Until recently a depressing aspect of Scotland’s debate was absence of a United Kingdom newspaper in support of greater governance.
A democracy needs a free press of different political persuasions to communicate opinion fairly and effectively. Scotland’s newspapers are in private hands. The Glasgow Herald is owned by an American company, for example. The press based in London is no different. All this tells us if an editorial dares express a modicum of sympathy for independence it will revert to type the next day.
National? How national?
Reading Scotland’s only two “nationals,” the Scotsman and the Herald, results in despair. They advocate a unionist path or a federal solution. Both are in terminal decline. Could it be that a new generation of readers find nothing to which they can relate? Our press is no better at producing insight into Scotland’s ills than their English-based equivalents. They do, however, know the difference between a glen and a valley, a small consolation.
Let’s look at one key newspaper that trumpet’s its liberal credentials. Of all the “British” daily nationals the Guardian is the best at reporting the debate and quite the oddest. Its editorials are implacably against self-determination, yet it carries the most comprehensive coverage of the march to independence. Hardly a day goes by without at least one essay or article on the subject. Some days there are many, news and comment, some thoughtful, some ludicrous, some opportunistic twaddle.
Anti first, pro second
The style of reporting press releases follows a set pattern. A critic, pessimistic of Scotland’s chances as an independent state, or dead set against it for personal reasons, gets prominence over Scotland’s political opportunities. Articles begin with a sensational headline followed by a misleading sub-heading. Somewhere down the column sits Scotland’s First Minster or government spokesperson’s rebuttal. By the time the reader reaches that point they are liable to be bored and not read on to discover an opposing political position exists and it is based on facts and optimism. Misleading headline and first paragraph have done their work on the mind and memory. The chances are the reader remembers only the negative. Let’s look closer.
The truth and only half the truth
I am unable to trace a single instance in which the Guardian sought out and explained the injustices Scotland experiences in its effort to prosper, and has for generations, iniquities forcing it to genuflect to Westminster’s agenda and foreign policies. For example, I cannot find any editorial deploring the governments Scotland votes for are invariably not the ones Scotland gets. Nor can I find any condemnation of Tony Blair’s redrawing of the North Sea’s maritime boundaries allowing Westminster to grab oil reserves for England alone. There is no outrage at the imbalance of inward investment between Scotland and England. Its editorials extol the benefits of staying the lowly partner in a union all else being “uncertain for businessmen.” An editorial talked of the people of Scotland “seizing” sovereignty. Seizing? Does that mean stealing?
There is a semi-permanent published reference list of the political structures Scotland does not have, not a comprehensive one by any stretch of the imagination, but a list of sorts, such as tax, VAT, control of armed forces, foreign policy, and so on, and so forth. There is no indication of omissions and deficiencies the nation labours under, and the detrimental effect it has on the economy and people’s’ lives.
What we do get is an occasional essay by a Guardian leading journalist. Few are ecstatic about the prospect of a mature Scotland. With few exceptions opinion is benign but ill-informed, stumbling over egregious errors of historical and social fact, postulating theories, or airy-fairy alternatives to genuine self-determination. Facts are irrelevant. Their opinion is undermined by a career uninvolved in Scottish life. Their concern is always for England, ineptly addressed as the United Kingdom. When a journalist does display experience of living in Scotland it is for a short time, their memory of it skewed by a career spent seeing life from London’s perspective.
Here is the venerable Katherine Whitehorn’s contribution in January, 2014, a much respected democratic socialist: “A Solution to Scottish Independence.”
“In the coming referendum Scots living in England won’t have the vote. This might be because it is thought Scots living in England would be more likely to vote against a split, although who knows.”
She does not consider close to half-a-million English living and working in Scotland a threat to Scotland’s future in any way. They had the vote in the Referendum. The presumption is they will vote Yes.
“When I was at school in Glasgow [she was educated at Roedean in Brighton and Glasgow High School for Girls] we were firmly taught the Union of the Parliaments gave endless benefits to England, and none to Scotland, but times have changed and there certainly would be a disadvantage for Scots living in England if they had to go on paying the taxes to fund the benefits – free college tuition – for example, that the Scots in Scotland would have.” Laying aside Scotland pays for its own free education, her statement is astonishing.
Glasgow’s High School for Girls, (now closed) is applauded for its advanced attitude to Scottish history, taught in the face of an imposed orthodoxy. Only now is the Scottish government asking its education system, (always separate from England’s) to do all it can to offer understanding of Scottish and Gaelic history. At the other end of the educational spectrum Fettes College in Edinburgh, alma mater to Tony Blair, still declines to teach its students anything akin to Scottish political history, but that’s another story. Glasgow’s High School for well-behaved young women had an enlightened attitude to the light and dark of Scotland, one of the oldest nations on the planet. It did not need rebellious history teachers to defy educational policy who dared to mention the Clearances.
Staple state education
I attended a state school. Other than an annual visit from a representative of the Burns Society with an annual prize for the best reciter of a Burns poem, I was taught little of our history. (I won once reciting “Scots Wha’ Hae!”)
We walked military fashion to our classrooms in a line two abreast to the stirring patriotic strain of the theme tune from the film The Dambusters. We learned of the exploits of Sir Francis Drake, the Tudors, Henry VIII and his many inadequate wives, and all about Good Queen Elizabeth I. The latter compelled reference to Mary Queen of Scots, but never in the context that she was murdered as a way of removing competition to the English throne.
Mary was referred to as a flighty, immature lassie, susceptible to the advances of an Italian lute plucking womaniser destined to be dispatched. Horror of horrors, she spoke with a French accent. Our poets were English from Wordsworth onwards, our novelists Hardy, D.H. Lawrence, Durrell, and Kingsly Amis, our playwrights Shakespeare and the new wave angry men of London’s Royal Court Theatre. No contemporary Scottish poet existed, no novelist, no playwright. Composers covered Vaughn Williams, Elgar, and Benjamin Britten. Painters included Peter Blake and Stanley Spencer, the avante-garde art of the Glasgow Boys unknown unless you attended a Scottish college of art.
Politicians were those devoid of interest in Scotland, Disraeli, Lloyd George, and Harold Wilson, until we got to Churchill who sent tanks and agent provocateurs to a rally in Glasgow Square to discipline the “reds” of Clydeside. Those who governed Scotland were either public school educated earls or landed gentry, or soap box socialists. Everything was judged by London’s standards. Everything was for the greater glory of England’s place in the world.
The only politicians we saw locally were Labour, high-profile, stentorian Tammany Hall machine politicians, rarely off our television screens, such as Secretary of State, Wullie Ross, and MEP Janey Buchan. Their power base depended on how well they carried out the bidding of Westminster.
Of their accomplishments in Scotland for Scotland it was hard to discover a thing one could term a positive legacy. They didn’t do anything. They only proclaimed things. They made a lot of noise about fighting Scotland’s corner but it was empty rhetoric, an echo of Westminster’s slop. The poverty they presided over remained long after they shouldered their share of ermine robes. Katherine Whitehorn is oblivious of all that.
Whitehorn’s remarks are bizarre but not uncommon. She ends her brief article by touching upon how real Scots are marked out by a habit of putting salt on porridge, not sugar. A wonder she didn’t finish her piece with the puerile stand up comic’s representation of Scottish manhood, a supposed love of deep-fried Mars Bars. Her article is mortifying. Better to insult a nation than spike drivel from a likeable journalist.
The penalty of the Scottish historical figure
The nearest thing to Scottish history I can recall was not about Scotland, but about “darkest Africa,” the tale of David Livingstone’s missionary exploits, and the politically harmless fluff of Greyfriar’s Bobby, a subject now on every antagonist’s list to debunk, almost everything else already besmirched. The rest is silence.
My geography teacher taught me that “the Pennine Chain is the backbone of Britain.” She did not mention the Pennines peter out in rural Northumberland. But she was generous enough to mention Ben Nevis was the tallest mountain in the United Kingdom, other Scottish mountains not worthy of identification.
No one is suggesting Scottish history, or geography, should be taught exclusively, but back when I attended school and university it was barely taught at all. Scottish political and social history was out-of-bounds.
The Scottish disease
To draw attention to Scotland’s accomplishments was to exhibit an eccentricity, a provincial attitude. The way to preferment was to flatten your Scottish accent, dispense with dialect words, adopt a BBC newscaster’s pronunciation, pay attention to English middle class manners, and wear the right tie.
Our newspapers promoted all of that. As a sop we were given safe kailyard references, the derring-do of Rob Roy, the White Heather Club on television. R. L. Stevenson’s novels were respected because their quality was internationally recognised but not enough for his face to be included on a British stamp. “He is not a significant novelist,” said the head of the Royal Mail. Instead we accepted the quiet racism of Cambridge essayist, A. C. Benson. “The awful Lowland Scot face – the long-jawed face which looks as tho’ the owner were holding an egg concealed in his mouth – is what spoils R. L. Stevenson’s face.”
Scotland is a country where inferiority starts early and lasts a lifetime. It is with us now, in our hesitation to take the reins of government. We are not worthy, is the ingrained anxiety. And that’s exactly what Scotland is told in no uncertain terms.
But do we really believe it?
(Appendix: Since writing this essay the Sunday Herald has come out in support of independence. (Not the daily edition of the Herald.) The first edition sold out all copies. And a new newspaper entirely devoted to independence, The National, has also appeared, though it is owned by the Herald empire. Will that signify anything positive to other newspapers that prefer a subservient Scotland?)