… That deaf, dumb and blind kid
Sure plays a mean pinball
– The Who
I don’t know how the technology of pinball machines has changed since I last played one, but my memory is that the balls, once released, don’t so much bounce off the series of mushroom-shaped bumpers as positively cannon from one to another randomly at high speed as if accelerated on each contact by some sort of electric shock. Control and recovery are difficult before the ball disappears annoyingly down the hole at the front of the table, leading you to fire another one into the maze of obstacles.
Despite the enormous scores that accumulated, there was always someone on the scoreboard who had more points than you. So you were spurred on to insert another 50p or whatever when your allotted time ended. At the end of the day, it was a mug’s game.
When it comes to nationalism and nationalist politics, I struggle to find appropriate metaphors but I’ve come to realise the pinball machine may help.
You see, as if you didn’t know, nationalism isn’t like other political -isms. The world of the nationalist is painted in simple black and white terms. The subtleties that other ideologies wrestle with, seeking to reconcile everyday actions with an overall philosophy, are irrelevant. There is one simple, simplistic even, goal. We all find our own word for it. The calmer nationalists say independence. Others shout ‘Freedom!’ I prefer separation.
This is where the pinball machine comes in. The issues that nationalists make most noise about are like pinballs fired out into the big wide world where they career dementedly off a series of bumpers before disappearing down a hole to be replaced by another random missile.
Consider some of the recent balls lobbed on to the pinball table by the SNP and their friends.
Ping! Here comes disrespect for the Scottish parliament. It’s shot out of nowhere onto the table. It’s bouncing out of control all over the place. What outrage does it signify? Oh … just that the UK government decided to hold an EU referendum too close (July) to the Holyrood election (May). Oops, it’s disappeared down the hole already and been forgotten about.
Zap! The next ball accelerates onto the table. It’s more disrespect. THE BBC CALLED STURGEON BY HER FIRST NAME! Oh my God! Someone interviewing her on the news didn’t use her formal title of first minister, or ma’am, or your highness or whatever they prefer (actually they prefer ‘Our Nicola’ or ‘Mother Sturgeon’ but that’s a different narrative). It’s not as if anyone in the media ever addressed Cameron by his first name. Is it?
Bang! Here comes the Theresa May ball. She’s, she’s … I can’t get the words out … appalling, a monster, a Tory. We hate them all – blue, red, yellow, green (er, maybe not them: might need their votes at Holyrood). Ping, crash, ricochet. That’s sorted her out. Nicola posed with her at Bute House with two saltires and no butcher’s apron in the photo. Christ, we’re clever. She said what? No indyref2? We’ll see about that.
Ker-ching! And it’s the EU referendum ball shooting out at high speed as Scotland’s ignored once again. Only our Nicci can play this one. She bounces the ball off Gibraltar, crashes it into Brussels, gathers a standing council (get that!) of experts to block its progress. This one’s still in play. She’s working the flippers like a maestro. Back it goes up the table. Damn, it’s collided with an obstacle called Spain and disappeared down the hole marked ‘Exports to the UK 64%, to EU 15%.’ She brings her master stroke into play …
… CRASH! It’s indyref2. Again. Not for the first time and not for the last. But now as early as next year! Oh dear, this one’s scarcely emerged from the trap despite all the force she applied to releasing it. The ball’s dribbling slowly down the table. It’s not even making contact with the bumpers to give it energy. And there it goes, down the hole with the FM’s own signature on it and the legend ‘Once in a generation.’ A picture of Mrs May lights up on the scoreboard and along with an abysmal score the machine flashes the word ‘No.’ Game over.
Except, of course, there’s always another game to play, another 50p (our taxpayers’ 50p) to stick in the slot and release new balls. It’s a never ending game they’re addicted to. But it’s a game and it’s played on a small table. Meantime, there’s another game to be played – the world of devolved responsibilities – and we’re hearing precious little about that. Not exciting enough for pinball wizards.