A Memo to James Naughtie on his Return to Scotland

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, October 10th 2013

Dear Jim,

It has come to my attention that you planning to move north to cover the independence referendum, admittedly for only two days a week.

Since you last worked in Scotland in 1977 a lot has altered that you might find at first a bit bewildering. Scotland has changed, not entirely in ways immediately apparent or straightforward. Some institutions which have the same names as 36 years ago have changed, nearly totally out of recognition. New bodies and different ways of things of doing things have emerged.

To save you time and reading, considering that you are only here two days a week, here is a short guide to what’s changed and what’s not changed, and how to make some sense of the public life of Scotland.

1. Edinburgh isn’t Scotland, nor is the Edinburgh Festival(s) even Edinburgh. Nor are Edinburgh and Glasgow combined, most of Scotland; they represent the BBC/STV version of Scotland.

2. Arguments lamenting the loss of Scottish industry that poignantly reflect that we used to be  ‘the shipbuilding capital of the world’, or that ‘all the jobs have gone’, are now caricatures and clichés. They also don’t reflect the dramatically different and in many places, dynamic nature of the Scottish economy today.

3. Some pro-union people ask when will the constitutional debate ever end. But part of Scotland’s debate is about how we share an island with the powerhouse of London and the South East, which will go on whether we are independent or not.

4. There is a problem with how the British Government comprehends and doesn’t comprehend modern Scotland. They occasionally get Scotland, but more often they don’t, or just plain forget us. They don’t think Scottish independence is a serious threat to the union, and when they refer to ‘the referendum’ and ‘sovereignty debate’ they aren’t talking about Scotland, but about the UK and Europe.

5. Westminster is increasingly becoming a distant, untrusted body in Scotland. When asked which institution they most trust to look after Scottish interests, two thirds of Scots consistently choose the Scottish Parliament, and only about 20% or less Westminster.

6. Scotland is no longer natural Labour territory. Many people think Labour is no longer very, well, Labour.

7. The SNP are a very different force from the 1970s, Mostly social democratic, and on the centre-left, they are a bit ‘Big Tent’ in a way which is reminiscent of, dare I say it, New Labour at its peak, without the scandals. And they are more than Salmond and Sturgeon.

8. The Scottish Tories are not taken seriously by anyone including crucially themselves. Their last ‘big’ idea was the poll tax, and after that, they decided to give up having ideas.

9. There are a few Lib Dems left. Rumour has it one of them claims to be Secretary of State for Scotland. That is no longer a proper full-time job.

10. The old deferential society of the Lords and Ladies who ran Scotland has mostly gone (although not in relation to land), but in the last few decades we have seen the rise of something called ‘civic Scotland’. This claims to be inclusive, warm and friendly, but is narrow, incestuous and profoundly self-referential.

11. Scotland has become an increasingly secular society. Church membership has fallen markedly for both the Kirk and Catholic church, mirroring trends elsewhere. Our problem with sectarianism isn’t about Glasgow being ‘Belfast without the bombs’ and different biblical interpretations, but about tribalism.

12. Rangers FC now play in the lower leagues of Scottish football. Some people (including quite a lot of Celtic and Rangers fans) claim that ‘the Old Firm’ no longer exists (for very different reasons).

13. International football isn’t any more about Scotland v. England. Memories of Wembley ’77 or ’67 are part of a distant past. Rather like Scottish teams doing well in Europe or English players dominating the Premiership.

14. Scottish history matters and is having a golden era of books and historians. But nowhere is this a Braveheart/Bannockburn mentality. The state which is seemingly obsessed with living in the past is the British one – which can hardly seem to stop marking and celebrating various British military adventures.

15. Scottish culture across the arts, literature, theatre, music has changed. Kailyard and the Celtic cultural cringe have long left the arts.

16. Scotland has undergone a quiet revolution where it is now possible to talk about subjects like homosexuality in public. But we still have some issues around gender and men behaving badly – both middle and working class.

17. There is a strange McLad culture in parts of the Beeb in Scotland and society.  It is one of immaturity, irresponsibility and open prejudice (particularly in relation to sexism). This is all dismissed by its apologists as ‘just a joke’ or a parody of offensive views, as seen in the many public men who rushed to the defence of Tam Cowan and his recent allegedly sexist and racist comments.

18. The station you will be on is called BBC Radio Scotland, set up in 1978. But BBC Scotland is still in terms of power and authority, ‘a fiction’ with centralisation meaning that most decisions are in the hands of what are seen as a very few safe and trusted individuals (I will pass here on any judgement of Patten and the incompetent BBC Trust). All of this encourages a culture which lacks confidence and imagination, and consistently fails to represent back to Scotland the rich, varied nation that we are.

19. Scottish nationalism for all its claims isn’t very radical (and is also much wider and deeper than the SNP’s version). Instead, it reflects the character of the society it comes from: respectable, a bit conservative with a small ‘c’, mildly and moderately progressive in a way which wouldn’t be possible in England, and shocked to the core by the dogma and nihilism of the free market vandals who are running amok in the English NHS and elsewhere.

20. Unionists, in Labour particularly, pontificate endlessly about the dangers of ‘narrow nationalism’ (meaning Scottish, not British). They still cannot come to terms with the truism that unionism is a form of nationalism – British state nationalism. A large part of Scotland, probably a sizeable majority, wants a debate beyond the claims of two competing nationalisms.

21. Scottish politics is more diverse than a simple ‘Yes’/’No’ choice. To complicate matters not everyone is either unionist or nationalist. Not everyone who supports independence is a nationalist, while some pro-union opinion baulks at the term unionist.

22. Whatever happens in 2014 something profound and far-reaching is occurring. Irrespective of the SNP’s qualified version of independence, until May 2011, large parts of Scotland and the UK establishment just didn’t take any of this seriously. Many of the latter are still in a state of deep denial, but irrespective of the result in September 2014, the idea of independence is being normalised in Scottish society. And that means that Scotland and the UK will never be the same again.

23. Despite appearances everything in Scotland cannot be reduced to politics or football. You wouldn’t know it from some of the conversations in a very small, select part of the country or the mainstream media. But there is a whole nation and culture of activities, passions and people beyond these interests.

There are many books on Scotland, its politics, history and identities. If I were to recommend any which give an insight into the cultures and imaginations of modern Scotland in the last decade, I wouldn’t choose any books from those areas, but two leftfield classics. They are Bill Duncan’s ‘The Wee Book of Calvin’, a hilarious satire on the self-help industry and Calvinism, and Momus’s ‘The Book of Scotlands’, which portrays 156 parallel Scotlands of past, present and future.

I hope that I have conveyed that Scotland has changed and that some of this might appear confusing on first appearances. What is even more difficult to gauge is that in some respects in the last 30 plus years Scotland has become more like the rest of the UK, and at the same time, more different and divergent from the rest of the UK in other ways. Scotland is filled with such paradoxes and what appear as contradictions (but actually aren’t), which the London media have little comprehension of, along with large parts of BBC Scotland (and STV).

It is part of your mission to try to reflect all of this without caricature or prejudice. Good luck. You will certainly need it.

Gerry