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Attacking the “unpatriotic” BBC? That's the oldest nationalist trick in the book

Coverage of Brexit is not positive enough, according to Brexiteers. 

The Brexiteer Tim Montgomerie’s admonishment of the BBC this morning for its “unpatriotic” coverage of Brexit was depressingly familiar to those of us in Scotland who have fought unthinking nationalism for years.

The BBC’s crime in this case was to give air time to the French finance minister, Benjamin Griveaux who was visiting London, in part to try to encourage banking jobs to Paris post-Brexit. Montgomerie’s comments echo those of leader of the House of Commons, Andea Leadsom, who urged more patriotism from the media at large.

Of course all politicians attempt to influence the media coverage of their cause. As a Labour member, I have to acknowledge that the tedious attacks on the “MSM” have become a problem from a section of my own party. However there is a world of difference between attempting to influence critical coverage and attempting to prevent criticism at all.

Listening to the Hard Brexiteers, we are reminded of the bitter attacks on the BBC and the rest of the "mainstream media" throughout the Scottish referendum campaign. Over and over again, the Scottish National Party leadership made the Corporation the target of attacks. Thousands demonstrated outside the BBC’s headquarters in Glasgow, famously marching behind a banner bearing the face of then BBC Political Editor Nick Robinson. They called for him to be sacked after he had the temerity to robustly question Alex Salmond in a press conference that was packed-out with nationalist supporters.

To imagine nationalist hostility is a reaction to an outside presence is to misunderstand the depth of their hostility to the media. In 2014, the angry crowds also called for the dismissal of Jackie Bird, the popular Scottish anchor of the nightly news programme. An STV journalist complained of attempts by two SNP MPs to silence his critical voice

The antagonism of nationalists to free and critical media goes to the heart of their worldview. Nationalism is a matter of belief. It rests on emotion, not facts. The role of good journalism in reporting the facts and offering clear-headed analysis is an anathema to them.

Using the word nationalist to describe such behaviour has become controversial in an age where the term is applied to everyone from pro-immigration SNP politicians to resurgent Nazis in the United States. Even the First Minister of Scotland, who describes herself as “a lifelong nationalist” now claims that she isn’t really. But what else do you call someone who suggests that critical analysis be replaced with unquestioning national pride?

The trouble with nationalists is that people with otherwise rational, mainstream views become completely irrational when dealing with "the national cause". Think of the free marketeers who campaign to leave the biggest free trade area or anti-cuts campaigners who argue for the unthinkable austerity guaranteed from leaving the UK.

For them leaving the British or European unions is not just another a policy, a proposal to be debated on its merits. For them, the campaign to leave is a campaign for our nation itself. So if you are against the policy, you are against the nation. You are unpatriotic, a remoaner, a quisling, a traitor, a pessimist…

This is one of the greatest tricks of nationalism. Its advocates may argue for an outcome which will destroy jobs or decimate public services, but they are always the “positive” ones. They are the visionaries taking on those who simply lack faith in their own country. Suggest that Brexit negotiations aren’t going terribly well or that it might be a nice idea to know what currency an independent country might use and you are "talking down" the country.

Behind the attacks on media criticism is a wider strategic aim. Nationalists want to devalue the role of facts in democratic decision making by discrediting the message carrier. They encourage, in their place, online media sources which support not journalism but the nationalist narrative. If they replace reasoned debate with ignorance and emotion, they win.

Beating post-truth patriots is an exhausting war of attrition. However the attacks on the media reveal the weakness and insecurity at the heart of their politics. The anger that erupts comes from their own inability to square their nationalism with facts they cannot credibly refute. So fight them, mock them, and make sure you beat them because nationalism is a dead end.

Blair McDougall was the head strategist of the Better Together campaign during the Scottish independence referendum. 

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Why Jeremy Corbyn’s evolution on Brexit matters for the Scottish Labour party

Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard, an ideological ally of Corbyn, backs staying in the customs union. 

Evolution. A long, slow, almost imperceptible process driven by brutal competition in a desperate attempt to adapt to survive. An accurate description then by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, of Labour’s shifting, chimera of a Brexit policy. After an away day that didn’t decamp very far at all, there seems to have been a mutation in Labour’s policy on customs union. Even McDonnell, a long-term Eurosceptic, indicated that Labour may support Tory amendments when the report stages of the customs and trade bills are finally timetabled by the government (currently delayed) to remain in either “The” or “A” customs union.

This is a victory of sorts for Europhiles in the Shadow Cabinet like Emily Thornberry and Keir Starmer. But it is particularly a victory for Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard. A strong ally of Jeremy Corbyn who comes from the same Bennite tradition, Leonard broke cover last month to call for exactly such a change to policy on customs union.

Scotland has a swathe of marginal Labour-SNP seats. Its voters opted voted by a majority in every constituency to Remain. While the Scottish National Party has a tendency to trumpet this as evidence of exceptionalism – Scotland as a kind-of Rivendell to England’s xenophobic Mordor – it’s clear that a more Eurocentric, liberal hegemony dominates Scottish politics. Scotland’s population is also declining and it has greater need of inward labour through migration than England. It is for these reasons that the SNP has mounted a fierce assault on Labour’s ephemeral EU position.

At first glance, the need for Labour to shift its Brexit position is not as obvious as Remainers might have it. As the Liberal Democrat experience in last year’s general election demonstrates, if you want to choose opposing Brexit as your hill to die on… then die you well may. This was to some extent replicated in the recent Scottish Labour Leadership race. Anas Sarwar, the centrist challenger, lost after making Brexit an explicit dividing line between himself and the eventual winner, Leonard. The hope that a juggernaut of Remainer fury might coalesce as nationalist resentment did in 2015 turned out to be a dud. This is likely because for many Remainers, Europe is not as high on their list of concerns as other matters like the NHS crisis. They may, however, care about it however when the question is forced upon them.

And it very well might be forced. One day later this year, the shape of a deal on phase two of the negotiations will emerge and Parliament will have to vote, once and for all, to accept or reject a deal. This is both a test and an incredible political opportunity. Leonard, a Scottish Labour old-timer, believes a deal will be rejected and lead to a general election.

If Labour is to win such an election resulting from a parliamentary rejection of the Brexit deal, it will need many of those marginal seats in Scotland. The SNP is preparing by trying to box Labour in. Last month its Westminster representatives laid a trap. They invited Corbyn to take part in anti-Brexit talks of opposition parties he had no choice but to reject. In Holyrood, Nicola Sturgeon has been ripping into the same flank that Sarwar opened against Richard Leonard in the leadership contest, branding Labour’s Brexit position “feeble”. At the same time the Scottish government revealed a devastating impact assessment to accompany the negative forecasts leaked from the UK government. If Labour is leading a case against a “bad deal”,  it cannot afford to be seen to be SNP-lite.

The issue will likely come to a head at the Scottish Labour Conference early next month, since local constituency parties have already sent a number of pro-EU and single market motions to be debated there. They could be seen as a possible challenge to the leadership’s opposition to the single market or a second referendum. That is, If these motions make it to debate, unlike at national Labour Conference in 2017, where there seemed to be an organised attempt to prevent division.

When Leonard became leader, he stressed co-operation with the Westminster leadership. Still, unlike the dark “Branch Office” days of the recent past, Scottish Labour seems to be wielding some influence in the wider party again. And Scottish Labour figures will find allies down south. In January, Thornberry used a Fabian Society speech in Edinburgh, that Enlightenment city, to call for a dose of Scottish internationalism in foreign policy. With a twinkle in her eye, she fielded question after question about Brexit. “Ah…Brexit,” she joked. “I knew we’d get there eventually”. Such was Thornberry’s enthusiasm that she made the revealing aside that: “If I was not in the Leadership, then I’d probably be campaigning to remain in the European Union.”