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Timing is everything when you have a product to sell – even in a trade as old-fashioned as the book one. And the publication of Disunited Kingdom, an account of the lead-up to and aftermath of last autumn’s referendum on Scottish independence by Herald and Sunday Herald columnist Iain Macwhirter, was cleverly timed indeed. It appeared late in 2014, while the events of the referendum were still vivid in everyone’s memories – everyone north of the border at least. (In England, predictably, once the result was announced, the hacks of the London-centric media immediately forgot that Scotland had ever been on the radar and returned to their habitual assumption that things of importance only ever occur within a square mile around Westminster.) Also, the book arrived on the stands of Scottish bookshops as Christmas approached. I imagine that more than a few members of Scotland’s liberal-minded, independence-inclined chattering classes discovered copies of Disunited Kingdom in their Christmas stockings on the morning of December 25th, newly delivered by Santa Claus.
Reading Disunited Kingdom is both a depressing and uplifting experience. I felt the depressing side of it while Macwhirter – who, by the way, voted ‘yes’ to independence – described the threats, warnings, fear-mongering, disinformation, smears and occasional outright lies concerning Scottish independence that were shovelled at the Scots unremittingly for the most of two years by Britain’s political, business and media establishments. After that barrage, it seemed a miracle that anybody in Scotland was minded to vote for independence at all, let alone 45 percent of the electorate.
A newspaper man, Macwhirter devotes a chapter to the manner in which the mainstream press conducted itself. This makes particularly dispiriting reading. The 30-or-so main newspapers that appear daily or weekly in Scotland – though apart from the Dundee-based company D.C. Thomson, none of their owners are Scottish – were almost unanimously hostile towards independence. Some of their headlines would have been hilarious in their stupidity if the sentiments behind them hadn’t been so rancorous: the Daily Express’s UK SPLIT TO SET BACK CURE FOR CANCER in June 2014, for example; or the same month’s effort by the Sunday Telegraph, which had a picture of a Scottish soldier’s coffin below the words SCOTTISH SOLDIERS LOST THEIR LIVES DEFENDING THE UK, WHAT WILL THEIR FAMILIES SAY NOW; or the Daily Record’s claim a week before the vote that independence would TRIGGER A NEW GREAT DEPRESSION. Macwhirter cites research by Press Data, a non-aligned PR agency, which monitored newspaper coverage of the final six weeks before voting day and found that negative news stories about Scottish independence and its supporters appeared three times more frequently than positive ones.
One narrative that was endorsed by the mainstream media, of course, was the one holding all independence supporters to be aggressive and racist louts who subjected the fragrant, pro-union likes of J.K. Rowling to death-threats and non-stop Twitter trolling. Macwhirter notes how less was said about the online abuse of famous figures on the pro-independence side like SNP leader Alex Salmond and deputy leader Nicola Sturgeon: “There was little coverage of the numerous death threats to Salmond and Sturgeon. Between 24th January and 17th September 2014 the @BritNatAbuseBot account logged 6,500 examples of hate tweets directed at Scots and prominent nationalist politicians, none of which were reprinted in the press.” (Macwhirter supplies a few choice examples of these, such as: “If Alex Salmond was on fire and I had a hose I would wrap it around his fat neck and choke the lying bastard.”)
Meanwhile, Macwhirter writes of the infamous incident where the pro-union campaigner and Labour MP Jim Murphy was, during a speaking tour of Scotland’s towns, struck by an egg thrown by an independence supporter: “Never has a single egg received so many column inches. It appeared on the front pages for fully four days. Of course, politicians, even those on street corners, should not be pelted with groceries. However, the Yes Campaign’s Jim Sillars was also hit by eggs – quite a number in fact. His response was ‘next time give them to a food bank, pal.’ Perhaps this was reported somewhere, but I certainly didn’t see it.”
One of Macwhirter’s employers, the Sunday Herald, was the only major newspaper to take a deep breath and came out, editorially, in favour of independence. Of the multitude of editors and journalists who stayed on the other side of the fence and used every opportunity to ridicule, belittle and demonise the independence movement, he writes not unsympathetically: “journalists did not actually falsify or invent stories – though the Mirror’s claim that Edinburgh’s giant pandas might have to be sent back to China after independence teetered on the edge. It is right that papers have political stances, and these are invariably reflected in the prominence that is given to certain stories… But in normal elections there is usually a variety of opinions. Papers like the Guardian will tend to be of the left, while the Telegraph and the Daily Mail speak for the right. But in the 2014 referendum it was as if they had all suddenly become the Telegraph… Democracy doesn’t work when voters are not exposed to both sides of the story.”
Meanwhile, he hints at why the press, the Scottish press at least, was so partisan in its rejection of independence. Regarding the Sunday Herald’s decision to back independence, he mentions “fears… that stories might dry up if the Sunday Herald was black-balled by Labour – an indication that, though Labour had been out of power for seven years, the tribe still held on to many key positions in public life.” Later, he adds: “Scottish journalism is almost as tribal as Scottish politics, and Labour has traditionally called the shots in the Scottish media through its extensive patronage networks.”
Yet it was the robotic nay-saying of the establishment, including the mainstream media, which inspired the upside of the referendum campaign – a mobilisation and determination to get involved by many ordinary people, who suddenly seemed to decide that politics were too important to be left to politicians, journalists, and business bigwigs. As Macwhirter puts it, “The 2014 referendum was a boisterous festival of political participation that brought the highest electoral turnout since the establishment of universal adult suffrage… I travelled from Shetland to Wigtown, from Stornoway to Aberdeen, and everywhere, I found people talking about politics in the way they usually talk about football and celebrity culture.”
Much of Disunited Kingdom is spent describing the many forms that this ‘boisterous festival’ took – for example, the formation of groups like Common Weal, Generation Yes, Women for Independence, English for Independence, Asians for Independence and Radical Independence (the latter an umbrella organisation that incorporated socialists, environmentalists, trade unionists, nuclear-disarmament campaigners and anti-monarchists); events like Glasgow’s ImagiNation jamboree and the Edinburgh Festival Fringe show All Back to Bowie’s; webcasts like Referendum TV; and news and comment websites like Wings over Scotland, Newsnet Scotland and Bateman Broadcasting, which undertook the job that the newspapers refused to do and presented independence in a positive light.
In addition, Scotland’s arts community seemed to offer overwhelming support for independence – although, Macwhirter notes, “it seemed that a very large number of people involved in classical music and opera in Scotland were opposed to independence, perhaps out of fear of the bagpipes.” Many writers, musicians, singers, thespians and so on came together in a grouping called National Collective and busily set about raising political awareness with activities involving drama, stand-up comedy and concerts as well as smaller-scale projects with “wish trees, maps, flash fiction, knitting groups and guerrilla cinema.”
Some of these ventures, Macwhirter concedes, could be dismissed “as amateurish, agitprop, simplistic, and ill-informed” — well, it is difficult to view a pro-Scottish-independence knitting group as a serious political statement. But he adds that such criticisms “rather missed the point. The Collective wasn’t about trying to appeal to the arts establishment, win Turner Prizes or get grants from Creative Scotland… It was a new form of political organisation primarily about mobilising people’s imaginations to build support for independence and counter its negative portrayal in the conventional media. Its naiveté was part of its strength because it allowed practically anyone who felt they had something to say to get involved.”
Macwhirter’s sympathetic newspaper columns about the SNP and the wider independence movement earned him the disdain of unionist commentators – “Among the many names I was called the one I liked best was ‘Iain Natwhirter’” – but towards the book’s end of the book he describes his own preference for the constitutional future of the United Kingdom, which doesn’t involve full Scottish independence. He favours a properly-balanced federal system in the UK, whereby Westminster would control only a few major items like international relations, defence and overall economic and monetary policy, and power over everything else would be devolved to parliaments in the UK’s component parts: “federalism is a perfectly respectable and rational system of government for a multinational state like Britain.” However, he admits that such a system is unlikely to happen anytime soon. Indeed, the moment for establishing it may have already passed.
Disunited Kingdom makes for fast, informative and entertaining reading. If it has a fault, it’s that anyone familiar with the columns he’s penned over the past few years for the Herald and Sunday Herald won’t be surprised by it. They’ll recognise many of the points he made in his columns as they reappear in the book.
And despite the fact that Macwhirter firmly positions himself on one side of the independence debate, those on the other side of the debate should be able to read the book without wanting to tear it to pieces. He makes affable, non-partisan company during this exploration of last year’s momentous events in Scotland; so that even J.K. Rowling should manage to finish Disunited Kingdom without feeling an urge to disunite its pages from its binding.