I wonder if it would be possible to develop a phone app that delivers a non-lethal but painful electric shock to every supposed independence supporter who mentions ‘the currency issue’. It has become one of those phrases that are used out of habit and custom rather than for anything they add to understanding of the issues. For anyone commenting on Scotland’s constitutional debate, a random mention of ‘the currency issue’ is now de rigeur. As is the way with such phatic language, nobody bothers to think about it. Nobody stops to consider whether there is any substance to the phrase. Nobody bothers to reflect upon how meaningful it is. Nobody wonders if this ‘currency issue’ is even a real thing. The phrase is trotted out endlessly and without the slightest concern as to whether it even makes any sense.
There are other such phrases. Phrases which have been reduced to hollow noises by misuse and overuse. Phrases that may once have conveyed something concrete or conceptual, but which no longer do so because of the blurring, dulling, diminishing effect of being deployed excessively and/or inappropriately. The term ‘political correctness’ comes immediately to mind. Whatever it may once have stood for, it is now no more than a convenient label for propositions which are disliked but can’t be refuted. A way of denigrating an argument without actually disputing it in any substantive way.
For those who don’t like a proposal but can’t quite manage to formulate a reasoned argument against it; or realise that the only counter-arguments they have reveal them to be stupid and bigoted, then the phrase ‘political correctness gone mad’ provides a handy escape route. It doesn’t really matter what the phrase means. It doesn’t even matter that it almost certainly means nothing at all in the context. It’s just what you say in those uncomfortable circumstances.
So it is with the phrase ‘the currency issue’. If the subject is the first independence referendum, or the constitutional debate more generally, it is pretty much obligatory to work it in there somewhere. It’s just a rhetorical device. A way of signalling that you’re dispassionate and even-handed enough to recognise failings or shortcomings in the Yes message. It doesn’t matter what the phrase means, or whether it means anything. It has the attribute of recognisability. People are accustomed to it. Through prolonged and repeated exposure, they are familiar with it.
People know, almost instinctively now, what the expected and socially accepted response is to the phrase ‘the currency issue’. Usually a sage and solemn nodding that says, “Ah, yes! The currency issue! Hmmm!”
More importantly, they don’t question it. Nobody – or almost nobody – responds by asking, “What currency issue?” Nobody – or precious few – insist that those who use the phrase have a responsibility to explain it. With only rare exceptions, nobody demands that those using the phrase define their terms.
Why would they? After all, everybody knows what ‘the currency issue’ is, don’t they? Do they? Well! Even if they don’t fully understand it, or can’t actually explain it, it’s still a real thing, isn’t it? Is it?
But it has to be real! It’s in all the papers. And everybody talks about it. Even Yes supporters. In fact, especially Yes supporters. It must be real, mustn’t it? Must it?
People ‘know’ about lots of things that they neither understand or are capable of explaining. Like the Big Bang theory of the origins of the universe, for example. Or globalisation.
People talk about a great many things that aren’t real. Like the ‘trickle down effect’, for instance. Or astrology.
The phrase ‘currency issue’ belongs firmly in this dubious realm. For those looking to understand why a Yes vote was not secured in the first independence referendum, the whole ‘currency issue’ thing is illuminating. Basically, a Yes vote was lost because, at any given time, as much of a third of the Yes campaign was busy doing the No campaign’s work for it. While the anti-independence mob was always relentlessly ‘on message’, large parts of the Yes movement spent much of the campaign attacking other bits of the Yes movement. Mostly the SNP. But far from exclusively.
The message from Better Together/Project Fear may have been entirely dishonest. But it was consistent. It was all a lie. But it was a simple lie. A lie that everybody on the No side could easily promulgate. Just say No! No complications. No provisos or caveats or conditions. No doubt or hesitation or even thought. The SNP are evil! Alex Salmond is the spawn of Satan! Independence would be an unmitigated catastrophe! That’s all there was to British nationalist message.
Contrast that with a Yes campaign which at times seemed to have as many different messages as there were campaign groups. “Yes, but…” went up against “Just say No”. And lost!
OK! It was a wee bit more complicated than that. But not much. The Yes side allowed the No side to dictate the agenda. The anti-independence campaign won by taking the debate entirely onto the ground of economics, where it is surpassingly easy to generate uncertainty and fear. The Yes side went on the defensive. Instead of challenging the whole basis of the union, they allowed the British state to be presented as an ideal and the standard against which alternatives had to be judged. The Yes campaign was so preoccupied with being ‘positive’ and fending off all manner of wild allegations concerning the supposed risks of independence their was almost no effort to highlight the equal or greater risks associated with remaining part of the UK.
If the Yes side had put half as much effort into challenging unionist propaganda as it put into questioning its own case, the outcome could well have been very different.
The ‘currency issue’ thing illustrates this nicely. When Better Together/Project Fear put the question, “What currency will independent Scotland use?”, this became a facile propaganda cue for all British nationalists. What we need to recognise, however, is that a shocking number of Yes supporters picked up and ran with the same line. In a knee-jerk reaction that was horrifying to behold, countless Yes supporters joined in with the attacks on Alex Salmond and the Scottish Government.
When Better Together/Project Fear shouted, “What currency?”, that shout was unthinkingly echoed by a significant part of the Yes movement. When they squawked, “What’s your Plan B?”, Yes supporters repeated the question over and over like a flock of particularly dull-witted parrots.
Generally a deplorably humourless lot, Blair McDougall’s little band of dissemblers and doom-mongers must have been pissing their union jack panties as they watched their efforts being amplified by the opposition. Certain Yes groups became Project Fear’s most potent weapons. At times, it was difficult to tell where the No campaign ended and the Yes campaign began.
And it’s still happening. Despite the lessons of the past and despite having had ample time to do the thinking that they previously neglected, Yes supporters continue to repeat the phrase ‘currency issue’ ad nauseam.
Those of us who did engage our intellects back then have long been aware that there is no ‘currency issue’. It is not a real thing. It is a propaganda artefact, nothing more. The only sensible answer to the “What currency?” question is, “It doesn’t matter!”. Because, if you actually think about it, it really doesn’t matter. It’s a daft question. A maliciously daft question intended to contrive uncertainty.
It doesn’t matter in the sense that there is no ‘correct’ answer, as the question itself implies. There are a number of currency options available to independent Scotland. But there is no ‘solution’. There is no option that is absolutely guaranteed to be ideal for all of time and in any imaginable circumstances. There is no solution that just works. Whatever option is chosen, it will have to be made to work. So, it really is of no great consequence which option is selected. The pertinent question is not what currency we will use, but whether Scotland has the capacity to manage whatever option is chosen. It’s not what the currency is called that’s important, but whether it can be made to work.
That is where the Yes campaign failed. Not only in relation to the mythical ‘currency issue’, but in relation to a whole range of such ‘issues’. Instead of going along with the British nationalist narrative, we should have been challenging it. All of it. And all of us.
Instead of questioning our own message, we should have been scrutinising and interrogating the British state’s propaganda.
Instead of parroting the phrase ‘currency issue’ we should have been asking “What currency issue?”. We should have been demanding to know whether unionists were implying that Scotland was incapable of managing its currency – whatever it might be. We should have been insisting that they explain their reasons for supposing that Scotland would be unable to make its chosen currency solution work.
Instead of picking holes in our own message we should have been shredding theirs. The British establishment’s threat to arbitrarily and unilaterally abolish the currency union was extremely vulnerable. It is no surprise that the mainstream media failed to scrutinise that position. They are worse than useless. It is unbelievable that the Yes campaign failed to blow it out of the water. And it is unforgivable that a large part of the Yes movement chose to attack the Scottish Government’s entirely reasonable position rather than take advantage of this massive weakness in the anti-independence propaganda effort.
I’ve long since abandoned hope that ‘the currency issue’ will be killed off as it deserves. There are just too many dullards who are incorrigibly attached to it. But I take some small pleasure from imagining these people getting a crippling jolt of electricity every time they repeat this mindless mantra.Views: 2019
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