Gerry Hassan is a writer, commentator and thinker about Scotland, the UK, politics and ideas and Research Fellow in cultural policy at the University of the West of Scotland. Gerry has written and edited numerous books on Scotland and the wider world. Find information on everything under Scotland.
The Death of Tory England and the Decline of The Spectator
Scottish Review, May 15th 2019
For eighteen years I have subscribed to and enjoyed reading The Spectator magazine. But under Fraser Nelson’s editorship from 2009 the magazine has slowly and irrevocably gone downhill and into the gutter. Gone are the days when it was a civilised, gentle, iconoclastic read where an article could surprise and entertain from unusual angles. Good pieces still occasionally appear, but in the midst of a very different content. One that is often nasty, condemning, quick to judge people, and with a sense of profound lack of curiosity about the world – and opinions beyond the Spectator bunker.
This decline is fed by the emerging dominance of an ignoramus commentariat who seem content to blow out numerous opinions with no recourse to facts that get in away of a good polemic. This is the magazine that regularly provides platforms for Rod Liddle, Toby Young, Douglas Murray, James Delingpole and, to prove dim-witted male Brits don’t have a monopoly on bigotry, Lionel Shriver.
My weekly Spectator read has increasingly involved navigating ill-informed ranting, hatred, and bile from these and others to find the isolated oases of wit and light. Thus, The Spectator still carries erudite political analysis from James Forsyth, its Political Editor, while Isabel Hardman and Alex Massie excel online; Charles Moore, Thatcher biographer, provides what The Spectator used to – an insight into poshness and privilege – while the book reviews contain numerous gems (although increasingly Rod Liddle pops up).
The decline of The Spectator has been a long time coming but is about deeper trends than one person, and reveals something dark and foreboding at the heart of what passes for British conservatism which should worry all of us.
A tour of The Spectator is a salutary one. There is Rod Liddle who seems happy to present himself as a caricature: an ill-informed, bad tempered ranter and sledgehammer who has never heard of subtlety. One senior staffer at The Spectator called him ‘a ghastly man’. A typical Liddle column of late was entitled: ‘Yet more derangement about rape’ – an accurate description of his comments. He writes of a fictitious world where rape prosecutions happen ‘even when police had direct evidence that no rape had occurred’, offering no proof for this ridiculous assertion. Bizarrely he still sees himself as on ‘the left’ – which he announced to bemusement on BBC Question Time last year – and remained a Labour Party member until suspended for allegedly racist comments.
Toby Young’s public persona has been built on causing controversy and a very obvious entitlement attitude that his views should be taken seriously. His column in the magazine reveals some of his peccadillos such as the long shadow the influence of his father casts over his life. Michael Young was a hugely important Labour figure, wrote the historic 1945 party manifesto, came up with the idea of the Open University, and wrote a book, ‘The Rise of the Meritocratic Society’, where he coined the word and viewed it as a negative. You can see why Toby has a problem; my Spectator insider said one of his main problems was that he wasn’t that intelligent and hadn’t yet realised the full extent of this; plus he gets all ‘Snowflake’ about people suggesting his father got him into Oxford after he was rejected.
Douglas Murray sees himself as a cultural warrior for Western values, democracy and tolerance. He is permanently partisan, condemning slippery thinking in Western liberalism and how it has appeased Islam, anti-semitism and enemies of the West. But Murray has double standards for his allies and friends. Hence, in 2017, journalist Kevin Myers stated: ‘Jews are not generally noted for their insistence on selling their talent for the lowest price possible’ which was widely criticised as anti-semitic; Murray jumped to his defence, attacking the critics as people ‘who should feel thoroughly ashamed of themselves’ engaging in censorship. Similarly, Roger Scruton’s avalanche of offensive comments in interview with the New Statesman’s George Eaton, brought forth a counter-gotcha operation from Murray, getting hold of the interview recording to defend Scruton to claim a stitch-up.
Then there is the pantomime figure of James Delingpole, who works for the alt-right Breitbart News and sees himself as a court jester, daring to say the unsayable and the utterly stupid, awaiting the reaction. My Spectator person said of him: ‘Delingpole is really just a provocateur who – most of the time – doesn’t really think he should be taken too seriously himself’.
He met his comeuppance when he encountered Andrew Neil on the BBC’s This Week. This was a car crash interview, with Neil challenging him on the future of farming post-No Deal Brexit, and Delingpole struggling for air, saying of the UK ‘we’re going to take a hit but it’s a hit worth taking’ and when asked for further details: ‘I don’t have the answer to that.’ Realising his predicament, Delingpole took to social media and released a semi-mea culpa, confessing that an Oxbridge education teaches you to how to ‘do well in this shallow culture of ours’ because it ‘entails spending three or four years being trained in the art of bullshit.’
Adding to this gaiety is the voice of once liberal American author Lionel Shriver, who penned ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’ and has been on a downward trajectory of sophistry since. Shriver seems furious that there are people in Britain who refuse to see the world in her simple, judgemental way. A particular annoyance for her is why Remainers are so intolerant of Leavers on Brexit; but on not one occasion has Shriver tried to understand Remain. She even started a recent column addressed to the ‘Remainer Parliament’ (this the Parliament which has been trying to leave the EU and been stopped by ultra-Brexiteers) and signed it, ‘Yours, Over Half the British Electorate’ (the Leave vote was actually 37.4% of the electorate). Not bad to be 100% wrong at start and finish.
Spectator music reviews used to be done by Markus Berkmann who loved the artists and albums he wrote about. Now as if the world needs more Rod Liddle, we have a weekly, shorter music review where he dishes and trashes various artists with little obvious love or attention. The ‘Dear Mary’ column at the back of the mag used to provide a hilarious take on the comedy of modern manners in middle class England, but now is tellingly reduced to not very funny concerns of status anxiety and social climbing.
The decline of The Spectator matters beyond the tale of one magazine taking a wrong turn. For a start the publication has influence, Andrew Neil chairs the company that owns it, and it sits at the centre of a cluster of networks of right-wing ‘think-tanks’ and advocacy groups such as the Institute of Economic Affairs and Taxpayers’ Alliance that peddle the same view of the world.
The Spectator has always represented a strand of English conservatism with a small ‘c’: one prides itself on independence of mind, love of tradition, eccentricity, and belief in manners. Small little shoots of gentility hold out in pockets in the magazine, but are increasingly beleaguered. Its descent mirrors a deep crisis of English conservatism and can be seen in the rise of an absolutist interpretation of sovereignty which has come to the fore in Brexit and which has torn apart Theresa May’s Tory Government.
The Spectator’s lurch into the wildness of bigotry, hated and prejudice is also part of a wider shift across the Western world that is witnessing the demise of the traditional centre-right politics, historically shaped by the church and religion, authority and order, and the hold of the old establishment.
In 2012 I took part in a Spectator debate in London chaired by Andrew Neil – involving Margo MacDonald, Fraser Nelson, Kelvin MacKenzie and Rory Stewart on the subject of Scottish independence. Four hundred people paid top dollar to say things like ‘when I think of Scots I think of Red Indians – both with a grievance culture, drinking and abusing themselves into oblivion’. We each got nine minutes and I opened by saying some of the things I admired about The Spectator then, but concluded that majority Scottish opinion had a problem politically with living on the same island as the gathering world of right-wing England which I called ‘Spectatorland’. I remember pausing before I said this for added affect, to be met by complete silence, apart from four young left-wingers who applauded. Little was I to realise, with the decline of conservatism and fantasy version of Brexit Britain, the full import of my remarks.
One unprincipled alliance under Nelson’s editorship is between the online Spectator and Spiked – and in particular, the latter’s editor, Brendan O’Neill. Spiked, in partnership with Claire Fox’s Institute/Academy of Ideas, are front organisations for the Revolutionary Communist Party, a discredited bunch of ultra-left outliers who closed shop in the 1990s when their journal Living Marxism libeled ITN. Since then Fox and O’Neill have embraced hard right, libertarian politics, with Spiked funded by the uber-right US Koch Foundation, and supporting the Brexit Party – of which Fox is a candidate in the Euro elections. The Spectator-Spiked alliance has to be one of the most unprincipled ever, which hopefully won’t survive when Nelson steps down.
Running through today’s Spectator is a deep-seated irresponsibility. It can be seen in Nelson’s recent remark that: ‘The biggest myths is that editors have control over their columnists’, as if conceding he doesn’t actually edit or commission anything, but is just a TV pundit promoting himself. Whenever Nelson is challenged about the content of The Spectator his default is to deflect. Last year I asked Nelson about the mag’s moral decline after a particularly odious Rod Liddle column entitled: ‘My own view is that there is not enough Islamophobia in the Tory Party’; he answered: ‘All I can say is that the decline you talk of isn’t reflected in the mag sales figures that are at a record high and growing’, as if all that mattered was box office.
This is the sad story of the decline and trashing of a once proud English institution: one currently edited by a Scot and established by a Dundonian. Media cycles go in fads and fashions, and magazines are no different, but The Spectator used to stand for something worthwhile and unique that reflected positively on a part of culture and politics.
Today it still stands for something, but has become a cheerleader for stupidity, bigotry and nastiness in a world which needs more generosity, kindness and understanding. The decline of The Spectator and the narrow worldview of its editorial and leading commentators give it ideological blinkers and a dogma which used to be found on the revolutionary left. This is not writing or politics that I want to read or subsidise. So for now I bid you au revoir Spectator.
The coming of age of the Scottish Parliament … but has power shifted to the people?
Scottish Review, May 8th 2019
Twenty years ago last Monday Scotland went to the polls in the first democratic elections to the Scottish Parliament. This coming Sunday marks the anniversary of the first session of that Parliament which Winnie Ewing famously opened with the words: ‘The Scottish Parliament, which adjourned on March 25th 1707, is hereby reconvened.’
The new Parliament was elected with much goodwill, hope and energy, following the decisive 1997 devolution referendum. Polls showed that large majorities expected the Parliament to bring positive change on the economy, NHS, education, law and order and more, and at the same time to become the focal point of political life and decisions.
Twenty years is an appropriate point to assess the Parliament, its role and impact, and the politics and activities around it, and to ask whether it has lived up to its initial hopes, what it has achieved, and where all this might be heading?
First, it is important to contextualise those initial hopes. The Parliament came about in an age even then filled with anti-politician and anti-political party sentiment, which has only grown with the passing of time. The hopes people had of the Parliament in its early years were much shallower than what the headline figures gave the impression. For example, only small minorities in each of those areas – the economy, NHS, education – thought the Parliament would bring about ‘significant change’; the bigger groups which contributed to the overwhelming majorities thought the institution would bring a ‘little change’. So it was hardly a blank cheque of believing it would produce a Caledonian nirvana.
Fast forward to the present, and the track record is one of similar ambiguity mixed with wishing the Parliament the best. Thus, a recent Panelbase survey for the Sunday Times showed that on the economy, NHS and education, more people thought that the Parliament’s impact had been positive than negative, but in each area significant numbers of voters either felt it had made no impact or didn’t know.
In twenty years Scotland has changed, and the face and style of our politics has altered from when Donald Dewar in his capacity as First Minister welcomed the creation of the Parliament as ‘a new voice in the land’. That was to prove true in ways he could not foresee. In 1999 Labour appeared impregnable in Scotland, the Scottish Parliament as an institution that Labour would dominate, while Tony Blair was, many now forget, a popular politician north of the border pre-Iraq war. None of these would remain enduring.
The Parliament has been very busy. It has become, according to surveys, the primary political institution in the land, supplanting Westminster (but at the same time the highest Scottish Parliament turnout at 58.2% in 1999 has never been higher than the lowest for Westminster). It has enacted a lot of legislation, gained new powers from Westminster, and accumulated to itself lots of power from other institutions in the country such as local government. The Scottish Executive became a Government, while the role of First Minister has been remade from early days to become the uncontested political leader of the nation – first under Alex Salmond and then Nicola Sturgeon.
Beyond these political processes and perceptions, what has the Parliament done which has directly changed and improved lives? For example, despite twenty years of rhetoric about social justice under Labour and Lib Dems and the SNP, there has been no major redistribution from the affluent to the poorest. Instead the big ticket items regularly cited – free care for the elderly, no tuition fees, abolishing prescription charges – have helped those comfortably off.
A number of measures however stand out as directly changing lives in a dramatic and far-reaching way. First, the smoking ban introduced in 2006 improved public spaces and places, particularly pubs, and contributed to the continued decline in smoking and diseases it causes. Perhaps minimum pricing for alcohol, which came into force in 2018 after a long UK Supreme Court case, will have a similar and beneficial effect on our culture of drinking and its impact.
Second, the land reform acts of 1999-2003 brought an end to feudal tenure and introduced community buy-outs of landed estates. The latter gave communities up and down the land the right to self-government and to run their own affairs supported by public funds. Hence, following on from the pre-devolution inspiring examples of Eigg and Assynt, communities such as Gigha, North Harris, and South Uist, along with other rural communities experiencing depopulation, were able to take power into their own hands and have the chance to thrive and prosper. This was an unusual empowering move – taking power away from Edinburgh and politicians – and was seen as a threat by vested interests such as landowners. Only last week historian Max Hastings raged against land reform in Scotland calling it ‘uniformedly disastrous’ which showed it had registered with him.
Third, the abolition of Clause 28 (which had notionally prevented the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality in schools) began Scotland’s journey in 2000 to a society that has, first accepted, then, celebrated, LGBTI equality. The initial step was fraught with anxiety and nerves, producing a reactionary backlash and an unofficial referendum funded by then SNP backer Brian Souter. It was a landmark moment in the history of Scotland: the first ever public conversation about homosexuality, some of which was not very pretty, but ultimately it was a watershed for LGBTI rights and how we talk about and see sexuality.
The impetus of such legislative changes slowly dried up after the early years. This was replaced by an SNP story of devolution as one of competence and continuity, preserving and protecting what had been achieved, alongside offsetting the worst aspects of the Tory led UK Government from 2010 on austerity and welfare. This was articulated as being true to the values of progressive Scotland, but was by its nature, defensive and reactive.
At the same time, lots of change happened beyond the Parliament. There was the increasingly acknowledged success of the Violence Reduction Unit and pioneering community projects such as Galgael working with the long term unemployed in Govan, the Govanhill Baths in the most multi-cultural part of Glasgow, and the work of the Sistema Big Noise Orchestra, starting in Raploch, Stirling, then establishing initiatives in Glasgow, Aberdeen and Dundee. These were grass roots projects which brought about long-term change, but for many, the wider environment has become increasingly difficult financially.
Meanwhile, too many indicators have turned negative or not changed enough. Scotland’s income and wealth inequalities as measured by the Gini co-efficient has not altered in twenty years. A drug epidemic has exploded in the last decade hitting some of the most vulnerable. And while we think we are compassionate increasingly we lock up more and more Scots in prison, with one expert describing Justice Minister Humza Yousaf’s policies as ‘a bitter war on the poor’.
The Parliament’s record has been mixed, sometimes acting as a catalyst and at others acting as a block. Devolution has become known more often than not for what it hasn’t done: contracting out, privatisating and the spiv culture of what many of England’s public services have been reduced too.
In the course what has been lost is the fantasy Parliament which existed before we got the real thing. This fantasy body would have been devoid of party domination and career politicians, drawn from the best and most bold in the land and included numerous independent and free spirits. Instead, we got a real Parliament filled with party career politicians nervous and unsure of how they fitted in and aware of the limits of their actions. And for some this was as much a loss as it was a gain of a proper Parliament.
The human dimension of all of this is frequently forgotten. Five First Ministers, 20 party leaders of SNP, Labour, Lib Dems and Tories, 305 individual politicians elected to the Parliament up to Kezia Dugdale’s resignation as a MSP. There have been numerous controversies (the escalating costs of the Holyrood building), leaders falling on their swords, scandals (Henry McLeish, David McLetchie, Tommy Sheridan), and reputations made and unmade (anyone remember Lib Dem Keith Raffan?). All of this comes at a cost to the individuals in question. Life in the pressure cooker works for some, but for others the stress and attention is too much.
I had my own supporting role in the story. Twenty years ago I produced my first book – ‘A Guide to the Scottish Parliament’ – commissioned and published by the Stationery Office, that rather surprisingly became a runaway bestseller. This year I brought the story up to date with two volumes on the past twenty years, one on society: ‘Scotland the Brave? Twenty Years of Change and the Politics of the Future’ edited with Simon Barrow, published in June, followed the next month by an analysis of Parliament: ‘The Story of the Scottish Parliament: The First Two Decades Explained’.
One factor they emphasise is that politics is not just about the Parliament. Rather it should be about all public life. Devolution was a narrow political idea emanating from Labour – an administrative sleight of hand to ‘fix’ Scotland. Under the SNP a new account emerged, but the party’s prevailing vision of independence isn’t that different in many respects, regularly being presented as about ‘the full powers of the Parliament’, as if independence isn’t about all of us as a nation rather than just our Parliament and politicians and what happens to them.
What should be central to our political life are two qualities – democracy and the quality of relationships. First, the Parliament should be about aiding greater democracy, accountability and scrutiny of public life and the areas which pre-devolution avoided any light and questioning. This would shed rather uncomfortable questions into how large parts of society are run – from quangos to public bodies, NGOs, and corporates. Many of these bodies, for obvious reasons, don’t see any need to call time on elitist Scotland and the continuation of their self-preservation society, but democratic scrutiny would ask questions of whom their decisions benefit. Maybe we could even start discussing how we run public organisations, and even business, in the interest of the wider public – a true politics of self-government.
Second, is the issue of how we do relationships, and make, build and nurture them, and strengthen trust and the connections which bind us together. This can only happen in association with greater democratisation, but already a fledgling agenda has been taking shape on this, seen in the work of the Violence Reduction Unit, increasing support for recognising the importance of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), and the work of advocates such as Upstart Scotland for a different approach to education.
Twenty years on this perspective seems to be gathering force beyond the political parties and politicians. It is a politics of power and voice which does not reside in Holyrood. But it should be self-evident that this is as important as the ever-dominant constitutional debate. Moreover, how we nurture and strengthen democracy and hold elites to account, and relate and treat each other, are two of the defining features that reveal who we are as a society and what we aspire to be. This though requires a different kind of politics and politicians than present, one that knows how to empower others and to give power away: a genuine politics of self-government which treats people as citizens and adults. If we could get that right it could be as important as whether Scotland decides to be independent or not – marking out what we care for and how we act towards each other.
Who postponed the future? Why the power of nostalgia can hurt us all
Scottish Review, April 30th 2019
Last week I attended a talk about one of the seminal bands of late 1970s Britain – Joy Division – where the author and cultural commentator Jon Savage discussed at an event run by Monorail, a wonderful independent record shop in the centre of Glasgow, the band, their music, originality and enduring influence.
It was a mesmerising talk about the power of music, importance of place and of Britain – both in the late 1970s and now. In one observation, Savage spoke of Joy Division as representing (in 1979-80) what could only be described as ‘music of the future’. By this he meant that it was firmly located in its social and political realities – the grimness of 1970s Britain and post-war Manchester, but that it transcended this, aspiring to a timelessness and sense of prophecy.
Such a rich talk before a receptive, if ageing, audience got me thinking about areas beyond music. There is the power of the past, why the UK and most other developed countries increasingly seem shaped by what has gone before, and what this climate of nostalgia says about our societies in the here and now, and the consequences for the future.
It is important to understand that there are at least two types of nostalgia. Svetlana Boym in her 2002 book ‘The Future of Nostalgia’ identified two that she called restorative and reflective. The former ‘puts emphasis on nostos (rebuilding home) and proposes to rebuild the lost home and patch up the memory gaps’ – a kind of homesickness for the past. The latter ‘dwells in algia (aching), in longing and loss, the imperfect process of rememberance’; and unlike the former has the insight to know that we cannot go back.
The present is awash with both kinds of nostalgia – with the latter seen in the continuous commemoration of wartime and military occasions – with the 75th anniversary of D Day coming up in June (the occasion for the Trump state visit to the UK), and the never-ending British obsession with World War Two. But not all anniversaries are uncontested and some still have a living presence; the most obvious being this Friday coming (May 3rd) which marks 40 years since the first election of Margaret Thatcher and the beginning of the decade of Thatcherism. For some this is an occasion for despair, for others on the right, of celebration and a drive to maintain and extend its influence in the present.
Restorative nostalgia is alive and kicking in modern Britain and elsewhere. It is evident in Brexit, Trump and the angry right-wing politics which have become a feature of our times. They encompass a rejection of the present, fury at the state of our societies, and a yearning for a return to yesteryear. In this imagined past, people supposedly looked out for each other, politicians and elites did what they said, and there was a sense of public duty. Underpinning this is a dislike of foreigners, outsiders and, critically, immigrants. At its most hateful, ‘white nationalism’ and ‘white supremacy’ have become real live political phenomena in a way unimaginable a few years ago.
This reactionary nostalgia isn’t the only show in town. There is a left-wing nostalgia evident in the rise of Jeremy Corbyn. A significant part of the Corbynista movement want to unwind and undo the political changes of the last forty years – Thatcherism, New Labour, deindustrialisation, privatisation, and declining trade unions. In this it has a conservative impulse, which used to be found on the right and which has, on the left, learnt little from defeats of the past, and the way the right has embraced the economic and social change, and the left sought to resist change.
Closer to home in Scotland there is a nostalgia in the constitutional debate. In the 2014 independence referendum campaign underneath the claims and counter-claims of Yes and No were two competing versions of restorative nostalgia making the argument that we could go back to more idealistic, compassionate times.
Part of Yes was based on a rejection of Britain and its right-wing hijacking of recent decades, believing that through independence we could go back to the post-war Britain of 1945-75 and our own ‘little Britain’ Scottish version of this. Much of No was even more out of touch with reality, making the case for a Britain long passed. In the rhetoric of Gordon Brown this was about ‘pooling’, ‘sharing’ and redistributing to those in need, a difficult argument to make in one of the most unequal countries in the developed world. In 2014 voters decided to stick with the devil they knew and the most familiar, i.e. British, version of the past, but subsequent events (Brexit being the most obvious) have fatally undermined this case.
All of these nostalgias have despite, their differences, some commonalities. First, they all give prominence to generational stories of the past shaped by demographics and the aging of Western societies. The conceits of the post-war babyboomer generation have captured, and continued to dominate, much of public life, feeding all sorts of debates from pensions and inheritance to Brexit. Related to this there is a widespread dismissal of young people and their concerns, sneered at as ‘generation snowflake’ by some for their claimed over-sensitivity and ability to find offence.
Second, there is a confusion about modern life in all its manifestations. Hence, the changing roles of men and women, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, trans politics and more all show the quicksand of identity politics. For some, such issues make them wish for a conservative restoration of the way things were, but others recognise this is also part of widespread discomfort and dismay at the messy state of the modern world.
Third, there is a reaction to the shortcomings and failures of globalisation: the official story of economic and social progress which dominated the politics of the West from 1979 to the bankers’ crash of 2008. Its panglossian big promises of limitless economic growth, and lifting everyone up through trickle-down economics and the indulgence of the supra-rich, has proven hollow. It isn’t an accident that politics in the West has become more bitter, angry and nasty since 2008. People were lied to, and in most countries the guilty and those who systematically lied got away with it.
Fourth, the above version of the world said to all of us – don’t ask difficult questions, don’t ask who has power, just trust the elites and they will deliver. Hence, big questions about power, privilege and the economy all went unexplored to the extent that people forgot how to discuss these issues – and that has come at a cost. Instead of discussing how to run a modern economy and how capitalism works, a virulent populism has looked around for easy scapegoats and they have tended to be those vulnerable and those without power.
These forces of nostalgia are also evident in wider public life – in the arts, culture, creativity, and such specific areas as popular music, literature and the visual arts. Where for example is the culture imagining new possibilities and new expressions of what it is to be human, and even, post-human? Is the best that we can really conceive Ian McEwen’s recent novel ‘Machines Like Us’ and its exploration of AI and sex with robots?
The same is true with popular music which brings us back to Jon Savage’s comments. From when I grew up until the early years of this century, I had an insatiable musical curiosity (which I still have) and could find music which transcended boundaries and which aspired to be of the future, or even seemed to be from the future. This was sometimes obvious as in the German pioneers Kraftwerk, but was true of a wide array of artists – Joy Division as previously stated, New Order who emerged from them, the Cocteau Twins, Talk Talk, and Stereolab, to name but a few. I also suppose ‘progressive rock’ of the 1970s (which I have never liked as a genre): Yes, Genesis and ELP, was a music of a fictional world of the future, that then ran out of steam as the 1970s became more divisive and harsh.
I am not sure when this futurist musical impulse waned, as it is still evident in some of the more ambitious expressions of R ‘n’ B: Janelle Monae being an obvious example. But it is clear that most music and artists are content with the diminishing returns of invoking and copying their heroes and heroines, whether it is the 1960s and the Beatles and Stones, or early 1970s glam – Roxy Music and Bowie – and the raw rebellion of punk, and experimentalism of post-punk, which came out of it.
The history of rock ‘n’ roll, soul and dance music has become part of the problem, with endless programmes on different aspects of past golden eras. Meanwhile, the sheer ubiquity of music, with it saturation of every aspect of life has led to its conformity and risk adverse nature. And the way music is listened to and consumed has changed, with technology driving downloads and streaming, and the emergence of curated playlists.
The power of this imagined past comes at a cost to all of us. We are living in societies which have, in many respects, given up on the future and are seeking solace and reassurance in nostalgia. Too many of us have stopped believing in our capacity collectively to create alternative, different futures which can inspire, provoke, mobilise and bring forth in their articulation, counter-ideas and visions.
Look around at the politics which dominate Britain. Nowhere is there a viable political tradition or perspective which speaks to what 21st century Britain could be. Corbyn’s Labour, May’s Tories, Boris Johnson, the busted Lib Dems, Farage’s Brexit Party. All are focused on politics of the past, demonstrating a lack of ambition and imagination, and somehow believing that our best years as a society are to be found in recreating days gone by.
Healthy, thriving societies need to face and embrace the future. Otherwise they turn in on themselves and become insular, stultifying and risk-averse, which is what is happening across the West, from the UK and US, to Germany and Japan. If we don’t challenge and change this the future will be as a worse version of the most unappealing aspects of today: intolerant, xenophobic, searching for easy answers and people to blame – a politics of even more nasty, vengeful Nigel Farage and Donald Trump types.
To avert this will not be easy but we have to challenge the belief that the best times for our societies were in 1945 or 1976 (the latter retrospectively rated by economists the happiest post-war year in the UK), and reject the pessimism and powerlessness inherent in such views. The world is full of wealth, talent, imagination and technological innovations that can offer transformative change in what it is to be human. But that requires collective willpower and agency to galvinise these forces in the name and interests of the vast majority of us, and not retreat in the face of the arrogance of the elites and their apologists. The future is still there to be made; the question is by whom.
Art Garfunkel performed in Glasgow on Easter Sunday; in an age filled with what seems to be incessant noise, it has never been more critical than to listen to seek out, and listen to, the sounds of silence. Despite everything, they can be found.
Years ago when I was thinking about public debate I read A.L. Kennedy’s first book ‘Night Geometry and the Garscadden Trains’ – which has in it a passage which is an evocative hymn to the power and prevalence of silence. Kennedy wrote that in even the most noise-filled space there were gaps and silences, and these were as important as the noises. It changed how I thought of debate from then on.
Recently I came across Paul Goodman’s ‘Speaking and Language’ and in exploring silence he writes: ‘Not speaking and speaking are both human ways of being in the world and there are kinds and grades of each’. He then goes on to identify nine different types of silence, which is revealing, but not exhaustive. He does not discuss for example whether silence is consenting or non-consenting, something freely entered into, or imposed by others.
Goodman does not acknowledge individual, group and community silence. Beyond this there is spiritual silence, and the importance of silence in music, which was understood by masters such as Sinatra and Miles Davis. Mark Hollis, who died two months ago, understood the power of silence in his later Talk Talk albums, and then, when he withdrew from public life twenty years ago, only ever gave one interview. Silence can say something really deep.
Power frequently uses silence, avoiding uncomfortable questions about motivation and accountability. An acquaintance of mine last week recalled how a very adept chair of an important committee used strategic silence to deal with thorny questions, often just letting it hang in the air to disarm others and encourage them to find solutions. The evasions of power is a variant of consenting silence, at least from the parties in question, but what is different is forced silence, which I am going to concentrate on.
Last week I was speakimg about different manifestations of silence with academics Orla Meadhbh Murray and Sarah Parry at Edinburgh University. Orla talked about silences in academia of which, like any institution, there are many; while Sarah examined the environmental movement. Despite our different areas and starting points we found much in common.
I talked about two areas of my research into public life – both of which contain aspects of silence. The first was my study of the commentariat in Scotland (those that communicate and commentate via various forms of media) that involved fifty in-depth interviews. It would not be surprising to learn that the group were very unrepresentative on gender, generation, geography, class and ethnicity, to name the obvious.
The group, many of whom I knew, had a particular view of Scotland, of the 1980s as a framing decade and 1979 as a sort of Year Zero. They were ferociously anti-Tory, on the centre-left, pro-devolution, and believed in Scotland as a place of social justice, without looking too closely at facts or asking uncomfortable questions of power. There were, of course, one or two honourable exceptions to this.
Each interviewee was asked to define their national identity – it was a tick box exercise, but two-thirds of my sample got into elaborate explanations for why they were middle class, making comments like ‘I am not a sell out’ and ‘I can’t stand Tories’ and ‘I still feel working class in my values’ and many more such comments, protesting their uncomfortableness with being middle class.
William Mackenzie, a Glasgow academic in the 1970s, would have called this group part of ‘the community of communicators’. He would have pointed out that as important as who is in, is who isn’t – namely the missing voices and gaps in public life. Scotland used to be a place where discussing religion or politics was best avoided in certain circles but while old walls have crumbled, new ones have arisen.
We aren’t for some really meant to delve too deeply into the social justice rhetoric of contemporary Scotland and find how short we come up: on the big economic and social indicators, on income and wealth inequality, and on how our public services work – which is generally for the middle classes. Above all we aren’t in so many places – official and unofficial – meant to question too closely how progressive Scotland is, whether we are heading in the right direction, or the sum total of all the efforts surrounding the Scottish Parliament these last two decades. To be fair, today’s evasions are softer and more pliable than the rigid demarcation lines which used to police the no go areas of the past.
The second area I talked about was ‘the missing Scotland’ and the ‘missing million’ voters, meaning the voters who hadn’t voted for a generation but would turn out in the indyref. I conceived these terms, identified the exact number (989,540 voters out of the 2014 electorate), ran focus groups to explore why so many people felt silenced and why the independence debate had given them voice, and these concepts were adopted as key terms for both Yes and No camps.
But here is the thing. For both Yes and No, the ‘missing Scotland’ was sorted by the action of such people turning up to vote once in 2014. As we know, for all the noise Scotland has subsequently returned to business as usual with not very high turnouts for the Scottish Parliament and nearly half of the country – disproportionately poorer and younger – continually excluded and forgotten about.
The ‘missing Scotland’ is not addressed by the act of voting once. That really is the politics of complacency. Instead, democracy is about everyday action, constantly changing and neverending. And until we do something fundamental with our democracy (or what passes for it) and society, ‘the missing Scotland’ will always be with us – marginalised, forgotten and their silences (and lack of engagement and representation) ignored.
All across Scotland, in the midst of noise, claims and counter-claims, we have deep and powerful silences which reveal much about who we are as a culture, people and society. There are too many silences which are in effect evasions from difficult debate, or ones aided by political orthodoxies, and which keep honest discussions closed because their deliberations might stray off the line of the official view that everything is rosy in today’s Scotland.
How do we break down the silences which characterise too much of our public life? The first act, borrowing from A.L. Kennedy quoted at the outset, would be to notice the silences in the midst of the noise. That would be a start.
The second act would be that whenever conversations are taking place in real life or on social media, to notice who is involved and taking part – and who isn’t and is thus missing. Hence, this should mean, to take one obvious example, that the ubiquity of various ‘manels’ (male only panels) in public life is reduced and, when they take place, are challenged by participants.
A third act would be to consider what makes the ingredients of a proper, two-way conversation, listening, reflecting and hearing each other. One quality in this has to be space and another, a respect for alternative viewpoints to your own.
These are all basic steps. Something more fundamental is also needed. The partisan political followers who make most public noise don’t speak for Scotland. They don’t speak for independence, for the union, for the Scottish (or British) nationalist cause, the left or the right, but they do dominate and distort debate. We do have to do something about the ‘wee hard men’ who have down the years harmed too much of Scotland – both literally and metaphorically – and who still shout down, bully and harass those who dare speak up against them.
We have to work out how to have discussions, which aren’t just based on faith and assertion but on facts and knowledge, and to do that we probably need to encourage places and spaces that nurture such qualities. I don’t have all the answers in one article, but I know that silences matter, and that we can do so much better than we are currently doing. I would welcome any suggestions about how we could take small steps that could be utilised to do something bigger and more profound. Any thoughts, readers?
Dundee is the talk of the town. The once forgotten city of Scotland – certainly in the eyes of the Glasgow and Edinburgh chatterati – is now widely celebrated and recognised. It is winning piles of awards and attention, the latest of which being named ‘Sunday Times’ Best Place to Live in Scotland, with Dundee High School-educated Andrew Marr stating that ‘Dundee is certainly a very good idea’.
Dundee’s moment in the sun is well-deserved and has been a long time coming. There is an undoubted buzz, dynamism and can-do attitude which defines much of the city and its civic leadership, and as a Dundonian, I take great pride in my home town being noticed and winning lots of accolades, as the ‘Sunday Times’ states ‘Scotland’s sunniest city is making one big collective creative roar.’
The expectation, and then arrival, of the V&A has undoubtedly acted as a catalyst, but it is more than that. There is the now familiar list of the prestige of being a UNESCO City of Design, the work of the DCA and Dundee Rep, the remaking of the McManus Galleries and the development of world-class tourist experiences such as HMS Discovery and Verdant Works. Then there is the pioneering games industry, science and innovation, and stellar work of Dundee and Abertay universities, along with Duncan of Jordanstone, all of which work in partnership and have local, national and international footprints.
This is a positive story and change, achieved by a civic leadership – including the council, public institutions and wider bodies like Creative Dundee – who have pulled together to create a change mindset for the city and to have an impact. As one civic leader commented ‘The culture needs to be communal and supportive rather than ultra-competitive.’
Yet at the same time as Dundee rightly wins lots of applause and attention, the wider economic and social challenges which the city faces cannot be ignored. Dundee is one of the most creative cities and places in the UK, a city with one of the highest levels of PhDs per head in the UK, but is also one of the most unequal: a place where one can thrive as a success, but it is as grim as it is elsewhere if you are poor. One local councillor states: ‘I worry about what happens when the hype dies. Once you’ve been cool how do you cope with not being cool?’
Dundee has some significant economic and social challenges. It has a 65.0% employment rate – the second lowest such rate for any UK city according to the Centre for Cities; the second lowest rate of business start-ups, and the lowest weekly earnings of any of Scotland’s four biggest cities.
Dundee’s poverty levels are a salutary reminder that hardship and systematic exclusion can still sit next to growth hubs, creativity and the buzz of being hailed as the new – with the latter often used as an excuse to forget and marginalise the parts of the city which do not meet the new ‘official’ success story.
This is something most of the thoughtful public leadership in the city are well aware of the dangers of, as one local representative puts it: ‘We can talk about PR and reputation but we have one in four kids living in poverty; massive underemployment; the council targets an unemployment figure that is completely meaningless because we have the highest proportion of citizens disengaged from the labour market of any city in Britain.’ In the latest figures, Dundee showed a small positive change, going from the lowest employment rate to the second worst (65.0%), being overtaken by Blackburn (64.1%), which still leaves a lot of room for improvement.
The other side of the city is barely touched by the ‘new’ Dundee with its V&A and all its well-intentioned outreach programmes. The high levels of poverty and disadvantage are not aided by a heroin problem in parts of the city, long-term population decline from the early 1970s until recently, and an economic and social divide between north and south of the Kingsway which has become in effect a sort of impervious Berlin Wall in terms of social mobility. It wasn’t always thus, as I can reflect, having grown up north of the Kingsway, in the council estate of Ardler in the 1970s, witnessing an explosion of working class ambition and aspiration, at a time before mass unemployment and deindustrialisation kicked in during the 1980s that parts of the city have never fully recovered from.
It is important to reflect the many Dundees within the council boundaries and not to pose one set of experiences. Dundee has changed for the better in numerous ways in recent times, and the vision and pragmatic can-do approach of local leaders is impressive and delivering results.
Many people in city institutions know the limits of the current paradigms they are operating in. Take the V&A coming to the city. It has created a new locus and a powerful tourist magnet while also inspiring lots of local interest. Yet, the V&A franchise model brought to the banks of the Tay is one whereby cultural regeneration promises great things, but rarely actually delivers. Culture on its own seldom turns around a city and solely drives economic growth. There are no real examples of this anywhere in the world: an unfortunate reality which is eventually going to be reflected in the glossy cultural strategies which everywhere promise city renewal through arts, culture and creativity.
Underpinning these assumptions is an economic model which not only does not work but never has: focused on the winners in the economy, and trying to aid the excluded and displaced by training and skills. This focuses on such nebulous ideas as the knowledge economy and creative classes: all of which are discredited ideas left over from the New Labour era. Ten years after the crash, local economic agencies as well as national governments in Scotland and the UK and elsewhere, still cling to this mindset, despite a wider political awareness of its shortcomings, for want of any other detailed prospectus.
In this age of competitive funding and positioning about so much, Dundee should rightly be proud of having made its mark and its many achievements. However the limits of these undoubted successes in changing the lived experiences and opportunities of so many people in the city should also be acknowledged.
I am proud of the positive changes which have happened in Dundee over the last few years. They show both what can be achieved at the micro-level, but also the wider problem of macro-reality. Beyond the obvious limitations of focusing on awards and lists which have a flavour of the month quality, there is the bigger concern about how do we make a sustainable version of the economy and society which provides sustenance and livelihoods for the vast majority of people.
This is a conversation which ‘Sunday Times’ lists not only do not answer, but actually point in the entirely wrong direction on: to a short-termist, consumerist, debt ridden, environmentally destructive version of the economy. Instead of promoting such a vision of society we have to start investigating and promoting a fundamentally different idea of the economy: one which isn’t based on financialisation of every aspects of our lives, getting individuals and households into debt which is one of the drivers of the UK economy, and which has a version of growth and success which blithely writes off a large section of the population as permanently unproductive.
That vision of a different kind of economy cannot wait on national governments finally getting it. It has to come from citizens, campaigning groups, NGOs and local government shifting their thinking from the unsustainable growth model, and instead finding different, more human and progressive ways of measuring the success of the economy. It has to celebrate the authentic, the unique, the profoundly local, and a version of creativity that isn’t about some spurious creative class, but the full range of the human imagination and possibility, including what do we want the purpose of our economy and society, and cities to be for. Dundee could be the future, showing how far the old new can take you, and the ultimate emptiness of things like ‘Sunday Times’ list-ism.
How can we change the declining fortunes of Scottish football?
Scottish Review, April 10th 2019
Scottish football last week witnessed the regular circus of an Old Firm match. It was the usual pantomime of bad feeling and nastiness, with two Rangers players sent off and Celtic captain Scott Brown assaulted. Both clubs, Rangers manager Steven Gerrard and Brown were charged by the football authorities, while three football supporters were stabbed with one seriously injured – which was downplayed by most fans and media.
This unedifying drama and reflection of the worst of Scotland regularly comes around: with the two clubs sometimes meeting up to six times a season, all adding to the mutual hatred, obsession and co-dependency (which gives sustenance to the term Old Firm). Unacceptable behaviour doesn’t stop there with the recent Hearts v Hibs Edinburgh derby marred by flares thrown on to the pitch and racist abuse.
The Old Firm match came for those charged with running the game as a welcome distraction from its lamentable state, and the humiliation of the Scottish men’s international team who had crashed 3-0 to Kazakhstan, and then struggled to beat San Marino, rated the worst team in the world, 2-0.
These games are part of the European Championship 2020 qualifiers, and after two games our campaign is in trouble. Questions have been asked about the uninspiring record of manager Alex McLeish, but the malaise goes much deeper into how the game is run, its lack of competition, and the dearth of ambition at the top.
Scotland’s men’s national team have failed to reach any international finals since 1998. We have missed ten finals in a row. Our domestic team game is in no better shape. Celtic and Rangers have won the league title ever year since 1986. Celtic fans have their eyes on the bragging rights of ‘ten in a row’ league titles – as they close in on winning their eighth this season – to surpass the records of Celtic and Rangers who have each won nine in a row. Aside from the oasis of the success of the women’s international team and their qualification for the forthcoming 2019 World Cup in France (and who this week beat Brazil; something the men’s team has never managed), the men’s game is not exactly in a healthy condition.
Consider this. In 1985 the Scottish Premier was the most competitive league in Europe. It had four teams with a realistic chance of winning the title: Aberdeen, Celtic, Dundee United and yes, St. Mirren. The rest had the prospect of European football, or fighting off relegation. Now we are the joint most uncompetitive league in Europe, alongside Ukraine. That is quite a mighty decline.
Speaking to a serious rugby fan the other week he could not believe that the main Scottish football league had last been won by someone other than Celtic or Rangers in 1985 – when Aberdeen won. Scottish football and indeed Scotland was a different place 34 years ago. Alex Ferguson won that last Aberdeen title. The miners’ strike had just ended; Margaret Thatcher had just passed the mid-point of her Premiership; Nicola Sturgeon was still at secondary school while Ruth Davidson was in the first years of primary school, and the poll tax was just an idea on the pages of right-wing think-tankery.
Before this current Old Firm stranglehold our football had more fertile periods of intense competition with different clubs competing for success. First, there was at the onset of the game the amateur era of Queen’s Park who won the Scottish Cup ten times and got to two English FA Cup finals. Second, there was the post-war era of twenty years where Hearts and Hibs were potent forces and won several league titles, while Celtic slumbered pre-Jock Stein. And third and most recently, there was the near-decade of Aberdeen and Dundee United each winning the title and getting to European finals, while Rangers struggled to compete.
Football has to have an element of competition, and ‘ten in a row’ – and the prospect of equaling and surpassing the world record (which currently stands at fifteen held by Tafea FC in the small Pacific Ocean island of Vanuatu) – shouldn’t fill anyone with satisfaction.
Our game needs radical action. And radical action is what we have rarely, if ever, done. The game is run by the mediocre, uninspiring, self-selecting closed shop that is the SFA. There has never been a golden era or age of enlightenment in governance or results in relation to the SFA.
Instead, the football authorities have fed off the long term importance and place of the game in society, while getting away with presiding over regular disasters and embarrassments. In 1950 Scotland qualified for the World Cup in Brazil but declined to participate as we had finished runners-up in our qualifying group. The 1954 World Cup in Switzerland saw our first ever appearance at the finals, but it didn’t go well. The SFA only budgeted for thirteen players in the squad (when you were allowed 22), but took a full contingent of SFA officials and their wives. Little surprise that Scotland lost 7-0 at the hands of World champions Uruguay. Over a decade later there was little change when, in 1966, the SFA advertised for a part-time manager which ‘might suit a man with other business interests’. Why the Argentina debacle of 1978 surprised anyone is another story.
SFA culture to this day is a world of mediocrity covered in managerialist gooble-gook and self-protection. There is a whole industry dedicated to keeping the SFA show on the road – of mini-certificates, compliance and officialdom that would please the caricature of Scottish petty mindedness and keeping people in their place. We have it seems certificates in next to everything which almost amount to its own caste system.
But while Scotland football managers come and go many of the people presiding over this state of affairs stay in post for years with no punishment for repeated failure. Stewart Regan and Neil Doncaster, two MBA cliché merchants without an original thought between them could hardly believe their luck to find a football backwater prepared to pay them bulging salaries they couldn’t achieve elsewhere. Regan has now left for less sunny climes in remuneration, but our game still has two governing bodies: the SFA and the SPFL for the leagues. Accountability there is none, as football commentator Steven Thompson said recently of the clamour to get rid of McLeish and the role of the SFA: ‘Where is their accountability? They’ve no short-term contracts where we can look at them and bin them if they’ve not done well enough.’
Scottish football changed dramatically when Rangers went into administration and then liquidation in 2012. The initial reaction of Regan and Doncaster was to pretend as if nothing had shifted, and to keep the show on the road, with a ‘new’ Rangers remaining in the top league. That is what would have happened in days gone by, but fans refused to put up with this, and across all non-Old Firm teams they organised and said if their clubs put up with such a shoddy deal they would boycott their own teams.
That summer of 2012 was a wonderful and rare moment in the game. The football authorities had to retreat and a ‘new’ Rangers started again from the fourth tier of league football. Football fans had shown they had organising skills, power and voice. They had done this in a culture with no real tradition of supporter power. Yet, such a revolution was embarrassing to the football authorities and one they wanted to get past to get the game back to ‘normal’, with Rangers back in the main league with the cashcows of the Old Firm games, which is where we began.
The Old Firm game has become an unattractive, unappetising throwback. If you think that is an overstatement after last weekend’s Old Firm match there was small comment on the three victims compared to the on the field incidents involving Scott Brown and others. There was little sense of proportion or what really matters. But that is part of a pattern. Six years ago academic research by St. Andrew’s University made the direct link between Old Firm matches and spikes of domestic violence by men in Glasgow. On the day it was published both Celtic and Rangers officially questioned the research, and I discussed the findings with two liberal and well-known Celtic fans who responded by laughing and dismissing the facts. That blatant denialism is all over our game including in people who think they are ‘good’ Celtic and Rangers fans.
Where does this go beyond the true believers who believe what matters is winning or stopping ‘ten in a row’? It has to involve changing the game and its place in society and how men follow football. We have to have structural change which aids competition. We could either ask Celtic and Rangers to commit to aiding competition over say a ten year period which would ultimately strengthen them; that is unlikely to happen. If that is the case the other solution is to encourage and aid them to leave for pastures new. They have outgrown Scotland on the football field, but have also become minnows in Europe held back by their dominance of the domestic game. And in truth, lots of the rest of us have outgrown the Old Firm, either bored stiff or repulsed by them.
It also needs cultural change, with the voice of fans being given status in the football authorities and senior teams – and the work of the independent Scottish Football Supporters Association has been a real advance in this area. We need accountability, change such as strict liability of clubs so they are held responsible for misbehaviour by fans, and wider professionalism, for example, in refereeing and officialdom.
A final observation is that football is meant to above all be a sport and something which brings enjoyment and pleasure to people who play and watch it. In our country it has for too long carried too much investment, baggage and simmering resentments from the past to be healthy. Thus, we need radical change to our game: structurally, culturally, and of course, in how we play, train and resource players and particularly, young boys and girls. We cannot continue to allow the farce of the main league to continue as some dysfunctional cartel of crony carve-up between Scotland’s biggest two clubs (with us not even having the benefits of a duopoly at the moment as Celtic dominate the league).
But maybe we have to question why this game matters so much: a game we have contributed so much to historically but which we now struggle to compete at with others. Perhaps in an age of the £198 million pound player (Neymar) we could chart a different course: of the local, the small and even our rich mosaic of junior teams. But that only comes with leadership, ambition and accountability running through the game from top to bottom, and in that we are sadly lacking while those at the top get away with presiding over this sad state of affairs.
We should at least try not to quietly go along with things as they currently are, for all they promise are more embarrassments, more Kazakhstans and further decline. Do we really want to just accept that? And maybe the men’s game could learn something from the success of the women. Think of that Tam Cowan and other sexist male football fans: you are part of the problem.
History cannot be written in stone: Why are public statues important?
Scottish Review, April 2nd 2019
In recent years, from US campuses to towns to the UK, public statues have increasingly become a subject of heated debate and controversy. From Charlottesville in the US where one protestor was killed, to Cecil Rhodes in Oxford, and to what kind of plaque Henry Dundas has in Edinburgh, this is a live issue.
These debates are about much more than the statues in question. They touch upon the legacy of Empire in Britain, racism, slavery and xenophobia and, in other societies across the world, memories of dictatorship. They bring up issues not only about how we remember and understand the past, but how we see ourselves today, and even whom we regard as citizen in our society.
Glasgow once had the moniker ‘the second city of Empire’ marking that its wealth, commerce and importance were shaped by the height of Britain’s dominance and military power. It is this part of the city’s history which is over-represented in public statues that give pride of place to a host of great men ranging from industrialists, scientists, and politicians, while missing out women and people from black and ethnic minorities.
Last week a debate hosted by Glasgow City Heritage Trust at St. Andrews in the Square looked at the controversy around statues with contributions from SNP councillor Graham Campbell, architect Jude Barber of the Collective Architecture practice, academic Ray McKenzie (author of the fascinating ‘Public Sculpture in Glasgow’), and campaigner Melina Valdelievre, which I chaired.
Why is there such heated debate, charge and counter-charge about statues today, and action around launching campaigns to remove them, block proposals, and suggesting new ones? This is a dramatic change in the mood of the times from a decade ago where most statues in public in democracies laid ignored and forgotten, with the main issues being maintenance and repair.
Today statues have become a frontline about the state of our societies. They have become symbolic about who we are and how we see ourselves, and about who has power and voice. Previous groups such as anti-colonialist campaigners who previously would have been ignored, have brought centrestage the wrongs of the past. There is also the wider mood of our times: of a new radicalism in some young people, an emergent reactionary alt-right which takes pride in defending past misdemeanours, and deeper economic, social and cultural divides. When we talk about statues a lot is going on.
The statues that we see today around Glasgow and the UK are mostly the product of the explosion of Victorian building of them. This overlapped with the zenith of the British Empire, the reign of Victoria, and a confident high public culture which wanted to mark and remember the age for future generations. In Glasgow debate around them reflects this problematic legacy.
Thus, one blogger, ‘Glasgow Punter’, surveying the statues of the city, observed that ‘I was not able to name any great tyrants among the statuary in Glasgow city centre’ – which is deliberately damning with faint praise. A more political contemporary awareness connects these debates to the campaign for a Glasgow Museum of Slavery, Colonialism, Empire and Migration, which itself would have a significant international, outreach and education programme.
Statue building has expressed a narrow spectrum of elite power, Graham Campbell commenting that ‘statues are propaganda’. It was not very surprising, but as the Labour movement rose to prominence in the city, what it did not do was commemorate its struggles, victories and defeats, by commissioning statues. They had better, more practical things to do, but also other ways of commemorating the past such as May Day marches and trade union banners.
In a city which has earned the legend of ‘Red Clydeside’ it is revealing that none of the prominent radical figures associated with radicalism, trade unionism and other forms of struggle, has been marked by having a statue erected. There is no James Maxton or John Maclean; Mary Barbour being one of the few exceptions.
Statues touch on many of the most sensitive areas of Scottish history and society. They open a debate about how cities like Glasgow became the economic powerhouses and trading centres that they were at the height of Empire. Even more acutely by focusing on the reality of Empire they have to focus on the brutal nature of its violence, domination and genocidal character. And that has to address who gained from these dehumanising qualities?
Britain has a long, tragic and disreputable tradition of state approved violence and mass murder, including towards its own citizens. The British authorities practiced imperialism both at home and abroad, and whenever they were threatened or had a fear they might be within the UK historically, they were not inclined to act softly. From the Highland Clearances, to Peterloo in 1819 and the Newport Uprising in 1839, and the suppression of working class and trade union movements across the 19th and 20th centuries, the state has, when it has felt threatened, used brutal force on its own subjects.
Yet there is still a world of difference between how Britain acted at home and how it administered the reality of Empire: which was based on treating other human beings as subhuman and objects of commerce who could be bought, sold and traded without having any power, or say in the matter. The slave trade brought enormous wealth to its traders across the UK but at a cost it is hard to imagine and fathom today.
Underneath some of the public heat on statues there is the conceit of every generation and every contemporary hot topic: that somehow we have arrived at a pinnacle of blessed enlightenment which allows to survive the past with a penetrating critical eye in a way previous perspectives were denied by prejudice or self-interest. Reality is a little different.
The truth is that while some of the heat is new, there has always been controversy about public statues. It marks saying something as a town, city or nation. And there are only a limited number of public spaces. This last point is increasingly acute in statue hot spots, with Westminster City Council declaring a ‘monument saturation zone’ in the centre of London. But there has often been, even in the past, an element of contesting and impermanence. Hence, when a statue to Lord Kelvin was unveiled at Kelvingrove Park in 1913 by Liberal MP Augustine Birrell, he stated that ‘some day orators might be employed to go about the country, not unveiling, but veiling the statues.’
With that historical qualification, there is today a great desire to address the missing stories and people who are so self-evidently not present across the statues of Glasgow and elsewhere. Indeed, most of humanity is missing in any form: women (with only a couple of women figures in all Glasgow), black and ethnic minorities, and the working class histories of the city. There are numerous good causes who deserve to be recognised and celebrated, but there is also the right to continually revisit this, and if we decide to, take statues down: being erected in the first place does not give you the right to a plinth or place for eternity.
There is room for humour, seen in the continual placing of a traffic cone on the Duke of Wellington statue in front of GOMA which has become part of the ‘official’ branding of the city. We also see controversy – as in the original decision to agree the La Pasionaria statue (inspired by Dolores Ibárruri) on the banks of the Clyde to mark the international volunteers who fought Franco and fascism in the Spanish civil war. But there is also the problem of disrespect and damaging statues – with the perennial issue of raising Donald Dewar’s figure on Sauchiehall Street high enough to outdo vandals breaking his specs.
This debate is going to run for the foreseeable future. Not only is it about claim and counter-claims, but its symbolic politics of representation after a decade of austerity, give it an added weight. Ray McKenzie said that he would not have any new statutes in Glasgow, but was open minded to taking down a few. Perhaps thought it is time to be even more radical and daring in how we use public sculpture, and as Jude Barber said see that ‘figurative public statues are problematic and about the individual man on a pedestal’. She made the case for ‘more abstract ideas such as one on the Clyde which recognises Glasgow’s role in Empire and trans-Atlantic slavery – linking the river, the city and humanity.’
Increasingly the cult of statues is used to mark a place on the map and even give sustenance to the tourism industry. But at the same time there is also a new impetus to mark the distinctive and local. But what if we could imagine in statue form going beyond these constraints, and use it to understand and commemorate the vortex of Glasgow relationships, in this city, across Scotland and the UK, and internationally? That would offer us the prospect of having a greater awareness and recognition of where much of the wealth and power which has defined us has come from, and that not all that is Glaswegian and Scottish has been compassionate and caring. We do have to look at the dark side of our past.
Standing Up to Child Sex Abuse: The Story of David Steel and Cyril Smith
Scottish Review, March 27th 2019
The mantra of the current age is that we take child sex abuse seriously. We listen to victims, we respect them, and we act on allegations, knowing how difficult and painful it is for people to come forward.
This is a comforting account on an important and sensitive issue. But in the light of recent events we have to ask whether we really take child sex abuse that seriously? Have we really changed that much as a society from that of the past? Are we still looking for excuses to not confront abuse and abusers? And do we really listen to, and respect, victims and their testimony?
Two examples in the last couple of weeks suggest we have not changed as much as we claim – here in the UK and across the West. Both throw unedifying light on our attitudes and that of many prominent people in public life. Firstly is the case of how former Liberal leader David Steel dealt with historic allegations of child sex abuse made against then Liberal MP Cyril Smith. And then there are the continued allegations against pop star and mega celebrity, Michael Jackson, in light of the documentary ‘Leaving Neverland’.
Two weeks ago at the Independent Inquiry into Child Sex Abuse, headed up by Professor Alexis Jay, Steel was called to give evidence about Cyril Smith. A short reminder of the backstory is that Smith was Liberal MP from Rochdale from 1972-92, first winning the seat in a high profile by-election from Labour. He was a larger than life character, having been Liberal, then Labour, then Liberal again, and a local councillor and Mayor of the town.
Smith was as an MP independent minded, constantly taking up campaigning issues and positions against the Liberal leadership. He was anti-abortion, pro-hanging and anti-gay rights, and locally had influence and standing which he used to gain access to care homes and institutions and to abuse a huge number of young, vulnerable boys. This was systemic industrial scale abuse and like many such cases entered the public domain in the 1970s as it was still going on. First it was taken up by a local paper, the ‘Rochdale Alternative Paper’, and subsequently, by ‘Private Eye’, the latter from 1979.
Steel for years dismissed allegations against Smith, as recently as June 2018 on ‘BBC Newsnight’ calling them ‘tittle tattle’ and ‘scurrilous hearsay’. If anyone thinks that was somehow out of character check the back issues of ‘Private Eye’ as Steel regularly complained about being pursued by the magazine over Cyril Smith – for example writing in June 2014: ‘Hindsight is a wonderful thing, which I freely admit I do not possess’. It was clear in these interventions that Steel felt he was the victim and unfairly treated by ‘Private Eye’.
Yet Steel, in a volte face from this position of denial, recently gained hindsight because all of a sudden he remembered that Cyril Smith confessed to him in 1979 of his actions. Steel told the inquiry into child sex abuse that he suddenly seemed to remember a conversation he had with Smith in 1979, asking: ‘What’s all this about you in ‘Private Eye’?’ and he said, rather to my surprise, ‘It is correct’’.
Explaining his subsequent inaction he told the inquiry: ‘It was before he was an MP, before he was even a member of my party. It had nothing to do with me.’ The inquiry’s top lawyer, Brian Altman QC, commented to Steel: “He could, for all you knew, still be offending’, to which Steel replied: ‘I have to admit, that never occurred to me, and I’m not sure it would occur to me even today.’
Steel was in a position of power and privilege in 1979 and could have acted. We now know that Smith’s long track record of abuse continued for years and years, and that defenceless, innocent boys were abused when they could have been protected: all thanks to Steel’s indefensible inaction, which even now he seems to have no idea of the cost and consequences of.
Yet for the most part of the next forty years Steel pretended that this was nothing to do with him. Most media outlets kept well away from it as an issue, ‘Private Eye’ being a rare national exception. The break in this blanket silence came, as it often does, with the death of Cyril Smith in 2010, and the investigative work of the Rochdale Labour MP at the time, Simon Danczuk, who co-wrote a book about the scale of Smith’s abuse and the cover-up by local and national authorities. He uncovered 144 complaints by victims against Smith, with the police apologising and concluding that he should have been charged on three separate occasions from the 1960s to 1990s.
Steel’s inaction did not hold him back. He remained Liberal leader from 1976 until 1988, and in one of his last acts as leader nominated Smith for a knighthood in full knowledge of his behaviour. Steel said to the inquiry: ‘It never occurred to me to tell the honours committee about it. It was all, in a sense, in the public domain through ‘Private Eye’’.
The public profile of Steel over this period, with the exception of ‘Private Eye’ was of a principled, upstanding, public servant, with the moral stain of his tolerance of Cyril Smith rarely spoken about. Thus, when we get to a biography of the man – ‘David Steel: Rising Hope to Elder Statesman’ – written by David Torrance and published in 2012 we get a detailed picture of a man who was MP for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles from 1965 at the age of 26. But we get no mention of the Cyril Smith scandal and of Steel’s inactive role and acquiescence.
Similarly, Magnus Linklater, writing in ‘The Times’ last year about the acclaimed TV dramatisation of former Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe’s failed attempt to have his lover Norman Scott killed, states that such a high profile scandal as Thorpe’s long-term affair could not be kept quiet today with the explosion of social media and decline in authority. But this is a poorly judged argument on every level, for despite social media and the incessant noise of public life, we are still surrounded by secrets, aided by D-notices and Non-Disclosure Agreements.
Yet there are more to what are secrets than legal parameters with the Steel case, illustrating that in public life lots of explosive controversies and examples of wrong doing are either known or semi-known, but not brought fully into the focus of full public glare. So it proved to be the case with David Steel and his forty years of denial on Cyril Smith.
There are some similarities between this and the much bigger public scandal of the child abuse allegations against the late Michael Jackson. These first came into the public domain as a result of 1993 abuse allegations which were settled out of court. As with Cyril Smith, the evidence and warning signs were all around for anyone who wanted to see them. There were the first public allegations that emerged, then Martin Bashir’s 2003 documentary in which Jackson admitted he slept with boys in his bed, alongside his continued presentation of himself as not fully adult, as asexual and an innocent in a world portrayed as unworthy of him.
To this day many Michael Jackson fans protest his innocence and this stance extends into the most exalted corridors of celebrity culture. Barbra Streisand said last week about the latest allegations against Jackson that he had ‘sexual needs’, no one forced the children into his bed, and that the real guilty parties were the parents of the afore-mentioned children. She subsequently apologised when faced with an avalanche of criticism, but the original meaning was clear: Jackson was my friend and uber-celebrities live by a different moral code from the rest of us.
Where do the Steel-Smith and Michael Jackson episodes take us and what do they say about our attitudes towards child sex abuse? Belatedly, the Liberal Democrats have acted against Steel in light of criticism of his nonchalant arrogance to the child sex abuse inquiry, but that is several years after they should have done.
These cases along with many more do not present our societies in a good light. We need to take a hard look at how we react to such cases, both high profile and the less high profile, and call out abusers and their numerous apologists and defenders. There has to be some major comeback for the views articulated for decades by people like David Steel who could have acted against someone he knew to be an abuser and stopped his abusing.
The wider denialism is nearly as damaging and disabling. It is seen in the likes of such academics as Frank Furedi who dispute that there is any widespread child sex abuse in British society, and that this is the result of an illiberal ‘moral panic’ and kind of mass hysteria. That was the position Furedi took on Jimmy Savile after it was revealed beyond any doubt that over decades he groomed and seriously abused hundreds of young boys and girls including ill and disabled children in NHS settings to which he was given unmonitored access.
Most of all we have to listen to victims who make allegations of child sex abuse, whoever they are and whoever are the perpetrators. There should be no exceptions for prominent people or celebrities. If we don’t change the way we act as society and individuals, we will in the future be judged harshly, as an age of hyper-sexualisation where we let those with power and status do what they like to young boys and girls, while we stood idly by. Is this really how we want to be seen, or can we decide to challenge abusers and their apologists?
Scotland was once infamous for its reputation and reality as a violent place. This was associated with all sorts of potent, demeaning caricatures of the angry, aggressive Scot, but underlying these images Scotland did have a problem.
We had a culture of all too pervasive violence, a high murder rate with Glasgow earning the moniker ‘murder capital of Europe’, a problem with knife crime, and a wider attitude that it was too often permissible to solve differences by violence, including widespread violence against children.
Much has changed and we have come far. But while we have had significant successes in tackling knife crime, in reducing our murder rate, and generally in addressing violence in Glasgow we still have in too many places an attitude that excuses and accepts violence in our society. This can be seen for example in the ongoing debate about smacking children.
A parliamentary bill before Holyrood, being championed by Green MSP John Finnie and backed by the government, aims to ban the smacking of children. This has started a major national debate – some of it informed, insightful and shaped by a concern for what we do to best bring up our children, to build relationships of support and compassion, and to put in places resources to aid parents, families and the wider community to aid this.
Sadly, though not all of the public debate is informed by such noble aims. Kevin McKenna, writing in ‘The Herald’ recently, took exception to the smacking ban calling it ‘part of an insidious and long-term exercise by Holyrood’ which is ‘about seeking to form Scotland in the image of a humanist fantasy.’ In the strange world of McKenna’s imagination, ‘decent parents would be criminalised, children’s lives would be damaged and the law brought into disrepute’. You get the idea – children would be ‘damaged’ by this law if it was passed, not by being beaten or subject to violence.
Outflanking the above was Stuart Waiton in ‘The Times’. He is Scotland’s lone representative of ‘Spiked’ – committed contrarians for libertarianism and against state control and the descendants of the discredited ‘Living Marxism’ journal who had to shut up shop after claiming that ITN had fabricated stories of Serbian genocide in the Yugoslav civil war.
Waiton’s piece had the usual ‘Spiked’ tropes, going on at length about ‘a separation between the mass of the people and politicians who think it is their job to make us “aware”’. He states that one of the arguments for this law is that ‘it will help change our beliefs and behaviour’ and asks: ‘since when was it the job of politicians to determine our behaviour?’ This is a leading question: determine no; but lead, shape, and cajole, as they have done from time immemorial – from the first factory acts to the welfare state and the creation of the NHS. The sort of thing ‘Living Marxism’ used to dismiss with arrogance as reformist deviation.
The numerous professional groups and experts who gave evidence to Holyrood are dismissed by Waiton. Listen to them, he writes, and ‘we get a sense of a new rather aloof elite in Scottish society. Many of these experts are what some have described as ‘glove puppets’ – individuals from organisations that are set apart from the public and who are funded by the government’. Now here there is a genuine issue about how a small sized country does democracy in practice and the issue of co-option and incorporation, but the answer isn’t, Michael Gove-like, to dismiss expert opinion and instead draw on anecdote.
What McKenna and Waiton don’t cite, either because they don’t know or don’t want to, is the transformative change that has been going in Scotland – in society, in attitudes and behaviours, and in professional debate. Therefore, in the last decade Scotland has become a major success story in how it has reduced the murder rate and dramatically cut the prevalence of knife crime. Glasgow has gone from being ‘the murder capital of Europe’ to being known for turning itself around.
As telling in a host of other related areas, Scotland is making startling progress. We now spend less monies on murders, hence resources can be shifted to prevention and addressing causes not symptoms. We have led the field in breakthroughs in understanding and challenging violence, while locating that in work on the importance of trauma, adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), and resilience.
A leading influencer in this has been the psychologist Dr. Suzanne Zeedyk, who is passionate and committed to the potential of Scotland becoming what she describes as an ‘ACE aware nation’. Talking to me about the debate on smacking children Zeedyk says:
In effect, our culture isn’t kind to children. It is grown-up interpretations that count, not children’s. So we end up treating children as if their humanity matters less than our own. It turns out that many of our relations with children are based on power and control. We have even told ourselves that it is permissible to use physical force to retain that control.
How a society treats its children reveals a lot about the character and values of a country. For many decades Scotland liked to turn a blind eye to the fact that we were not only not children friendly, but actually hostile and scared of them, wanting as adults and institutions to keep them in their place and punish them.
If anyone thinks that is too much of an overstatement, Scotland only banned belting children in state schools in 1987 and this came about as a result of two mothers threatening to take the authorities to the European Court of Human Rights. And this culture and set of attitudes isn’t all in the distant past. Only last year, the esteemed ‘Guardian’ writer Ian Jack made light of the damage caused by belting and being systematically violent to children in the education system in the past: an outlook which provoked responses by myself and Carol Craig and an avalanche of commentary, which seemed to indicate a tsunami of repressed sentiment on the subject.
A recent survey in the ‘British Medical Journal Paediatrics Open’ found that 22% of children in Scotland regularly experienced violence, the vast majority at the hands of their parents at their home. Here is the sort of proof that the opponents of the smacking ban deliberately close their eyes to. That we have come far, but still have a long road to travel in overcoming our long, dark legacy of violence and brutality to each other and to children, either at the hands of the state or in the quiet of people’s homes.
Dr. Zeedyk thinks that we have made immense progress, but still have much to do: ‘Our thinking has changed over decades and it is no longer acceptable to hit any other ‘group’ of human beings, yet we are still discussing whether it is acceptable for big grown-ups to hit little children.’
She believes that in too many places we are content to tell ourselves that we are the good guys and that what we do doesn’t cause harm or inflict long term damage on children, who it is our duty to protect: ‘We tell ourselves it doesn’t hurt them, over the long term. Ironically, we don’t tell ourselves the same is acceptable for grown-ups.’
Our society is still in too many places scathing of listening to and respecting the rights, interests and voices of children. We are too scared to open up and address the decades and indeed centuries of violence, neglect and abuse, which authorities – from the state education system to professionals and churches – inflicted systematically on generation after generation of our children, and at what cost to them as individuals and us as a society.
This is as important a subject as whether Scotland becomes an independent country: how we look after and care for our children. And still in too many places, including in supposedly progressive independence and left-wing opinion, we have deference to systems of male dominance and repression, which are founded on the idea that women, children and emotions are some kind of threat, and that the idea of humanism is a revolutionary Trojan horse undermining the sacred cows of religious authoritarianism. It also true that we still have to address the damaging effects of self-destructive masculinity on too many people in our country, and that some men would still rather shy away from this.
To do so is not a good stance for the Scotland of the 21st century. We have come a long away, banishing many taboos and repressive taboos, but still have much to do: exorcising ghosts, confronting the legacy of punitive authoritarianism, and challenging the illiberalism of those who still won’t confront what was done in our name in the past or change in the present.
As British politics enters a mixture of meltdown and an endgame, convulsed by Brexit, everywhere in political discourse there is an obsession with the past. From the rise of Churchill to unquestioned national hero, to the ultra-Brexiteers talking of the UK reduced to a ‘vassal state’ of the EU; and now, Speaker John Bercow announcing there cannot be a rerun of parliamentary votes due to a 1604 English convention, while being compared to Speaker William Lenthall who presided over the long Parliament and English civil war.
Such a fraught period seems the ideal moment to revisit that other time of near-UK meltdown, namely our indyref – the subject of a three-part documentary on the new BBC Scotland channel, ‘Yes/No: Inside the Indyref’, the last episode of which airs tonight. It is a welcome, long overdue production, coming four and a half years after that historic September 2014 vote, underlying the problems the Beeb has had in Scotland and the UK in coming to terms with such high octane existential politics.
The three programmes covered the political environment in light of the SNP winning a parliamentary majority in 2011 and the agreement of the Scottish and UK Governments on an indyref; from the announcement of the date to the last weeks of the campaign; and the hectic final period of Yes going into the lead and the resulting panic of No and the British political establishment.
There are lots of great stories in the indyref – drama, personalities, controversies, against a longer-term backdrop of Scotland becoming more autonomous, self-confident, and well disposed to the idea of independence. Meanwhile, Britain had deep problems, from loss of Empire and its international standing, to relative economic decline, and harsh structural inequalities and imbalances.
The first film was dominated by big male beasts: Gordon Brown, Alistair Darling, George Osborne, Alex Salmond and as the token woman, Nicola Sturgeon. But it lacked something: telling a story that shook the house of the UK to its foundations as high politics, and missing people who were not frontline politicians at Westminster and Holyrood.
The pace picked up in the second, as the campaign got into gear and Salmond announced on 21 March 2013 the historic day of 18 September 2014. It covered the strategies of Yes Scotland and its ten point scale of getting voters to rate their attitude to independence and Better Together’s segmenting the electorate into 66 different groups. Both had political strategies and intelligence, but only one had a real ground campaign.
This episode touched on the tensions in the respective campaigns: the complete own goal of Better Together self-titling their relentless negativity and rubbishing of independence as ‘Project Fear’: called ‘horrific’ by Michael Moore.
The first programme highlighted that Labour had problems with Better Together, and that Gordon Brown had problems with anyone who wasn’t called Gordon Brown. What was underplayed were the multiple tensions in No, firstly, about Darling’s laconic style of leadership, and secondly, between Scotland and Downing Street (and Cameron, Osborne and their teams who really didn’t understand a country far away in their minds).
Similarly, some of the tensions in Yes Scotland are identified, such as the extent to which it was really SNP controlled and funded. Nicola Sturgeon candidly put it that it took ‘a little bit of time to let go, and some in the Yes campaign will probably say we never quite let go and they may have some justification in saying that.’
Lots of the tensions within Yes, like No, are alluded to rather than explicitly stated such as how the Greens felt they were being used as window-dressing, and the tensions between Yes Scotland and its well-paid staff, and the grass roots, self-organising, DIY Scotland such as Women for Independence, National Collective, and Radical Independence Campaign: the first two cited and having witnesses, while the latter didn’t warrant one mention.
As the second programme drew to a close we enter the new year of 2014 and the tension mounting as Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, and George Osborne, Chancellor, start the currency debate. After Carney’s intervention in January 2014 when he spoke at SCDI in Edinburgh, Nick Robinson, the BBC’s Political Editor, cited Carney talking of the ‘clear risk’ of an independent Scotland continuing to use the pound and raised the stakes by mentioning ‘the spectre of a euro crisis’ and the ‘spectre of a Greece, Portugal, or Spain’ north of the border. This was to be only the beginning with Osborne wading into the debate in much more uncompromising terms.
The tensions underlying this come centrestage in the third programme in the Alex Salmond-Nick Robinson stand-off. This was focused on the last days of the indyref with big businesses announcing corporate warnings (aided by Downing Street lobbying), including Edinburgh-based RBS stating that they would consider moving their headquarters to London after an independence vote. Robinson broke this story, asked Salmond about it at an international press conference the next day, with Salmond claiming market sensitive information had been leaked to the BBC, and Robinson charging that Salmond had not answered the question.
This controversy did not end there for it ignited anger in many independence supporters about the shortcomings and biases of the mainstream media, the BBC in particular. Robinson, reflecting with the passing of time, thinks that after their set too, that he over-stated Salmond’s evasions. But critically, this has to be seen in the context of how the BBC in London saw this story, with even Robinson recognising the limits of understanding of senior corporation management.
A thoughtful voice in this is Alan Little, the BBC’s referendum correspondent (and a consultant on the series). He reflected on a discussion in London where he asked colleagues what they thought contributed to the independence debate, with it coming down to two factors: ‘One, the Scots being chippy, and two, Salmond is wily’. He observed that: ‘I was quite surprised by some of my colleagues failing to understand their own assumption that the Yes side was wrong.’
Ken MacQuarrie, then head of BBC Scotland, stuck to the official party line, talking about ‘truth telling’ and ‘fairness’ in the corporation. Missing was any comment from John Boothman, Head of News and Current Affairs at BBC Scotland up until close to the vote, known to be pro-Labour and who had issues in how he did strategy, planning and supported staff.
There is no comment about STV’s coverage beyond that they hosted the first Darling-Salmond TV debate and the BBC the second. Missing is any comment on the press beyond the ‘Daily Record’ and ‘the Vow’: the creation of then ‘Record’ and now independence supporter Murray Foote.
Social media is represented by Stuart Campbell of ‘Wings over Scotland’ fame and Stewart Kirkpatrick, Head of Digital at Yes Scotland. Campbell, says of his abrasive Twitter style: ‘Other peoples’ independence campaigns have waded knee deep in blood. All we did was occasionally call each other some names on Twitter.’ Kirkpatrick reflected that there were two Wings, the fact checker and the uber-partisan tweeter, and that: ‘The cybernat thing definitely hurt us. Unequivocally people being abusive online did not help the Yes campaign.’
The final programme dwells on the high drama of the independence campaign getting ‘the Big Mo’ behind it, pulling ahead in the polls, and the mass panic it induced in the British political establishment. It tells the story of not just the legendary ‘Sunday Times’ poll putting Yes ahead 51:49 two Sundays before polling, but a private Downing Street tracker poll which put Yes four percent ahead.
There was at the time rumours of a private poll showing a sizeable Yes lead, but it was thought to be a Yes related survey, not from the other side. This Yes surge occurred eleven days before polling, and while lots of the underlying data was moving towards Yes, with independence appearing to be winning the campaign, seen as the most trusted, and ahead in all age groups under 60 years, there was concern then in the Yes camp that they had peaked too early. The No campaign had time to regroup, launch several high level initiatives including the three UK party leaders heading north, and come up with ‘the Vow’ which broke the cycle of never-ending negativity that No had created for itself. Related to this, Douglas Alexander had earlier come up with the phrase ‘No Thanks’ about how to say with respect no to independence, inspired by the pro-Canadian unity campaign in the 1980 Quebec referendum.
The story so far concludes with the 55:45 victory for No on an astonishing 84.6% turnout. But campaigns are about ideas and unintended consequences – and what happens in their aftermath. On the morning after Scotland’s date with destiny, David Cameron stood outside Downing Street and declared that now was the time for England to speak and bring in ‘English votes for English laws’, the supposed answer to the West Lothian Question. This would diminish the voting rights of Scottish MPs, much to the horror and fury of Darling and Nick Clegg, then Deputy PM.
One recurring theme running through the documentary is how the Westminster class and village struggled to understand modern Scotland, the Tories having to seek regular updates from Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson. Cameron did not give an interview for this, but Osborne reveals his limited understanding of Scotland and abilities as a political strategist. At one point he compares independence to ‘being about Braveheart’ and stands by Cameron’s post-vote EVEL stance to this day, saying of Scotland after the 2014 vote that ‘The SNP were put firmly back in their box’ which is delusional.
There are lots to enjoy and ruminate over this three hour extravangza of our very own home made political earthquake, but it is by its nature a creature of political compromise. It is also four and a half years after the vote, when with Britain imperiled in crisis, independence is not a settled issue, but live and ongoing, something not even hinted at.
This documentary is one contribution to an ongoing political debate. It was revealing that many pro-union supporters voiced their disdain for this series from the outset, for example, asking, ‘am I alone in simply not having the stomach for this’ (Kevin Hague), ‘It is already ancient history told by ancient irrelevant voices’ (Edwin Moore), and ‘I’d rather stick pins in my eyes that watch it’ (Kate Potts).
Such sentiment seems reflective of the widespread pro-union unease during the indyref that has continued since. Pro-union sentiment contributed to Scotland making history in what was a completely peaceful revolution, but to many on the No side was something painful to get through and then never look back. This could be seen as the mirror image of the uber-independence supporters who cannot stop talking about the summer of 2014 and seem to find it hard to stop revisiting the recent past.
What is incontrovertible is that this slice of contemporary history is not the final take on a story we are still creating and arguing over, and that the destination and conclusion of Scotland’s independence debate will continue to be the subject of many more studies and TV programmes. And will ‘Yes/No’ aid the BBC and other broadcasters in getting it right next time and will it ever be shown on the main UK channels, or is too late and too far into the endgame of Britain?