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)Views: 8200