Anybody in the UK should be able to write about #indyref. So should anybody throughout the entire world. I distrust any casual classification of London journalists as UK generalists rather than Scottish specialists. In his BBC-squashing press conference yesterday, the First Minister Alex Salmond scoffed at “the metropolitan media” and its ignorance of Scotland. He might have been right about the BBC’s bungling, but not on the apparently innate remoteness of London journalists. During an otherwise enjoyable takedown of George Monbiot’s Scottish intervention, Dale Street dwells upon Monbiot’s status as an “English writer living in Wales.” The Lallands Peat Worrier, although singling Paul Mason out for praise, describes “the pith-helmeted imperial anthropologists, who gain a superficial knowledge of their subjects, and trump off to pen the authoritative tome, shot through with their own problematic assumptions and cultural blind spots.”
A London political commentator and an Edinburgh one such as myself have ultimately plugged ourselves into #indyref through the same international means of the internet. Our knowledge of #indyref comes from the extent which we have read about it, and there is no correlation between this and our geographical location (or our stated cultural identity). There is nothing to stop a nomad who is trekking across the Gobi desert from writing about #indyref with model proficiency, providing that their wireless connection holds out. Indeed, the Rev. Stuart Campbell, the founder of Scotland’s leading pro-independence website Wings Over Scotland, writes from Bath in Somerset. This vicarious nationalism, though irrefutably comic, is one of the most reassuring features of the Scottish nationalist revival. Still, nobody could deny that Campbell knows the ropes on #indyref.
You might even argue that somebody who has not read hundreds of blogposts about #indyref can look on it with valuably fresh eyes. The debate should be therefore grateful for every new contribution. The American philosopher, linguist, and public intellectual Noam Chomsky has made several interventions on #indyref this year, culminating in a thirty minute video which was released on Znet last week. I had read a lot of Chomsky’s writing when I was younger, but very little since, and so returning to his analysis is rather like watching a Blue Peter report on #indyref or hearing the Spice Girls sing about it. I have always appreciated the clarity of Chomsky’s writing and that sense which it gives of prioritising the historically serious over the politically trivial. Perhaps his latest intervention, however, reminds me why my reading had lapsed.
His analysis seems to be perfectly true but frustratingly remote from the world of everyday politics. He looks down on the planet like one of HP Lovecraft’s gods, alert to the general destiny of the human project but delegating all of the weary particulars to unspecified subordinates. In previous remarks about #indyref he had warned that, “I haven’t studied the matter in any detail… I can’t take a position.” Well, why not? #Indyref is being sold to the world as a rejuvenation of the Left and as a shake-up of the powers-that-be. Surely this is worth perusing a copy of the Scotsman for?
In this latest video, he is asked a series of very good questions about #indyref, to which he replies with an almost papal commitment to platitude. Scotland is a little butterfly flapping its wings but Chomsky doubts that this will reap any hurricanes from the calm surface of state-capitalism. In a rare concession to detail, he broods that, “I mean you can’t separate yourself from the world these days… so Scotland, if it moves towards independence… would have to figure out ways of determining how it can become enmeshed in the international treaty system. That’s not so simple.”
There is a studied refusal to mention Alex Salmond – or else Chomsky has genuinely never heard of him. What about the currency, the oil, and the implications for democracy? “My guess will be that if there is a move towards autonomy in Scotland it will be mild reforms – nothing is going to be smashed. There will be slow evolutionary changes in the ways Scotland will interact with England, with the European Union, with the United States, with international treaties…” Oh dear, the politics of Scotland only produces a polite boredom in Chomsky. It’s hard not to feel suddenly very small and insignificant.
We are still living through the dark days of “evidence-based” politics, in which every argument, however flimsy its moral coherence, is supposed to lay on the statistics with a trowel. Compared with this, Chomsky’s aloofness from detail is refreshing and his writing acquires an undeniable authority. But his analysis can seem apolitical on everything other than the profoundest of questions. For example, Chomsky asserts that, “part of the reaction to the centralisation of the European Union has been a rise of regionalism and local cultures, local languages, moves towards local autonomy… this is a natural reaction to it.” Yet does this constitute an active rejection of EU rule or is it instead a passive, even irresponsible retreat from the arena of power-politics? Chomsky won’t take a position on this. And does regionalism threaten to subtract from the principles which Chomsky presumably endorses, such as Enlightenment and democracy? It’s not Chomsky’s place to say, even though the objectivity of his own analysis is the very opposite of a Catalonian folk song.
This apolitical stance has its costs. Chomsky was irritated this April when papers such as the Scotsman and the Guardian announced his “support” for Scottish independence. In fairness, he had told the Russian news agency RIA Novosti (“the obvious choice,” as one satirist has joked) that, “My intuition favours independence.” Unfortunately the great man’s trenchant criticisms of US foreign policy have never been based on “intuition.” And so Chomsky was back, in an interview with Chatham House, to complain that his bare, noncommittal remarks had been misinterpreted by the “British press” as “favouring independence.”
Well, bad news Chomsky, because if you’ve managed to wriggle out of the Yes campaign I’ve just recruited you to UKIP. For one phrase is repeated throughout his latest interview and this is “Brussels bureaucrats.” In fact, it occurs with the same regularity that you might find in a speech by the UKIP leader Nigel Farage. Here’s a nice example:
In the case of the European Union it’s extreme. The Bundesbank and the Brussels bureaucrats are in effect dictating policy for states. Actually the Wall Street Journal had an article pointing out that no matter what government wins an election in Europe – you know, Communist, Fascist, whatever it may be – they follow the same policies, because the policies are not being determined by the countries. In fact we saw that pretty dramatically when George Papandreou hinted barely that maybe there ought to be a referendum in Greece for people to decide if they wanted to accept the EU policies and there was just uproar, furore, how can you ask the people, what do they have to do with it? This stuff is all determined by the bankers and the bureaucrats in Brussels.
It’s actually very rare to hear such a plain defence of democracy on the Left these days, and practically unknown during the #indyref debate. Since the Scottish Left is preparing to repel UKIP this weekend, it might be worth reviewing Farage’s “Euro-sceptic” (i.e. democratic) intervention in the light of this similar defiance from Chomsky. If this much is clear then it’s good enough for me: Chomsky’s “intuition” favours Scottish independence, but his objective reasoning wants us to smash the EU and secure some real independence.