Watching this election has convinced me of one thing above all else: I need to buy a new dictionary. The one that generally sits next to my computer is The Chambers Dictionary (1994) edition. It has served me well, but I have come to realise that twenty years is a long time in the evolution of words. At some point, I must have missed the memo about the redefinition of quite an important word. That word is ‘progressive’. According to Chambers, in 1994 it meant: ‘moving forward, modern, esp. displaying or applying liberal or enlightened views or practices’.
I’m not exactly sure what the new definition is yet, but the word has certainly been bandied about quite a bit, particularly by three of the parties hoping to form a progressive alliance against ‘austerity’. I don’t know much about Plaid Cymru, although I have noticed that whenever their leader -Leanne Wood- is on TV, she likes to point out, at least once or twice, that she is Welsh and represents the people of Wales. It’s good to know that she’s mindful of the needs of the information-poor.
I do know a bit about the SNP though, enough to be surprised that their progressive brand of identity politics (ingredients: a sense of grievance, a bit of paranoia, a large dollop of self-righteousness with a wee side-helping of cultist absolutism) appears to be paying off. But even if you put the nationalism to one side, the word ‘progressive’, as defined in that 1994 Chambers Dictionary, doesn’t really fit with their modus operandi. The word I would choose is ‘authoritarian’, defined by Chambers as ‘setting authority above freedom; stressing the importance and power of authority; domineering; disciplinarian.’That isn’t an assessment based on tribal prejudice; it is based on paying attention to the things they have said and done while in office.
Since taking power, the SNP has made it clear through the laws it has introduced that it sees the state as the embodiment of The Nation. Many of their supporters take that idea even further: they see the party as the embodiment of The Nation. If you considered yourself to be liberal (again, Chambers Dictionary 1994: ‘generous; broad-minded; not bound by authority or traditional orthodoxy’) you’d surely be troubled by the way that some nationalists are unable, or unwilling, to differentiate between the interests of their political party and the interests of their country. In everyday discourse, criticism of the SNP (and sometimes even criticism of their leader) is now routinely conflated with criticism of Scotland as a whole.
If you know your history, you’ll appreciate that we’ve already seen several examples of this kind of thing in other countries. When people start using words like ‘quisling’ or ‘traitor’ to describe their fellow citizens, we’re witnessing the ugly phenomenon of ideological certainty unmediated by knowledge, perspective, humility or, indeed, just a little bit of healthy scepticism. And if you don’t know your history, here’s a spoiler alert: this sort of thing usually doesn’t end well.
The SNP’s commitment to progressive politics (new definition) is writ large in the form of two illiberal (old definition) pieces of legislation.
This country already had more than enough laws to deal with anti-social or violent behaviour, but they introduced the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act, giving police officers the power to decide the context in which blessing oneself or singing the national anthem might be considered 'offensive'. Even East Germany's Stasi didn't have the nerve to pull an oppressive stunt like that. Some of us, at least, are alarmed that we now live in a country where someone can be arrested for singing the national anthem or for blessing himself.
As if that isn’t bad enough, the ‘named person’ legislation (which requires everyone under 18 in the country to have an individual state guardian) is a pretty clear statement that the SNP view the family unit as undermining the authority of the state. It’s a grotesquely Orwellian piece of legislation, dressed up in the usual verbiage about it all being for the good of vulnerable kids. I’ve no doubt that there are folk in Scotland who believe that, since devolution, the country has adopted some progressive (new definition) legislation, but I can’t think of a single thing that the SNP has done to transfer power from the state to the citizen; it all goes the other way with them. That’s the thing about paternalistic, authoritarian statist parties; at their core, they want everyone to be a ward of the state, which is pretty much the opposite of progressive (old definition).
The other party working to the new definition of progressive is the Greens. I once voted for them because I thought I was making a protest. They wanted to save the planet, reduce pollution, preserve endangered species etc. Who could object to all that?
But the devil, as ever, is in the detail.
According to political shorthand, some parties don’t like particular groups of people. UKIP don’t like immigrants; Labour don’t like the rich; the Tories don’t like the poor and the needy; the SNP don’t like the English. But the Greens trump all of that, because they don’t even like human beings. They started life in the 1970s as pressure group with the principle aim of reducing the UK population to 20 million. They’ve got a much better image these days, but they still cling to their miserable neo-Malthusian prejudices.
They would like there to be fewer human beings on the planet, consuming stuff and generally messing the place up. This in spite of the fact that, for the last century, the annual number of deaths due to starvation have been dropping and lifespans in some countries have doubled. And all of this has taken place alongside a huge rise in the global population. The Greens don’t get the fact that the more people there are, the more we rise to the challenge of improving the lot of humankind. As PJ O'Rourke observed, the truth is that those 'progressive' concerns about population control can be distilled down to one grubby little nugget of prejudice: There's just enough of me, but way too much of you.
They want to end all animal experimentation. This, in effect, means that they believe that a rat or a guinea pig in a laboratory is as important as a child with cystic fibrosis, diabetes or sickle cell anaemia. For that reason alone, they don’t deserve your vote. I’m not even sure that I’d trust anyone with those views to go and collect my laundry.
But if you think that communism was a good idea that only got a bad name because it was ineptly managed by the wrong people, you’ll find plenty to love in the Green manifesto.
Among other things, they’d like to control and reduce the volume of advertising on TV and in newspapers, because it promotes the “materialist and consumption-driven culture”. They’d like to introduce measures designed to encourage a “transition from diets dominated by meat” to vegetarianism. I’m wondering what that ‘encouragement’ would look like. I’m a non-smoker, but have noted with interest the way that smokers have been encouraged not to smoke in public places and will shortly be encouraged not to smoke in their cars. Maybe 'encourage' is another of those words that was redefined when I wasn’t paying attention.
One thing you can say in their favour is that they have got lots of ideas; in fact, they’ve got a whole steaming pile of them. Their manifesto is a gift that keeps on giving: They’ll reduce the numbers of people in prison by introducing ‘mediation centres’ where the principles of ‘restorative justice’ will ensure that, if any nasty crime is committed, we’ll all be able to sit down and have a right good chat about it. They have a position on which countries the national football team should be allowed to play against and also a position on the ownership of football clubs. They say that, "where appropriate" they would put members –and not shareholders- in charge. It must really have irked them when Manchester City's owners recently used £200 million of dirty oil money to build a football academy in order to develop young talent.
The so-called ‘Beyonce tax’ (wherein a penalty on “superstar performances” will be levied in order to support “local cultural enterprises”) is more than just a proposal for a stupendously wrong-headed bit of meddling. The idea of imposing a tax on one art form specifically to support another art form is such a brutally naked example of ‘top-down’ cultural elitism that it almost takes the breath away.
Think what it would take to do all of these things. Think of the powers that a government would have to have in order to carry out such a programme. No wonder they are also agitating for state funding of political parties.
If, however, you like this kind of stuff, I’d recommend that you do some reading on the history of 20th century politics. You’ll quickly get an idea of how well the imposition of that amount of state control worked out for some of our Eastern European neighbours.
The people who had to live through it didn’t like it very much, but hey, that’s just a detail when you’re on the side of progress (new definition).