Politics is complicated. Successive governments, all over the globe, try and often fail to solve the social problems for which they are voted in. Whether these problems are economic or moral, they aren’t often easy to solve. One of the biggest reasons for this in recent times is the failure of ideology to be evidence-based. In the UK, the Conservatives famously championed a technique of ‘trickle down’ economics, in which they theorised the rich few in society would benefit the rest via their own spending within the society. It was an appealing idea, but of course rich people don’t just up the amount of bread they buy relative to their wealth; their extra capital is sitting in bank accounts, investment bonds, or being spent on rare or luxury items. A diamond may be many thousands of times the price of a loaf of bread, but it doesn’t create many thousands of times the tax revenue and employment value of the bread. So trickle down economics doesn’t work in theory or, as the last few decades show, in practice. The gap between the rich and poor grew.
Many political entities, including the Conservatives, still lust after this disproven ‘the rich will naturally save the day’ philosophy. Of course they do: ideology is not evidence-based. This ideological problem isn’t what I would call the snake oil of politics, though. Ideologies are reasonably clear policy bases which we can indulge or ignore, whether they are accurate or not.
The real snake oil salesmen are those claiming that there is a simple, singular solution to our societies’ problems. In modern politics this comes almost unanimously in the form of ideological single issue parties. But whilst single-issue parties like the Green’s have moved from a single base of environmentalism to a clear and reasonably far-left social justice party (with all the flaws that go with it), the small parties built on nationalism have stuck steadfastly to the basic ideology: that nationalism/isolation will save society.
There are of course two very different yet equally relevant examples of this snake oil in British politics: the SNP and UKIP. Interestingly, people seem to want to ignore the similarities between these parties, which shows just how good one or the other is at selling its snake oil as something more than nationalism. They certainly aren’t the same party in terms of practical policies, but their ideologies and tactics are remarkably similar.
To the SNP first. They were most visible in 2014 thanks to the Scottish Independence Referendum, gaining what seems like limitless popularity in Scotland. Their arguments during 2014, perhaps understandably, focused entirely on classic nationalist lines. In many instances they dropped the arguments altogether in favour of a post-modern grasping and rewiring of the independence debate as ‘positive’ versus ‘negative’. The better together campaign were asking for a dull, status quo ‘no’, whilst the yes campaign were hoping for an exciting, new ‘yes’. They benefited from the wording of the referendum, in essence. Had it instead been worded as ‘Should Scotland remain as a part of the United Kingdom?’ then the majority of the most effective tactics would have favoured the other side, and arguably would have led to a greater victory against isolation.
It is the instances when the SNP did use arguments, rather than simple shouts of positivity, that is of interest here though. These arguments were of the strongest nationalist types. They asked why shouldn’t ‘Scottish people’ rule Scotland, emotively played on words such as independence (independence conjures images of freedom, which inaccurately paints a no vote as illiberal), and created an ‘us vs. them’ argument between Scotland and South England. Somehow they even managed to demonise the Southern English in isolation, equating them with the bankers after the economic crash. Conveniently forgetting that some bankers are Scottish, and also that they didn’t want Scotland and Northern England to be an independent country: they just wanted Scotland. Their own tactic here showed the arbitrary nature of line drawing which nationalism always consists of.
In general, the reductive argument was very simply that regardless of the benefits of an economic and social union between the different regions of the UK, Scottish people would be better off without it, as Scottish people were different enough to the rest. That is, Scottish people in the small communities of Skye and Orkney, of the cosmopolitan Glasgow alternative cultures, of the sophisticated Edinburgh, the digital Dundee and even the wealthy, oil-rich Aberdeen. All of Scotland – according to the nationalists – are different, equally different, to all the rest of the UK. There was no credence that different areas of Scotland were more similar to their counterparts in the wider UK, instead the nationalists made the argument that all Scottish people were the same in being different, but also better off without those ‘other’ British people.
Indeed the SNP sold this solution to the ills of Scottish society on the basis that it would improve social justice as well as the economy, yet it did so based on nothing but drawing an imaginary, historical line just below the borders region.
Nationalists in Scotland are very rarely caught explicitly saying that their own nation or race are ‘better’ than anyone else, so we can’t be 100% certain that the nationalists noticed this reductive nature of their arguments. But the case of nationalism, which is nothing but arbitrary line drawing, must make arguments like this. Here’s why:
If nationalists do not deeply believe that their own nation is better than others, or the people in it are better or of a different kind, then the political policies they could formulate would be greatly limited. Indeed it wouldn’t be nationalism. If one simply believed that a country, such as Scotland, would be better run as an independent because it was smaller, for example, then this lone factor could be easily balanced out by the economic security, employment advantages, export benefits, etc. Within a reasonably successful country like the UK it would take quite some coincidence to line up every relevant area of potential independence as an advantage on behalf of independence, as the SNP claimed. Similarly, they are arguing for the independence of the very culturally varied Scotland as a whole – not the one or two areas that are exactly the same. It’s a nationalistic line drawing exercise to argue that Scotland, not regions of it or regions of England too, should be independent. Financially it would have been more sensible to argue Aberdeen should be independent, thus not carrying the less financially able areas, and culturally more sensible to argue that Glasgow and Dundee should be independent, not the less culturally similar areas. These were not the arguments made.
The proof is also in the pudding. The SNP didn’t ignore or concede any significant areas as losses under independence: they argued that Scotland would be immediately and forever wealthier, more just, more peaceful, happier and more respected as an individual nation. This is snake oil of the highest degree, claiming that such an arbitrary decision, based on nothing but a line drawing exercise could cure society of its ills. Even a sympathetic rational analysis would note that the case for independence should be weaker or stronger at different times, depending on the annual economic outlook, etc. The fact that the SNP have been campaigning for this for decades, with no substantial difference in arguments, tells us something important.
Nationalism – whether it be as extreme as isolating an entire country or not – is not a cure-all for the ills of social deprivation or economic collapse. There is no evidence to suggest it is, and if you’re being sold this idea, you’re being sold snake oil. After losing the referendum, large swathes of Yes voters are forecasted to be newly voting SNP in May’s general election despite a lack of movement in their policies from before the referendum; the political snake-oil market is booming.
Once the problem of nationalistic snake-oil is explained, it’s not hard to see how UKIP fit in. UKIP is an entire party whose ideology is that the UK should remove itself from the European Union – regardless of the effect. Again, UKIP don’t say the ‘regardless of its effect’ part, you have to dig at the logic. They have not said ‘we will stay in the EU if…’, rather they believe that whatever happens, they will leave the EU. Theoretically, even if the EU become a perfectly organised and fair organisation tomorrow, UKIP would still oppose it else it wouldn’t be the ideology of UKIP. Historically we would call this a pressure group – pressuring public opinion on one subject – but in modern society, we allow it’s charm as an ‘anti-politics’ party to somehow confuse us.
This certainly isn’t the only evidence of UKIP’s nationalistic tendencies. Their views on immigration are supported by a primitive form of reason: they believe that people born/raised in the UK should have first choice on British jobs. As primitive as this sounds, it might make some sense: immigrants, perhaps, are more likely to be willing/able to move countries to find jobs, whereas British people in Britain may be less willing/able. Thus there’s a line of argument that makes sense. However UKIP go way beyond this: claiming everything from increased immigration negatively affects global warming (of course a blatant lie – the clue is in the word global, not national), it has made more traffic which in turn makes their leader late for conferences, and that decreasing immigration significantly will improve our economic situation.
This last argument – that immigration causes economic problems – is the most rational. Yet it still doesn’t make a great deal of sense. It might improve things slightly, but it would primarily reduce a small strain on the welfare state. The amount spent on the welfare state – including pensions and all – only measures 25% of the countries economy. Around 5% of the people on working benefits – working benefits itself is only a percentage within the 25% – are non-British, which is a tiny figure compared to either the amount of debt in the country or the other individual factors in our economic weakness (for instance, tax avoidance among big business, or the almost total elimination of tax for non-domiciles in the country). Such insignificant figures also don’t take into account the economic benefits of immigration. It arbitrarily picks out one small issue from the huge spectrum of political issues, and then bases a solution for the whole political spectrum on this alone.
This is scare-mongering and snake-oil selling combined. Not only is it bizarre to begin demonising based on those same poor nationalistic arguments which we heard earlier, but it’s also complete nonsense. In science, we see things like alchemists all but extinct because it’s logically invalid; people in scientific disciplines are trained to spot nonsense. Yet in politics we seem to be slaves to our basic instincts, flocking to words like ‘immigration’ or the calling out of our national labels. It seems that evidence holds little sway. Sure, we can’t make every decision in politics based on evidence alone, but when we can disprove ideas by using it we certainly should. Yet we indulge nationalism all the time, in a way that doesn’t speak well for our ability to understand either politics or arguments.
Given that we all have to study history at school, and with it the mistakes of nationalism which the world made in the 1910’s/30’s/40’s, it’s quite something that UKIP now poll as the UK’s third biggest political party, whilst the SNP look set to gain close to 100% of the parliamentary seats in Scotland. It’s unlikely that either of these nationalist tribes – even if they both gain mass success – will lead the UK to war any time soon. But it is concerning that we appear to be seeing a generation of voters who don’t know the risks and arbitrary nature of nationalism, or how to spot subjective line-drawing as a political tactic to solve important social problems. Problems that grow when we focus on illegitimate snake oil rather than rational attempts to solve them. We’re surely better than this, aren’t we? We’re certain to find out in May.