The public sphere, imagination and the nationalism: some thoughts

One of the wonderful things about working at the LSE are the fantastic guest speakers we are able to get to come and visit us. It really is a great privilege. Yesterday was an especially exciting day, as political theorist Professor Nancy Fraser came and spent the afternoon at a symposium organised by my colleague Professor Nick Couldry along with colleagues at Goldsmiths.

Professor Fraser is perhaps best known – among many great achievements, it should be said – for her critical perspective on Jurgen Habermas’s work. In particular, Fraser’s famously argued that Habermas’s original historically grounded construction of the public sphere articulated in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1962 / 1989 in English translation) was highly exclusive in nature, excluding many people, especially women.

The event concluded with remarks from Professor Craig Calhoun, the Director of the LSE, responding to Fraser and the comments made by other speakers over the course of the afternoon. Craig’s remarks were interesting for a number of reasons, but one particular comment he made stuck with me (in fact, to the point that I asked a question about it in the subsequent Q and A). This was about the idea of political imagination, and in particular the failure of political imagination in the public sphere. This is an interesting comment in its own right, but actually seems to echo concerns I have encountered from other quarters in different ways in the past few months. My co-author on many pieces of work, Professor Ben O’Loughlin of Royal Holloway, spent a significant proportion of his inaugural professorial lecture last year talking about the death of imagination (you can watch a video of the lecture here). Ben’s argument was slightly different – that our obsession with recording the present is undermining our ability to think about the future, so we struggle to dream of a different and better world, but many of the ramifications are the same. Similarly, Professor Justin Lewis of Cardiff University has just published a new book entitled Beyond Consumer Capitalism: Media and the Limits to Imagination, dealing with many of these themes.

All this got me thinking: what role does imagination play in contemporary politics? Well, one thing to note is that politicians and political communication does still seem to rely to a great extent on imagination, just not of the optimistic kind. Many of the most famous American political ads – such as Daisy, the infamous Willy Horton spot, or Wolves – rely on tapping into fears that voters might have about the future. But what is much harder to find is a positive visions or the articulation of alternatives. So imagination is used to promote inertia rather than alternatives.

But it does strike me that there is one place in British politics today where imagination is central to an important debate, and this is the discussion surrounding the Scottish referendum on independence. Now the idea that discussions about nationalism lend themselves to imagination is hardly news. Benedict Anderson famously argued that nationality was constructed around imagined communities. That argument is about creating a shared past retrospectively. But what nationalism also does is offers a chance to dream, to imagine a future where a different kind of society can be built. Nationalist projects also allow for radically divergent visions of future societies to be bed fellows, while differences can be effectively papered over, in a manner in which normal politics does not allow.

There are of course very substantive issues involved in the independence debate. Indeed, one reading of last week’s debate about European Union membership and currency arrangements was that the debate had suddenly been elevated to include some very practical and important aspects of the independence question. Politically, the pro-Yes campaign has tried to walk a tight rope during the campaign, arguing for the dramatic change of independence but also stressing continuity (Scotland will enter into a currency union with the UK, European Union membership is unaffected, the Queen stays as Head of State for example). The tactics of the Better Together campaign in the past few days seems to have been to push the Yes Campaign off their tight rope.

In theory, makes sound tactical political sense to try to highlight the weaknesses of your opponent’s position. But the evidence we have seems to suggest that this approach is not working, thus far at least. While making judgements with certainty based on the polling data published since the aggressive push back from the no campaign is difficult because of some methodological issues, respected psephologist Professor John Curtice has argued that, on the available evidence, this more aggressive strategy has “backfired”.

And maybe political imagination offers one explanation for this. The no campaign has long been termed (allegedly because of an internal nickname) as Project Fear.  In contrast, the yes campaign has licence to be unrelentingly positive about a new Scottish future, painted in broad and non-alienating strokes. The national project has broken the log-jam of the positive political imagination allowing people to, rightly or wrongly, conceptualise the future in a different way.

While a positive political imagination is clearly a good thing, two important observations follow from this. The first is that, while nationalism might promote optimistic visions of the future, it is still not necessarily a good thing. The classic argument against nationalism is that it is a distraction from other political projects and visions of society, as it based on exclusion rather than solidarity. The second point is perhaps more directly significant to the debate around independence in Scotland. Why is that the yes campaign have a monopoly on optimism and the future? Part of the problem is that the no campaign has completely failed to articulate a positive vision of what the United Kingdom might look like in the future, why the British project is worth continuing with and how the union might evolve to meet the concerns of those who now have doubts about it. In other words, they have had a failure of political imagination, and only seem able to offer arguments based on why an independent Scotland would be a bad thing. If Scotland does vote for independence – and it should be said that the odds remain that it will not – this might end up being one of the major reasons why.