Personality Politics: Our Not So New Obsession

Without a doubt U.K party politics has become more centralised over the past two decades, that is, it has become more about the party leader and less about party policy. This change in our political system can be attributed to many different factors which influence one another: a decrease in loyalty due to a dilution in political ideology; technological advancement, particularly in the media; entrenched distrust in the system as the number of scandals increases; and, of course, the rise of PR.

As our political parties attempted to become more ‘catch-all’ and less ideologically-orientated, the impetus was on the party leaders – or perhaps more accurately, the spin doctors as party leaders – to present this change to the public, to become the best ‘all-rounder’. Thus, we are at stage where personality politics is all we seem to talk about in the run up to elections, which these days is all the time. But nowhere is our increasing obsession with our leaders more apparent than in political TV debates.

One particularly interesting and striking example of this phenomenon is the TV debates which took place in the run up to the Scottish Independence Referendum. The first two of these debates involved Alistair Darling and Alex Salmond, the de facto leaders of the opposing campaigns. The third took a rather different form, involving three spokespeople for each campaign from various political parties or, in the case of Elaine C. Smith, from non-political professions.

Now, anyone who watched all of these debates will most likely tell you that the latter was by far the most intelligible and informative out of all three. However, on brief analysis of the media coverage of these debates it becomes apparent that the latter was the least talked about. Indeed, the BBC website hosts an easily accessible and extremely thorough breakdown of the Darling/Salmond debates, including polling data, social media analysis and key quotes. Whereas, on the contrary, it reveals no articles discussing the third debate, let alone an in-depth analysis.

The few articles and pieces of analysis that can be readily found are in newspapers, primarily Scottish national newspapers, and on the ITV/STV websites. However, even their coverage of the third debate is pitiful in comparison to that of the Darling/Salmond show-down. Thus, a debate which had the potential to be highly influential, if not the most influential out of all three, is forced down the media-agenda and consequently the public-agenda.

Now some people may read this and come to the conclusion that the media are to blame, and they are to an extent. But we must always bear in mind that they are working off of data which is telling them that we, as a society, prefer to hear about the personal politics of our leaders over the political policies of our parties; so much so, that in a vote with two campaigns dedicated to no one party, we managed to assign party leaders.

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Scottish Independence – A Journey From ‘No’ to ‘Yes’

U.K Electoral Map 2010

My opinion has slowly changed over the years, but I am certain now that I will vote ‘yes’ in Scotland’s independence referendum come September. Two years ago I was avidly rebuking a dissolution from our now 307 year old union with the rest of the U.K, and only one year ago, last February, when Glasgow University held the first mock independence referendum, I still couldn’t quite bring myself to tick the ‘yes’ box. However, over the past year I’ve been pushed off the fence and into the backyard of the Yes Campaign.

It was certainly a gradual process. I came to realise that I was erring on the side of caution, but that my uncertainty wasn’t actually founded on anything solid. So, decided it would be appropriate to educate myself on the politics and economics of independence. This decision in fact pushed me in the opposite direction in which I had intended to go. It was the electoral map from the 2010 general election which sparked it off.

I have always been left of centre when it comes to politics and have been slowly pushed further left as time has passed, I grew up in a labour-supporting household, and have always recognised the working-class make-up of my country. So when I saw that bright blue of the Conservative Party on the electoral map blinding to me to anything that came above border, I realised the inequality in our political system. How could a country, whose population you could fit almost two-times over into Greater London, ever be fairly represented in U.K politics?

I continued my research – reading articles, watching interviews, attempting to understand a variety of reports – but now with a clearer impression of the current political make-up of our country. Despite all the warnings about red tape and economical threats, I just couldn’t get that map out of my head. Red tape, negotiation and inevitable risk don’t really hold much weight with me anyway, given the current economical state of the U.K and the fact that Scotland is already so devolved.

Whenever I listen to a BBC news article regarding education, law, healthcare, the emergency services, the weather or many more things besides, I often find myself suddenly remembering that it often doesn’t actually apply to me. It appeared to me that we were almost already there, that independence was the inevitable next step if we were willing to take the risk.

By this point I was fairly convinced. Devolution demonstrated our capability, no one had persuaded me otherwise about if we could afford it or not, and I was very aware that all our decent Politicians were 400 miles away and that we were shouting from the back of the classroom. And then 2014 arrived, and with it a barrage of scaremongering.

February was a particularly bad month: first we had Osborne’s speech, backed by a Treasury report, in which he announced that the ‘Pound is not an asset to be divided up’; then came along Maria Miller, with her assertion that a no vote is ‘a vote to leave […] the BBC’; finally, and this is the big one, Jose Manual Barroso, president of the EU Commission, claimed that it would be ‘extremely difficult, if not impossible’ for an independent Scotland to join the EU. I’m not sure if they expected to placate the Yes voters, but if they did, from my experience it has had the opposite effect.

Each of these assertions is influenced by the eminence grise of partisan politics, and certainly have no place in a democratic referendum. Of course the Treasury’s report was in favour of excluding an independent Scotland from the Pound, the ministers currently heading the Treasury are Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, and very few of its adjoining bodies are independent. Of course Barroso is going to suggest that an independent Scotland would risk not being granted entry into the EU; too many would-be breakaway European countries are watching and waiting in hope for a positive outcome in September for him to say otherwise. As for the BBC, well, I would dearly miss Downton Abbey, but I get the impression that that’s the point, they’re trying to get me where it hurts most.

There have been some positives in the past week however. Fortunately, the Yes Campaign found a friend in economist Leslie Young who, after analysing each section of the Treasury’s report, found that it was unsubstantiated and could not stand up to scrutiny. On top of that, the results of a poll released Sunday March 23rd revealed that support for the Yes Campaign has increased by 2% compared to last month when the barrage hit.

However, my worry is that, as the scaremongering continues and perhaps increases, the people of Scotland will begin to take the Tories and their counterparts at their word, even if it is unsubstantiated. There are only so many threats a people can take. So we have to ensure that we continue to rebuttal their attacks with substantiated evidence from neutral parties like Leslie Young. We must ensure that we continue to be democratic in the face of undemocratic behaviour.