Sunday, December 23, 2007

How the SNP accentuated the positive - and won.

Do lighten up. There I was sitting and thinking about what to write about: the collapse of trust in politics; the climate change challenge funked again; the tidal wave debt sweeping the economy away; Wendy Alexander’s prospects for 2008. But I said: no. Enough wallowing in negativity.

So I’ll start with the most interesting thing a politician said to me all year. It was that the success of the SNP in the May election arose of a training weekend held for party figures on how to be positive in politics. The politician in question - it was SNP minister Mike Russell since you ask - told me that, before attending this New Age colloquium, he’d been highly sceptical about the tree-hugging approach to politics. As were most of his colleagues, being products of the get-your-pit-boots-on-and-wade-into-them school. They didn’t see much to be gained from letting your enemies off the hook while you wandered around saying: “Hello sky; hello clouds”.

But apparently the party was so impressed by the event that it changed its entire approach. The SNP dumped adversarialism and negativity, or tried to. Alex Salmond was taken into a padded room and reprogrammed not to go for the goolies in political debate - no small task this since Salmond is one of the best exponents of knee-in-the-groin politics Scotland has ever seen. But he got the message, and with a heroic effort of self-control, learned to make nice. Well, except to Nicol Stephen.

The nationalists won the Scottish election by contrasting their own message of optimism with Labour’s dismal inventory of gloom. They talked about how Scotland could build on its strengths, become a proud nation taking responsibility for its own destiny, while Labour ministers just warned about how the loss of London subsidies would turn Scotland into an impoverished and isolated country cast out of Europe and becoming a haven for terrorists. No contest really.

When you think about it, the most remarkable thing about the last year is how little the SNP has indulged in its traditional vices of triumphalism and tribalism and how successful it has been in government as a result. Clearly, accentuating the positive can work, and it’s not just the SNP who have realised it. The new Tory leader, David Cameron’s, surprising success this year has been largely down to the abandonment of traditional forms of adversarial politics. He even abandoned the aggressive and vain leaders speech at conference.

But you have to be sincere about it. This has been the problem with Gordon Brown’s “Britishness” campaign during 2007, supposedly a celebration of the 300th anniversary of the Act of Union. There always seemed to be something slightly bogus about it, as if Brown was only banging on about the Brits so that people would not attack him for being a Scot. People are highly sensitised to inauthenticity, and cant, and Brown has a tendency to sound as if he his only saying what focus groups say he should say.

Similarly, there is nothing more sick-making than hacks like me who ‘ve been forecasting doom and despair all year suddenly going weepy at Christmas over babies and carol singers. Not that I have anything against carol singers, you understand. So, I will say that my children are doing very well, I have had a great year and can’t believe how lucky I am. And that it seems to me that we all have something to learn from the SNP’s embrace of optimism.

What 2007 established beyond any shadow of a doubt is that climate change is the most important issue facing humanity. The fact that this is almost a cliche merely confirms it. The consequences of global warming, already clearly evident at the polar ice-fields and deserts, will come to dominate politics, economics, international relations, conflict zones in the coming years. The scientific debate is over; and there is simply no doubt that our profligate use of fossil fuels is making the planet uninhabitable. And yet, we do absolutely nothing about it. Why?

Well, it seems that have a psychological inability to respond to extinction level threat. This may well be a trait inherited for very good evolutionary reasons. Before civilisation, primitive man faced extinction on almost a daily basis from any number of causes, from wild beasts to starvation. If we spent our time wallowing in fear, nothing would get done. Babies would not be born. So we developed a kind of Pollyanna gene which keeps our minds off apocalypse. Religion may be an extension of this psychological trait, by creating the myth of the afterlife and giving us a reason to - as Churchill put it - “keep buggering on”.

The Pollyanna gene may explain why we don’t do anything about climate change, even though we know it is happening and is going to land our children’ s children with a crisis too awful to contemplate. Which is precisely the point. Planetary extinction is a hard thing to get your head round, and if you did, then you would probably sell the house and go off round the world, or on a long bender. Which wouldn’t do anyone much good.

So, perhaps we have to find a way to look more positively on the task ahead. By some curious alchemy, we can already see anticipations of the future in the work being done by modern architects, nutritionists and even by some large private corporations like Apple. The minimalist aesthetic is everywhere - in fashions, eating styles, modes of exchange and work. People are already experimenting with a low-consumption lifestyles. Uncluttered buildings which require virtually no energy, containing people who live longer by moderating their appetites, who telecommute using ultra-low energy technology and regard the consumptionist lifestyle as something old and a little sad.

Yes, I know, people are still buying 4 by 4s - but already these things are looking like dinosaurs. And I know that obesity has taken over from heart disease as the greatest cause of premature death. That China is building a new coal fired power station every week and our government is still planning more roads, bigger airports. ...But as I say. Stop. We simply have to find a different way of approaching this problem, because merely emphasising the risks is only promoting further apathy and denial.

The psychological change that is necessary is going to have to be something like a religious conversion, without the doctrine. It is going to require a kind of mental reprogramming to see the positive aspects of moving to a low energy lifestyle. I mean, what’s not to like? Less hassle, less travel, less stress, less waste. It might be hard to imagine our lazy, dirty, fat consumerist ways changing. But just look at the SNP. If they can do it, anyone can.

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