What do Fred the Shred and Sir David Tell us About Scotland?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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  1. Michael says:

    An interesting point. In rural Scotland a scandal has been unfolding. Ruinous exploitation, theft and legal chicanery yet almost nothing is done. The running sore of the Lairds treatment of their farm tenants, the broken promises and the inexcusable inaction of the political and media class is a disgrace.

  2. seven says:

    Magnus Linklater wrote twenty years ago that ‘it would be very hard to talk about a Scottish establishment’

    I’m sure it is, especially if one wishes to still be friends with the rest of the establishment

  3. seven says:

    Is it also a consequence of the state of scottish governance over the years. If I’m correct that devolution was the norm for most of the union but unelected and therefore became a boys club. Then we had the Scottish office over the last hunner years, again basically unelected. What were basically suffering is the effects of that lack of democracy, with wee cliques all over the place, the edinburgh establishment ruling over law, the CoS the arbiters o social morality then laterally the labour party machine with all it’s attendant corruption al through the ages and cliques.
    History has been written by the Scots toradhe press i’s no wonder were whaur we are.

  4. Barontorc says:

    Now then guys – let’s get down to brass tacks with this.

    We have laws and we have those who break laws and those who break laws are taken to account – oh, really?

    I am sick and tired of seeing Corton Vale is full of females who are trapped in poverty, in one way or another and then see day and daily, other lawbreakers who are not treated the same.

    Contrast and compare the treatment of these two groups. There is a common denominator in that the prosecuting service will apply its
    weight or not, even though it carries a statutory responsibility to do so.

    To respond that the defenders of these “privileged” are so much better pleaders than that, which can be afforded by the poor, is surely the ultimate insult to our legal system, which espouses fairness.

    What’s wrong with the culture in this country is graft, in whatever form it surfaces and it must be got rid of.

  5. In some ways the current problems at Ibrox can mirror capitalism in general – especially in the way that commentators refuse to see the underlying pattern. Gretna, Dundee (twice), Livingston (twice) and to a lesser extent Airdrie all illustrate the same problem, and every time the focus is on the failings of the individual chairmen, not the system which creates them.

  6. seven says:

    An Duine Gruamach- Dundee have always been a cash cow-tax job as far as I can remember-I’m 45. Compare with Dundee United

  7. the main stream media in Scotland have no desire to break or investigate stories which concern either labour or rangers. Just ask Phil Macgiollabhain in the case of rangers all the information is there to be found if you actually do your job and look for it, yet even when it is put infront of their face it is ignored and hushed up or called conspiracy. The main stream media is there to pander to their friends, print press releases and ignore anything that will be damaging unless it is saying SNP accused or Celtic in crisis with a cracked crest for losing a couple of pre season friendlies (i no longer buy any papers, with the exception of the herald when Iain MacWhirter is in it so i dont know if rangers have had a cracked crest in the daily record for its actual crisis)

  8. Indy says:

    There are two issues really as I see it. One is about corruption/dodgy dealings – i don’t know anything specifc about Rangers so don’t want to make any allegations but that’s what is beng discussed. As with banking, that is maybe an issue of more stringent rules being put in place – e.g. why should people be able to set up offshore taxation arrangements in the first place?

    But the second issue is one of overleaping ambiton. People just going too far in the pursuit of success. And I think we need to be quite careful about how we react to that. Wanting to succeed, wanting to be outstanding, is not a bad thing. That has been the driving force behind much of human progress. But failure is always a possibility. When it happens we should not revel in it or take the attitude that it serves people right for getting above themselves. I think that attitude is as much of a danger as a culture which allows power to go unquestioned.

    So, yes, there needs to be more – not less – regulation and more holding people to account but we also need to remember that in many ways ambition and aspiration has been systematically bred out of many Scottish people, who have been brought up believing they live in a second rate country that people have to leave in order to succeed. We don’t want to reinforce that perception by glorying when people or institutions crash and burn.

  9. Gerry Hassan says:

    I do think we need to talk about media and hold those who claim to hold power to account and dont, while also addressing that this is about more than media.

    One of the best authorities, if not the best in digging up inconvenient facts on Rangers has been rangerstaxcase.com and writing in today’s Guardian he puts it:

    Scotland’s media, sports and business desks alike, are complicit in the disaster that has belfallen Rangers. They killed their golden goose.

    One could make the same point about most aspects of Scots public life – politics, business, law; that the media have been more than happy using their access and status to gain insider stories, and not do their job properly.

    But part of this is more than the media: the exhaustion of the Scots radical tradition, the dilution of any radical Labour impulse and the lack of interest of the mainstream Scots nationalist perspective to be about challenging any kind of power. Scotland just hasnt done this sort of thing: challenge the power brokers and establishment groups for years, while pretending in rhetorical and episodic moments that it does (UCS, poll tax etc). The combination of how the Rangers story was broke, social media and the self-government debate, at least provide a window where this can be brought into the open and increasingly challenged. Without being panglossian, the voices of power in Scotland are no longer quite so confident and dominant. Thats a positive development.

  10. Barontorc says:

    Gerry, I had to look up “panglossian” and that led to “..excess of optimism..” which to me would overstate the situation.

    The “..interests of the public..”, often given up to justify that no further procurator interest or police investigation will be made, is but the effect of all you describe above and to me there has to be a single approach to justice and one law for all.

    Take the Rangers issue with the non-payment of tax over umpteen years and during these same years the club was bringing in top class players to improve their performances on the pitch. Just how many years would Joe Public be allowed to with-hold tax, without a stushie erupting? Take the non-payment of tax on MP’s expenses, where it was revealed that they even have their own HMRC tax department to cover Westminster, yet nada was heard until that erupted big time.

    In both of these cases, there was little interest from those who are well paid to take an interest and these guys must be held to account as much as the suspected perpetrators. The NoW / Sherriden case is yet another glaring example of police and Procurator Fiscal work, on behalf of “..the public interest..”, which was roundly criticised for poorly serving justice and to bring in Lockerbie would be the icing on a wholly unpalatable cake!

    What you should be shouting about is how very bad this rotten state of ours is. Cause and effect!

  11. douglas clark says:

    However there is also a power imbalance, not just between citizens and Scottish civic society, but between citizens and UK civic society. It is hardly a co-incidence that the square mile and Westminster are physically side by side.

    It is.probably. true, as Ian Rankin put it:

    “The United Kingdom consists of 90,060 square miles. David Cameron has fought tooth and nail for 1 of them.”

    So did Brown.

    It seems to me that there are informal networks of power that stretch their tendrils into Scotland that impact on our society. They are far more protected by omerta than even Fred and David.

    One example of this may be the London Olympic Games 2012. To what extent has there been parliamentary oversight of the expenditure, and how much taxpayers money has been spent on it? The current cost is approx £24 billion, when associated costs are taken into account. http://news.sky.com/home/london-olympics/article/16156780

  12. Robert says:

    Off topic Scotland’s oil and the suppressed McCrone report. When nationalists back in the Seventies argued that the choice was to be rich Scots or poor British they had a point.

    http://auldacquaintance.wordpress.com/2012/02/09/mccrone-deja-vu/

  13. Tocasaid says:

    Better article than the one the other day. The failure to question is not just ours though – it’s been finely honed to perfection in the city of London with the rest of the ‘UK’ nodding in its shadow.

  14. Craig P says:

    Seven, it goes back even earlier than the union. After Cromwell died and Charles II returned, from 1660 Scotland was largely ruled by an episcopalian cabal in the pocket of the king. Only with the ‘glorious revolution’ in 1689 did Scotland get a brief flowering of parliamentary democracy, before that was extinguished by the union. Scotland was then largely left to its own devices (the ’45 apart) in the 18th century, managed by Dukes of Argyll then the Dundases, whose job was to provide a block of government-friendly parliamentarians for Westminster. The old boys club of unofficial devolution and Labour Secretaries of State demanding absolute loyalty to the party just update that general theme: Scotland has been ruled by powerful managers to deliver a block of votes for the government since time immemorial.

    Any radical Labour tradition was early, it became weakened the year Labour first came to power.

  15. Inclusive Scotland says:

  16. Martin Ritchie says:

    Whats wrong with Scotland ? look at the title of the above video.
    “they take one at us, we take one at them, they sing at us, we sing at them”
    Get used to it people, it’s always been, and will forever be, the same.
    Strange thing is, we can all still, live, work, and yes, even fall in love and thats precisley what we do..
    No Surrender or Choc ar La, who cares,

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