Speaking for Scotland: The Salmond Case, Independence and the Silences of Modern Life

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, September 5th 2018

The Salmond controversy has garnered huge press coverage. Beyond the actual cases itself, this says a lot about the state of Scotland. I am not making any assumptions about the guilt or innocence of Alex Salmond or the veracity of the accusations. This case is not just about Salmond or the allegations, but casts a wider light on some aspects of Scottish life, with certain parts of society not coming up smelling of roses.

A caveat. ‘This is what we have become’ said Kenny Farquharson. No ‘we’ have not. This is not about the ugliness and hatred in all of us, but in parts of Scotland. All societies have unsavoury opinion and haters: we have to confront ours and not give them the power of assuming they speak for all Scotland.

In this piece I concentrate primarily on the comments and attitudes of Salmond supporters – mostly the private citizens who responded to the crowdfunder, welter of comments on social media, and the odd intervention from public figures – and consider what their views tell us about what they think of the world.

  1. Salmond’s crowdfunder

Salmond’s crowdfunder was a statement of what he could do, and of what he has – status and pulling power. As Dani Garavelli wrote, ‘What was his crowdfunder, if not a display of power and popularity?’ It was a problematic action in relation to the course of justice being allowed to take its course. Glasgow University legal academic James Chalmers observed: ‘his crowdfunder does not state what decision he seeks to challenge in a JR [Judicial Review], nor what remedy he is seeking in that process’. And why does someone like Salmond need to go out with his collecting bucket to the general public?

  1. Gender Politics

The gender dimension of this whole situation is not exactly healthy. Many of the comments on Salmond’s crowdfunder site went from wanting to support justice to identifying with the man and then adjudging him innocent. There was a defence of male privilege and power, often inadvertently dismissing the two women alleged victims. Has Scotland learnt little from the #MeToo movement, or the downfall of other male political tribunes such as Tommy Sheridan?

  1. The argument that this isn’t about independence

These events should not have had anything directly to do with independence. But Alex Salmond conflated his case and the cause with the hashtag #forFairness on his crowdfunder, and the statement that ‘Salmond puts independence first’. Many of those who have donated money are doing this as a proxy for independence.

  1. There are no divisions in the independence community; we are more united than ever.

Comments protesting unity were made in the midst of disagreements all around you. There is a head in the sand denial here. SNP elected politicians have publically disagreed with each other about how to react to this. David Greig – who has been having a good Salmond crisis – caught this well when he said:

Ever since 2014 I’ve heard calls for unity ‘until Indy’. Women, socialists, the young have all been asked to hold their tongues until the prize is won. But in this moment, it’s clear: without equality the prize is valueless. So … will the old men now, please, weesht for Indy.

  1. Denying divisions and true faith politics.

A constant trope of true believers is to repeat the mantras of their faith, like a religious catechism. Heretics and non-believers will be given no truck, as will those who are not ardent supporters. This leads to independence supporters insulting those who will not banish all doubt with comments such as ‘I thought you were in favour of indyref2?’ or ‘You would as well be going over to being a yoon’. The self-policing and self-demarcation of a faith community is evident in this.

  1. If in doubt blame the mainstream media.

This is a popular tactic, used by all populists, from some of the most passionate independence supporters to Corbynistas and Trump fanatics, often with the same targets, such as the BBC in the case of the first two. The ‘Daily Record’ was one of the main targets for breaking the Salmond story, as was the weight of the unionist press for running with the controversy as a pack.

  1. If that doesn’t work try the British establishment.

The next level is to escalate the fever pitch to the British establishment. They hate independence; which is obviously a fact. They hate Scotland, didn’t you know? There is a deep state (shades of Trump) out to hold us back. Next stop is to see the work of the work of said dark forces in the Salmond case and dismiss them. Note: there obviously is a deep state in the UK, but if it had been wanting to ensnare Alex Salmond in such an expedition don’t you think they might have launched their operation in the indyref? Not four years after.

  1. Anyone for a Witchhunt?

The evoking of a witchhunt – also used by Corbynistas and Trumpers – is a diversionary tactic, allowing you to not engage with the substance of any allegations. At the same time, it fires up your base, letting them feel they are being persecuted and hence, the real victims.

  1. The Scottish civil service isn’t what it seems.

For some these events revealed that the civil service in Scotland isn’t what it seems. Instead of being what it claims, it is actually part of the UK civil service and controlled by it. Leslie Evans, Permanent Secretary of the civil service in Scotland is actually a UK civil servant. This means in this logic she reports to her ultimate paymasters: the British state.

  1. The Scottish Government is a façade.

Some true believers go further and think that the Scottish Government isn’t what it claims either. They see it is a front for the British state. They note that the Scottish Government legally does not exist and is merely the day-to-day name given to the legal entity, ‘the Scottish Executive’. Hence, in this view, taking on the Scottish Government is ultimately challenging the British state.

  1. Devolution itself is a trap.

If the above were not enough some go into darker territory. They see devolution as a trick, a pretendy Parliament, to entrap the cause of freedom. Hence Nicola Sturgeon could be working for MI5, given her actions … but of course that line of thinking could lead to noting that Alex Salmond fronted the devolved institutions for seven years. But of course, the retort would come, he was trying to use them to bust out of them, unlike Sturgeon.

  1. Scotland is as engaged politically as at the height of the indyref.

In this strange world, any questioning of the forward march and health of independence has to be banished. Popular responses about the political energy and participation include: have you seen the size of our latest march in Dundee, Inverness, Dumfries? Any evidence which notes the reality that political engagement across the board is down compared to 2014-15, and also that this is just to be expected, are met by true believers with dismissal.

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The above has significance. One reason is that such comments have not just exploded onto the scene with the Salmond saga, they have been gathering unchecked, particularly since the indyref, but also in places during that long campaign.

Admit all the noise of the last week there has also been a range of revealing interventions. Take Iain Macwhirter’s many comments on this. He questioned why Salmond should be ‘cast into oblivion’, all over ‘a couple of lurid front pages’. And when some people talked about the appropriateness of Salmond’s crowdfunder and his use of his public prominence, Macwhirter responded: ‘He’s not a minister, MP, MSP, or even a member of a political party. He is precisely nobody.’ All of which seemed a strange defence of the former First Minister and SNP leader.

If we dig deeper there was also the strange sound of silence and evasion. Numerous prominent pro-independence commentators were either very reticent to say anything or held back on any criticism of Salmond: the pro-independence website Bella Caledonia carrying no commentary (with a week and a half after allegations broke a piece on Salmond and masculinity by Chris Silver); Lesley Riddoch in a podcast called the whole affair a ‘small issue’; the usually hyper-active Twitterer Pat Kane seems to have maintained radio silence. Several pro-independence voices have commented such as Peter Geoghegan, Jamie Maxwell and Jenny Lindsay but the silences are obvious.

Truth is we have been here for a while. The aggressive, machismo, misanthropic comments of the most partisan independence supporters have been allowed to fester and go unchecked by the SNP and the wider independence community. The SNP and many of the prominent independence supporters continually choose to turn a blind eye to these excesses and abuses. Some even praise sites like Wings over Scotland which don’t take any prisoners.

There is a much bigger picture in this. We are at a crossroads for Scotland and independence, and the Salmond case has brought into public what are philosophical differences. On one side (the Salmond one) are the politics of faith, loyalty and fidelity. This is the world of ‘The Dream Shall Never Die’ – unity, as it has often been down the ages, used as a trope to close down debate and avoid talking about difficult things. That never usually ends well.

On the other side there are the politics of pragmatism and process which is identified with Sturgeon and the Scottish Government. This perspective puts centrestage the importance of following the rule of law, agreed rules and guidelines, justice, acknowledging competing claims, and the importance of evidence. It can sometimes be a bit cautious, particularly versus the fly by the seat of your pants approach of the first. But I know which Scotland I would prefer to live in if it were a choice between these two.

‘Southsidegrrl’ (a pro-independence campaigner) summarised this divide well when she said:

The “Yes Movement” (sic) IS split. It’s split between those who want to talk to No voters, and those who want to talk to Yes voters. Between those of us who think independence is a constitutional & political position, and those who think it’s their identity.

There are so many layers to recent events. There is the tragedy of the specific allegations. There is also the pathos of an intimate political relationship between Salmond and Sturgeon being rent asunder. Whatever the outcome of the actual case there seems little chance that can be put back together as effectively. But nor can that divide between the politics of faith versus pragmatism.

‘This is what we have become’ was one view of all of this. Despite all the avalanche of comments this is not the case. But to prevent haters and fanatics dominate and distort public life the rest of us have to stand up, be counted and ‘Speak for Scotland’ for the good of all of us.