‘Arrogant, dismissive, illiberal, reactionary, totalitarian!’
What, UKIP? Not UKIP? Don’t tell me I’ll get it. Is it that guy in Turkey? I know, it’s that Kim Thingy in North Korea isn’t it? Wrong, wrong, wrong, it’s John Swinney and Nicola Sturgeon! Says who? Kevin McKenna said it, centre-page spread, in the Herald last Saturday. He never did. You’re having me on. Here’s a quote:
‘There is a curiously illiberal and reactionary strain running through its (SNP) core which seems to belie its socialist credentials’
In a piece in the Herald on the30th July, Kevin McKenna made a number of quite strong criticisms of the SNP. I was quite stunned by the quote above, not long after having been fully gobsmacked by the headline:
‘Aim of independence is put at risk by SNP’s arrogance.’
I know Kevin may not have worded the headline but it’s a reasonably representative of the conclusions he draws. Now, I’ve criticised the SNP recently in this throbbing digital organ. In particular, I had a go at what seemed to me like a trend toward a more presidential style in both the appearance the language adopted by the First Minister. Like many SNP members I want a more collegiate style with less of the ‘I’ word. I’ve also criticised the new national testing programme for schools from what Kevin McKenna would, I hope, recognise as a liberal perspective. Further, I’ve attacked the SNP leadership’s ambivalence with regard to fracking, especially former energy minister, Fergus Ewing. So, I think I’m a critical friend rather than a dupe. However, Kevin goes a long way beyond what I’d consider reasonable criticism, into the kind potentially damaging critique that Unionists will savour. In short, Kevin’s arguments seem more likely to damage his (?) aim of independence than anything the SNP have done.
As I read the piece, I began to think I should respond. The headline ‘We need to talk about Kevin’ jumped straight into my all-too-predicable wee brain. From where did it emerge? The book and the film were likely sources but I felt there was another source being clever about the title before me. It can’t have been all my own idea. I had to Google it but soon found a Bella Caledonia piece from 2011, by Mike Small, with the very same title. It was a venomous put-down of then then confirmed Unionist, Kevin McKenna, which readers of this will be relieved or disappointed to hear, I won’t match. Here’s how Mike Small opened:
‘It’s a piece so loaded with self-loathing, barely recognised inferiorism and desperate political emptiness…’
Wow! To be fair, some of the Bella readers don’t share Mike’s anger fully. The link’s at the bottom of this.
I’m going to concentrate on rebutting McKenna’s substantive points rather than commenting on his colourful language, used throughout the piece as an attempt to win the argument, reason and evidence-free, via labelling, hyperbole and ridicule. Here are a few of them, to give you the flavour:
- Named Person Scheme was soundly trashed
- A Party whose language is a Caledonian version of Orwellian double-speak
- Army of superannuated advisors
- Critics howled down and accused of pandering to paedophiles
- Christian groups jeered and intimidated
- Encouraged by a bunch of indolent academics
As a retired and now wholly indolent academic, I suppose, I’m still offended by Kevin’s jeering at my former profession. Does Kevin have a reason to be embittered about academics?
Let me list the examples of allegedly illiberal or reactionary actions undertaken by the SNP before tackling each to show how they can be characterised more accurately as admittedly imperfect but still benign, well-intentioned and progressive:
- Named Person Scheme
- Prisoners’ Voting Rights
- New Women’s Prison
- Minimum Alcohol Pricing
- Police Scotland
- Offensive behaviour at Football Act
McKenna’s assertion that illiberal and reactionary policies belie socialist credentials is puzzling. Socialism, by definition, tends to be pretty illiberal with regard quite a range of freedoms deemed damaging to the interests of the 99%. If you’re one of the 1% or less on the many freedoms to exploit others, cherished by libertarians, then you’ll find socialists pretty controlling. Good, I say.
More than half of McKenna’s piece is taking up with the first in the list. Revealingly, perhaps, McKenna writes early on: ‘But dear God in Heaven, this Party’s arrogance will be its undoing.’ Dear God in Heaven? I’m an atheist, thank God, so this made me twitch. If you want to find illiberalism, have a wee keek in the Old Testament buddy. Don’t go expecting him to sympathise with liberalism. Further, the case taken to the Supreme Court in London, against the Scottish Government’s Named Person Scheme, was by the pretty fundamentalist Christian Institute. See why I started to worry about where McKenna was going?
He has written before, attacking the scheme and labelling it melodramatically ‘SNP Big Brother’. I used to be a schoolteacher. I’ve seen the bruises and reported them to no effect. I heard the stories of abuse. I’ve seen the haunted wee faces when going ‘home’. The Named Person Scheme got full cross-party support at Holyrood. It’s supported by the Children and Young People’s Commissioner and the Royal College of Nursing. According to a piece in the National Newspaper on March 9th:
‘SCOTLAND’S “leading children’s charities and public sector stakeholders” have launched a staunch defence of the Scottish Government’s controversial named person’s policy, accusing the campaign against it of misleading the public.’
The National report described the critics as ‘evangelical Christians and other groups’. The Herald newspaper has described one group of critics as ‘fundamentalists’ who are being probed for financial irregularities. The Catholic Truth blog says the Named Person Scheme is ‘Chapter 2 of the Communist Manifesto writ large’. Doesn’t the Communist Manifesto have some good Socialist credentials? I’m getting confused Kevin.
Now, Kevin, you’re saying the SNP is at times illiberal and reactionary? Correct me, readers, but haven’t evangelical Christian groups and the Catholic Church a stronger history of such, on issues such as the rights of women, gays, humanists, socialists, prisoners, minority sects. I think the SNP are pretty good on these. Both evangelical Christians and the Catholic Church tend to be really reactionary on the Theory of Evolution. The SNP has a proud record of confirming the theory by referring to Scottish Labour as dinosaurs. Jim Murphy as a pterodactyl lookalike was everywhere in 2014. Admittedly, the Vatican does have a long record of liberal attitudes toward Nazis and more recent fascist dictators. In contrast, the SNP’s Natalie McGarry even went Turkey to protest against a really illiberal leader and got herself arrested.
Perhaps the worst thing in McKenna’s piece is this:
‘Consider again Mr Swinney and Ms Sturgeon, the words of the Supreme Court judges on your deeply flawed Named Persons legislation. “The first thing that a totalitarian regime tries to do is to get at the children, to distance them from the subversive, varied influences of their families and indoctrinate them in their rulers’ views of the world.”’
This is both silly and dishonest. Does McKenna really think the Supreme Court judges meant us to think of the Scottish Government’s scheme as in any way an example of the work of a totalitarian regime? The above quote appears on page 34 of 39 pages and is only part of a wider, generalised, explanation of the European Convention on Human Rights. When I see the term ‘totalitarian regime’, I think of Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, the Catholic Church in Medieval Europe or more recently, in Ireland. The Vatican, even today, has much more of totalitarianism about it than our fine wee social democracy does.
As for ‘subversive, varied influences’, aren’t these the very things the Christian groups who brought the complaint would be most keen to deny their children?
The other stuff added at the end to bolster McKenna’s claims are pretty lightweight and a wee bit desperate. The Prisoners’ Voting Rights issue has nothing to do with socialist credentials. I really doubt that any Christian groups, the Catholic Church or indeed most of the leftist public, would be with him on this one. I actually agree that non-violent prisoners should be able to vote but his use of the issue to attack the SNP, particularly, makes no sense. The new women’s prison cancellation is credit to Women for Independence but this group contains SNP members and the idea that the Scottish government had to be ‘dragged by its heels’ to cancel it is simply not true. Minimal alcohol pricing is widely supported even by liberals and socialists. Only the neo-liberal supermarkets benefit from preventing it and the EC’s ban is clear evidence of the power of the corporations. Police Scotland, I agree, have made mistakes on stop and search, carrying weapons, investigating a death in custody and spying on journalists. However, the merger had all-party support and we need to remember sometimes just how liberal our police are. You’ve only got to read of the regular behaviour of police in the USA, in France, Turkey or in London to get a bit of proper perspective. It was Police Scotland which was recently asked to help the NYPD learn how to arrest people without shooting them all the time. Finally, the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act has been a major success, reducing offences significantly over two years. Again, if we’re talking illiberal and reactionary, how about the bigotry and violence the act has helped reduce?
As I wrote this, I was a wee bit afraid. I never write stuff about Islam or Israel. I’m frankly scared to do so. I would never write about Rangers or Celtic for the same reason. I’m wary of seeming to attack Catholicism generally if I mention the Catholic Church’s well-known historical presence and guilt in much of the child abuse reported. Kevin has written in the Scottish Catholic Observer on ‘Celebrating Catholics in Scottish Life’. My wife used to be a Catholic. My oldest boy is a Celtic fan. I’d support a united Ireland. But I would no more celebrate Catholics in Scottish life than Presbyterians in Scottish life or Dudists in Scottish life. All Praise the Big Lebowski! I support Falkirk FC. How’s that for self-loathing, Mike Small? Here’s why, I’m anxious. I think McKenna’s piece with its righteous anger about the Named Person Programme is Christian, ideological, propaganda. There I’ve said it.