One of the most dispiriting aspects of the debate surrounding Scotland’s constitutional future has been the relentless, grinding superficiality with which the London-based media have covered it. The failure (or refusal) of many UK broadcasters and print journalists to address the question of Scottish secession in any real depth has become all the more stark since David Cameron’s ill-judged attempt to ‘seize back the initiative’ earlier this week.
Take, for instance, last night’s Channel Four News. In a report about how British assets and liabilities would be divided in the event Scotland became an independent country, economics editor Faisal Islam suggested it was unreasonable for the SNP to expect to take 90 per cent of the oil from the North Sea yet only 8.4 per cent of the UK’s total debt. Jon Snow pursued this line of argument in a subsequent interview with First Minister. But it is a complete dead-end. The protocols governing the ownership of natural sea-bed resources are clear and internationally recognised: states control a 200-mile exclusive territorial zone running out from their coast lines and the resources contained therein. The question of debt following the break-up of multinational states is equally unambiguous: it is distributed according to population or GDP. Any other formula would provoke endless – possibly irresolvable – disputes.
Much of the explanation for this kind of sloppy coverage – which is entirely typical, despite Channel Four being one of Britain’s most enlightened media outlets – lies in the fact that London journalists are only just waking up to the very real challenge Scottish nationalism poses to the UK’s unitary political structure. In Scotland, largely as a result of efforts made by the Scottish left, various theoretical accounts of the emergence of the nationalist movement have developed. Some view it as a response to the gradual deterioration of the institutions which make-up the British state. Others, like Neal Ascherson, interpret it as an attempt to preserve what remains of Britain’s post-war social democratic settlement. Yet, substantive analyses like these have escaped the notice of the Westminster press corps, which, in recent years at least, has been utterly focussed on Labour and the Tories’ inch-by-inch battle for the centre-ground.
This is as true for England’s left-leaning commentators as it is for its conservative ones. Although no doubt broadly sympathetic to the SNP’s soft social democratic agenda, writers like The Independent’s Johann Hari, Liberal Conspiracy’s Sunny Hundal and ‘Chavs’ author Owen Jones, show no sign of being willing to address the Scottish question outside the narrow prism of Labour’s UK electoral prospects. If questioned, it’s likely they’ll tell you they fully support Scotland’s right to self-determination, but that separation would 1) abandon English working people to endless Tory domination, 2) represent a retreat from a wider multicultural project and 3) weaken cross-border solidarity. When subjected to proper examination these assertions look very weak, particularly if weighed against the potential benefits – the abolition of UK’s nuclear weapons system, to cite just one – the break-up of Britain could deliver for the left on both sides of the border.
With the best part of three years still to go until the referendum, it’s difficult to tell whether the media in the south will get to grips with the more nuanced aspects of the debate in the north. That will depend on how effective nationalists are in setting the terms and conditions of the discourse.