One of the most notable features of Alex Salmond’s account of the closing stages of last year’s referendum campaign is his hatred of the press and, indeed, the media more generally. Newspapers which run inconvenient stories are ‘anti-Scottish’ and journalists who ask awkward questions are accused of ‘impersonating Alistair Darling’. Salmond cannot quite decide whether the press are an obsolete irrelevance or the primary reason the Yes campaign fell short.
His greatest vitriol is reserved for the BBC which is accused of being a fully-owned part of the No campaign. Of course Salmond was so convinced Yes were going to win that it comes as some surprise to discover that Scotland actually voted No. It certainly seems to shock him. Hence, one suspects, the need to find someone to blame for this calamity.
As it happens, I think the BBC did scrutinise the Yes campaign’s claims with greater vigour than it did those made by the No campaign. I’m neither sure that could have been avoided, nor that it was necessarily the wrong instinct. It was the Yes campaign – and the Scottish government – that were proposing a significant change to our way of life, after all. For the most part, with the exception, admittedly, of promises of further devolution, the No campaign was happy to defend the status quo. It is in the nature of these things that advocates of radical change are asked to justify that change more than those who favour a status quo that, whatever its shortcomings, is at least a known unhappiness.
That is, the burden of proof was on the Yes campaign and the jury – press and voters alike – were entitled to ask that the case for independence be made beyond a reasonable doubt. That, in other words, it be subject to a criminal, not civil, standard of proof. The jury decided it had not been.
Perhaps the most telling moment in Salmond’s book comes when he observes that Henry McLeish, the former First Minister who was more sympathetic to independence than most other senior Labour figures, was ‘torn between loyalty to his party and his country’. In the end, McLeish did not come out for Yes; in the end, it is reasonable to infer, McLeish betrayed his country. At least that’s how Alex Salmond sees it. Good Scots voted Yes, Bad Scots voted No. Patriots voted Yes, traitors voted No.
And if Salmond thinks this – if he is prepared to publish this – it’s no great surprise that many of his (my) compatriots think likewise. Sensible Unionists have always conceded that, whatever the short-to-medium term difficulties, the case for independence is non-lunatic. They have conceded it has an appeal, too, and that good people may disagree in good faith about what’s best for Scotland and, indeed, best for Britain. Judged by the evidence presented in his own book, Alex Salmond is not one of those good people.
Still, Salmond’s example matters. It encourages division and this division is often pretty rancid stuff. Scottish politics is a faith-based business these days. As I put it in The Times today, ‘If Nicola Sturgeon claimed the moon’s made of cheese a plurality of Scots would, at the present moment, be inclined to agree with her. If she further suggested a cheese moon was good for Scotland then precious few SNP voters would disagree.’
I exaggerate, but only a little. How else to explain the fact that, according to a recent YouGov poll, 56 percent of SNP supporters think plummeting oil prices are neither good nor bad for Scotland? Never mind that these declining revenues (which may, of course, rebound at some point in the future) would, if the SNP got what they want after this election, blow a seven billion pound hole in Scotland’s finances. They’re only numbers, after all, and numbers mean precisely what I deem them to mean, nothing more and nothing less. Whatever.
So this is an increasingly polarised realm. I thought the referendum was, on the whole, conducted in a pretty civilised fashion. Despite everything, you know. The mood is, I think, slightly darker now. Everything is viewed through a post-referendum prism. Unionists haven’t got over nearly losing one of their countries; Nationalists maintain defeat was just a flesh wound. A wound so minor, it doesn’t really count. The gap between the two is wider than ever.
Hence we have Unionists trying – and for the most part failing – to suppress their satisfaction with the falling oil price (it’s not good exactly but it sure is useful) and we have Yessers whining that No voters at Murrayfield should be ashamed of singing Flower of Scotland (and not because it’s a grim dirge). On both sides hearts have hardened and prejudices have been reinforced. My sense is that Nationalist disdain for Unionists is being reciprocated by something getting close to hatred.
Back in 2004 the American journalist Ron Suskind, writing about ‘faith and certainty’ in George W Bush’s White House, quoted a senior official (generally believed to be Karl Rove) who told him: ”’We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”’
Now, Alex Salmond is not George W Bush and nor is Nicola Sturgeon. But there is a sense in which the Yes movement considers themselves history’s actors and many Scots would agree that the independence cause has created its own reality. One based on faith as much, perhaps more, than reason.
Consider the latest media-monitoring research produced by Professor John Robertson. To no-one’s surprise he finds that Reporting Scotland (BBC Scotland’s principle TV news programme) is heavily-biased against the SNP and the Scottish government. Some of his complaints seem questionable – has the BBC really ‘made far too regular use of research reports’? – but that’s not really the point. No, the interesting stuff comes later. To wit:
‘On a more serious and different note, one of my respondents, ‘finnmacollie’ of who knows where, wonders if all of Reporting Scotland’s scare stories about waiting lists and pressure on staff might actually lead to some honest folk being reluctant to attend even when they should and, as a consequence, suffering, dying? Now that would be a media effect worth worrying about. I’m going to dig deeper in the research on this. Let me know if you have any information. This and the very recent interest in Immigration, suggest Reporting Scotland’s psychopathic leadership are not going to be constrained by empathy for the general population.’
‘[A]lready Reporting Scotland have gone beyond the dirty tricks I expected. As I finished this off, my reviews numbered 14 and 15 contained my utter amazement and genuine disgust as Reporting Scotland risked damage to race relations in Scotland in order to weaken the SNP by association with the immigration everyone already knew was unpopular in Scotland as much as in the rUK.
There is no justifiable case for raising the topic at this point and the façade of restrained commentary salted with the odd pro-immigrant idea, is just a smoother form of deep dishonesty and utter cynicism, in my view.’
(I should note that though Professor Robertson, who toils at the University of the West of Scotland, is a keen supporter of independence he is not a member, or supporter more generally, of the SNP. Nevertheless, his work is frequently cited by SNP MSPs and they tended to agree with him when he appeared before a parliamentary committee last year.)
No, the point is that Professor Robertson is a veritable star in certain quarters of the Yes universe. He is lauded for his work. Work that uncovers – while also creating! – reality. Granted, that reality wears tinfoil but that’s an essential protective measure these days.
Hark at it, however. Reporting on the health service’s struggles risks lives! Reporting on voter attitudes to immigration is unjustifiable!
Alex Salmond would not, I think, go that far and I do not mean to suggest he would. However his views and those of Professor Robertson share a spectrum. In each instance, awkward questioning is inconvenient, illegitimate, and letting the national side down. Welcome, people, to Fox News Scotland. Come on in, the certainty’s lovely.
No wonder Scottish politics increasingly resembles a shouting match of the deaf. I think Nicola Sturgeon deserves credit for, at least in her first weeks in power, trying to strike a more modest, more conciliatory tone (one that, unavoidably, has frayed as the election nears) but I’m not sure she is assisted in this by her predecessor.
Again, division is not the problem since division is a necessary part of politics but the kind of division we see in Scotland now is a problem because, to a considerable degree, it makes honest politics almost impossible. Because honest politics demands you allow at least a modicum of good faith to your opponents. But though there’s plenty of faith in Scotland these days precious little of it is good. Who needs reality – or reason – anyway?