The Power of the London Scots

Gerry Hassan

The Scotsman, August 24th 2013

One of the most powerful group of Scottish opinion formers do not live and work in Scotland, but are the London Scots.

This group are never far from the public gaze. They come into focus with the northern exodus of the London and Southern classes at Festival time, personified in Andrew Marr’s recent intervention at the Book Festival about the state of Scotland.

Marr stated that, ‘There is a very strong anti-English feeling (in Scotland), everybody knows it’ and that ‘it could become toxic’. Two of his main pieces of evidence were Alasdair Gray’s comments about ‘colonists’ and ‘settlers’, and the Nigel Farage standoff in the Royal Mile with the Radical Independence Conference supporters.

Marr’s Edinburgh appearance did not give the impression that he had been following Scottish politics closely, getting several basic facts wrong. He has had recent mitigating circumstances, but a similar pattern can be observed in his newly written essay in ‘The Battle for Scotland’, first published in 1992. In this Marr writes that apparently Scotland was governed by a SNP-Green coalition in 2007 which will be news to Patrick Harvie, gets the results of the 1979 and 1997 referenda wrong in percentages and actual numbers, and much more.

Previously Marr wrote in his study of British journalism, ‘My Trade’, of the importance of being impartial, ‘studiously neutral’ and the centrality of facts. Clearly Scotland is an exception to this thesis, because it depends which audience someone such as Marr is playing to. Domestic Scots are pre-programmed to take the London Scot classes seriously, while the London media love this sort of thing. After his Anglophobia remarks, ‘The Independent’ (which Marr used to edit) declared them, ‘Witty, lucid, sharp.’

Yet Marr matters because he has status and reputation, works in London, and has access and influence. He has been for the last decade one of the main liberal voices in the BBC, sometimes too self-consciously, as when he talked of the ‘liberal bias’ of the BBC, a phrase that was used against the corporation by its critics.

Jim Naughtie is another London Scot working for the BBC, who like Marr, left Scotland at the beginning of his journalist career. This has had consequences for both, with their adult and professional lives shaped by their experience in London.

Naughtie is coming back shortly to do two days a week of ‘Good Morning Scotland’ which some see as a slap in the face for GMS, others as a demotion from the ‘Today’ programme. Perhaps the most salutary point is that the BBC considered the best person for the job to be someone whose direct experience on Scotland, Edinburgh Festivals apart, was 36 years ago. The powers that be either think he is quick on the uptake, or that not much has changed north of the border in over three decades!

Naughtie is a top rate journalist but in previous Scottish excursions has hit some snags, such as his tendency to patronise and belittle contemporary Scotland. A good example was on the ‘Today’ programme when Diageo’s closed the Johnny Walker whisky bottling factory in Kilmarnock with the loss of 700 jobs.

This produced high profile campaigns, locally and nationally, but when Naughtie arrived, rather than reflect this or empathise with workers in the face of callous multinational power, he choose to caricature the town. He trundled around talking to people about the ‘lack of optimism’ in the place, and giving voice to that old mantra, ‘We could not stand on our own two feet’. It wasn’t exactly the BBC’s or Naughtie’s finest hour, but maybe he will do better based up here.

Even more troublesome is the rabid right-wing populism of some of the London Scots, most prominently, Andrew Neil, and his protégés, Fraser Nelson and Iain Martin. Neil, who after more than a decade working for Murdoch (and then being editor in chief of ‘The Scotsman’) is now a BBC presenter and anchorman, and uses these platforms to proselytise about his beliefs about what is wrong with Britain.

A fascinating example of this was in the weeks just before the 2011 Scottish Parliament elections, on ‘The Sunday Politics’ which he presents, where he laid into Scotland as ‘the land of the big state’ and then claimed that ‘the state was more important than in any country in the world, bar Cuba, North Korea or Iraq’.

If that wasn’t bad enough, Neil then pinpointed the differences between north and south of the border: ‘Cut, cut, cut, may be the dominant theme south of the border, but here it is still spend, spend, spend’. It is not exactly Reithian or impartial. Numerous examples are available of Nelson and Martin stating similar views: Nelson commenting about Scottish ‘Soviet levels of state spending’ or Martin that Scots were living in ‘a parallel universe in which Lehman Brothers hadn’t collapsed’.

Some will say none of this is that important, but it is. These people matter because they have prestigious platforms in London, and being Scots, what they say about Scotland is taken on face value. The Marr-Naughtie BBC elite (including such fellow Scots as Kirsty Wark and Eddie Mair) illustrate the crisis of liberal London and England, given the reality of that city and English politics; the Neil cohort is even more illustrative for it has chosen to validate and popularise the reactionary march of British politics, and denigrate and undermine anything which doesn’t conform to their free market mindset.

There are big issues in this. The London Scots feel they are close to real power and have influence themselves on big, grown up decision makers. The increased focus of wealth, power and status in London makes many domestic Scots feel they don’t have the status or confidence to oppose this view of the world, challenge it, or map out an alternative course.

What the London Scots are slowly contributing towards, some perhaps unintentionally (Marr), some intentionally (Neil), is the slow weakening of the union by the politics of caricature. Scotland doesn’t and cannot let itself be seen in the simplistic anti-state view put forward by Neil, or Marr and Naughtie’s pessimism. But that requires that we raise the game in our own political, public and media conversations, and to put it mildly, we seem so far to be experiencing a few problems in how to have a mature debate.