What Do ‘Fred the Shred’ and David Murray Tell Us About Scotland?

Gerry Hassan

Bella Caledonia, February 17th 2012

This is not another article on football. The Rangers crisis has filled the airwaves and media this week. For the second time this year Scotland has gone international and viral, spreading across the globe connecting the diaspora and other interested parties.

Many people ask how this came to pass with Rangers. All kinds of reasons and conspiracies are proposed: pro-Rangers bias, anti-Celtic opinion, Protestantism/anti-Catholicism, and the carve up of ‘the Old Firm’ duopoly.

We need to lift our heads from thinking of football on its own and see this in the context of Scotland. For what the Rangers story tells us is that Scottish society has a problem with power, its relationship to it, and how they hold it to account, scrutinise and inquire into its actions.

This can be seen across Scottish public life from football to business to politics. The Rangers saga has festered for many years. David Murray’s massive overspending and the bludgeoning of the club’s debts were very public and known to be unsustainable. Craig Whyte’s credentials were widely questioned when he took over.

What was missing from mainstream Scotland, from politicians, business experts and media, was a detailed questioning, calling to account and forensic examination of what was going on.

We have seen this before. The banking crisis and collapse of RBS saw a once powerful global institution and the leadership of Fred Goodwin go unchallenged, be feted and revered by our political classes and elites. There was an even more pervasive silence on RBS before the crash, and after, it hasn’t been much better, with little systematic analysis north of the border, beyond pillorying ‘Fred the Shred’.

Then there is how we do political scandals and corruption. In the last two years there have been a series of episodes that bubbled away in Labour North Lanarkshire and Glasgow City Council which burst into public view after the resignation of Stephen Purcell. And then silence, despite the murky lid being lifted off a world of dodgy property deals, land sales and council activities.

Some say this is the fault of the mainstream media and a lack of resources, courage and imagination in investigative reporting. In this account, with its power and status a particularly guilty culprit is BBC Scotland which hasn’t broken a major news story or challenged institutional power for years.

Some think it is cultural and all part of ‘village Scotland’, of being a small country where movers and shakers know each other.

Another view comes from academic Jean Barr who argues that Scots have an absence of understanding what she calls ‘relational space’. By this she means where people come from, who is involved in a debate or decision, and who is missing. A typical example would be Andrew Marr blithely commenting that ‘all of Edinburgh’ was involved in the salon discussions of Enlightenment time; a comment which beggars belief.

Others including writer and campaigner Andy Wightman have made the case that we have a strange lack of curiosity over who has power. This seems inexplicable in a nation with its proud tradition of radicalism and land reform and which saw Thomas Johnston’s piercing ‘Our Scots Noble Families’ published just over one hundred years ago and sell thousands. Maybe it says something about what has happened to that radical imagination.

What we have seen with the Rangers case, and didn’t with RBS and political corruption, is the power of social media, bloggers and new sites of expertise and commentary emerging which have forensically asked difficult questions and dug up inconvenient facts. We cannot argue that some of our silences are mainly due to legal constraints as is often when individual bloggers and sites have little resources and could be shut down by those with money and power.

This seems to point to the beginning of a seismic change in society; football ignites emotions and passions and creates a community as well as creating divisions, that so many people are prepared to spend their time and skills challenging those in power. Perhaps we need to get as serious about some of the great challenges facing society as we do about what is after all only a game (plus identity, history, folklore).

There are also issues of leadership and how we revere certain kinds of authority, some formal, some charismatic. David Murray and Fred Goodwin were buccaneer capitalists loved by some as the good times rolled who brooked little dissent; and who are now conveniently scapegoated after disaster.

Yet Murray and Goodwin were products of their age, of the hurricane capitalism of the last few decades, short-termism of British business, and lack of checks and balances in corporate governance. It is convenient to just pretend it is about individuals, rather than cultures, values and structures.

If we were to broaden out what has happened we would see that this is a Scottish expression of a very modern condition: what the thinker Colin Crouch has called post-democracy, namely the collusion of political, corporate and media elites to support their inter-woven mutual interests.

Examples of this would include the British political elites and Rupert Murdoch’s News International’s incestuous relationship until last summer which saw successive Labour and Conservative leaderships demean themselves at the Murdoch court. In Scotland, all four of the mainstream parties could not contain themselves declaring the nation ‘open for business’ when Donald Trump declared he wanted to build his ‘world class’ golf course in the sand dunes of Menie (until the recent fallout).

If Scotland is to have a meaningful debate over the next few years, one of the central issues we are going to have to face is how to talk about, challenge and investigate power.

That means confronting some of the cosy assumptions of the people’s version of Scotland; it means opening the doors on clubland, establishment Scotland and it means questioning the kind of corporate groupthink which laid behind the felling of two of the great institutions of public life, Rangers and RBS. It means getting rid of the ‘too big to fail’ assumptions which prevailed in banking, and which can now be seen with Rangers; that corporate orthodoxy is actually anti-business and anti-competition.

Magnus Linklater wrote twenty years ago that ‘it would be very hard to talk about a Scottish establishment’. It is that kind of assumption in its many forms that we need to not let go unquestioned. Instead, we desperately need to care about who exercises power and how it acts across our lives, and inquire, challenge and excavate in areas other than football.

This is about something fundamental: it is about making self-government real, relevant and radical, and about starting to make Scotland the modern democracy which is so frequently invoked, but not practised across wide swathes of society.