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Today is exactly one month from the vote on Scottish Independence. I’m not going to comment on that issue itself where so much has already been written and said, some of it true and some of it helpful.
For me, an unease has been bubbling underneath the surface of the independence debate for a long time now. One of my obsessions is East Germany, now almost 25 years extinct, but within the living memory of my generation, and something we grew up with without (in my case certainly) knowing very much about it, other than the Wall which cut across Berlin. One of the things that state demonstrated consistently was the impact of ideology.
East Germany was a country ruled by a generation of men who had experienced the brutality of the Nazi regime against those who opposed it (as well as those it simply decided to target, another lesson in ideology). Some had spent the war in exile in the Soviet Union. Ironically, they found a different type of repression there, including within the ranks of the committed communists. Those who returned to Germany after the war were the survivors. Others fought in the war and saw first hand where fascism could lead. These were the men who founded East Germany (the German Democratic Republic, of which the “German” part was true). They returned committed to fighting fascism, expanding that to include capitalism and the West in general. But they took this personal commitment to extremes, convinced that not only was their ideological commitment correct but that how they implemented it was also the right way. In doing so, they created a number of fictions which they held out as fact. For example, they argued over and over that there were no former Nazis living in East Germany, that they were all in the West. There could not be any fascists in their socialist paradise, so they simply said that this was the case – and believed it to be true. The facts were made entirely subject to their ideological conviction. The principle was “we decide what is true and what is not true”. One of the famous East German songs even included the line “The Party is always right.”
We can look back on this and wonder what the people were thinking of. The general population knew (in part thanks to having access to West German television and radio) more than they were supposed to, and they certainly could see the difference between the reality they experienced every day and the country which was presented in their media. But the lies which kept East Germany going for forty years were supported by the constant threat of force, experienced in East Germany in June 1953 and in the better known intervention by Soviet troops in Prague in 1968.
So what is the excuse for the ideology trumping facts in the Scottish independence debate? There is no threat of external force being applied, no Wall to remind people to stay where they are. And yet there is a clear line being taken by the Yes campaign. It will all be fine, trust us. Anyone with a contrary view, or putting forward facts to highlight an issue, are accused of, variously, bullying, threatening, or simply being wrong. No explanation necessary, they are just wrong, because it’s not what “we” believe to be true.
In this country and this century, I don’t think there is any excuse for being unwilling to enter into a rational discussion of the issues, particularly by those whose job it is to present the voters with the options. And their opinion, of course. But it seems that, in this case, opinion has become too contaminated by ideology, and there the rational debate ends. You cannot argue with ideology. For its proponents, it is unassailable. But the rest of us have a choice.