Are the SNP’s ‘Critical Friends’ really helping or just posturing?

By Professor John Robertson

‘When five UK judges, including two Scottish ones, use the phrase “totalitarian regime” when framing their problems with the Named Person proposals you know you’re in trouble and that no amount of spin by your army of super-annuated advisors will alter that fact.’

When recent convert to the independence movement, Kevin McKenna, wrote the above in the Herald on the 30th of July 2016, he seemed astonishingly happy to have readers associate the term ‘totalitarian’ with the SNP government. The UK judges had not actually linked the term with the SNP at all. I wrote, to take him to task, over his inaccuracy, offensive language (‘Super-annuated advisors?’ I worked for my professorial pension, pal. I drive a fn Vauxhall Meriva)  and ridiculous exaggeration (link below).

Perhaps stupidly, I suggested that his criticisms were based not on reason or evidence but on his openly held Christian (Catholic) faith. I got a bit of a bashing, was accused of bigotry and this, I think, was used to evade my bigger point which was that McKenna’s self-perception as ‘critical friend’ of the independence movement was potentially damaging to that movement. He had argued evidence-free that the SNP’s ‘arrogance’ was itself doing the damage.

In this article, I want to argue that the SNP’s several ‘critical friends’ are, to varying degrees, working against the aims of the movement.

Now, I’ve had the same accusation made of my writing. Once, only once, I attacked what seemed to me to be a drift toward a ‘presidential’ style in the SNP leadership. I still don’t like the ‘I’m with Nicola’ thing even though I did walk the streets of Ayr East faithfully posting the leaflets, the pens, the bags and the keyrings through letterboxes during the 2016 Election campaign. I made the mistake, however, of expressing my dislike of the power dressing, the expensive suits and the staggeringly high heels. You can still see the put-downs at the links below.

Before I go on to say more about other allegedly critical friends of the independence movement such as Iain MacWhirter, Michael Fry and elements within The National newspaper, Common Space and Bella Caledonia, let me go back in time, way back in time, to try to justify what may seem, at the moment, a disgracefully and untypically un-democratic attack.

In the later 1960s, as I was following the Small Faces and the Who, out of Modism and into Freakism (‘Hippies’ called themselves ‘Freaks’. Only ‘Straights’ or ‘Squares’ used the term ‘Hippie’), I began to read John Paul-Sartre. You may remember the Mods’ fondness for all things European such as scooters and Italian suits. Us ‘brainy’ ones got into French philosophy and literature, especially Camus and Sartre. Get us eh, Jimmy? ‘Roads to Freedom’ in my title above is a reference to Sartre’s trilogy which the BBC serialised at the time.

I’ll get to the point now. Though Sartre was opposed to Stalin’s totalitarianism, just as McKenna opposes the SNP’s alleged version, he insisted that in the struggle for freedom against the Nazis (real Nazis, Kevin), only the Communist resistance had the necessary discipline to defeat them. He was saying that there are times when the greater aim demands discipline unless you want to see your movement dissipate as it bickers internally. I really, really, don’t like the SNP’s tolerance of NATO or the Monarchy but I feel I must wait till after the ‘great day’ to campaign against them.

What evidence do I have of ill-disciplined, self-seeking perhaps posturing behaviour by supposedly independence-supporting individuals and media?  Here are some examples. Let’s start with McKenna. Some online commentary has cast doubt on McKenna’s recent (2014) conversion to the independence movement after writing some pretty damning criticisms of it as recently as 2011, when he wrote ‘If we buy Taransay, we can save the Union’. He was attacked then in Bella Caledonia’s wittily titled ‘We need to talk about Kevin’, where Mike Small didn’t hold back and opened with:

‘It’s a piece so loaded with self-loathing, barely recognised inferiorism and desperate, desperate, political emptiness it’s hard to approach, but we really do need to talk about Kevin.’

Since 2014, McKenna seems to have joined the Yes movement (no membership card required) but several online comments have questioned his sincerity, have suggested he is just another hack cynically following popularity and cash, or have even suggested he is a Unionist mole. Some have been less than polite and we won’t go there; I’m with Jeremy. I have only questioned his thinking and his arguments. In my attack on his Herald rant against the SNP’s ‘Named Person’ thing, I wrote:

‘Does he really think the Supreme Court judges meant us to think of the Scottish Government’s scheme as in any way an example of the work of a totalitarian regime? The above quote appears on page 34 of 39 pages and is only part of a wider, generalised, explanation of the European Convention on Human Rights. When I see the term ‘totalitarian regime’, I think of Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, the Catholic Church in Medieval Europe, or more recently in Ireland. The Vatican, even in recent decades, has had much more of totalitarianism about its actions than our fine wee social democracy does. As for ‘subversive, varied influences’, aren’t these the very things the Christian groups who brought the complaint would be most keen to deny their children?’

I broke my own security code, never to mention the words ‘Rangers’, ‘Celtic’, ‘Catholic’ or ‘Jewish’. I should have known what would happen.

On Saturday 10th September, under a big picture of Nicola, in the Herald, Kevin wrote again under the headline: ‘It is time for a bonfire of costly task forces in our NHS’.  He raged against ‘The Scottish Government’s favourite type of sticking plaster’. At the end of a largely evidence-free rant, like the one against the Named Person thing, he concluded:

‘Our NHS is our most cherished national asset but the people we have tasked to run it for us are running it into the ground.’

There is just so much evidence to counter that statement that I grow weary. However for a list of 15 good reasons why McKenna is talking through his bahookie, have a wee look at ‘Stand up for NHS Scotland, bucking the UK trend despite media attacks’ by me of course (ref below).

Finally on McKenna, he is prolific and ubiquitous. Appearing almost every day with a rant against the SNP, in the National, the Herald, the Observer or the Guardian, I doubt he’s driving a cheap motor like me. Defenders will argue it’s all just business or news values and designed to provoke interest but that doesn’t sit well with his self-righteous, ‘guardian, herald and observer of the common people’, projected persona. Try searching for his articles and be bombarded with bad news for the Scottish Government and/or the SNP.

McKenna, was comparatively easy. Let’s look at the esteemed Iain MacWhirter now. You can tell from their chosen photographic images that these two are not at all alike. Check out MacWhirter’s open, warm expression and McKenna’s defensive, cold, anxious visage. MacWhirter’s language, too, tends to be a bit more reasonable and rarely offensive, unlike McKenna’s. I used to find some of Kevin’s writing inspirational and think he was aspiring to the same reputation as Neal Ascherson or Ian Bell. He needn’t bother now. Here’s MacWhirter.

In the Herald on 24th March, 2016, we read under the headline ‘Shame on the SNP for choosing to park its conscience’:

‘IT’S the oldest tale in politics. A radical party wins power on the strength of a widespread popular movement. Then it becomes the target of powerful private lobby groups and gradually its radicalism is jettisoned for economic “realism” – which invariably seems to be the realism of the rich and powerful.’

At first I was afraid (I was petrified?) that the SNP had done something awful that would damage the independence movement irrevocably. Had Nicola been filmed strangling kittens? It turns out it was the Scottish Government’s refusal to restore a 50% tax rate for high earners that had shamed it.

I’m all for the 50% tax rate too, especially now that I’m on a pension, but I gather there were sound economic reasons for not doing it. Also, it was a government decision and not, fairly, attributable to the wider Party. Isn’t MacWhirter’s reaction somewhat OTT? It’s not the only example by any means. Look at these:

‘SNP being lured into most blatant fiscal trap in 300 years’
‘Boot on other foot as SNP battered by Michelle Thomson and T in the Park cases’
‘The SNP favours EU membership, but a closer looks shows that this appears to conflict with much of its nationalistic ideology’

I’m absolutely not lumping MacWhirter with McKenna. The former’s writing is far less hyperbolic or carbolic. It’s far more balanced over time and often sympathetic to the SNP. I am saying that if he really values independence more than he values his self-image, then he should try harder to promote it. He is a journalist so perhaps I’m being naïve by wondering which he values more.

Another very recent convert to the cause is Michael Fry. I almost wrote ‘The Dread Michael Fry’ as you would for Blair or Campbell. I did? Sparring partner with the much-respected, even loved, Professor (History) Tom Devine, Fry is a long term conservative, empire-apologist and is not a professor of history or indeed anything. In 2010 he wrote:

‘Nobody would nowadays deny the Empire did conquer and crush. But it had other interests or intentions as well: progress and civilisation, science and education, rights and justice.’

I only got a B in Higher History, in 1968 (‘Je suis un soixante-huitard?’) but I can still detect evasion of the truth. ‘The Empire’ had good intentions? There was no empire. There were greedy, violent people (Scots too) who raped, pillaged and plundered across much of the planet using the good intentions as a cover.

Like the Roman and other empires, the British Empire was a great bloodsucking monster with delusions about civilising the barbarians. It was a protection racket with a department for drug-pushing. As the BBC archaeologist Neil Oliver might have put it, in the wrong place, it was a ‘cancerous presence.’ That the wealth generated from brutal conquest, slavery and opium supported UK science, philosophy and Art does not in any way justify the British Empire, it makes it all the more sickening.

On Scottish independence, Fry, like McKenna, is deeply suspicious. Isn’t it much more likely that his conversion is the result of a shallow, material, cunning? Is it time to jump before it is too late? Is it recognising that you can’t keep on pissing on most of your readers and expect them to keep buying? Perhaps he’s been persuaded to try to influence the movement in a neo-liberal direction? See this:

‘Right-wing policies are only way for independent Scotland to be wealthier, says leader of new political group’

As with McKenna, his hostility to the SNP remains strong:

‘SNP makes mockery of constitution’

The National newspaper to which I subscribe online as well as often buying the paper version, is home to regular and large pieces by both Fry and McKenna. These tend to support the National’s wider commitment to independence but at the expense of the reputation of the Scottish Government.

Some social media comments have characterised the National as a ‘Trojan Horse’ whereby readers are unconsciously drawn away from the SNP leading to a dissipation and weakening of the independence movement. Just because they’re paranoid, doesn’t mean ‘they’ are not out to get them? I value the National. I must do, paying for it twice. Recently retired editor, Richard Walker, refused to publish my research in 2014 as it had not proved BBC bias beyond (his) doubt. Richard likes to appear on the Beeb.

‘We will criticise the SNP, says The National editor Richard Walker’

The National’s avowed commitment to journalistic principles (I know, non-sequitur) may seem worthy but also seems likely to dissipate the strength of the Yes movement.

Common Space is also committed to independence. I don’t doubt that. I like their campaigns and their publications a great deal. I have no problem with their preference for RISE (less than 0.5% of the vote in 2016) over the SNP but attacks on the latter have become too numerous to be good for the wider campaign. See these:

Councillors leaving the SNP “a problem of the party as a whole”, says former SNP MSP

‘SNP member accuses party of “Stalinism” over new proposals to restrict MPs’ right to criticise the party at Westminster’

A quick look at the Common Space site, today (12th September 2016), reveals around 16 stories. Many are bad news about some aspect of life in Scotland and, by implication, for the Scottish Government, None support the SNP.

Bella Caledonia is an excellent site full of good writing on all things Scottish, from the Arts to the Economy. I like it a lot. Recently, however, a BC piece offended both Derek Bateman and The Wee Ginger Dug. Here’s how the dug responded:

‘You probably know that last weekend Derek Bateman and I were the subjects of an article by Mike Small in Bella Caledonia. Mike attacked us for failing, in his eyes, to show sufficient criticism of the Scottish Government and the SNP. I felt that Mike’s article was unfriendly, unconstructive, unhelpful, and represented a fundamental misunderstanding of my position. I expect such attacks from Unionists, for it to come from another independence supporter was unwelcome, to say the least.’

A quick look at the aesthetically pleasing (like Common Space) site and you’ll find a great deal to be interested in but attacking other independence-supporters in this way is divisive and feeds into the hands of Unionist commentators.

I know what it’s like to be a posturing lefty intellectual. I’ve got five post graduate awards, including a PhD and I was/is a professor so don’t tell me I’m not a posturing lefty intellectual, pal. Try it!

Sometimes government politicians sound and behave a wee bit simple but I have to remind myself that there are different kinds of intelligence and that my academic type is just one of them and not always the most useful one. Also, I need to remind myself that it’s a lot more difficult actually doing politics than writing and posturing about it.

Actually, to tell the truth, I don’t need to remind myself much these days. If I can be unusually modest, I’m really very good at respecting other folk, regardless. So, with particular regard to the SNP, I think they are mostly doing a fine job. In the circumstances, you might even say they are doing a very fine job. If you think they are even remotely totalitarian, then to paraphrase 70s punk legends, The Dead Kennedys: ‘What you need my friend is a holiday in North Korea.’

Dr John Robertson, Professor of Media Politics, BA Hons, PGCE, PGD, PGD, MEd, PGC and M App Sc (Maker of Apple Scones)

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45 thoughts on “Are the SNP’s ‘Critical Friends’ really helping or just posturing?

  1. Connor McEwen

    Hope there is no salt in those apple scones ,unlike the buckets of salt required when reading VON RYANS DAILY EXPRESS OR THE DAILY BILE . Pinch of salt only for your refs. Very subtle

  2. Jeanette McCrimmon

    A well presented piece on a very important topic. Thank you Prof.

    Every Guardian article McKenna’s pens is challenged by myself and other Indy supporting CiF commentators. Most of us cite the facts and employ reasoned argument to utterly destroy his rantings and cringe fueled lies. McKenna has NEVER once made a counter argument, he doesn’t have one.

    What his articles, and the others you’ve mentioned above, do achieve though, is to give Unionists ammunition to use their flawed arguments, lies and abuse of the SNP, because, as they point out, their Nationalist, their on your side, why would they lie? Why indeed! That’s the BIG question.

    I don’t trust any of them. History tells us we will have agent provocateurs among us. We’d be foolish to think otherwise.

    As for Rise, if their main aim was Independence, they would have got behind the SNP, whilst planning to create the socialist party that a deserving. iScotland would embrace.

    I too, who doesn’t, have issues with varying Government policies. Not as many as I held before the SNP took the reigns though, not by a long chalk. I also respect the SNP Government whereas I held Labour in contempt. Working for their bosses in London, implementing policies that hurt and disadvantaged Scotland, with a benevolent, Unionist smile. Their deceit, incompetence and cronyism have cost Scotland dear.

    By comparison, the current SNP Government are a smart, professional team, proven to be competent in the handling of our affairs. The boss is Nicola Sturgeon, in Scotland, working for Scotland, not for, like the unionist parties, but against Westminster. The cherry on top is knowing my number one, above all other, main political goal is also that of the Scottish Government. (love saying that).

    As for all the rest – If your not with us your against us.

  3. Andy Borland

    Kevin McKenna is a very good writer, but he’s simply a gun for hire.
    He will tailor his ‘arguments’ to whichever outlet is writing the cheque. Whether that be the National, the Herald, the Guardian, the Observer, the BBC or STV.
    Ultimately, Kevin is a Labour man to his fingernails and lives in desperate hope that they will somehow, miraculously return to their roots.
    News just in Kevin : they won’t. Get over it.

    1. Bugger le Panda

      Same as Iain MacWhirter is a dyed in the wool Liberal Federalist, which is really still lying abandoned on the dockside long after the Independence ship has sailed.

      For Iain it is still resuscitable but we all know it so dead that the National Grid couldn’t jump start it.

      At the slightest whiff of it he is off out the blocks. At least it gets a dripping roast every so often.

      His heart is though, in the right place.

  4. Vince Diaz


    “Bipolar disorder, formerly known as manic depression, is a condition that affects your moods, which can swing from one extreme to another”.

    We could be breaching their humans rights, mind!

    1. John

      It is important but: ‘Dead Kennedys are an American punk rock band formed in San Francisco, California in 1978. The band was one of the first American hardcore bands to make a significant impact in the United Kingdom.’

  5. Brian Powell

    If the SNP fail then Common Space, Bella, Common Weal, Rise (even Kevin McKenna and Iain McWhirter) will become irrelevant.
    If there is no powerful representatives. as a solid group, of Independence in Government then it and those other bodies will be ignored.
    It’s as if they haven’t been observing Tory Governments (even Labour Govs) for the last few decades.

      1. Graham Rae

        I found this to be a very interesting read. I must say, SNP supporters, and/or supporters of the independence cause (because they are not all SNP), should band together and present an iron front to the Westminster propaganda-and-lies tsunami already gathering steam before the next indyref.

        Already comments sections on Scottish political stories are full of trolls saying they voted Yes last time but would vote No this time, and know a lot of people the same, when we all know this is the exact opposite of the truth. Blatant trolling, paid and otherwise.

        Also, they keep saying that the Yes/No vote numbers have barely changed since 2014 which is, of course, another blatant lie (last week I saw a regional paper’s spot poll, on a story about their local politician David Mundell, asking if there should be another indyref, and 94% said yes!), and they use charged propagandist crap like Yougov polls to ‘prove’ their lies.

        I saw an STV story on Twitter today where they said that, according to a poll they did, Ruth Davidson was more popular than Nicola Sturgeon! Hilarious propagandist madness! Took me ages to stop laughing. They must think our heads zip up the back. It was like that recent southern paper story saying that Theresa May is the most popular politician in the UK. AYE RIGHT.

        In America, where I resided from July 2005 to March 2016, the Democrats bicker and squabble and fight and natter among themselves, whilst the Republicans just get behind whoever they are told to. It has been more difficult bringing people to Trump, and there are people in the GOP who despise him, but, basically, the Republicans have been brought to heel behind their psychotic narcissist demagogue, as is their usual modus operandi. SNP/independence supporters MUST come together behind the party if we are to be rid of the scum Westminster leeches.

        This does not, of course, mean blind and uncritical acceptance of SNP policy, if it seems stupid or detrimental, and every political party makes mistakes (I am not the biggest Sturgeon fan, but recognise the need to stand behind her), but fracturing our support base with rent-paying guttersniping and blog(t)rolling is just madness. Nothing will ever get done that way.

        And by the way, just as a not-hugely-important aside. The Dead Kennedys (one of my fave groups) were active live for a couple of years before putting out their first album, Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables. Their singer Jello Biafra ran for mayor of San Francisco. Didn’t do too badly either. He would know a thing or two about voter group cohesion.

    1. Iain Barker

      You can now add the Green Party to that list. Well they are failing badly right the now, the Green Tories that is.

  6. John Brown

    ‘he is just another hack cynically following popularity and cash’

    ‘McKenna is talking through his bahookie’

    For these and several other reasons I have stopped reading him even although at times he could be amusing.

    Yes, ‘We need to talk about Kevin’ and others of his ilk otherwise the rot will set in and achieving our aim will be even more difficult.

    PS His occasional use of a feigned champagne socialist persona may require professional analysis

  7. Ian

    John – “Yes you’re paranoid, but are you paranoid enough?”

    Sometimes you read or listen to these guys and you just want to say “shut-up! in what way is this remotely helpful?” but then you know that such a response would only generate the “group think/cult member” accusation or “look out look out cybernat about” reaction.

    It feels like it has aye been this way with some folk happy to live on the back of the efforts of others. if you’ve ever kicked a ball, then you’ll have met that same lazy bugger who is in everybody’s team and who never tracks back to do the hard work graft.

    I suspect that here with this issue, it is what it is. We are going to have to carry these folk to the end of the road and put up with the irritation along the way.

    “Whoever is not for me is against me” or “whoever is not against me is for me” – take your pick.

    The one interesting thing these guys might do is have influence on the soft NOs (that crucial few % whom the whole result might turn). Maybe the more mainstream folk like mckenna or mcwhirter are like a weather vane and they will indicate which way the wind is blowing 45/55 or 55/45.

    Anyway great article as always.. thanks for the insight.

    ps I have tried my best with the metaphors and even got the word bugger in my post, but the panda always wins.

  8. John

    Common Space have responded. See their comments (CS:) and my replies to them (Me:)

    CS: First off, CommonSpace’ “preference for RISE” – based on what? Because it ran a fair amount of stories about it? Is it wrong for a pro-independence news site to cover the emergence of a new pro-independence electoral organisation? You will have perhaps noticed that since the election there’s been one story about RISE, critical in tone:

    Me: CommonSpace runs too few stories that might encourage Scots to feel that the performance of the SG suggests optimism for an independent future and too many about problems which readers will inevitably, subconsciously attribute to the party of government creating a climate of pessimism. This will do nothing to counteract the MSM’s too wee, too poor, to stupid narrative. Re RISE, I should have written ‘what seems like..’. I apologise.

    CS: Second, ‘A quick look at the Common Space site, today (12th September 2016), reveals around 16 stories. Many are bad news about some aspect of life in Scotland and, by implication, for the Scottish Government, None support the SNP.’ – This is very odd. First off ‘bad news about some aspect of life in Scotland’ is not, by implication, criticism of the Scottish Government – the Scottish Govt don’t control all aspects of political life in Scotland, that’s kind of the point of the case for independence. The Scottish Govt itself consistently raises bad news about aspects of life in Scotland precisely because it thinks it helps their case to do so. Second, it’s just factually wrong – here’s a good news story about the Scottish Govt and Scotland from 12 September: here’s another one News stories are never going to just out and out “support the SNP” – they’re never going to out and out support any party – but I’ve just cited 2 stories from September 12 which can’t be read any other way than overwhelmingly positive for the Scottish Govt.

    Me: Reality for most is to a large extent constructed by MSM. That reality is heavily distorted against the possibility of Scottish independence. CS and the others I mention need to work selflessly to counter that and to postpone critique of the SNP until after it is achieved. Only the SNP can do this.

    More importantly than the detail, I want to take issue with the argument about discipline on two fronts: 1) what about the discipline of the Right/elite sections of independence support? Why are the calls for discipline always aimed towards the left/grassroots? To be honest I’m endlessly biting my tongue – but I don’t see Andrew Wilson doing the same. If this is a genuinely popular front (to coin a stalinist term) where left and right have to be disciplined in order to secure independence before battling it out, why has Andrew Wilson, a corporate lobbyist, been appointed the head of a commission on the economics of independence? Where’s the discipline from that side of it. In reality the calls for discipline are aimed towards the grassroots to toe the line, while the elites run wild. That’s not a disciplined movement, that’s the subjugation of one part of it to another.

    Me: I share your opinion here. I’m saying bite your tongue until we have independence. I know it’s tough when you know your are in the right but just do it.

    2) I genuinely don’t believe a monoculture is the best way of securing independence. I don’t think trying to appear utterly homogenous will help convince doubters to vote Yes. I think diversity is needed. And, in fact, the SNP leadership think the same – which is why they always wheel out non-SNP supporting people when it’s useful for them to show that independence is not just about the SNP. The position that the consistently advocates is ‘Nicola knows best, anyone that doesn’t think so should be treated with, at best, great suspicion and we should be very wary about funding them’ – I just think that is utterly wrong headed. Nicola is subject to the same pressures as any other politician. She NEEDS pressure from the left/grassroots of the independence movement to balance against pressure from the right/elite. If CommonSpace and others disappear she only gets the pressure from one side. You might think they’re doing a fine job, fine – but what if they stop doing a fine job? Will you be happy if we’ve got no outlets other than the herald and the scotsman to apply pressure? A monoculture in the independence movement would only make sense if we were utterly convinced in the ability of the leadership to always make the right decisions on the behalf of the movement as a whole – maybe you are convinced of that, I’m not.

    Me: The SNP is not a mono-culture. There is scope within the Party to shift its direction as we saw on land-reform. I agree there is much more to wish for but again, hang on. As for Nicola, we should be so lucky to have a leader already so left-wing in this still neo-liberal world. We could do so much worse and the ‘hard left’ needs to stop moaning and prepare its strategies for the long fruitful years after independence.

    1. David Jamieson

      This isn’t a response from CommonSpace, which doesn’t issue ‘responses’ or pronouncements of any kind. And you had no business printing it as such.

      It’s a private email from a private individual who doesn’t even work for CommonSpace.

  9. Fearghas MacFhionnlaigh

    I much admire Prof John Robertson for his major (and brave) contribution over recent years to the scientific measurement of media bias against Scottish independence. However, in my opinion, this particular post is ill-judged.

    “Queue up and fling cabbages at today’s batch of village-stocks denizens”? I find the process problematic and distasteful. And is there a hint of “pour encourager les autres”?

    Prof Robertson’s post referred only in passing to the Supreme Court’s ruling regarding the Named Person legislation. But (to express matters rather crudely) it was rather like being spat at by someone in a passing car. The remainder of this comment is an attempt to respond to that experience with some etiquette.

    To take a swipe at those who submitted evidence to the Supreme Court as being “evidence-free”, while that very Supreme Court of five highest judges unanimously found the submitted evidence compelling, is patently an incoherent attack.

    Communism by definition is totalitarian. To appeal to one form (Sartre’s) to save us from another form (Stalin’s) does not begin to analyse totalitarianism (nor, consequently, democracy). This the Supreme Court does gently and circumspectly begin to do, while explicitly affirming that the Scottish Government’s INTENT is in no way sinister, indeed quite the contrary (note the word “aim” in the following short excerpt):

    “The public interest in the flourishing of children is obvious. The aim of the Act, which is unquestionably legitimate and benign, is the promotion and safeguarding of the wellbeing of children and young persons” (para 91, page 41).

    However, whatever the Scottish Government’s unquestionably benevolent motivations, the Court points out that in PRACTICE the Named Persons Act in its present form might have unforeseen consequences for “the family” as an irreducible component of society. Having made that claim, the Court then of course seeks to substantiate the view of the family it has just asserted. It does so in two ways. Firstly, positively, by appealing to rulings of other high-level Courts. Secondly, negatively, by noting that State over-reach into family life is a hallmark of totalitarian regimes, the baleful consequences of which are a matter of historical record.

    Thus, to suggest, as Prof Robertson does, that the Supreme Court’s discursive consideration of totalitarianism is “only part of a wider, generalised, explanation of the European Convention on Human Rights” is, at best, somewhat lax exegesis. It is actually of the essence. It is done in the precisely relevant and pointed context of the Court’s defence of the default integrity and independence of the family-unit vis-à-vis the State. In a healthy democracy, it argues, State usurpation of parental authority must never be institutionalised, however “benign” the State’s “aim”. In a democracy, State intervention into family life must always be an extra-ordinary (my word) event. “The child is not the mere creature of the state”.

    The text below in its entirety is a relevant extract (namely para 73, pages 32, 33) from the Supreme Court judgement. I would encourage anyone who has not yet done so to take the time to read this primary source:

    73. This represents the detailed working out, for children, of the principle established in article 16(3) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and article 23(1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights that “the family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the state”. There is an inextricable link between the protection of the family and the protection of fundamental freedoms in liberal democracies. The noble concept in article 1 of the Universal Declaration, that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” is premised on difference. If we were all the same, we would not need to guarantee that individual differences should be respected. Justice Barak of the Supreme Court of Israel has put it like this (in El-Al Israeli Airlines Ltd v Danielowitz [1992-4] IsrLR 478, para 14):

    “The factual premise is that people are different from one another, ‘no person is completely identical to another’ … Every person is a world in himself. Society is based on people who are different from one another. Only the worst dictatorships try to eradicate these differences.”
    Individual differences are the product of the interplay between the individual person and his upbringing and environment. Different upbringings produce different people. The first thing that a totalitarian regime tries to do is to get at the children, to distance them from the subversive, varied influences of their families, and indoctrinate them in their rulers’ view of the world. Within limits, families must be left to bring up their children in their own way. As Justice McReynolds, delivering the Opinion of the Supreme Court of the United States famously put it in Pierce v Society of Sisters 268 US 510 (1925), 534-535:

    “The fundamental theory of liberty upon which all governments in this Union repose excludes any general power of the state to standardize its children by forcing them to accept instruction from public teachers only. The child is not the mere creature of the state; those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right, coupled with the high duty, to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations.”

    A PDF of full ruling is available here:

    HTML here:

    1. John

      Thanks Fearghas for your full response. There’s so much there it’s difficult to know where to begin.

      First, I’ve got no idea what your cabbage opener is about: ‘“Queue up and fling cabbages at today’s batch of village-stocks denizens”? I find the process problematic and distasteful. And is there a hint of “pour encourager les autres”? Prof Robertson’s post referred only in passing to the Supreme Court’s ruling regarding the Named Person legislation. But (to express matters rather crudely) it was rather like being spat at by someone in a passing car. The remainder of this comment is an attempt to respond to that experience with some etiquette.”

      You’ll need to put this more simply for me.

      Second, some of your language is a bit strong for someone only interested in the truth. Can you declare any interest or strongly held beliefs that might help us understand where you’re coming from?

      Here’s a bit of mine: ‘I used to be a schoolteacher. I’ve seen the bruises and reported them to no effect. I’ve heard the stories of abuse. I’ve seen the haunted wee faces when going ‘home’. I’m right behind the scheme. The Named Person Scheme got full cross-party support at Holyrood. It’s supported by the Children and Young People’s Commissioner and the Royal College of Nursing. According to a piece in The National on March 9th:

      ‘SCOTLAND’S “leading children’s charities and public sector stakeholders” have launched a staunch defence of the Scottish Government’s controversial named person’s policy, accusing the campaign against it of misleading the public.’

      The National described the critics as ‘evangelical Christians and other groups’. The Herald newspaper has described one group of critics as ‘fundamentalists’ who ‘are being probed for financial irregularities.’ The Catholic Truth blog says the Named Person Scheme is ‘Chapter 2 of the Communist Manifesto writ large’.

      Perhaps the heart of your protest here is in this statement you make: ‘Within limits, families must be left to bring up their children in their own way. As Justice McReynolds, delivering the Opinion of the Supreme Court of the United States famously put it in Pierce v Society of Sisters 268 US 510 (1925), 534-535:

      “The fundamental theory of liberty upon which all governments in this Union repose excludes any general power of the state to standardize its children by forcing them to accept instruction from public teachers only. The child is not the mere creature of the state; those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right, coupled with the high duty, to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations.”

      You refer here to US legislation from 1925! I’ll remind you of my comment above about the bruises and restate my complete commitment to the Named Persons act. The limits on some families need to be pretty strong in my experience.

      Finally Sartre’s existentialism is a form of communism? Really? Have wee read.

      1. Fearghas MacFhionnlaigh

        Hi John,

        For clarification to readers, the two latter quotes you attribute to me are actually from the Supreme Court ruling, as I indicated.

        The Supreme Court judgement argued within a common framework of discourse. In my post I was doing the same.

        Your statement that “some of your language is a bit strong for someone only interested in the truth” is, I presume you appreciate, profoundly insulting. Dialogue is only possible where there is mutual respect. It seems to extend in only one direction here.

        For anyone interested, I did explain my Christian stance at some length very recently on the Indyref2 site itself, here:

          1. Fearghas MacFhionnlaigh


            I have reread my words. I take your point. My statement that “it was rather like being spat at by someone in a passing car” was clearly insulting. My apologies.

  10. DW1

    I think there is something in the “guns for hire” comment above.
    Journalists and blogs want to be seen as impartial and certainly not as SNP stooges.

    That said, there is such a thing as over-compensating – to the point where apparently indy friendly individuals or organisations can come across as completely hostile.

    The National newspaper is the same. It portrays itself as representing the entire independence movement, to the extent that it is losing readers from those who see it as some kind of wrecking ball to divide and rule. As you mention, RISE got under 0.5% of the vote and the Greens are lukewarm supporters of independence at the best of times.

    The National will NEVER be seen as impartial by unionists, so why bother to even try and ‘play fair’ ?
    No-one else does. Newspapers only exist now to cater to political viewpoints, so why not roll with it..
    Concentrate on attacking the Tories, promoting self-government and the best way to achieve it.

    IMO, the time for a broad YES movement is during a referendum.
    The SNP is by far the main party of the independence movement, and the only realistic path to a second referendum. Yet it’s rare to see openly positive SNP or Scottish Government supporting articles in the press.

    Criticism is fine, but constant criticism is crazy.

    1. John

      The National will NEVER be seen as impartial by unionists, so why bother to even try and ‘play fair’ ?
      No-one else does. Newspapers only exist now to cater to political viewpoints, so why not roll with it..
      Concentrate on attacking the Tories, promoting self-government and the best way to achieve it.

      Excellent insights!

      1. Clydebuilt

        Surely the National would serve our cause better by removing the front page claim “The Newspaper that supports an independent Scotland”. It’s a bit late now but wouldn’t it be better for weak NO’s and others to be able to pick it up without being told which way it swings……
        All our other Newspapers should state they support the Union……. Not one of them does. In fact the Herald under its Editorial lies to it’s readers about it’s unionist Bias……
        If I was the suspicious type I’d be thinking the National gives the game away to make sure it’s of limited use at recruiting to the YES side

  11. John

    Fearghas, can’t seem to reply directly above. Thanks, it takes a big man to apologise. I need to lose weight so let me apologise for too strong language myself. My atheism can get a bit Old Testament, ironically.

    I should note that to hear that my argument ‘somewhat lax exegesis.’ is an absolute first. You wear your erudition not very lightly. I hope that’s not insulting. I mean it a a gentle tease between equals.

    Seriously though, I hope you will respect my strongly held, evidence and experience-based (I ‘have’ four children or should I say they ‘have’ me?) views that the rights of children always come before those of parents. We are temporary custodians, only.

    Best wishes


    1. Fearghas MacFhionnlaigh


      Your magnanimous response is a great relief to me. I had been left churned up that I had clumsily alienated a pro-independence ally for whom I retain the highest regard. (And, by the way, if you think my English prose is clunky you want to try reading my Gaelic….)


  12. Clydebuilt

    Excellent article John…… My views on Mckenna National & Bella hardly look st Common Space…… (There’s a limit how much I can read in a day) Re MacWhirter …… My observations of his efforts is that just after an SNP win he talks them up….. Then come election time he swings against them talking up their opposition…… Just after the May 2007 election it was “Oil an argument whose time has come” just before the next election he was telling Labour what they had to do to win…….. Although not happy with the National + Sunday Herald for trying to split our vote. I buy the national.
    Bet they are up to their tricks next election…….

  13. boris

    It is often the case that “Johnny come lately’s” shout the loudest but usually to little constructive effect.

    Why Is the London-centric “Supreme Court” a legal entity in Scotland? I understood the so called union guaranteed an independent judiciary in Scotland.

    Power to your elbow John!!

  14. Hugh Kerr

    Great article John and I’m generally in agreement with your analysis, would you like to Edinburgh NUJ tomorrow ( Monday night) when we have both Macwhirter and McKenna on the platform the theme ” the right to offend”! Your prescence would make for a lively meeting! Hugh Kerr ps it is right to. be critical of the SNP when they deserve it , I resigned over Nicola endorsing the Sun!

  15. Elsie O'Connor

    ” my dislike of the power dressing, the expensive suits and the staggeringly high heels.” Oh for heaven’s sake. I presume the “put-downs” were people pointing out that this is just sexism, pure and simple. I don’t actually give a toss what Nicola (or any other politician for that matter) wears as long as she feels comfortable in it, nor do I think her clothes say anything at all about her beliefs, abilities or behaviour. But I do look forward to your comments on how Mr McKenna, Mr Macwhirter, Mr McAlpine and others mentioned above normally dress…….

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