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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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Can a “Momentum moment” revive the fortunes of Germany’s SPD?

Support for the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) has sunk into third place, behind the far right Alternative for Germany.

Germany has crossed a line: for the first time in the history of the federal republic, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) has sunk into third place, polling just 15.5 per cent – half a point behind the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). The poll was published on the day the SPD membership received their postal ballots on whether to enter another grand coalition with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, and inflamed debate further.

For the grassroots coalition opposed to the so-called GroKo (Große Koalition) the poll is proof that the SPD needs a fundamental change of political direction. Within the two grand coalitions of recent years, the SPD has completely lost its political profile. The beneficiary each time has been the far right. Yet another GroKo seems likely to usher in the end of the SPD as a Volkspartei (people’s party). Taking its place would be the AfD, a deeply disturbing prospect.

For the SPD leadership, the results are proof that the party must enter a grand coalition. Failure to do so would likely mean new elections (though this is disputed, as a minority government is also a possibility) and an SPD wipeout. The SPD’s biggest problem, they argue, is not a bad political programme, but a failure to sell the SPD’s achievements to the public.

But is it? The richest 45 Germans now own as much as the bottom 50 per cent. According to French economist Thomas Piketty, German income inequality has now sunk to levels last seen in 1913. Perhaps most shockingly, the nominally left-wing SPD has been in government for 16 of the last 20 years. Whatever it has been doing in office, it hasn’t been nearly enough. And there’s nothing in the present coalition agreement that will change that. Indeed, throughout Europe, mainstream left parties such as the SPD have stuck to their economically centrist programmes and are facing electoral meltdown as a result.

The growing popular anger at the status quo is being channeled almost exclusively into the AfD, which presents itself as the alternative to the political mainstream. Rather than blame the massive redistribution of wealth from the bottom to the top, however, the AfD points the finger at the weakest in society: immigrants and refugees.

So how can the SPD turn things around by the next federal election in 2021? 

The party leadership has promised a complete programme of political renewal, as it does after every disappointing result. But even if this promise were kept this time, how credible is political renewal within a government that stands for more of the same? The SPD would be given the finance ministry, but would be wedded to an austerity policy of no new public debt, and no increased tax rises on the rich. 

SPD members are repeatedly exhorted to separate questions of programmatic renewal from the debate about who leads the party. But these questions are fundamentally linked. The SPD’s problem is not its failure to make left-wing promises, but the failure of its leaders to actually keep them, once in office.

The clear counter-example for genuine political renewal and credibility is, of course, Labour under Jeremy Corbyn. In spite of all dire warnings that a left-wing programme was a sure-fire vote-loser, Labour’s massively expanded membership – and later electorate – responded with an unprecedented and unforeseen enthusiasm. 

A radical democratic change on the lines of Labour would save the SPD party from oblivion, and save Germany from an ascendent AfD. But it would come at the cost of the careers of the SPD leadership. Sadly, but perhaps inevitably, they are fighting it tooth and nail.

Having promised an “especially fair” debate, the conflict over the GroKo has suddenly surged to become Germany’s Momentum moment - and the SPD leadership is doing everything it can to quash the debate. Party communications and so-called “dialogue events” pump out a pro-GroKo line. The ballots sent out this week came accompanied by an authoritative three-page letter on why members should vote for the grand coalition.

Whether such desperate measures have worked or not will be revealed when the voting result is announced on 4 March 2018. Online, sentiment is overwhelmingly against the GroKo. But many SPD members (average age is 60) are not online, and are thought to be more conservative.

Whatever the outcome, the debate isn’t going away. If members can decide on a grand coalition, why not on the leadership itself? A direct election for the leadership would democratically reconnect the SPD with its grassroots.

Unless the growth in inequality is turned around, a fundamental reboot of the SPD is ultimately inevitable. Another grand coalition, however, will postpone this process even further. And what will be left of the SPD by then?

Steve Hudson is a Momentum activist and a member of both Labour and the SPD. He lives in Germany, where he chairs the NoGroKo eV campaign group.