If Britain cannot work out how to stay together when so much unites us – language, culture,
shared sacrifice, blood – the portents for the 21st century are dark indeed.

If the vote is Yes on 18 September, the 307-year-old Union will have been shattered, the British state will have been broken and we will be plunged into a constitutional crisis with devastating consequences for David Cameron and Ed Miliband. 

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 10 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Britain in meltdown

An artist's version of the Reichstag fire, which Hitler blamed on the communists. CREDIT: DEZAIN UNKIE/ ALAMY
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The art of the big lie: the history of fake news

From the Reichstag fire to Stalin’s show trials, the craft of disinformation is nothing new.

We live, we’re told, in a post-truth era. The internet has hyped up postmodern relativism, and created a kind of gullible cynicism – “nothing is true, and who cares anyway?” But the thing that exploits this mindset is what the Russians call dezinformatsiya. Disinformation – strategic deceit – isn’t new, of course. It has played a part in the battle that has raged between mass democracy and its enemies since at least the First World War.

Letting ordinary people pick governments depends on shared trust in information, and this is vulnerable to attack – not just by politicians who want to manipulate democracy, but by those on the extremes who want to destroy it. In 1924, the first Labour government faced an election. With four days to go, the Daily Mail published a secret letter in which the leading Bolshevik Grigory Zinoviev heralded the government’s treaties with the Soviets as a way to help recruit British workers for Leninism. Labour’s vote actually went up, but the Liberal share collapsed, and the Conservatives returned to power.

We still don’t know exactly who forged the “Zinoviev Letter”, even after exhaustive investigations of British and Soviet intelligence archives in the late 1990s by the then chief historian of the Foreign Office, Gill Bennett. She concluded that the most likely culprits were White Russian anti-Bolsheviks, outraged at Labour’s treaties with Moscow, probably abetted by sympathetic individuals in British intelligence. But whatever the precise provenance, the case demonstrates a principle that has been in use ever since: cultivate your lie from a germ of truth. Zinoviev and the Comintern were actively engaged in trying to stir revolution – in Germany, for example. Those who handled the letter on its journey from the forger’s desk to the front pages – MI6 officers, Foreign Office officials, Fleet Street editors – were all too ready to believe it, because it articulated their fear that mass democracy might open the door to Bolshevism.

Another phantom communist insurrection opened the way to a more ferocious use of disinformation against democracy. On the night of 27 February 1933, Germany’s new part-Nazi coalition was not yet secure in power when news started to hum around Berlin that the Reichstag was on fire. A lone left-wing Dutchman, Marinus van der Lubbe, was caught on the site and said he was solely responsible. But Hitler assumed it was a communist plot, and seized the opportunity to do what he wanted to do anyway: destroy them. The suppression of the communists was successful, but the claim it was based on rapidly collapsed. When the Comintern agent Gyorgy Dimitrov was tried for organising the fire, alongside fellow communists, he mocked the charges against him, which were dismissed for lack of evidence.

Because it involves venturing far from the truth, disinformation can slip from its authors’ control. The Nazis failed to pin blame on the communists – and then the communists pinned blame on the Nazis. Dimitrov’s comrade Willi Münzenberg swiftly organised propaganda suggesting that the fire was too convenient to be Nazi good luck. A “counter-trial” was convened in London; a volume called The Brown Book of the Reichstag Fire and Hitler Terror was rushed into print, mixing real accounts of Nazi persecution of communists – the germ of truth again – with dubious documentary evidence that they had started the fire. Unlike the Nazis’ disinformation, this version stuck, for decades.

Historians such as Richard Evans have argued that both stories about the fire were false, and it really was one man’s doing. But this case demonstrates another disinformation technique still at work today: hide your involvement behind others, as Münzenberg did with the British great and good who campaigned for the Reichstag prisoners. In the Cold War, the real source of disinformation was disguised with the help of front groups, journalistic “agents of influence”, and the trick of planting a fake story in an obscure foreign newspaper, then watching as the news agencies picked it up. (Today, you just wait for retweets.)

In power, the Nazis made much use of a fictitious plot that did, abominably, have traction: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a forged text first published in Russia in 1903, claimed to be a record of a secret Jewish conspiracy to take over the world – not least by means of its supposed control of everyone from bankers to revolutionaries. As Richard Evans observes, “If you subject people to a barrage of lies, in the end they’ll begin to think well maybe they’re not all true, but there must be something in it.” In Mein Kampf, Hitler argued that the “big lie” always carries credibility – an approach some see at work not only in the Nazis’ constant promotion of the Protocols but in the pretence that their Kristallnacht pogrom in 1938 was spontaneous. (It is ironic that Hitler coined the “big lie” as part of an attack on the Jews’ supposed talent for falsehood.) Today, the daring of the big lie retains its force: even if no one believes it, it makes smaller untruths less objectionable in comparison. It stuns opponents into silence.

Unlike the Nazis, the Bolshevik leaders were shaped by decades as hunted revolutionaries, dodging the Tsarist secret police, who themselves had had a hand in the confection of the Protocols. They occupied the paranoid world of life underground, governed by deceit and counter-deceit, where any friend could be an informer. By the time they finally won power, disinformation was the Bolsheviks’ natural response to the enemies they saw everywhere. And that instinct endures in Russia even now.

In a competitive field, perhaps the show trial is the Soviet exercise in upending the truth that is most instructive today. These sinister theatricals involved the defendants “confessing” their crimes with great
sincerity and detail, even if the charges were ludicrous. By 1936, Stalin felt emboldened to drag his most senior rivals through this process – starting with Grigory Zinoviev.

The show trial is disinformation at its cruellest: coercing someone falsely to condemn themselves to death, in so convincing a way that the world’s press writes it up as truth. One technique involved was perfected by the main prosecutor, Andrey Vyshinsky, who bombarded the defendants with insults such as “scum”, “mad dogs” and “excrement”. Besides intimidating the victim, this helped to distract attention from the absurdity of the charges. Barrages of invective on Twitter are still useful for smearing and silencing enemies.


The show trials were effective partly because they deftly reversed the truth. To conspire to destroy the defendants, Stalin accused them of conspiring to destroy him. He imposed impossible targets on straining Soviet factories; when accidents followed, the managers were forced to confess to “sabotage”. Like Hitler, Stalin made a point of saying the opposite of what he did. In 1936, the first year of the Great Terror, he had a rather liberal new Soviet constitution published. Many in the West chose to believe it. As with the Nazis’ “big lie”, shameless audacity is a disinformation strategy in itself. It must have been hard to accept that any regime could compel such convincing false confessions, or fake an entire constitution.

No one has quite attempted that scale of deceit in the post-truth era, but reversing the truth remains a potent trick. Just think of how Donald Trump countered the accusation that he was spreading “fake news” by making the term his own – turning the charge on his accusers, and even claiming he’d coined it.

Post-truth describes a new abandonment of the very idea of objective truth. But George Orwell was already concerned that this concept was under attack in 1946, helped along by the complacency of dictatorship-friendly Western intellectuals. “What is new in totalitarianism,” he warned in his essay “The Prevention of Literature”, “is that its doctrines are not only unchallengeable but also unstable. They have to be accepted on pain of damnation, but on the other hand they are always liable to be altered on a moment’s notice.”

A few years later, the political theorist Hannah Arendt argued that Nazis and Stalinists, each immersed in their grand conspiratorial fictions, had already reached this point in the 1930s – and that they had exploited a similar sense of alienation and confusion in ordinary people. As she wrote in her 1951 book, The Origins of Totalitarianism: “In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true.” There is a reason that sales of Arendt’s masterwork – and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four – have spiked since November 2016.

During the Cold War, as the CIA got in on the act, disinformation became less dramatic, more surreptitious. But show trials and forced confessions continued. During the Korean War, the Chinese and North Koreans induced a series of captured US airmen to confess to dropping bacteriological weapons on North Korea. One lamented that he could barely face his family after what he’d done. The pilots were brought before an International Scientific Commission, led by the eminent Cambridge scientist Joseph Needham, which investigated the charges. A documentary film, Oppose Bacteriological Warfare, was made, showing the pilots confessing and Needham’s Commission peering at spiders in the snow. But the story was fake.

The germ warfare hoax was a brilliant exercise in turning democracy’s expectations against it. Scientists’ judgements, campaigning documentary, impassioned confession – if you couldn’t believe all that, what could you believe? For the genius of disinformation is that even exposure doesn’t disable it. All it really has to do is sow doubt and confusion. The story was finally shown to be fraudulent in 1998, through documents transcribed from Soviet archives. The transcripts were authenticated by the historian Kathryn Weathersby, an expert on the archives. But as Dr Weathersby laments, “People come back and say ‘Well, yeah, but, you know, they could have done it, it could have happened.’”

There’s an insidious problem here: the same language is used to express blanket cynicism as empirical scepticism. As Arendt argued, gullibility and cynicism can become one. If opponents of democracy can destroy the very idea of shared, trusted information, they can hope to destabilise democracy itself.

But there is a glimmer of hope here too. The fusion of cynicism and gullibility can also afflict the practitioners of disinformation. The most effective lie involves some self-deception. So the show trial victims seem to have internalised the accusations against them, at least for a while, but so did their tormentors. As the historian Robert Service has written, “Stalin frequently lied to the world when he was simultaneously lying to himself.”

Democracy might be vulnerable because of its reliance on the idea of shared truth – but authoritarianism has a way of undermining itself by getting lost in its own fictions. Disinformation is not only a danger to its targets. 

Phil Tinline’s documentary “Disinformation: A User’s Guide” will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 8pm, 17 March

This article first appeared in the 10 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Britain in meltdown