It has been a dramatic few months in Scottish politics and one which reveals something about our nation and its public life. We have a problem with how we do politics, public conversation and understand power. There is an inability, or more accurately, unwillingness across large swathes of Scottish society, from our political classes and institutional forces to even many of the radical and alternative voices, to confront some of the difficult issues we have to.
This pattern has been evident for decades, but it has become more and more clear with the establishment of the Scottish Parliament and election of SNP Government, first as a minority in 2007, then as a majority in 2011. This is because each of these events upped the stakes about the rhetoric and expectations of change and has illuminated more dramatically the silences, omissions and collusions across Scottish public life.
In this essay I want to explore this general thesis with reference to three recent examples which shed light on this: Rupert Murdoch, the independence referendum, and Rangers FC. I will then explore some of the limitations of Scottish public life, politics and democracy and what can realistically be done in a manner which enriches the prospects for self-government.
Murdoch, BSKyB, the Debasement of British Democracy and Alex Salmond
The unfolding Rupert Murdoch/News Corp scandal is as Peter Oborne has written, a ‘defining story of our age’ (1). For three decades the British political classes at the highest level prostituted themselves at the court of the Sun King; as if in some Hollywood blockbuster morality tale each subsequent Prime Minister pushed it further about how far they could debase their moral compass and profess their fidelity to Murdoch senior: first, Thatcher, second, Blair and Brown, and then finally, Cameron.
This brings us to the BSKyB takeover bid of last year: a move widely seen by many as something that if successful would be a watershed in public life and media plurality. In the summer of 2011 the UK came within a whisker of institutionalising the forces of manipulated, truncated politics and post-democracy. We were only saved from this by a sequence of events in which the bravery and commitment of a few individuals needs to be recognised, most notably ‘The Guardian’s’ Nick Davies and Tom Watson, Labour MP. At this crucial point we now realise thanks to the 163 pages of emails released by News International to Leveson, that Alex Salmond wanted and attempted to discuss the BSkyB takeover with Jeremy Hunt at the point he was to take a quasi-judicial decision, to indicate his support for the bid.
Alex Salmond’s explanation of this has been that he supported BSkyB’s bid in the interests of ‘jobs and investment’ and that it secured several hundred jobs north of the border. It isn’t a very plausible defence, for if it had been the raison d’etre of the administration wouldn’t this policy and its success have been trumpeted? Instead, it remained a secret policy unknown to public, SNP politicians and members.
This crucial set of events has proved the main topic of two First Minister’s Questions, but has been downplayed in public life and the mainstream media. It has for understandable reasons been met by silence by SNP politicians, but what is more revealing is the response of independent minded independistas, the kind of ‘critical friends’ the SNP needs to listen to and cultivate if it is to win an independence referendum.
One such source commented that they didn’t say anything in public because ‘I do not want to give succor to a Scottish Labour Party viscerally anti-SNP’ (3). Another reflected that the silence was a product of a variety of factors, making the observation that ‘the Canny Salmond lens is one through which too much commentary and calculation is refracted’. They went on, ‘To question Salmond is to put the cause in question, and accordingly he must be defended against all reasonable political criticism, with puritanical zeal’ (4).
The Referendum Question, Independence, Fear and Disinformation
The bringing to the foreground of the referendum issue has brought all sorts of misinformation and caricatures into the public domain. There has been just to give a few recent examples, ‘The Economist’s’ legendary ‘Skintland’ cover (5); ‘Scotland on Sunday’ proclaiming ‘Independent Scotland a ‘terror risk’’ (based on an article by a Labour MSP) (6); while Lord Fraser was caught claiming than an independent Scotland might force England into dramatic military action which could include having to ‘bomb Scottish airports to defend itself’ (7).
Instead of just rejected the above ridiculous claims (which we also need to do), we need to understand why this is happening. First, part of mainstream Scotland just doesn’t understand the dynamic of nationalist Scotland, and independence brings up all kinds of fears and anxieties which defy logic and rationale. Second, there is the role of the mainstream media in legitimising and strengthening such perspectives by continually giving voice to them to the point that they are acting as vehicles for active disinformation. This isn’t to pose what is going on as some black and white unionist conspiracy; it is more emotive and primordial than that: this is about part of Scotland being threatened and failing to empathise with another element of mainstream society.
Then there is the substance of some of the arguments; ‘The Economist’ gave what it thought were four key problems with independence: the over dominance of oil and gas, doubts over renewables, the weakness of the financial sector post-crash, and the issue of a currency. These are all legitimate points, and apart from detailed discussion, they require a strategic answer articulating the main advantages of an independent Scotland which would look something like: an enhanced international profile, a nuclear free nation, developing a different economic set of priorities from the City of London, and tackling and prioritising poverty and social justice in our country. A contributory factor in the current debate and misinformation has been the combination of a vacuum on independence, with any detail we currently have presented as continuity by the SNP leadership (Crown, currency etc). That will have to change.
Trouble in Govan: Glasgow Rangers and Scottish Football
In terms of measuring by passions and emotions arguably the biggest story of the year in Scotland so far has been the controversy surrounding Rangers FC. This has been building for several years due to Rangers unsustainable spending under David Murray and the level of debt he inflicted on the club; these very public actions were ones that no part of the mainstream media, football, business or otherwise, held Rangers to account for. Even former ‘Times’ sports writer, Graham Spiers, who has bravely challenged the club on its sectarian traditions and practices, did not venture into the terrain of Rangers toxic finances pre-crash.
Since the Rangers house of cards came crashing down when the club went into administration in February 2012, the media have talked about Rangers troubles, but Spiers previous comment of the perils of ‘succulent lamb journalism’ holds true; a case made more powerful by the reach of Channel 4’s Alex Thomson who has ventured into areas uncharted by the Scots media (8), and the ‘Rangers Tax Case’ website (9).
When the SFA recently came out with suggested penalties for Rangers for what has been called by Mike Wade amongst others, ‘a decade [of] effectively cheating’ (10), the reaction of Rangers fans was one of apoplexy and moral outrage, a feeling of mass indignation and victimhood that they were being unfairly singled out. This episode crystallised the two prevailing media accounts of the Rangers case. The first was encapsulated by Stuart Cosgrove when he said ‘no one club is more important than sporting integrity’ (11); the other by Douglas Fraser who commented that ‘Scottish football needs a successful Rangers’ (12).
The real culprits in the game are not people like Cosgrove and Fraser who have made thoughtful contributions across Scottish life, but the mock populist sports commentators who debase much of our media content. The reality of ‘Scottish football needs Rangers’ no matter the cost or preparedness to abandon principle is similar to the ‘too big to fail’ view which brought banking and the country to its knees. Michael Johnston, chair of Kilmarnock, showed his clear sense of the SPL clubs moral compass, commenting, ‘The clubs are mindful of a sporting integrity aspect but the commercial benefits may outweigh that’. Alex Thomson has pointed out that Scottish football is at a crossroads: allowing a tainted, toxic, hated Rangers into the SPL or holding people to account for cheating. We can guess which way things will go, but as Thomson writes, imagine a different world where ‘Scottish football is about sport, sporting values – integrity, morality, justice’ (13). And then look at today’s Scottish football and those who collude with it.
Fight the Power: The Prevalence of ‘Undemocracy’ and ‘Unspace’
The examples of Rupert Murdoch, the referendum and Rangers reveal some important characteristics about Scottish society and the media in particular. They shows us that we have a strange, convoluted relationship to power and those who exercise it, which can be characterised as a complete lack of curiosity and inquisitiveness. This is paradoxical for a nation which prides itself on its radical past and imagination, and which produced such bestsellers as Tom Johnston’s ‘Our Noble Families’, published over a century ago, which sold hundreds of thousands of copies.
We live in a culture where power is rarely held to account. This is a place where proper investigative journalism seems to barely exist; yet some people go through the motions telling themselves that they are the people’s tribunes. An example of this is the BBC Scotland documentary, ‘Rangers: The Inside Story’ which did break the story that Craig Whyte had been debarred from being a company director for seven years and had not disclosed this when he bought the club in the summer of 2011 (14). That though was the sole revelation in a documentary which missed most of the story; in particular it missed that Ticketus had bought the rights to future season ticket sales thus financing Whyte’s purchasing of the club. This sensational news only became fully public post-administration; it has been alleged by some that these documents were available to the BBC for its programme, but were not discovered or understood (15). Sadly, despite this the same team are as we speak producing a forthcoming BBC documentary, which they think will get to the core of the issue, but will on past precedent, get nowhere near.
The Murdoch, referendum and Rangers examples could be joined by many others; the collusion with the banking sector and courting of Fred Goodwin and others pre-crash by our entire political class; then there was the grotesque case of Donald Trump and his vandalising of the sand dunes of Menie which the political establishment responded to (Greens exempted) by declaring ‘Scotland open for business’. A rare exception to our absence of curiosity and challenge has been Anthony Baxter’s award winning film documenting Trump, ‘You’ve Been Trumped’ (16), a film refused any funding by Creative Scotland and barred from a showing at the Edinburgh International Film Festival.
We aren’t where we are by accident; it is a product of the power and reach of institutional Scotland, and its creation of a culture of conformity and consensus. Scotland has been a land run by committees of the great and good, and shaped by ‘undemocracy’, an absence of the culture, memory and practice of democracy, and instead chararacterised by the ubiquity of ‘unspace’, public and private spaces characterised by institutional sclerosis, fear of risk taking and independent mindedness; good examples of this would be the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the plethora of public affairs conferences and events.
What can we realistically do about this? First, we can’t continue to be silent about the culture of silences and omissions. We have to name it and talk about it and bring into public the institutional silences and collusions.
Second, we have to get the self-government movement to learn that it needs to have critical dialogues and critical friends. Scotland isn’t going to embark on meaningful, long-lasting change through a top down command and control party model which stifles debate and dissent.
Third, we have to encourage and nurture public debate to be more nuanced. The self-government movement has a responsibility here, and the cybernat community at its worst have to be seen as part of an unhealthy black and white Scotland. At the same time, one can only understand the cybernat obsessions as part of this wider picture, and not solely focus on them as Carol Craig did recently (17). The endless stories of unionist misinformation and scare stories, and the over the top anti-Nationalist rhetoric of Labour in particular, are also part of the same distorted debate which diminishes our democracy.
Fourth, following on from this the language of our public debate has to develop beyond the simplicities of a binary Scotland, unionist v. nationalist, the status quo v. independence. It isn’t just that there are several possible Scottish futures; but that the language of this closed conversation involves name-calling, labelling and a fixed mindset which is profoundly conservative.
Finally, and crucially, how we imagine and understand power has to change. We have to stop thinking just of public Scotland, but address the much more significant and potent ‘iceberg Scotland’ which exists under the waves and away from scrutiny. This means that how we think of politics and political change itself has to alter; for too long this has been about the Parliament and politicians with change reduced to the Parliament gaining more powers, and independence shrunk to the Parliament having the ‘full powers’ of a ‘normal nation’. This is the continued story of Scotland’s enlightened elites, maintaining their position, governing over us, and minimalising the potential of any change.
Additionally, we have to recognise that Scotland’s experience is part of a wider British and global story. The British state over the last 30 years has become institutionalised as a neo-liberal state, part of ‘the global kingdom’ and an advocate for the global class who live and pass through the UK. The Scottish public realm has proven more immune to the charms of this worldview, but all political parties and mainstream politicians have compromised with the market fundamentalist perspective. Nearly every economic, social or cultural policy debate in Scotland bears the imprint of instrumental neo-liberalism, marginalisation of alternative voices, and truncating of public debate (18).
Self-government has to be a democratising process and project, or it will produce a change in name only which won’t affect the lives and experiences of Scottish people. That entails nourishing a culture which is both honest and humble, respecting different viewpoints and challenging vested interests. This is an intricate balancing act, one which involves changing the public culture of Scotland, and aiding an ecology of self-government and self-determination which allows for this sort of thinking, discussion and debate to take place. For this to happen we have to acknowledge the long revolution that Scotland has been on, and the powerful hold of ‘undemocracy’ and ‘unspace’. We have to stand up to power, while digging deep into our capacity to be generous, hopeful, imaginative, and playful and create the Scotland of the future today.
As the old order of the last 30 years of British politics collapses even large parts of the British political class attempt to flee the wreckage of criminality, deceit and blackmail that was the modus operandi of the Murdoch empire. Scotland cannot allow itself to be the last place on earth run as some Murdoch fiefdom, our politicians happy to do his bidding and our football unable to have any moral backbone for fear of losing Sky TV money. Instead, it is an age for being bold and throwing off the legacy of cautious Scotland, while standing up to the bullyboys of crony capitalism. And at the minimum we have to start talking about this.
1. Peter Oborne, ‘The Murdoch and News Corporation scandal wasn’t about Conservative Party sleaze – but it is now’, Daily Telegraph, May 2nd 2012, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/leveson-inquiry/9241162/The-Murdoch-and-News-Corporation-scandal-wasnt-about-Conservative-Party-sleaze-but-it-is-now.html
2. Anthony Barnett. ‘Murdoch and the Big Lie’, Open Democracy, May 4th 2012, http://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/anthony-barnett/murdoch-and-big-lie
3. Private communication, April 30th 2012.
4. Private communication, May 3rd 2012.
5. The Economist, ‘It’ll cost you: Scottish independence would come at a high price’, April 13th 2012, http://www.economist.com/node/21552564; Gerry Hassan, ‘The Price of Independence: Scotland and the UK according to the Free Marketeers’, April 13th 2012, http://www.gerryhassan.com/blog/the-future-has-been-pre-ordinated-scotland-and-the-uk-according-to-the-free-market-revolutionaries/
6. Gareth Rose, ‘Independent Scotland a ‘terror risk’, Scotland on Sunday, April 29th 2012, http://www.scotsman.com/scotland-on-sunday/politics/independent-scotland-a-terror-risk-1-2263860
7. Huffington Post, ‘Scottish Independence: England would ‘bomb Scottish airports to defend itself’ Lord Fraser warns, March 13th 2012, http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2012/03/13/scottish-independence-england-would-bomb-scottish-airports-to-defend-itself_n_1341629.html
8. Alex Thomson, ‘When Succulent Lamb is on the Menu: Serious Questions are Off’, Channel 4 News, March 19th 2012, http://blogs.channel4.com/alex-thomsons-view/succulent-lamb-menu-questions/1010
9. Rangers Tax Case: http://rangerstaxcase.wordpress.com/
10. Mike Wade, ‘Questions over grey areas of US millionaire’s bid to buy Blues’, The Times, May 4th 2012.
11. Channel 4 News, April 17th 2012.
12. BBC News, April 17th 2012.
13. Alex Thomson, ‘This is the time for leadership from Scottish football’, Channel 4 News, May 6th 2012, http://blogs.channel4.com/alex-thomsons-view/time-leadership-scottish-football/1392
14. BBC One Scotland, ‘Rangers: The Inside Story’, October 20th 2011.
15. On these documents see: Rangers Tax Case, ‘Reflections on Craig Whyte’s Secrecy’, June 7th 2011, http://rangerstaxcase.wordpress.com/2011/06/06/reflections-on-craig-whytes-obsessive-secrecy/
16. ‘You’ve Been Trumped’ film details at: http://www.youvebeentrumped.com/youvebeentrumped.com/THE_MOVIE.html
17. Carol Craig, ‘‘What does it profit a man …?’ Why the SNP leadership need to do something about the Cybernats’, April 15th 2012, http://www.centreforconfidence.co.uk/carolsblog.php?p=aWQ9ODM3
18. Nick Couldry, Why Voice Matters: Culture and Politics after Neo-Liberalism, Sage 2010.