A Tale of Two Scotlands

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, May 18th 2011

The last two weeks in Scotland have given many of us a glimpse of a different kind of land, one filled with light, hope, optimism and possibilities. And the weather was even nice for a while.

It isn’t an accident that it has been called by myself and others, ‘a Scottish Spring’, but we always need to be careful not to transpose our own hopes onto wider political and national canvases. The turnout at the Scottish Parliament elections was just over 50%, and in parts of Glasgow, barely a third. While of those that voted, the SNP won 45.4% of the constituency vote, an impressive feat but one which shows the clear limitations of the Nationalist appeal.

Just as in the election campaign, the post-election period has showcased another version of Scotland which we need to note and not shy away from. This is one which profiles the dark side of our culture and society, namely the age old saga of the sectarian issue, the issue of ‘the Old Firm’ and the Scottish obsession, and in particular, Scottish male obsession with football.

A fascinating juxtaposition which reflects these two sides of our nation was offered on Sunday evening, May 15th when BBC One showed ‘Portillo on Salmond’, with Tory politician Michael Portillo on Alex Salmond, while BBC Two following it had the final league edition of this season’s ‘Sportscene’, summarising a chaotic, bitter football year. The first gave hope that we live in a modern nation at a historic time; the second that we still have many people who don’t want to live in a modern nation or leave the comfort of their bunkers.

‘Portillo on Salmond’ is produced and directed by Craig Williams for the BBC, who also did ‘Thatcher and the Scots’ and ‘Who Needs Trident?’ I liked all of those, but there is something immediately striking and different about the Salmond film. The camera angles, the cuts between shots, the background music, the voice over, narrative and subject matter. This feels like a proper serious documentary about something important.

Portillo aids it all of course as does Salmond. These are two big beasts realising they are on the stage of modern Scottish history. In a small way, this is how I imagined a self-governing Scotland would look like on TV. Proper programmes by proper people on proper subjects; a Scotland for adults.

We get reflections on Salmond the person and politician from David Torrance, author of the Salmond biography, ‘Salmond: Against the Odds’, and on Salmond and the SNP from James Mitchell of Strathclyde University. There are Nationalist observations from inside from Mike Russell, Andrew Wilson and Duncan Hamilton, and outside the tent, from Jim Sillars and Margo Macdonald.

Annabel Goldie provides another welcome perspective. The only jarring note, and it is a revealing one is from Alistair Darling, trying to pour scorn and guilt on Salmond for the banking crash. This is from the person who was British Chancellor of the Exchequer at the time, and who was thus technically and politically responsible. And here he is trying to make a narrow partisan point about Salmond.

The story is striking visually, and as history. We visit Linlithgow Palace; Kirkcaldy, where Portillo’s mother grew up; Prestonfield House, scene of Salmond declaring victory in the 2007 and 2011 elections, and parts of Glasgow’s Southside constituency where I live and where Nicola Sturgeon, Deputy Leader of the SNP was standing in the election.

Salmond’s story is well told. St Andrews University, RBS, the ’79 Group, election as MP for Moray in 1987, the Convention, the 1990 leadership victory, the famous 1992 Usher Hall debate where Salmond out-debated Donald Dewar, the false dawn of the 1992 election, the 1997 election and referendum, the first Scottish Parliament election in 1999 and ‘A Penny for Scotland’, the resignation and comeback, and then triumph!

This makes me reflect that I live in a country beginning to take itself seriously and slowly grow and mature. And then I switch to ‘Sportscene’.

It is the final league programme, and Rangers and Celtic can both win the title, while Rangers have their noses in front and are favourites; apparently it is the crucial 54th title for Rangers versus Celtic’s possible 43rd. To put this into context, in the 120 years or so of the league, non-Old Firms have won a total of 18 titles.

Rangers win the title at Kilmarnock and thus Ibrox celebrations and Celtic commiserations at Parkhead ensue. The closing part of the programme has Pat Nevin, who I have enormous respect for as a football commentator, and Billy Dodds, look back over the season.

Now this is where it gets interesting in my mind at least. They turn their eye back on a season which will be remembered less for the football and more for everything else: the referee’s strike, Neil Lennon’s and John Reid’s outbursts, the death threats to Neil Lennon, UEFA taking Rangers to task over sectarian singing, the Old Firm getting a bit too excited during and after a game. And finally, the rest of Scottish society growing weary of the whole circus, and saying, enough is enough. To their credit Nevin and Dodds talk about it.

Dodds mentions ‘the problems of sectarianism and racism’, while Nevin goes further, welcoming UEFA’s action against Rangers, and then reflecting on a recent Hearts v. Celtic league game, talks of the audible, voluble ‘IRA singing from Celtic fans’. He comments that something is going to have to be done finally by Scotland’s football authorities about what most of us regard as ‘Scotland’s Shame’. And that seems more than anything else to be his test of next season!

I remember when football programmes tried to pretend they existed in a bubble and didn’t acknowledge the real world. In the 1970s I distantly recall Scotland playing Chile in a stadium in Santiago that Pinochet had used to torture and kill people. The Scottish media response was ‘football and politics shouldn’t mix’. We played in the Argentina World Cup of 1978 which everyone of a certain age can remember, but do we recall that we did so while Argentina was a brutal military dictatorship? Never mind that when we can reminisce yet again about Archie Gemmell’s rather wonderful, but over-familiar goal!

Well done then to Pat and Billy and ‘Sportscene’. We are making a start, a slow start, but a start nevertheless. Why then do I feel a sense of apprehension and nervousness about this part of Scotland and our ability to confront it?

I think it is because of the strange Scots characteristic of wanting to over-inflate and then damn our hopes and dreams. Yes we are living in exciting, dramatic, even historic times  to which the phrase ‘a Scottish spring’ isn’t complete hyperbole, but has some truth. Of course that needs qualified, given the constraints and challenges we face.

While our society is changing in many ways for the better, there are many deniers and loudmouths out there who want to shout down opponents. After the ‘Sportscene’ programme I posted some Facebook comments welcoming Pat and Billy’s intervention, and had a couple of Celtic fans, one of whom I know, who took exception to being challenged about singing IRA songs.

I feel that Scotland has come far these last thirty years. We have a Parliament. We have a more mature public debate. And we are becoming more honest about our shortcomings and our failings.

We have to get past seeing the world in simplistic black and white terms and one of binary opposites: left v right, uhionist v nationalist, Celtic v. Rangers, Catholic v. Protestant.

We have to stop searching for enemies amongst ourselves, stop dividing our nation and society into different camps and sides, and begin to feel comfortable about mature differences of opinion. To do so we have to show courage and bravery, as we have to take on the moral authoritarians and those with bunker vision, who seem to think only their opinion is valid, and it is perfectly valid to intimidate, hector and bully people.

This entails creating a Scotland which is comfortable with diversity, pluralism and conflicting views. A world without bogeymen, monsters and demons. A society in which people dare to listen, engage and respect each other, and most importantly, empathise and connect with people who they disagree with.

‘Portillo on Salmond’ showed the good public side of Scotland and our TV, while ‘Sportscene’ reminded us how far we still have to travel. We are though making a start!

‘Portillo on Salmond’, BBC One Scotland, May 15th 2011, http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b0116snp/Portillo_on_Salmond/

‘Sportscene’, BBC Two Scotland, May 15th 2011.