Analysis: The politics of outrage is a detriment to democratic debate

First published on 5th February 2015, on

By Haniya Khalid

Outrage is designed to be explosive, and the ensuing carnage to have lasting effects.

This was demonstrated rather well when Nicola Sturgeon appeared on the Andrew Marr show for the first time a week ago.

Echoing the BBC’s Nick Robinson during his interview with Scotland’s first minister a few days before, Marr quizzed her on her party’s stance on voting on English matters in the event the forecast SNP gains took fruit in the upcoming general election.

Despite Sturgeon’s repeated response that the devolution of powers and the Barnett formula rendered the fate of areas like taxation and the Scottish NHS inextricably dependent on its English counterparts, and this was the only reason the SNP would consider voting on such matters, it seemed that Marr was searching for a remark that could spark outrage among sections of the English electorate:

Nicola Sturgeon: As long as we are funded in Scotland as we are just now, of course SNP MPs would vote on tax issues because those decisions affect the budget of the Scottish parliament.

Andrew Marr: But you can understand the irritation in England if the Scottish parliament has control over its own fiscal and taxation affairs but Scottish MPs are saying to English voters that we’re going to change your taxation in this regard or that regard.

Nicola Sturgeon: But full fiscal control for the Scottish parliament is not yet being proposed. Now I actually think that where you have matters, purely English matters, that have no impact on Scotland, I think there is a very, very strong case for English votes, for English laws, Scottish MPs shouldn’t be voting on issues like that.

This assertion went unnoticed in the following media frenzy; from a Conservative MP calling Sturgeon’s statements a ‘bunch of twaddle’ that only served to ‘put our union at risk again’, to the Daily Mail screaming that she had claimed the whole of Britain would be better run if Scottish Nationalists sat in Miliband’s Cabinet.

It isn’t hard to trace back this flammable trail to what could be considered its source; Nick Robinson’s BBC interview with Sturgeon in which the matter of Scottish MPs voting on the English matters like health came up.

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In other words, it is clear that outrage leads to outrage, until the issue at hand has been so stifled under all the fiery rhetoric of politicians and pundits as well pages upon pages of seething columnists venting their ire at the injustice of it all that it becomes completely irrelevant and no effort is made to find out the context or reasoning behind the initial event. Regardless of whether the outrage is justified or not, and it certainly can be, it is evident that its impact is the pollution of our airwaves rather than pragmatic solutions to political conundrums.

Natalie Bennet, leader of the Green party of England and Wales, underwent something similar last week after appearing Andrew Neil’s BBC show Sunday Politics in the wake of the Green Surge. After being vigorously grilled on Green policy, which included a universal basic income for every UK citizen and legalising membership of extremist groups in the UK, the result was headlines dripping with outrage like Drugs, brothels, al-Qaeda and the Beyonce tax: the Green Party plan for Britain and Australian-born British political leader Natalie Bennett says public has right to sympathise with ISIS..

Another example was Paul Nuttall’s rant on BBC programme Question Time in which he said that he was “absolutely sick to death of Salmond, Sturgeon, and SNP”, and that since they had lost the independence referendum it had been “take, take, take, take, take, take…they’re taking your tax, people in Scotland get an extra £1600 than people in England…nothing is ever enough for them and now Sturgeon is saying that Scottish MPs are going to vote on issues that only effect England.”

The tremors of ensuing outrage were evident on social media as various users took to Twitter to reply to the UKIP deputy leader and MEP’s remarks. And of course, the replies were equal in their level of outrage.

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It should not be forgotten that this kind of attitude from established entities, particularly at Westminster, towards emerging political players such as the SNP and Green party is not a new phenomenon. Until last year, before the EU elections, UKIP too bore the brunt of mass media flare-ups and the dismissal of their party as a racist, ignoble movement, so much so that the Prime Minister himself branded it a party of fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists.

Whether these accusations were true or not, following UKIP’s EU election victory, their standing in the media spotlight shifted towards more honest portrayals of their policies. Whether these depictions are positive is beside the point, for it goes without saying that every media outlet offers their own take on the world, and varied outlooks are constructive to society as a whole. But to halt the transfer of information and purposely mislead the public over something that most know nothing about contradicts the founding principles of a free press.

It cannot be too outrageous then, to assume that such a mode of discourse can be detrimental to democratic debate. This is not only because it bypasses the analysis of multifaceted matters that are critical to a functioning democracy, but also capitalises on inflammatory tactics like mischaracterisation and ad hominem attacks to mislead the public on vital issues.

Last week marked 100 days until the General Election in May, but as the nation hurtles towards the day on which it collectively decides who it will be governed by for the next four years, one wonders whether it is the politics of outrage and intellectual dishonesty rather than that of logical reasoning and critical analysis that will dominate the political conversation.


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About Haniya Khalid

Freelancer starting out. I want to be an investigative journalist. Interested in and like writing about politics, politics and politics.

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