2007 - 2021

Scotland’s Dirty Secret

The sharp-eyed amongst you will have noticed that the next referendum has already started, (it started in June specifically, more on that tomorrow). We already have a clear view of what tactics will be used to defend the Union and attack both the idea of independence and the idea of devolution itself. The idea of “narrative framing” is well-worn in politics and messaging. How the argument is understood is as important as what messaging is used. Think Obama’s message of “Hope” or Reagan’s message “Morning time in America” or Blair’s endless reiteration of Britain and Labour as new and young.

The narrative framing the Unionist camp are resorting to for post-covid campaigning is a familiar one: you are too poor to be independent. Setting aside the obvious question: why would this be the case after 300 years of wonderful Union, there’s a nastier side to this.

Writing in the Herald today ex-MEP Struan Stevenson provides an astonishing diatribe –  The English taxpayer has saved millions of Scottish jobs – Sturgeon should say thanks” – in which he compares Nicola Sturgeon’s relationship to Rishi Sunak to that of a beggar. He writes: “In the Dickens tale, Oliver Twist ends up falling under the spell of the Artful Dodger , who introduces him to Fagin, Bill Sikes and their team of trained pickpockets. Comparisons with the SNP Government are beguiling. However, Dickens’ story has a happy ending when the baddies are all dispatched  and Oliver Twist inherits a fortune. If Scotland elects a nationalist government again next year, there will be no happy ending. The trained pickpockets will have won …”

Publishing an article comparing Scotland’s elected government to trained pickpockets is disgraceful for the Herald increasingly reliant on shock-jocks and clickbait, but we are where we are I suppose.

None of this is new. This kind of self-loathing can be seen across the political spectrum.

Remember  John McTernan’s outburst of 2011?

“This is the first dirty secret of Scottish politics: that Scotland is doing very well, thank you. When it comes to public spending, it is a mendicant nation, always looking for more” (the term mendicant, from Latin: mendicans, “begging”, refers to begging or relying on charitable donations – Ed).

The idea is predicated on a simple idea of the wealthy south and the barren north; giver and recipient. Any challenge to that framework is unacceptable.

It’s essentially the same as  the repellent Kelvin Mackenzie (‘The fact that anybody is in work in Scotland is due almost entirely to the wealth created by the clever and resourceful people in England’ ) or Ross Clark  describing how “The message for English voters is: Granny McTavish is living it up at your expense.”

McTernan of course has form.

In 2008 The Times reported:

“DES BROWNE, the Scottish and defence secretary, was under pressure this weekend to sack one of his top aides for describing Scotland as a “narrow, Presbyterian and racist” country. John McTernan, a special adviser to Browne and former Downing Street aide to Tony Blair, made the comments in a personal e-mail to a Labour politician. The document was obtained by the Sunday Times under freedom of information legislation. McTernan, who was among those cleared of wrongdoing in the cash for honours affair, wrote to Karen Gillon, a Labour member of the Scottish parliament, before a visit to Sweden: “If you’ve not been to Sweden before, I think you’ll really like it – it’s the country Scotland would be if it wasn’t narrow, Presbyterian, racist etc. etc. Social democracy in action.”

Examples are everywhere. Gerry Hassan eloquently laid out the hysteria of Andrew Neil and the Spectator crew here “The battle for Scotland and the language of apocalypse from Andrew Neil and the right”.

But it’s a not much of a hop and step from beggar to thief. Back in the 2015 election campaign this framing was rampant.

As Mike Cullen wrote for Bella back then:

“Watch out, middle-England, the jocks are here to steal your money, ha ha ha. So goes the Tory’s latest poster campaign, on billboards throughout London, depicting a sneaky Alex Salmond creeping up behind some poor unfortunate middle Englander, his bony, pointy, crooked fingers reaching out like an arcade grabby thing to steal the poor hard-working tax-payer’s selfies of the Queen from his back pocket. The slogan says “Don’t let the SNP grab your cash”. The political tactic is, on the surface, obvious: attack Labour’s weakness, which they see as SNP puppet masters, while appealing to those disenchanted Tories hiding up the back of the Ukip bus. But here’s the thing…appealing how? By utilising the Scottish stereotype, and solidifying it from vague smear of meanness into crystal clear out and out street thief.”

Managed Decline

It’s important to avoid the flip-side of this worldview, ie to pretend that everything is gold and nothing is wrong, or that independence would be a magic wand. To pretend everything is wonderful and the SNP can do no wrong is as bad as pretending that we are thieves and beggars. The basis for independence is not that we are exceptional it is that are unexceptional, deserving of democracy the same as anyone and anywhere.  Facing the reality of our social conditions is essential and to this end back in 2016 Douglas Robertson assessed the institutional failure of the last fifty years to eradicate or ameliorate poverty in Scotland (“Groundhog Day? Explaining 50 years of Failed Renewal”). Re-reading this is tragic, sobering and depressing and there’s worse to come in Johnson’s Brexit Britain. To argue that “Scotland is doing very well, thank you” is pitiful, large sections of Scotland, swathes of society are not  and have not been for a very ling time.

The point, in case it needs reiterating is to change things, to transform Scotland.

Stevenson and McTernan’s views are crudely expressed but this normcore politics is now hard-wired into the Unionist worldview and influences everything they do. Scottish failure is greeted with unconfined jubilation – it’s the heavenly hallmark of this dead certainty. Game over. Shut up and eat your cereal. It’s a view that sees Scotland as a mendicant nation, impoverished and unproductive, on the receiving end of handouts from London and England. Everything flows from this. It is the basis for understanding how Scotland could not possibly manage its own affairs. It’s a repressed state of managed decline. It states: “You have no economic future (no reason given), you are reliant on the benevolence of your larger neighbour. Our advice: hold on tight.”

Scotland’s dirty secret isn’t that we are impoverished beggars it is that we are discredited by our own, influenced by their own dispiriting worldview and dragged into the orbit of their hopelessness.


Comments (29)

Join the Discussion

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Malcolm Kerr says:

    A timely reminder about how the agenda is set, Mike. Thanks. Peter Geoghegan’s ‘Democracy for Sale’ describes how Leave stole the EU Referendum by creating the backstory, and then propagating it relentlessly via think tanks, and commentary in the MSM and social media. All funded generously by the untraceable ‘dark money’ of the obscenely rich. That’s what we face in the independence debate. Unionists are already up and running, while we are still busy ‘fighting Covid’. The SNP has nothing remotely approaching the nuanced response required here, but is still determined to suppress discussion and keep the wider Yes movement out of it. My current prediction is the UK will concede an Indyref2 following a strong showing by the SNP in May, and require that it takes place in September. Without a big change in thinking, we’re stuffed.

  2. Tom Ultuous says:

    You wonder what the same people would’ve said had there (logically) been an English independence referendum instead of an EU one.

    If we’re all such ponces why are they so determined to hang on to us?

    1. Daniel Raphael says:

      That is a most pointed rejoinder to their slanders. When it comes to the sloganeering and arguments during the Independence referendum, I hope your question will be utilized.

    2. Alasdair Macdonald says:

      They are determined to ‘hang on to us’, because the oil, gas and potential for renewables is what underpins Sterling. The revenues were filched in the 70s to run down Scottish, and much of the rest of the UK’s heavy industry, to tilt the economy towards financial services.

      There is also a bit of the ego delusion – if Scotland (and its territorial waters) becomes independent than the rUK has less than 50% of its current area and not a great deal easy access to the Atlantic. The Scottish fishery would no longer be something to be usable to bargain away to get deals with Europe.

      1. Tom Ultuous says:

        It was a rhetorical question Alasdair but I totally agree with what you’re saying. It’s imbecilic that they get away with these nonsensical statements without the comeback of that very obvious retort. The latest claim is we wouldn’t have survived Covid without the Westminster “handouts”. They borrowed the money (a fraction of what they borrowed implementing 10 years of austerity) and we’ll have to pay it back. There are still clowns roaming the “UK” who think Thatcher personally paid for 70% of their house.

  3. Raymond Reid says:

    What these commentators don’t realise is that the more they put his down by their inflamitary speak,the more the Scots know that they are absolutely scared stiff if losing the cash cow that they have sponges off of for years and years,they also know that since the referendum on 2014,the Scots have been woken up from the slumber they have been in with regards to politics in scotland and that the Westminster elite have been taking us for fools for far too long,Scotland is more savvy now than it has ever been,once simple thing that Scotland can do is quite simple,stop the barnet formula,take control of all our own finances and use our own ports to export Scottish goods around the world,they may as well keep doing what they are doing to Scotland because it all helps us on the road to independence.

  4. Jonny says:

    But Scotland is narrow, Presbyterian, racist and sectarian. It’s the truth and churlish to deny it.

    1. Jul says:

      There are pockets, sure.
      But not the Scotland I know best, thankfully. And the Scotland that wants to be independent is (mercifully) less characterised by those things than the (shrinking) Scotland that prefers to stay in the UK.

      1. Duncan Strachan says:

        Well said Jul. We do have all of theses faults but only in the tired old pockets that always had them.
        Areas incidentaly more pro union as it happens. Outside of these areas more enlightened attitudes and thinking prevail.

        1. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

          And don’t forget my native Southlands, the former Marches or Middle Shires, which form a solid belt of ambivalence between England and Scotland and remains a bit of a law unto itself. One of the last set of countries that the Scottish state managed to nationalise before its incorporation with that of England into the UK, and they’ve still not quite been assimilated.

        2. Alan Reid says:

          Hi Duncan, Jul
          Thanks for posting those fine examples of self-regarding separatism!

          1. Duncan Strachan says:

            I rarely come up against sectarianism in my part of the country or my travels around it. Presbyterianism is very much the make up of many in Scotland and in many respects no worse for it. It does give us our notions of egalitarian, social democracy i reckon. Racism is a fight we will always havei think. It must be fought.

            I would another fault though and that is one of snobbery. Some are too prone to that when they have attained a lofty viewpoint. That is an attribute of a system many of us wish to escape.

        3. Alan Reid says:

          Hi Duncan,

          Your original comments don’t read any less self-regarding the second time I look at them, indeed, one could argue they are redolent of “snobbery” or indeed of one assuming a “lofty viewpoint” – or simply attributing unpleasant characteristics to fellow Scots who don’t agree with you.

          I’ve heard many arguments for independence – but never that Scotland will become a nation free of snobbery. (Good that it would!)
          But one does observe increasingly unrealistic expectations in separatism!

          The tone of separatist discourse, the tendency to create a sense of “The Other” in Scotland, is one that gives some fellow Scots cause for great concern.

    2. Fearghas Mac Coisichear says:

      Jonny, you say it would be “churlish to deny it” – that’s pretty much right on the money. In Anglo Saxon law the churl was a freeman of inferior rank, who held land from a noble, on condition of rents and services. They were relatively free but as time went on and the feudal lords grabbed more power, their freedoms were reduced and became more akin to the low ranking villein, who was “substantially in the condition of a slave, who performed the base and servile work upon the manor for the lord, and was, in most respects, a subject of property and belonging to him”. Sound familar?

      Source https://dictionary.thelaw.com/villein/

  5. Michelle Shortt says:

    Very well put Mike.

  6. Deirdre Forsyth says:

    And if it were true that we live off England, difficult to understand why WM ,if they are, are so keen to stop independence

  7. Jim Coll says:

    Feel free to notice how these various apologists for the Union have their current message carefully synchronised. One pops up, then another with a similar rant, and if you look it shows the Conservative-Labour- Liberal inter-connectedness. Who said ‘better together’ had retired? Take the ‘no talking Independence while we’re fighting covid’ story. If we can’t talk Independence why do we have to keep talking Brexit at this time?

    1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

      ‘Nomen est omen’? – Gordon Brown’s initials are GB. He is usually wheeled out to put the latest British Nationalist attack line into the public domain.

      1. C. E. Ayr says:

        I know my memory is shot, Alasdair, but wasn’t this two-faced turncoat discredited many years ago?
        Who believes anything he says now?

  8. Muiris says:

    ‘The great, appear great only because we are on our knees, let us rise’ James (Jim) Larkin Irish republican & socialist 1876-1947.

    1. Wild Goose says:

      Les grands ne sont grands que parce que nous sommes à genoux. Levons-nous.
      Camille Desmoulins
      Révolutions de Paris

      The English translation is indeed on Larkin’s statue in Dublin’s O’Connell St.

      1. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

        In a letter to his wife from the Luxembourg Prison, Desmoulins wrote,

        ‘It is marvellous that I have walked for five years along the precipices of the Revolution without falling over them, and that I am still living; and I rest my head calmly upon the pillow of my writings… I have dreamed of a Republic such as all the world would have adored. I could never have believed that men could be so ferocious and so unjust.’
        – Camille Desmoulins, in a Letter to his Wife from the Luxembourg Prison, 1794, on the day of his execution by the Revolutionary Tribunal.

        Which just goes to show that you should be wary of those with whom you rise. As he was being led to the scaffold, Camille learned that his wife had also just been arrested and condemned, whereupon he suffered a complete breakdown and collapsed, a maddened wreck, back onto his knees again and had to be dragged ‘roarin an greitin’ to the guillotine – which is not a good journalistic pose for a heroic revolutionary.

  9. Blair says:

    Interesting article with additional information via the hyperlinks. The English taxpayer has saved a lot of Scottish jobs by borrowing substantial sums of money, this is true because one English taxpayer named Rishi Sunak has been forced by the Covid-19 Pandemic to act to protect the UK Economy.
    What is not realised is that the majority of money that Scotland receives props up our over managed public sector. Its quite amazing how those in charge of our public services get rewarded for what they do.
    The UK is of course dependent upon keeping things this way because if we could develop an idea that we would be better off by designing our own system then world investors may just follow. The route to cooperation and progress is by working better together than through economic competition just for dominance which creates inequality, poverty and which adversly affects our planets inhabitants.
    There is has always been a problem with our system, this was indicated by Margaret Thatcher. Her solution was to give the market freedom to come up with an alternative.
    Tony Blair and New Labour turned to education but failed to reform the UK government other than through devolution.

    It is our UK government that fears change, it fears giving Scotland more powers because it believes that Scotland will opt for independence and it fears Europe will help it.
    Market forces with intelligent systems are at play and England needs to evolve, reform and allow its partner nations the freedom full power can deliver effective solutions via a fully elected House of Lords.

    BREXIT creates opportunities and problems Boris really needs to start learning how.

    1. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

      Aye, but that over-managed public sector supplies the consumption that keeps the economy’s circulation going.

  10. Duncan Strachan says:

    Good article. Thanks Mike.

  11. Zen Broon says:

    So, at what point are we allowed to call this anti-Scottish contempt for what it is; racism?

    1. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

      I thought we’d gone beyond racialising the nationalist question.

      1. Duncan Strachan says:

        we might have

Help keep our journalism independent

We don’t take any advertising, we don’t hide behind a pay wall and we don’t keep harassing you for crowd-funding. We’re entirely dependent on our readers to support us.

Subscribe to regular bella in your inbox

Don’t miss a single article. Enter your email address on our subscribe page by clicking the button below. It is completely free and you can easily unsubscribe at any time.