The Dearth

The renowned and widely-liked broadcaster Bernard Ponsonby retired this week in a hail of deserved appreciation. Ponsonby combined the qualities of warmth and humanity with a sharp edge of journalistic inquiry. He signed-off from STV with an assessment that Scottish politics now suffers from “a real dearth of thinkers”. He cited the former politicians “Donald Dewar, George Robertson, Bruce Millan, John Smith, Robin Cook, Gordon Brown”. He added: “On the SNP side, Alex Salmond, Gordon Wilson, a much under-rated thinker” before naming three “pugilistic” Tories from that era in “Malcolm Rifkind, George Younger, Michael Forsyth”.

Now at first it’s easy to denounce the current crop of politicians (of all parties) who appear to share a combination of shallow managerialism and a severe lack of what the broadcaster called a ‘hinterland’. But while this critique of today’s politicians may hold true, I’m not sure the warm hazy glow of nostalgia is as easy to sustain.

For a start the list is striking for being an exclusively white and male one. It’s as if women didn’t exist until, when, 2007? Later? Second of all none of those listed served in a Scottish parliament delivering Scottish policy solutions. Rifkind, Younger and Forsyth were Thatcher’s Toadies delivering the unpalatable ideology of Thatcherism to a country that had explicitly and wholesale rejected it at the ballot box. Their job was to oversee the destruction of Scottish industry, of mining communities and the imposition of the Poll Tax. They oversaw mass unemployment. As for a dearth of ideas, well they certainly had them, but they were utterly repugnant and their imposition was completely undemocratic.

Equally, Gordon Wilson might well have been an ‘under-rated thinker but who can remember a single one of his under-rated thoughts today? I can’t.

Less equally, but still, out of Donald Dewar, George Robertson, Bruce Millan, John Smith, Robin Cook, and Gordon Brown who can remember one of their Big Ideas? I mean Donald gets a pass for delivering devolution, no mean feat and deserving of his unscalable statue at the top of Buchanan Street. John Smith can be remembered as the ‘greatest PM we never had’ and as the man who delivered the Prawn Cocktail Offensive, an attempt to woo the city with Labour’s business-friendly vibes. Robin Cook can be remembered as the man who offered up the idea of an ‘ethical Foreign Policy’, an idea first lauded then quickly scrapped and buried under Brown and Blair’s Iraq War folly. Speaking of Brown, he would I suppose be remembered for this Red Paper for Scotland but is now more articulate about Multibanks than Socialism.

I would argue that Ponsonby’s reflections are deeply nostalgic and skewed by the fact that politics of any real worth or edge or value doesn’t really happen from politicians anymore, if it ever did. The thinkers of any worth in Scotland today are unlikely to be part of the clubabble scene where members of the Scottish media and political class used to intermingle and even inter-marry (as a famous early Sunday Herald map depicted).

Scottish thinkers today are also masked by the surround-sound of Opinion makers, columnists, gatekeepers and editors (almost all white men of a certain vintage) that dominate and police Scottish public life. These people drown-out any complexity or nuance, their views are uniform and rigid, and often orchestrated by the chumocracy that sustains them. Their networks are sustained by bonds of friendship, common schooling, or being colleagues in ‘think tanks’ hardly worthy of the name.

Scotland really doesn’t have a ‘dearth of thinkers’ it has a surplus of institutions and gatekeepers who over-dominate with the same bland, rigid and relentlessly negative view of Scotland & the last thing any of them want is *any* change at all. Their views on anything from recycling bottles to protecting the sea to hate crimes can be anticipated well in advance and appear as if choreographed day in day out ad nauseam. In this sense complaining about a ‘dearth of thinker’s’ is a sort of sad joke, its a form of intense nostalgia where Scotland’s media and political class can look backwards fondly to better days. Rejecting this mythology does not suggest support for today’s politicians but instead that the very idea of where ‘ideas’ come from and might flourish completely changes.


Comments (27)

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  1. Graeme McCormick says:

    totally agree with you. what comes out of Scottish political parties is so stage managed that any person with an original thought can forget about becoming an approved candidate. The Yes Movement has all but abandoned our politicians who wouldn’t think how we can become independent. They now admit they are a pressure group.

    oh that the SNP conference included a Spad event: what is your original thought?

  2. ScotsCanuck says:

    Bruce Mirren ? ….. do you mean Bruce MILLAN, Mike ?

  3. Iain L says:

    “Bruce Mirren” is mentioned twice in the article, but who exactly is/was he ?

    Or .. has Bruce Millan had a change of name mposed post mortem?

    If so, I can’t recall much about Bruce M other than a vacuum where ideas may have been.

  4. ScotsCanuck says:

    …. and before we sanctify the “ethical” Robin Cook, it is now widely believed that he was the architect of the infamous “40% rule” in the 1979 Referendum on Scottish Home Rule, not the patsy Cunningham who proposed it.

    How very ethical that if you don’t vote you’ve voted NO, if you’re dead and not been removed from the Voters Role you’ve voted NO, if the ballot is spoiled you’ve voted NO.

    I’m sure Stalin would have approved of this interpretation of “ethical”.

  5. John says:

    Mike – I was struck by very similar thoughts when I listened to Bernard Ponsonby’s interview. I thought his conclusions were based on fact that he was rather more impressed by politicians when he was younger and less experienced (or cynical).
    He did make an interesting comment re successes and failures of devolution in that it has made little impact on addressing the poverty in Scottish society and the inequalities that follow from this poverty. It struck me, when he stated this, that this not only showed limitations of politicians in Scotland but also of current devolution settlement. You have also highlighted how the media, vested interests and politicians in Scotland now seem to be acting in a manner which further limits any meaningful change in Scotland even within devolution settlement.

  6. Alex McCulloch says:

    Agreed …but what, how ,who and when are we going change it?

    We need everyone who thinks , wants change , has ideas, has lived experience to join and re-energise the SNP !( the only realistic vehicle for change in Scotland for the forseeable future)

    SNP can be evolved to become NSP ( New Scotland Party) the forum for engaging with our communities to identify and deliver the change they want to see in their own areas. Involving, inspiring and informing our communities to realise what participation and choices are required to deliver it.

  7. CathyW says:

    Broadly agree with all this, Mike. I think your most important point is that politics – least of all meaningful political change – is not done by professional ‘politicians’, even the ‘nice’ ones. How handy it would be if all we had to do was vote for better people to fix the world’s woes…. if so, a quick trip to the polling station every few years and we could all have been living in Utopia by now. The systemic problems will not be legislated away, the vested interests will not be given up, they have to be demolished from below – i.e. by us acting together, not by ‘them’ doing it to/for us. Thank you for contributing to that on the journalistic front!

  8. Mike Fenwick says:

    “Equally, Gordon Wilson might well have been an ‘under-rated thinker but who can remember a single one of his under-rated thoughts today? I can’t.” Some of us can, Mike.

    Gordon Wilson – a thinker? But what he did DO was establish Radio Free Scotland – he waited until the last BBC broacast ended, and then used the wavelength.

    His book – Pirates of the Air is the story of the pirate radio station Radio Free Scotland, covering the years 1956-1972. It describes how an ignored nationalist minority in Scotland, deprived of access to the broadcasting media in the united Kingdom by ministerial diktat and political prejudice, fought for their rights by setting up their own illegal broadcasting station.

  9. Hugh McShane says:

    Salmond & perhaps Cook(at a pinch)- the rest weren’t weighty thinkers- Dewar&Smith were GU debaters- on-the-make. Agree about the retirement-nostalgia aspect..lament for his youth- if only we could have a period like Ireland, 1914-24(violence-free, of course) where the established order disappeared + an embryonic new nation emerged out of the ferment.

    1. Cathie Lloyd says:

      I will never forgive Cook for his labour parochialism at a big Marxism Today meeting with leading Euro communists which he addressed as though it was a labour branch meeting. So angry still!

  10. Derek says:

    “…a lovely little thinker but a bugger when he’s pissed…”

  11. Graeme Purves says:

    Indeed, Mike. It can be argued that periodicals like ‘The Bulletin of Scottish Politics’, ‘Cencrastus’, and ‘Radical Scotland’, and civic, cross-party initiatives such as the Campaign for a Scottish Assembly, the Calton Hill Vigil, Scotland United and the Constitutional Convention, as well as politically-engaged song-writing, drama and art, grew out of frustration that the politicians of the 1980s weren’t doing any useful, creative thinking. Plus ca change.

  12. Cathie Lloyd says:

    I agree with you about the dismal list he offers. Surely for original thinkers we need to look off field for the Alistair Grays, the Tom Nairns, the Stuart Halls (OK not Scottish but so important). And – recognising I havent mentioned any women, how about musicians, novelists and poets Karine Polwart is an outstanding one, as is Kathleen Jamie. I’m not sure ‘political thinkers’ are the right group to look to just thinking about people like Bernard Crick who had his moments but not game changing in the political terrain.

  13. James Scott says:

    ‘The renowned and widely-liked broadcaster Bernard Ponsonby retired this week in a hail of DESERVED appreciation.’

    Not, it would appear, if the contents of this article are in any way accurate.


    ‘For a start the list is striking for being an exclusively white and male one. It’s as if women didn’t exist until, when, 2007? Later?’

    To start the wider debate then, I nominate 3 ‘women’ (in my wholly subjective interpretation of the meaning, if any, of that classification) in decreasing order of importance:

    Nicola Sturgeon

    Liz Lloyd

    Dani Garavelli

    [Am I allowed to write the above? Before midnight? After midnight?]

    1. James SCOTT says:

      Sorry, obviously I should have included Jim Sillars.


      Second position; after Nicola but ahead of Liz.

      Mea culpa.

    2. Satan says:

      Scotland’s last great politician did her obitury on daytime TV, or maybe even morning TV. Her followers think she should be head of the UN.

  14. Alistair Tuach says:

    Glasgow university has a lot to answer for. I can’t think of any impactful policy from any of them.. Devolution was supported by the Labour Party as the mechanism to kill off the SNP and independence. I was free in 1978 and worked on Dewar’s campaign. No one other than me had a a car available most nights and I ran him home on a number of nights. He never chatted to me and I’m pretty sure he never knew my name. Brown’s rhetoric is delivered in a ponderous and portentous way to sound insightful but he rarely delivers. None of them are important thinkers. The fact that people think so is depressing.

    1. Satan says:

      The University of the West of Scotland has a lot to answer for principly what the fuck are you doing??

    2. Graeme Purves says:

      Just so. But the dutiful Presbyterian journalist Harry Reid launched the trope about Gordon Brown having a ‘formidable intellect’ more than forty years ago, and the Scottish media have run with it ever since.

      1. James Mills says:

        ”Gordon Brown’s formidable intellect ”- some definitions of ‘formidable ‘ include :
        ”alarming , frightening , spooky , brooding , disturbing , direful , mean-looking , sinister …”

        I would certainly ascribe these to Brown !

        1. Graeme Purves says:


      2. The same was used for Douglas and Wendy Alexander for over a decade despite their being no evidence to support it

        1. Alistair Tuach says:

          Many years ago! I helped out in a Paisley bye election. The Alexanders were still in their teens. The local chair told me that baith o them wir
          goany be mps some day.

  15. Moira Cochrane says:

    All male, and stale.

    1. James SCOTT says:


      I, for one, offered 3 (later augmented to 4) bona fide ‘women’ as alternatives. Above.

  16. Iain says:

    I can remember one of Gordon Wilson’s much under-rated thoughts; that “Scotland is a ‘pretendy’ nation”.

    Boy, was he right …

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