The High Road and the Low Road of Scottish debate and politics

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, August 2nd 2017

These are serious and dangerous times across the globe. There is the instability and gangland nature of the Trump administration, its ‘America First’ isolationism, disparaging of traditional allies, and open admiration for autocrats such as Putin and Erdoğan.

Then there is the threat of North Korea and its kleptocratic notionally Communist regime and its nuclear and aggressive ambitions which have so far found the international community wanting. And on a less dramatic scale, but no less important for the UK and Europe, there are the perils of Brexit, as Britain sleepwalks its way out of the EU without an agreed plan or national consensus.

Despite the above the Scottish debate seems, for many, to swing along in isolation and even in places in blithe ignorance of bigger issues at play across the planet. All that matters for some is winning the Scottish debate and defeating and even diminishing their opponents on the constitutional question. This is an unhealthy state of affairs for Scotland, and one made more sad and misguided by the scale of challenges facing us internationally.

Because of this we are losing the positive big picture of how Scotland has changed in recent years. Take the writer Neal Ascherson. At the age of 84, Ascherson has just reflected on a life filled with experience and epic historical moments. He witnessed firsthand the horrors of the Belgian Congo, the Polish Spring which contributed to the collapse of Eastern European Communism, and many other occasions.

With such a rich tapestry of memories, Ascherson thinks the most moving experience he has ever had has been the Scottish indyref. Reflecting in ‘The Observer’ this weekend he said:

People were so unused to being asked. To see people suddenly be so full of hope and excited and wanting to participate in their future – it was probably the most moving thing I’ve ever seen.

One week before the indyref I debated the subject in London with Vernon Bogdanor, David Cameron’s tutor at Oxford. He dismissed support for Scottish independence as being similar in composition to ‘UKIP’s left behind vote’, but when I am told him this wasn’t the case and that instead there was a cross-class alliance of different parts of the country, he listened and took note.

I told Bogdanor that the moment Yes had gone ahead in the polls something profound had shifted in the culture and psyche of Scotland beyond how people would vote. The British political establishment had shaken with panic. And people had noticed this.

They noted that they had a collective power within themselves which could cause power and privilege to tremble. This isn’t a collective sensation that people have felt very often in Scotland and the UK in recent decades. And beyond Yes and No they liked that feeling. Something was shifting beyond the vote and result.

I still think in the long view we are living in the aftermath of that shift. These are nervous days for establishments – who are in many places either in retreat, confused or bemused that people are increasingly questioning the conventional ways of doing things.

Such a deep-seated movement – of people feeling they have collective power and voice – doesn’t arise easily and nor does it smoothly go back in the box. We are still living in the long tail and eruption of that debate, and while for some of us it felt like an opening and a festival of democracy, for others it was the exact opposite and deeply unpleasant. We have to allow for a multiplicity of stories, particularly in something so deeply profound.

Yet for all this big picture of a Scotland which has changed fundamentally as put by Ascherson and in my exchange with Bogdanor, there is another more depressing side which has increasingly emerged. Part of Scotland has insisted on reducing the terms of debate to the most petty, partisan and acrimonious terms possible, and doesn’t care about anything except winning and beating (and sometimes to the point of humiliating) the other side.

Taking a lead position in this is the pro-independence blogger Wings over Scotland aka the Bath-based Stuart Campbell currently involved in the latest of many controversies. One has mixed feelings about writing or giving any further publicity to Campbell but he clearly matters, has a band of committed followers, can raise significant amounts of money in the blogosphere, and tells us something about at least a part of Scotland.

Campbell some months ago insulted Tory Secretary of State David Mundell and his son Tory MSP Oliver Mundell by saying: ‘Oliver Mundell is the sort of public speaker that makes you wish his dad had embraced his homosexuality sooner.’ Leaving aside the obvious fact that lots of gay men and lesbians have children, this brought lots of adverse comment, as well as people defending him, and insisting it wasn’t necessarily homophobic.

Scottish Labour leader and out lesbian Kezia Dugdale in the Scottish Parliament accused Wings of making ‘homophobic comments’, resulting in Campbell launching a crowdfunder to take her to court for defamation. He has form in this having previously taken ‘The Scotsman’ to court for defamation, which they settled out of court for more than £6,000 damages and costs.

This is a very modern debate, one which takes place all across the Western world, not just Scotland, about the rights, responsibilities and limits to free speech: witness the controversy over the remarks of Kevin Myers in the Irish edition of the ‘Sunday Times’ which saw him sacked.

First, there is the controversial question about whether the comments were homophobic or not. A lot of commentary has been made by people claiming to have an absolute understanding of what is and isn’t homophobic. This is in many respects a diversion from the main issue (although not any resulting court case). The comments were offensive, meant to hurt, demean and dehumanise.

Second, one frequently made defence of the remarks is that both Labour and Tories deserve everything they get. In this view Kezia Dugdale is a censorious politician for challenging Wings, even attempting to silence his right to free speech when it is he who is taking the legal action. And as for David and Oliver Mundell: well, as Tories, some say all is fair in love and war.

Third, we aren’t talking about a one-off not very appropriate tweet, but a whole backstory – much of which will be relevant in any court case from comments on Chelsea Manning’s gender identity to the Hillsborough tragedy. Pro-independence commentator Angela Haggerty said in this weekend’s ‘Sunday Herald’ that Campbell is ‘a controversial character within the Yes movement … who regularly indulges in what critics see as character assassinations of political opponents on his website.’

Finally, none of this can be understood without referencing Scotland’s own dark past in relation to LGBT issues and rights. It is less than twenty years since we experienced a virtual cultural war on the abolition of Section 28/Clause 2a over the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality in schools. And as the UK liberal media and broadcasters celebrate ‘Gay Britannia’ and the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality in England and Wales in 1967, Scotland along with Northern Ireland was exempt: the reason here including Willie Ross, Scottish Labour and the Kirk. Scotland had to wait until 1980 for reform; Northern Ireland 1982.

No senior SNP politician has yet challenged the specific onslaughts which have emanated from Campbell. There have been no words from Nicola Sturgeon apart from general condemnation of abuse. A few principled SNP politicians such as Glasgow South MP Stewart McDonald have specifically called out Campbell. But for the most part the silence and evasion has been deafening.

Imagine the outrage from pro-independence opinion if a pro-union blogger or commentator had uttered similar words, but instead made them about Sturgeon or Salmond. All hell would break loose. The baseline for some people is that literally any comment, no matter how abusive, ugly and hate filled, is tolerable, if you think the source of it is on your side: the right side. It is an indefensive state of affairs, because the right side can never ever be one where just anything goes, and prejudice and hate are permissible, because your cause is so just and your enemies so contemptible.

Back to the bigger picture. There is something wrong in our public debate that we are even having to debate such basics. A major factor in this has been the absence of proper debate and discussion in Scottish politics since the indyref – now coming up for three years ago next month.

We have lived in a kind of perma-campaigning vacuum since 2014. There has been no SNP or independence post-mortem on why they lost the referendum. Similarly, there has been no concerted attempt to bring forth a new independence offer which tackled the fundamental weaknesses in the 2014 offer on the currency, Treasury and Bank of England role, and general economic illiteracy.

There has been a profound absence of national leadership from Nicola Sturgeon who at her peak popularity could have twin-tracked – speaking to the country as a national leader beyond party, while telling the independence movement some home truths about difficult choices and how an independent Scotland will not be all be milk and honey in the early years. Instead, Sturgeon did not do either when she had the popularity and now is paying the price.

In the strange, supercharged vacuum of the last three years, one which has been bereft of detail and policy, we have seen from both pro and anti-independence opinion, ultra-partisans who don’t take any prisoners, and believe they are charged to conduct quasi-military style debate which literally seems to celebrate scorching the earth of modern Scotland.

We are in this a long way from Neal Ascherson’s noble vision of a people galvanised and empowered. Reality is always messy, but it does seem that while part of Scotland’s experience has been about becoming more mature and taking more responsibility, for others the opposite is true: and they embrace immaturity and irresponsibility. We really need to call out the latter and equally the apologists we are happy to promote and acquiesce in a culture of abuse and hatred.

We are in danger of losing sight of what matters in all this. Scotland shook the British political establishment to their core three years ago. There can be and won’t be any return to business as usual in relation to how Britain is run, Scotland’s part in it, or the wider world.

Look at the state of the planet. These are times of disruption, anxiety, and huge seismic shifts in our societies, economies and politics. They call for us in our own small patch of the world that is Scotland to raise our heads and raise our standards from the mudslinging and abuse at the margins, and at the mainstream, arid policy free and ideas free politics which dominates what passes for political debate.

Serious times and a cause as fundamental and far-reaching as Scottish self-government demand that we do better than we have done. The challenge is whether our politics and politicians have any interest or desire to rise to the occasion and harsh times we live in. We have to challenge them to do so and the siren voices to leave the stage. We are better than this, aren’t we?