Robin McAlpine: Welcome to ‘Frame Wars’ – Where Powerful People Decide What Words Mean

Common Weal Director Robin McAlpine argues that elites have manipulated language in such a way as to obliterate critique of their own political power and control

Robin McAlpine is the director of the Scottish think tank Common Weal.

Cross-posted from Common Space

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IT MUST be wonderful to control language, to decide what words are going to mean now. It’s the free power to delegitimise, to isolate and marginalise, to close down.

It’s the ability to turn the word ‘nationalism’ into something meaning fascism. It’s the ability to turn populism on its head and use it to delegitimise class politics. It’s the power to redefine democracy as whatever you want it to be.

Which is to say that, at its heart, this is the only real political fight happening in Britain just now.

Let’s start with ‘nationalism’. As far as I’m concerned this word simply means ‘to believe that the fundamental unit of power and decision-making should be the nation state’. 

Nationalism doesn’t mean isolation; it means that the mode through which you talk to others globally is through the democratically elected government of one nation state talking to another. After all, the fundamental principle which underpins internationalism is nationalism; without the nation, international relations become imperial.

Is there bad nationalism? Sure, like there’s bad democracy, bad conservatism, bad liberalism, bad environmentalism. That they can be done badly doesn’t mean they’re fundamentally evil. Remember, Hitler wasn’t a nationalist, he was an imperialist (a ‘reich’ isn’t a nation). But he was definitely a democrat – until he wasn’t.

I meet a fair number of ‘anti-nationalists’, and there are consistent characteristics. They are (without fail) from the very top end of the world’s income spectrum. They’re absolutely certain that they’re right. And they are incredibly vague on what they’re right about.

What they believe in looks to me like a kind of ‘consensual empire’ (giant regional superpowers which are underpinned by binding legal rules rather than democracy) – consensual because they assume everyone else will comply with their demands, as usual.

They temper it with a very loose sort of hyperlocal participatory democracy – so you could definitely vote on when your bins get emptied but you wouldn’t be able to vote on core economic policy or what wars are started (and since this is basically the European Commission as caliphate you would have no right to remove the rule-makers).

The fact that no-one has described post-nationalism as anything other than a horrific dystopia doesn’t stop Jo Swinson from her utter certainty that nationalism means ‘pure hatred’ – yet she won’t come out and call for the United Kingdom to be dismantled, presumably because she’s driven by pure hatred (or is British nationalism not nationalism?).

The least legitimate politics in Britain is geographic politics. I’m pretty sure that Slowthai’s brilliant album ‘Nothing Great About Britain’ would not have made the Mercury prize list if he’d been Scottish. Class politics is dead so complaining about the rich is harmless.

Next comes populism. This is a disputed term but shouldn’t be. The linguistic root of populism is absolutely not ‘popularity’ but ‘populace’. It is an ideological approach where one group in society has its world view shaped through the demonisation of another group in society.

If nationalism is ‘us, not them’, populism is ‘you and me, not him’. The ‘not them’ of nationalism simply means that our laws don’t apply to the French. The ‘not him’ of populism means that legal rights don’t apply to the Roma, or the Jews, or the non-whites.

True populism is repulsive – but the way the term is used in contemporary western politics is quite different from the proper definition of populism. It is now taken to mean ‘opposing the system’ – Bernie Sanders is in no way a populist, but is called one.

No proper definition of populism should include the ruling class as a category of person like being Roma or Jewish or of African descent. Blaming the ruling classes for their failure (punching up, not down) is perfectly legitimate – or was.

But not now. Now if you suggest that an identifiable group of people are responsible for how the world is run you’re called a ‘populist’. 

This twists my head right round the corner it’s so barking mad. I mean, they aren’t imaginary this elite. They have a big party every year and they press release it. It’s called ‘Davos’ and they really do get together and decide how the world is run.

That they don’t get their way on everything every time is neither here nor there; they get most of what they want most of the time. They really are a global ruling class and they set international trade rules. Saying so doesn’t make you a populist but a political scientist.

Not in liberal circles; they’ve been desperately framing the word ‘elite’ as in the same category as disgusting racist slurs – clear evidence that the person saying it must be ignored and shunned.

Sure they do – another of the ruling class’s language tricks is that we don’t have a word for them and if we develop one they ban it. They’re not the elite, they’re just hard-working citizens.

But the scariest bit of this is the current battle over the word ‘democracy’. For example, you may be aware of the phrase ‘referendums are the favoured tool of dictators’, because it’s what all the oligarchs say.

This is a phrase which means ‘we’re the ruling class and you can choose between us, but you can’t make decisions for yourselves because you might make the wrong decision’.

It is with utter disbelief that I discover so many of you think the worst lie of the last 20 years was about closing Parliament (death toll so far absolutely zero) and not the Iraq war (death toll so far unimaginable). 

Tony Blair lied through his teeth, but he did two things right; he lied using parliamentary language and he didn’t lie about white people. Which, for liberals, is all acceptable (if perhaps disagreeable).

I’m not sure if you’ve noticed but despite being 100 years past the battle for votes for women we’re right back discussing whether ‘the person in the street’ has the intellect to make policy decisions. Surely they should be restricted to choosing from among their betters?

Well let me tell you a secret; I’ve seen many governments up close and much of the time they have no idea whatsoever what they’re doing; the Thick Of It should be filed under non-fiction. The liberals want to restrict democracy to ‘representative democracy’ because that way only the best and brightest will run the country. Like that Grayling chap and his no ferries.

But it has been getting even more sinister this week (and for reasons that utterly escape me, the indy movement is cheering it along). We have now decided that the UK has all the democracy that an unelected judge drawn from the landed aristocracy says you can have, after looking into the tea leaves of an unwritten constitution that can’t be checked or verified.

For you indy people putting on spider broaches, are you aware that this week ended any possibility of independence without a Section 30 Order? If you harboured hopes that an election victory or something else could be a trigger, you should give yourself a shake. 

No Supreme Court Judge is going to interpret the British ‘constitution’ as allowing Holyrood to hold an advisory referendum. They will rule it illegal to start negotiations for independence on the basis of a Scottish election win (the SNP can’t win a Westminster election; for Westminster Scotland is not a separate place according to the British constitution). Hell, asking a civil servant to write a side of A4 on independence would be deemed illegal.

And don’t ask to see the relevant section of the constitution because whatever Lady Hale thinks IS the constitution.

What the hell is going on? It’s simple; we’re in ‘frame wars’. Two sides who are used to total control are losing control and they’re both fighting to get it back using language. One group is the traditional ruler – Eton Boy. The other is the new establishment – the ‘Liberal Technocrat’. They kind of tussle for supremacy but in reality accommodate each other with great ease.

But the self-serving way they run the country has caused a collapse in faith among the population. That population want to give them some kind of punishment for their behaviour, so the ruling classes are desperately trying to make that linguistically unacceptable.

Well, apart from the ones who temporarily do want to invoke the public because for now the public agrees with them. Let’s see if Boris will agree to a referendum on rail renationalisation, the mystical, magical ‘no matter how many people want it, they can’t have it’ policy.

There are only two things they agree on. Number one, the British State must be protected so independence must be made illegitimate. And number two, there is to be no class politics in Britain (which is why Swinson can’t articulate why she hates Corbyn so, so much).

Words mean exactly what they are used to mean, and since social media opened up that zone (for good and ill) the elite want it back. And dear god are they fighting for it.

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