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Politicians have no idea who we really are

MSPs are pandering to imaginary Scots, writes Robin McAlpine, based on polls about what people think 

“Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself (I am large, I contain multitudes).”

Do you complain about fast driving while occasionally breaking the speed limit? Do you support renewable energy but not turbines outside your house? Perhaps you complain about dying high streets while shopping in supermarkets. Possibly you may wish “someone” would “do something” about the conflict in Syria but you don’t want to provoke a full-blown civil war.

That’s OK, don’t worry. Walt Whitman is right: we all contradict ourselves but we are all large enough to contain those contradictions. The problem isn’t for us, it’s for those who want to know what we think and what we want. Those who govern need to understand those they govern, and that’s where it’s all going wrong.

These days, political strategists live in a different world from ordinary people – the Westminster Bubble is impenetrable, the Holyrood Bubble is becoming more impervious by the day. So they send out emissaries to Ordinaryville to bring back information which they then examine in their bunkers.

Their emissaries will return clutching opinion polls, tabloid newspapers, Twitter trends and other artefacts of normality which they will then decipher as if they were hieroglyphics. And right there, out of fragments of opinion and guesses, they will manufacture “ordinary, hard-working families”.

The problem, of course, is that you can’t build a person out of fragments of the things that they say. Contradictions have to be resolved, meanings must be extracted from statements.

The fact that Scotland is in the middle of a struggle over 
its very nature means the problem is particularly acute here. Both independence and unionism has become about “who we are”. So who do they think we are?

They think we describe ourselves as “Scottish first, British second”, because we say that in opinion polls. And yet I’ve been asking people for years and I have yet to find one person who has ever heard anyone describe themselves like this.

They think we cringe at cultural nationalism. Really? For better or worse, all my non-political friends still get teary at the end of Braveheart and they all sing sentimental songs when Scotland gets beat.

Some of them think we want to join Nato. And yet everything this entails – wars of aggression, depleted uranium weapons, rendition and torture, drone assassinations, first-strike nuclear policy – is highly unpopular.

What “really matters” to “ordinary Scots” are schools, the NHS and jobs. Yet my experience is that only people who have children talk about schools much, people talk about healthcare mainly when they need it and people talk almost exclusively about one job: their own.

At the top level, politics has become in part a sort of social anthropology. Mainly upper-middle-class people are employed to “figure out” mainly working and lower-middle-class people on behalf of other mainly upper-middle-class people.

The problem with anthropology is that unless it is done very well it often tells us more about the anthropologist than the natives. In London, at the turn of the millennium, New Labour strategists seem to have looked at their data and concluded that people are a bit stupid. They believed what people said: that Coronation Street matters more to them than economics.

But when the natives weren’t being watched, they didn’t really take Coronation Street very seriously at all.

What the natives do talk about almost endlessly is their experience of work, a topic I can barely remember a senior politician mentioning. Work-life balance, the amount of time they have with family, the tedium of their job, how they feel stuck in work because of a mortgage, how they miss their job, wish they had one, wish they didn’t. I don’t care what people pick out of a list of “hot topics” put to them in an opinion poll – this is what they really talk about.

And yet somehow the political classes think this big question can be resolved with a press release about a thousand new shelf-stacking jobs. But there is only one category of human who has ever wanted a thousand jobs: politicians. The rest really just want one good one.

The more political strategists listen to what people tell them, the less they seem to understand what they mean. They think we say “Schools and hospitals” when what we mean is “We want to live in a good society where we feel secure”. They think we say “Create as many jobs as possible” when what we mean is “I want a job that still lets me be me”. They think we say “Join Nato” when what we mean is “Persuade us we’re safe”. They think we say “Sentimentality is for losers” when what we mean is “It’s nice to feel part of something”.

Don’t believe anyone that tells you they have proof of what people think. The national identity poll asks “How would you describe yourself?” yet “How do you describe yourself?” is more important. The Nato poll makes unpopular wars disappear before your eyes. The priorities in political priorities polls are chosen and worded by strategists. The cultural identity assumptions are assumptions of one social class.

If one person contains multitudes, an entire population is more vast than we can summarise in a soundbite. The shortcut – to create an imaginary people and pander to them instead – is one important reason behind disillusionment with politics.

There is only one cure for this: politicians have to stop telling us what we mean and start telling us what they mean. Stop chasing us round the room asking us what we think and make a principled stand of your own. If you’re persuasive, we’ll come to you.

And as for political strategists themselves – and I used to be one, for a Labour politician and then for a universities body – I fear the only option is a care in the community programme to re-integrate them into society peacefully.

Robin McAlpine