Flags and Stramashs in Scotland’s Summer of Independence

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, August 24th 2016

A couple of weeks ago I was involved in one of the many online conversations about politics that now characterise Scotland. Afterwards the animated chat in the pub turned to the previous day’s pro-independence march in Glasgow.

Saltires had been there in plenty – and one person, perhaps more fully signed up to independence than the others, asked ‘Why is Scotland the only place in the world where people are told off for flying their flag?’ This was met by myself and others with incredulity, as we pointed out that all over the world flags are problematic, and not one national flag is completely uncontested.

This amiable conversation concluded with two of us saying in near-unison words to the effect: ‘We don’t want to waste time on these sorts of discussions. If we were to waste time on this sort of thing, rather than substance, we would consider voting No next time.’

Such is the story of two very different Scotlands who rubbed along in the 45% alliance in the indyref, but have very little in common. Our chat also covered the importance of Bannockburn and why 1314 is still relevant, the BBC and the transformation of the SNP from wee to huge.

Scotland isn’t a nation of armed camps – Yes and No, indy and non-indy. But these are the two loudest tribes and seem to be digging in for the long term. Some of this is a phoney war, filling a vacuum post-Brexit, as after the thrills and spills of 2014-2016, comes – if not the calm – but the lull, before the storm. And with this changing gear, comes frustration and diversions.

It has been in this context a summer of mini-dramas, and I don’t mean at the Edinburgh Festival. Alex Salmond railed against the BBC for daring to report that RBS Head Ross McEwan had said the bank would be ‘too big for the economy’ in the event of independence and may have to register elsewhere. He made clear this wouldn’t have any consequences for the 12,000 jobs here.

Salmond laid into the BBC, never once questioning the word of RBS, who he once many moons ago worked for. He brought the debate onto the key issue: the difference between a ‘brass plaque’ being removed from a building, and where your headquarters was. Not one mention about corporate power, ownership, where and how decisions are made, the role of finance capital, and the bust British economic model – for which Scotland hasn’t yet developed any convincing alternative.

Then there was the Scottish Six-David Torrance saga. Torrance has been a target for cybernats for years, piqued that throughout the indyref he insisted he was ‘neutral’ and ‘impartial’ when everyone suspected he voted No. And as he had previously worked for the current Tory Secretary of State David Mundell when he was in opposition- once a Tory, always a Tory, so the logic goes.

Previous form in recent mini-stramashs included ‘Ulsterisation’ (originally coined by Aidan Kerr) and ‘Donald Trump resembled Alex Salmond on steroids’ (a great line, but terrible as analysis). Two weeks ago, in a BBC item on the Scottish Six, Torrance made the obvious point that making integrated news was very different on radio and television, and much more demanding in the latter because with radio ‘You’re not dealing with pictures, you’re not dealing with camera equipment.’ This became translated in Nationalist mythology into ‘Scottish cameramen can’t use cameras.’

This is all a storm in a teacup, with Torrance then leaving twitter due to abusive comments – something Stephen Fry does seemingly on a regular basis, and Neil Oliver did last week, again citing Nat abuse (this time after making quite a bit of abusive comment himself – viz a second indyref was a ‘cancerous presence’ and describing Salmond as ‘a big, round wrecking ball of a man.’)

None of this seems that big a controversy, but it appears that Torrance is a weathervane figure, for why do so many Nationalists make him such a figure of importance, and spend time denigrating him? This descends to the level where it is permissible to say anything about someone including their choice of clothes, physical appearance and wider life. In a Facebook thread I started, Joyce Macmillan declared that Torrance’s behaviour ‘epitomises the cringe – Scotland bad, UK good’ and ‘the most patronising type of Unionist’, while Iain Macwhirter said that he dealt with abuse by ‘twitter hygiene’ and taking the following actions – ‘Block, Mute, Unfollow and disable ‘all notifications’’. When asked if he ever challenged cybernat abuse, he remained silent.

This week’s mini-drama was that of Stephen Daisley, STV Digital Politics and Comments Editor, being taken off STV platforms from making commentary. Daisley has written many well-crafted, thoughtful pieces, but on twitter he assumed the character of an anti-Nationalist provocateur, jabbing away at their sensitivities and soft spots, and getting results. All of this he did from his STV twitter account.

It always seemed obvious this wouldn’t end well, and his twitter persona detracted from his reflective analysis. All of this might not have amounted to much had it not emerged that SNP MPs Pete Wishart and John Nicolson had recently, while talking with STV executives, raised the subject of Daisley and their dislike of some of his commentary. None of this is disputed, and just after this Daisley’s commentary disappeared.

This has brought forth claim and counter-claim. About what Wishaw and Nicolson said to STV, if the company crumbled under political pressure, and whether this amounts to, if not quite political censorship, manipulation and pressure. None of the above actions, and even more, the resulting debate, augur well for the state of pluralism.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the media universe, a real collusion of power has been happening, in which cybernat warriors seem completely uninterested. Ex-BBC Scotland Head of News and Current Affairs John Boothman, fired from the BBC last year after a string of allegations about bullying and intimidation, has now become Political Correspondent of ‘Sunday Times Scotland’. That’s bad enough, but what makes it even more questionable is that while working as a journalist, he is also a lobbyist for Charlotte Street Partners, the lobbying firm of former SNP MSP Andrew Wilson and former SNP strategist Kevin Pringle.

Relevant too is that Pringle writes a regular column for the ‘Sunday Times’, as does Wilson occasionally – and for ‘The Times’. Not once is there ever a disclaimer saying company x is a client of Charlotte Street. This worries lots of people in the media, but doesn’t cause any ire in cybernat land.

A bigger picture is emerging, not just from the above, but over a longer timeframe. Part of nationalism isn’t reacting well to criticism of even the mildest kind. There is a pattern of closed minded Nationalists – led by the likes of Wings over Scotland, G.A. Ponsonby and ex-BBCer Derek Bateman – who seem to see themselves as not only looking for unionist conspiracy everywhere (‘the BBC ‘stole’ the referendum’), but as defenders of the cause, balancing the powerful biases of the mainstream media. But that isn’t good politics, creating propaganda to challenge propaganda, and making a political bunker, from which the world, not surprisingly, looks deceptively simple.

Such perspectives aren’t interested in putting any criticisms towards the Nationalists. One question for them to consider is: what would the SNP have to do for you to spend your time holding them to account? Pre-independence, or short of them reneging on independence. Or are all criticisms held off until after the glorious day? Which would mean wasting a lot of political capital either ignoring, or worse, defending the indefensible such as bitter government cuts.

Frankly, the above mindset – whether it is going after opponents personally, or fighting a war of double standards where the SNP are given a free pass and everything else is up for forensic partisan comment – isn’t attractive or healthy politics. It doesn’t aid Scottish debate, the SNP, or the cause of independence. Thankfully, a range of pro-independence voices such as Common Space, Bella Caledonia and Lallands Peat Worrier are prepared to say this.

We are at a crossroads in the political arc of the country. All political parties when they reach their peak popularity begin to lose their touch and political sensitivities. Scotland has just come out of its long experience of ‘Labour Scotland’ running from 1959-2007: that’s over 45 years of dominant party rule. In at least the last twenty years of this, Labour became increasingly immune to criticism, spurned advice, and thought it could rule forever.

This attitude even continued in places after 2007: in quangoland, public sector and voluntary sector Scotland. Labour didn’t lose its hold completely until the disaster of 2011. There was almost a Sandinista attitude in Labour: of a generation of politicians having grown up with the automatic expectation of power, believing they had a right to rule, and that post-2007, normal service would shortly be resumed.

Now that era is over and the Nationalist Scotland story is in the ascendant. However, the same laws of political physics apply: what comes up must come down, and nothing lasts forever. Yet, there is already a similar Sandinista feel about the class of SNP politicians who have weathered and come through triumphant the storms from being small and in opposition to today’s dominance.

These are the early days of Nationalist Scotland, historically speaking. They have a long way to fall to get into the squalid state of the last days of Labour and its cronyism, corruption and incestuousness. But the signs are beginning to look less than healthy in places. Whereas, once on the way up, the SNP were friendly, open, wanting to make friends and converts, now they are beginning to adopt the mantle of a new class, and some of the same characteristics which didn’t serve Labour well – and eventually led to its fall.

The SNP and its supporters have to recognise the limits of Nationalist Scotland – and that they need to reach out beyond their own tribe and most passionate supporters. Otherwise independence will always remain a tantilising close, but far off, dream. And one which many of us will find less than attractive, unless the politics of pluralism, tolerance and talking about substance, can be practiced in the here and now. Stramashs have their place in any politics, but so does talking about real stuff that affects peoples’ lives. For some of us it really, really, isn’t at all about flags.