No news is good news

 

From Twitter / @Fergoodness

 

Well, that was embarrassing.  On August 9th, the Scottish edition of the Times printed a column by journalist Kenny Farquharson headed THROW THE BOOK AT POLITICIANS WHO DON’T READ.  Its first six paragraphs took aim at former Scottish First Minister and former leader of the Scottish National Party Alex Salmond because, supposedly, he wasn’t a reader.  Farquharson based his assertion that Salmond didn’t read books on two things: an acquaintance who’d visited Salmond’s home in Aberdeenshire and hadn’t seen any books lying around and a quote Salmond allegedly gave to a student newspaper about not having read a book for “eight years straight”.

 

Later the same day, after a photo of the library at Salmond’s house (which Farquharson’s first source evidently hadn’t seen) had circulated on twitter and Salmond himself had tweeted that in the student-newspaper interview he’d been misquoted – he’d said ‘write’, not ‘read’ – the column vanished from the Times’s online edition and Farquharson issued an apologetic tweet: “Student paper that interviewed Alex Salmond has now withdrawn the quote, so we’ve removed my column from online.  Apologies to @AlexSalmond.”

 

At least, Farquharson apologised.  Fellow Scottish newspaper hack David Torrance, who’d also peddled the Salmond-doesn’t-read story, reacted to Salmond’s intervention by tweeting: “It’s like being harangued by a mad old man in a pub.  ‘I used to be First Minister you know…’”  Thus, if the mainstream Scottish media smears you and you object, you’re the equivalent of a pished auld haverer in a bar.  That’s journalistic integrity in Scotland 2017.

 

I knew Farquharson slightly from my college days in Aberdeen, when he was a stalwart member of the campus Creative Writing Society (along with now-celebrated novelist Ali Smith), so I’m surprised a literary-minded man like him failed to question and check his sources.  Among other things, Salmond has interviewed both Iain Banks and Ian McEwan at the Edinburgh Book Festival, feats that’d require massive amounts of chutzpah (even by Salmond’s standards) to pull off if you were a non-book-reading philistine.  I suspect Farquharson rushed to conclusions because, like most of the Scottish press, he just doesn’t like Salmond and is happy to believe the worst about him.

 

© The Guardian

© Pauline Keightly Photography / From musicfootnotes.com

 

Now I admit that Alex Salmond, a man not known for his modesty, can be hard to like.  Even sympathetic profiles of him usually contain, at some point, the phrase ‘love him or loathe him’.  But the mainstream Scottish media’s antipathy towards Salmond is symptomatic of wider antipathy.  It also just doesn’t like Salmond’s party, the SNP, and how they’ve run Scotland since they won their first Scottish parliamentary election in 2007.

 

You get the impression that Scotland’s national print media – Scottish editions of the London-based dailies like the Daily Mail, Daily Express and Sun plus supposedly ‘home-grown’ titles like the Scotsman, Herald and Daily Record, though the Herald and Record’s owners, Newsquest and Trinity Mirror, are based in England – never forgave the SNP for disrupting the old status quo in Scotland.  That old status quo had seemingly stretched back through the mists of antiquity to the Stone Age.  Simply put, Labour dominated Scotland (first at council level and then, after its creation in 1999, the Scottish Parliament); while the Conservatives and, occasionally, Labour oversaw Scotland and the rest of Britain from Westminster.

 

As the sainted messengers who conveyed information from that establishment to the great unwashed and who offered interpretation and comment on how the establishment was doing things, Scotland’s journalists had their own comfortable and privileged niche in Scottish society.

 

The relationship between Scotland’s old politicians and journalists was a symbiotic one.  Iain Macwhirter, columnist with the Sunday Herald, one of only two newspapers in Scotland that gives the SNP much support, has recalled how the Sunday Herald’s decision to back the party in 2014 was made in spite of “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.”  He also noted that “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.”

 

Many Scottish journalists seem unaware of those wise words by American novelist and filmmaker Stephen Chbosky: “Things change and friends leave.  Life doesn’t stop for anybody.”  They’ve reacted to the SNP’s decade in power with continual aggrieved negativity.  Nothing the SNP government, originally headed by Alex Salmond, now headed by Nicola Sturgeon, does can ever be good.  It can only be bad.  Day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, their headlines have regurgitated the message that Scotland is going to the dogs and it’s all the SNP’s fault.

 

What must be awkward for Scotland’s newspapers is the evidence that pops up now and again and suggests that things might not be going so badly after all.  For example, figures in June showing Scotland’s economy grew during the first part of 2017 – at a rate of only 0.8%, admittedly, but four times the equivalent rate for the UK as a whole.  Or Scottish unemployment dropping to its lowest level since the start of the 2008 financial crash.  Or passenger-satisfaction levels with ScotRail reaching 90%, its highest-ever rating (and way better than the 72% satisfaction-level for Southern Rail in England).  Or the Scottish National Health Service exceeding its targets for treating accident and emergency patients.  (Or indeed, evidence that the Scottish NHS is the best-performing one of the four health services in the UK.)

 

The condition of Scottish education remains a concern, with the 2016 Pisa rankings showing Scottish pupils performing considerably less well than English ones (though better than Welsh ones).  However, one thing that commentators have constantly lamented about, the small number of Scottish school-leavers from disadvantaged backgrounds getting into university, seems to have improved.  Recent figures show an increase of 13% in university entrants from poor backgrounds.

 

So hey, it’s not all bad news, is it?  Scotland’s newspapers will surely let a little sunshine filter out of their normally dour front pages and give credit where it’s due, right?

 

Dream on.  The Herald’s front page on August 7th gave a rubbishing of ScotRail: HALF OF TRAINS ARRIVING AT BUSIEST STATIONS ARE LATE.  After it was pointed out that the figures for this story were inaccurate, it vanished from the Herald’s website and an apology appeared the next day admitting, “The most recent figures show that 93.7% of ScotRail trains met the industry standard public performance measure (PPM).”  However, this wasn’t before similar stories had appeared in the Glasgow Evening News, Daily Record, Scottish Daily Mail and Dundee Courier.  Meanwhile, I only have to type ‘Scottish NHS’ into Google and click on ‘news’ underneath to get a long list of headlines suggesting that Scotland’s health system is ‘doomed, all doomed’ (© Private Fraser, Dad’s Army): SCOTTISH NHS AT RISK OF STAFFING SHORTAGES THANKS TO POOR PLANNING (the Daily Telegraph); HOSPITALS AND NHS FACILITIES MAY NEED TO BE ‘AXED’ (the Scotsman); NHS STAFFING SHORTAGES ARE COMPROMISING PATIENT CARE (the Scotsman again); SCOTTISH NURSES SLAM NHS STAFFING CRISIS FOR AFFECTING CARE OF PATIENTS (the Daily Record); etc.

 

Even the jump in students from disadvantaged backgrounds going to university has been sourly received.  In January 2017, the Times’s Daniel Sanderson wrote an article decrying the fact that in Scotland FEWER THAN 10% OF STUDENTS COME FROM POOREST BACKGROUNDS.  Well, those new statistics about university entrants should cheer him up, right?  Nope.  This week, the same journalist wrote in the same newspaper an article decrying the fact that in Scotland MORE MIDDLE-CLASS STUDENTS ARE MISSING OUT ON UNIVERSITY PLACES.

 

For the record – as opposed to the Daily Record – I don’t think it matters much politically if 90-95% of Scotland’s mainstream press hate the party in power and monster them at every turn.  I’d rather live in a society like that than in a Putin-esque one where the government controls everything the newspapers say about them.  The fact that, despite the overwhelming hostility, the SNP have won two more Scottish elections since 2007 suggests that not many people believe what the newspapers tell them to believe these days.  (See also how Jeremy Corbyn secured 40% of the vote in the last British election despite the massive abuse he received in the British press.)

 

What does depress me is how this adversity must affect the many people working in the Scottish public sector and / or in services widely used by the Scottish public: hospital workers, teachers, train-staff, etc.  Clearly, they’ve made huge efforts to achieve good results in an era of austerity and financial uncertainty.  (That might sound like a platitude but it isn’t – for months now a close family member of mine has been looked after by the Scottish NHS and received excellent care.)  But when you go the extra mile for your patients, pupils or customers, and still get nothing but negative headlines screaming at you about your profession and your sector from the newspaper stands, it must be demoralising.

 

The Scottish press’s negativity-at-all-costs policy is not a case of, as some people have argued, ‘doing Scotland down’, because the SNP government is not all of Scotland – no more than Teresa May’s lunatic Brexit-obsessed Conservative government is all of England.  But, often, it seems discourteous to an awful lot of ordinary people who are just trying to do their jobs well.

 

From scotbuzz.co.uk 

 

A tyrannical, brainwashed one-party state… but that’s enough about Scotland

 

From www.roarforscotland.com

 

Scotland’s political and media landscapes are weirdly juxtaposed these days.  On one hand, since the arrival of Yáng Guāng and Tián Tián at Edinburgh Zoo in 2011, it’s become a common, indeed, a tiresome joke that Scotland now has more panda bears than it has Conservative Party Members of Parliament.  On the other hand, when it comes to having conservative journalists, Scotland is indeed blessed – or cursed, depending on your point of view.  For in Scotland, right-wing newspaper scribes seem to outnumber the midges.

 

(c) BBC

 

For example, there’s Gerald Warner, whose last Scottish-related musings were sighted on the right-wing website www.capx.co, which “brings you the best thinking on popular capitalism from around the web.”  These concerned the Scottish government’s Land Reform Bill, or as Warner puts it in his even-handed, non-partisan way, “another retrograde initiative by doctrinaire Scottish socialists”.

 

Then there’s Alan Cochrane, the Daily Telegraph’s Scottish editor, who late last year published some scribblings he’d made during the run-up to the referendum on Scottish independence under the title of Alex Salmond: My Part in his Downfall – The Cochrane Diaries.  The resulting book attracted breathless, if possibly not 100%-serious reviews on Amazon.  (It “shines a light on the dark and twisted mind of one of the most narcissistic individuals in Britain today.  Also has a few mentions of Alex Salmond.”)

 

And let’s not forget Cochrane’s missus and fellow-journalist, Jenny Hjul, who’s contributed to the Telegraph, Herald, Scotsman and Sunday Times.  During the referendum campaign, Cochrane and Hjul seemed to see themselves less as journalists and more as a crusading husband-and-wife propaganda team dedicated to keeping Scotland British: a sort of Union Jack-bedecked Hart to Hart.

 

There’s also the strangely bitter Tom Gallagher, columnist and Professor Emeritus of History at Bradford University, who once wrote a Telegraph item slamming Scotland for its antipathy towards the Conservative Party.  It was a “Scottish hate-fest”, he claimed, which could be likened to “the fear and detestation of papists in John Knox’s Scotland which delayed the arrival of the 1829 Catholic Emancipation Act by a good number of years.”  So that’s you told, Scotland.  Not voting Conservative – that’s as evil as hating Roman Catholics.

 

And there’s Daily Mail journalist Chris Deerin, who recently announced his withdrawal from Twitter.  Tweeting “was fun,” he wrote the other day, “until the trolls took over.”  These trolls weren’t only horrible Scottish nationalist cybernats, whom Deerin once described as “repellent individuals… who roam the Internet in search of unionists to duff up”.  No, he also got abuse from another tribe of trolls, newer but equally ghastly, the Corbynistas – supporters of the left-wing Islington MP Jeremy Corbyn, who looks set to become the Labour Party’s next leader.  I’ve been trolled myself occasionally but I don’t feel an iota of sympathy for Deerin.  After all, he works for the Daily Mail, a newspaper that’s elevated the trolling of everyone non-white, non-Conservative, non-middle-class and non-English-Home-Counties into an art-form.

 

Also deserving mention is Andrew Neil, now something of a TV star thanks to shows like The Daily Politics and This Week, who served as editor-in-chief with Scotsman Publications from 1996 to 2005.  During this time he managed to transform the once-formidable Scotsman newspaper into the cantankerously-conservative and moribund wee rag it is today.  And there’s the Caledonian clique currently running the Spectator magazine: Fraser Nelson, Hugo Rifkind and Alex Massie.  Young and unfashionably right-wing, Nelson, Rifkind and Massie were once defended on Twitter against charges of anti-Scottish prejudice by the comedian Brian Limond, who pointed out: “They’re Scots.  The ashamed Lulu-voiced kind, but still.”  Hugo Rifkind is son of former Tory Secretary of State for Scotland and disgraced former MP Sir Malcolm Rifkind; while Alex Massie’s Dad is Alan Massie, a novelist of some repute and – yes! – another conservative Scottish journalist.  Massie Senior writes columns for the likes of the Scotsman and Daily Mail.

 

I have tried to list these Scottish right-wing journos in order – going from out-and-out dingbats like Gerald Warner, who basically lives on a planet of his own, to ones whom I think show vestiges of civility and rationality, like the two Massies.  Mind you, both of the latter have blotted their copy books recently – particularly Massie Senior with a ridiculous (and unpleasant) piece for the Mail on Sunday prior to the last general election, which predicted that the River Thames could run red with blood if the Labour Party and Scottish National Party formed a coalition government.  Meanwhile, his sprog, Alex, recently earned my ire not for his political opinions but for his musical ones.  He slagged off Nirvana’s seminal 1991 album Nevermind at the site Ruth and Martin’s Album Club, calling it “the sound of bored teenagers trapped in a garage waiting for the rain to stop…  They should shut up and do something useful.  Like, read a book.”  Memo to Massie Junior: It’s possible to like Nirvana and read books.  I’m proof.

 

http://ramalbumclub.com/post/126672151584/week-32-nevermind-by-nirvana

 

(c) STV

(c) DGC

 

Anyway, what happens when you have so many people of a certain political outlook scribbling away in the organs of the mainstream media?  You get the emergence of narratives.  These narratives may not bear any relation to the facts, or to how things look to the ordinary man or woman on the street.  But fashioned within the cosy – if these days beleaguered – bubble of Scottish conservativism, they are bounced back and forth, refined and fleshed out as one right-wing hack echoes what another right-wing hack said a few days earlier, in turn echoing what a third right-wing hack said the week before.  And as these narratives are served up to the reading public, they’re treated as givens, never to be questioned.

 

One such narrative that’s surfaced recently that Scotland is now a one-party state.  Typical of the hyperbole is a piece Tom Gallagher wrote for another right-wing site, www.thecommentator.com, warning that Scotland was falling prey to a Russian-style ‘creeping tyranny’.  The Scottish National Party have a majority in the Scottish Parliament and, according to opinion polls, look likely to clean up at the next Scottish parliamentary elections in 2016.  And they hold 56 of Scotland’s 59 seats in the UK Parliament.

 

They’re everywhere.  They control everything – well, everything apart from the many areas of sovereignty that haven’t been devolved to Edinburgh from London.  Any institutions that retain a vestige of independence in Scotland, like the BBC, are subjected to their bullying.  At the Edinburgh Book Festival last month, didn’t the BBC’s political editor Nick Robinson accuse the SNP of sending 4000 supporters to picket the BBC’s offices in Glasgow because they didn’t like the corporation’s coverage of the referendum campaign?

 

(c) The Spectator

 

Small wonder that Alex Salmond has been likened to Benito Mussolini (by Alan Cochrane), Joseph Stalin (by Cochrane again), Robert Mugabe (by the BBC’s Jeremy Paxman), Adolf Hitler (by barking mad right-wing historian David Starkey), Slobodan Milosevic (by former Labour MP and former convict Denis McShane) and Vladimir Putin (by Nick Robinson, who compared the BBC protests to something that’d happen in ‘Putin’s Russia’).  And don’t be fooled by the fact that last September Salmond resigned as Scottish First Minister after defeat in the independence referendum and handed the reins of power over to his deputy, Nicola Sturgeon.  That was dynastic stuff, which happens in one-party states too.  Power passed from the Great Leader, Kim Jong Eck, to the Dear Leader, Kim Jong Nic.

 

(c) Daily Telegraph 

 

The North Korean parallel is apt since another narrative has emerged – that the SNP is a cult that’s brainwashed the Scottish electorate into voting for it.  The SNP is offering a “millenarian, hallucinatory vision… mystical Gnosis… the catechism of shared faith…” wrote Gerald Warner at www.capx.com.  The SNP is “bluntly dumb, faith-based and irrational,” wrote Chris Deerin in the Mail.  “If Nicola Sturgeon claimed the moon’s made of green cheese,” opined Alex Massie in the Times, “a plurality of Scots would, at the present moment, be inclined to agree with her.”  Yip, those Scots who support the SNP are as deluded as the North Korean public who’ve been force-fed all those propaganda stories about the Kims, such as the one where Kim Jong Il managed eleven holes-in-one the first time he ever picked up a club at the Pyongyang Golf Course.

 

So dreadful are these narratives that it’s a shock to recall that Scotland is actually a democracy.  Its turnout at the last general election was 71%, five percent more than that for the UK as a whole.  The SNP are in the ascendancy because people, you know, voted for them.  Oddly, I don’t remember hearing many complaints about Scotland being a one-party state a few years ago when the place seemed to belong, body and soul, to the Labour Party.  At one point, from 1999 until 2007, the Labour Party ruled Scotland from London under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown; and it ran the Scottish government in Edinburgh as senior partner in a coalition with the Liberal Democrats; and it’d wielded power at council level in places like Glasgow since, it seemed, the dawn of time.  The lion’s share of Scotland’s MPs were Labour ones and it was another well-worn joke that in Glasgow you could stick a Labour Party red rosette onto a monkey and it would get elected.

 

And the Labour Party’s links with the Scottish media were extensive.  These ranged from Scotland’s (then) most popular tabloid the Daily Record acting as unofficial in-house journal for the Scottish Labour Party; to a Scottish journalist as respected and influential as the BBC’s Kirsty Wark going on holiday with former Labour First Minister Jack McConnell.

 

No, nobody seemed bothered by Labour’s long supremacy in Scotland – not even during those periods when the Conservatives ruled in London.  The assumption seemed to be that it didn’t matter if the Jocks were dominated by Labour because Labour’s Scottish branch was never going to rock the boat in Westminster, where real power resided.

 

From www.scoopnest.com 

 

Also, I find it odd that Scotland is described as a one-party state when not only are Warner, Deerin, the Massies and co. free to criticise the party in government but the overwhelming majority of daily and weekly newspapers there are anti-that-party too.  Only the National, the Sunday Herald and – when it suits them – the Scottish Sun will give them the time of day.  I have to say that the government of a one-party state must be a bit wimpish when more than 90% of the one-party state’s mainstream media doesn’t actually support it.

 

Incidentally, a quick reminder to Nick Robinson.  For full-on, destructive bullying of the BBC, look no further than 2003’s Hutton Inquiry.  This absolved – many would say whitewashed – Tony Blair’s Labour government of responsibility for the death of biological warfare expert / weapons inspector David Kelly following the alleged ‘sexing up’ of the government’s dossier on WMDs possessed by Saddam Hussein.  At the same time it castigated the BBC for inaccurate reporting and caused the resignations of BBC Chairman Gavyn Davies and Director General Greg Dyke.  Oh, and the demonstration Robinson alluded to at the BBC’s Glasgow headquarters wasn’t organised by the SNP.

 

Perhaps the unpalatable truth for Scotland’s many right-wing newspaper hacks is that: (1) many voters have decided, after decades of disagreeing with the Tories and being taken for granted by Labour, that they rather like the cut of Nicola Sturgeon’s jib (especially her anti-austerity rhetoric); and (2) they’ve had to put up with so much biased crap from the mainstream media that they’ve decided it’s not to be trusted.  That, indeed, the more it tells them that one thing is the case, the more inclined they are to believe that, no, it’s the opposite that’s really the case.

 

From wingsoverscotland.com

 

Now you see him, now you don’t

 

(c) The Guardian

 

One afternoon in early 1987 I was nursing a pint in the Central Refectory building at Aberdeen University and, as a fourth-year undergraduate student, wondering if it was not time I got my finger out and started doing some serious studying for my final examinations.  From the corner of my eye, I saw a group of students I recognised as leading lights in the campus branch of the Scottish National Party – Alan Kennedy, Val Bremner, Gillian Pollock, Nick Goode – wander in and go to the serving counter.  In their company was a young, slightly plump-faced bloke dressed in an un-studenty suit, shirt and tie.

 

I identified him as an up-and-coming SNP politician whom Alan Kennedy – a good mate of mine – had told me would stand in the next general election in nearby Banff and Buchan against the incumbent Conservative Party MP Albert McQuarrie.  He’d come to the university that day to address the SNP group and this was the SNP students showing their visitor some post-talk hospitality.  Although why they’d brought him into that dreary concrete refectory and not into the much cosier St Machar Bar a minute’s walk away is beyond me.  (Then again, what was I doing there that afternoon?)

 

This guy, Alan had assured me, was one to watch.  In fact, Alan said something along the lines of: “He’s going to do great things.”

 

A few months later, on June 11th, the general election took place and this rising SNP star duly wrestled Banff and Buchan away from Albert McQuarrie and became its new MP.  McQuarrie, a doughty old-school Scottish Tory MP who revelled in the nickname ‘the Buchan Bulldog’, was subsequently interviewed by a local newspaper.  During the interview he burst into tears at what he saw as the unfairness and indignity of losing his beloved constituency to this SNP whippersnapper.  He was perhaps the first politician, but certainly not the last, to have his nose put out of joint by Alexander Elliot Anderson Salmond.

 

27 years later and Salmond has just departed the stage.  On September 19th, a day after the ‘yes’ side’s defeat in the Scottish independence referendum, Salmond announced he was stepping down as Scotland’s First Minister and as SNP leader.  He formally relinquished the party leadership to Nicola Sturgeon, his deputy, at the SNP national conference on November 14th; and he submitted his resignation as First Minister to the Scottish Parliament on November 18th, with Sturgeon taking over in that capacity the following day.  For someone who’s dominated Scottish politics for a generation and is generally agreed – by fans and detractors alike – to have mopped the floor with the opposition, it seems a sudden exit indeed.  The vacuum he’s left behind is a big one.  If, of course, he actually has gone.

 

As Salmond grew in political prominence – a growth similar to that of his waistline, i.e. fast and to an epic degree – he became ever more polarising, so that profiles written about him soon had to contain the stock phrase, ‘love him or loathe him’.  In many ways, prior to the referendum, the shadow he cast over Scottish politics and the mixed emotions he inspired were handicaps for the pro-independence campaign; because it was easy for their opponents, many of whom worked in the mainstream media, to portray their movement as a one-man-band.  So if you were one of the multitude who were turned off by the portly First Minister, you had to vote against independence.

 

The other components of the independence camp – the Scottish Greens, Scottish Socialists, Radical Independence Campaign, National Collective, Labour for Independence and so on – barely got a look-in while the anti-independence Better Together campaign and its newspaper allies screamed, “Salmond!  Salmond!  It’s all about Salmond!”

 

For instance, after the referendum, I was chatting to a family member who’d voted ‘No’ and he was astonished when I pointed out that Alex Salmond hadn’t been chairman of the Yes Campaign.  That’d been the role of Dennis Canavan, the distinguished former-Labour politician who’d represented Falkirk West as an MP for 26 years and then as a Member of the Scottish Parliament for another eight.  Canavan had been treated shabbily by the Tony-Blair-led Labour Party and ultimately expelled from it because he was an old-style socialist, keener on sticking to his principles than on pandering to the right-wing Blair cabal who’d taken control.  But of course, you never got to hear about Canavan and others like him being pro-independence.  It might’ve given Scotland’s traditional Labour voters the wrong idea.  Instead, the ‘no’ establishment talked about Salmond – a lot.

 

The political and media powers-that-be seemed desperately eager to peddle the idea – maybe some of them were so thick that they genuinely believed it – that the referendum was an election.  By voting ‘yes’, you were helping to make Salmond the all-powerful overlord of an independent Scotland.  Which defies the logic about how you create an independent country.  First, of all, you vote to make that country independent.  Only then do you vote to decide who actually runs it.

 

And the abuse heaped on Salmond was immense.  Even though there are aspects of his personality and policies that I find disagreeable – his comments professing respect for Vladimir Putin, for example, and his refusal to apologise for those comments – I was annoyed at how insults were directed against him by supposedly-respectable politicians and commentators that would never have been levelled at, say, David Cameron.  One instance of this was Jeremy Paxman likening him to Robert Mugabe during an interview on Newsnight.  If Paxman had said the same thing about Cameron, the UK government would probably have axed the BBC’s licence fee by now.

 

And while Mugabe is undoubtedly A Bad Bloke, I doubt if Steve Bell or Dave Brown, respective cartoonists in the left-leaning Guardian and Independent newspapers, would ever depict him as the racist, colonial-era stereotype of an ‘African native’, with a grass skirt, nose-ring and spear.  Both cartoonists, though, were happy to regularly portray Salmond as a corpulent Jock with all the joke-Scottish regalia and accessories: kilt, sporran, bonnet, bagpipes, haggis, heather and Loch Ness Monster.  That shtick wasn’t funny when Russ Abbot and the Goodies did it 30 or 40 years ago.  It certainly isn’t funny now.

 

Meanwhile, the Internet and Twitter-sphere were aflame with thousands of anti-Salmond messages, in which he was usually referred to as a ‘fat bastard’ and a ‘granny-shagger’.  (His wife Moira is 17 years older than he is.)  Whilst rushing to publish stories about pro-independence supporters being beastly on Twitter to anti-independence celebrities like J.K. Rowling and David Bowie, the newspapers curiously didn’t mention this.

 

Still, Salmond’s ubiquity and his ability to get up many people’s noses worked in his favour too.  Scottish Labour never forgave him for usurping them from power in the Scottish Parliament in 2007 and since then their hatred for / obsession with him has only grown.  No wonder the current Scottish branch office of the Labour Party is so intellectually bereft and so hopelessly out-of-touch with the electorate.  For seven years, they’ve been like political equivalents of Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction, a bunch of shrill, unhinged losers whose only objective in life is to boil Alex Salmond’s bunny.

 

They’ve harped on incessantly about his expenses, in particular about the hotel bills he’s run up as Scottish First Minister.  Salmond looks like he enjoys the good life and it wouldn’t surprise me if he’s been a tad extravagant with tax-payer’s money, but Scottish Labour are going to look very stupid when, as expected, they elect Jim Murphy MP as their new leader.  In 2012 Murphy was caught out letting property in London whilst claiming money to pay rent there.  In 2013-2014 his expenses bill came to just short of £197,000.

 

So have we seen the last of Salmond?  I doubt it.  There’s already talk of him becoming an MP again and returning to Westminster where, if the current polls are accurate, the SNP could have a significantly enlarged presence after the next election.  Danny Alexander, the MP for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey and the most enthusiastic of the Liberal Democrat collaborators in the current Conservative-led coalition in London, was surely relieved when Salmond denied reports that he was planning to stand in Alexander’s constituency.  Even though it’s an institution he recently tried to prise Scotland out of, I like the idea of Salmond being let loose again in Westminster again, cocking a leg like a badly-trained dog and pissing on the lamppost of traditional two-party British politics.

 

I also like the fact that Salmond, uniquely among modern political leaders, is into literature.  Over the years I’ve seen comments by him adorning the dust-sleeves of novels by the likes of James Robertson and Matthew Fitt and he’s peppered his speeches with quotes from Alasdair Gray, Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott and even the odd English writer like William Shakespeare.  And while politicians usually show their faces at the Edinburgh Book Festival each August to flog a book they’ve just written – like Gordon Brown did – Salmond has appeared there not as an author but as an interviewer.  He interviewed Ian McEwan at an event in 2012.  It’s to my eternal regret that I didn’t see him the previous year interviewing the late Iain Banks.

 

At the end of the day Alex Salmond was detested by establishment politicians, businessmen and journalists because he dared to give Scotland ideas above its supposed station.  And despite his faults, I’ll applaud him for that.  It’s about time that the Scots – a people often crippled by pessimism, doubt and inferiority complexes – had a few ideas above their station.

 

Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?

 

From 3.bp.blogspot.com

 

Well, the day has arrived.  Today, September 18th, is when the people of Scotland go to the polls and vote on whether or not their country should become independent again.

 

Nothing would make me happier than if a majority voted ‘yes’ to independence, but I’m afraid that – habitual pessimist that I am – I’ll have to stick by the predictions I’ve made in earlier blog-posts and say that I don’t think it’s going to happen: this time.  I know that recent opinion polls have said it’ll be close and one or two have even put the ‘yes’ vote in front; but I think the lead shown by the ‘no’ campaign in most opinion polls will translate itself into a majority when the votes are counted.

 

Considering the massive number of apocalyptic threats on one hand and massive number of wild promises on the other that’ve been flung at the Scottish electorate by the British political, business and media establishments over the past two years, it’s amazing that anyone is minded to vote for independence at all – never mind a proportion that could be close to half the population.  However, I think the sheer volume of pro-UK propaganda will, ultimately, have a decisive effect on how the vote goes.

 

Ever since the polls suggested a fortnight ago that the gap between the sides was narrowing, there’s been a non-stop bombardment of it: Unionist party leaders like David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg (plus a woken-from-hibernation Gordon Brown) seemingly promising Scots the earth if they stay in the UK, without giving much detail about what’s on offer; and simultaneous tales of horror about how every business in Scotland, from RBS and Standard Life down to the wee sweetie-shop at the foot of Cockburn Street in Edinburgh, will relocate to England in the event of a ‘yes’ vote.  Why, it sounds like even Visit Scotland will have to move operations to London and rename itself Visit England if the Scots are stupid enough to vote for self-determination.

 

Also, what I think of as the ‘Gideon Mack’ factor – taken from the novel of the same name by James Robertson – may play a role in deciding the outcome.  In Gideon Mack-the-book, Gideon Mack-the-character steps into a polling booth on the day of the 1979 referendum on setting up a devolved Scottish assembly: he suddenly takes cold feet, his support for the assembly melts away and he finds himself against all his expectations putting a cross in the ‘no’ box.  The other day, hoping to inspire such last-moment jitters, David Cameron called on Scots to think carefully while they ‘stand in the stillness of the polling booth’.

 

However, I’m optimistic in the long term that Scotland will be independent.  Just as the failed devolution vote in 1979 didn’t prevent a devolved Scottish parliament being created in 1999, so I think a failed independence vote now won’t prevent it happening later.  One thing the referendum has succeeded in doing is making people aware of politics and making them listen to what politicians are saying.  And when they start seeing the promises made by the unionist leaders evaporate, and the threats about what’d happen in an independent Scotland materialize anyway in a Scotland that’s still part of the United Kingdom, opinions will change.

 

Here’s what I predict will happen if – as I strongly suspect – Scotland votes ‘no’.

 

Downing Street, September 19th, after the final result has been declared: David Cameron and George Osborne pop open the bottles of champagne while Cameron’s take-no-prisoners Australian spin-doctor Lynton Crosby starts planning his master’s campaign for the 2015 General Election.  In the 2015 campaign, the old Etonian will be proudly rebranded as ‘the Prime Minister who saved Britain’.  Already, Alistair Darling begins to look like the Tories’ useful idiot.

 

Led by the Daily Mail, the press begins a vociferous campaign to force Alex Salmond’s resignation as Scottish First Minister now that the independence cause he’s championed has been defeated.  Many London-based tabloids publish sneering pieces mocking the Scots as whining subsidy-junkies who’ve finally realized what side their bread is buttered on.  These pieces, strangely, don’t appear in the same newspapers’ Scottish editions.

 

This subsides after two or three weeks as Scotland disappears off Westminster’s radar again and the press hunkers down for the next big story – the 2015 General Election.  The Mail, Express, Telegraph and Sun re-align their artillery, away from Salmond and towards Ed Miliband, whom they spend the next months portraying as a weak, out-of-touch socialist bumbler who’ll run Britain into the ground if he gets the keys to number ten.  Labour Party politicians start complaining about ‘bias’ in the media.  This provokes great Schadenfreude from certain people north of the border.

 

2014 comes to an end and the New Year’s Honours List is announced.  Certain individuals are rewarded with knighthoods, OBEs, CBEs, MBEs, etc., for their services in keeping the United Kingdom united.  There’s a gong for Keith Skeoch, Executive Director of Standard Life, the company that threatens to leave Scotland every time there’s talk of constitutional tinkering that might give the place more autonomy.  (He’s also a member of the Board of Reform Scotland, which according to author and former ambassador Craig Murray is a ‘neo-conservative lobby group which wants to abolish the minimum wage, privatise the NHS and pensions, and further restrict trade unions’.)  Lord George Roberson of Port Ellon KT GCMG FRSA FRSE PC is awarded a further medal for his tireless struggle against the international ‘forces of darkness’, which would’ve undoubtedly been bolstered by a Scottish ‘yes’ vote.  Should this medal be the Grand Order of Britain (GOB) or should it be the Supreme Honour for Integrity, Tenacity and Excellence (SHITE)?  Perhaps he should get both – George Robertson GOB SHITE has an appropriate ring to it.

 

Elsewhere, Gordon Brown becomes Lord Brown of Shrek’s Swamp.  Alastair Darling becomes Lord Darling of Tracy Island.  And will that supposed socialist firebrand George Galloway, who’s spent the past months warning that an independent Scotland would be a hellhole of racism and sectarianism, abandon his left-wing principles and accept a peerage?  I wouldn’t be surprised.  He’s shameless enough.  He could be Lord Galloway of Nonsense-on-Stilts.

 

Scots who’d assumed they’d get substantial new powers from Westminster after a ‘no’ vote are perplexed to discover that those powers are less spectacular than promised: a bit more say over social care here, a bit more say over the railways there, a few additional tweaks, nothing else.  This is hardly surprising.  The stuff promised by Gordon Brown was promised by somebody – an opposition backbench MP – in no position to promise anything.  Meanwhile, on the day that Cameron, Miliband and Clegg descended on Scotland en masse (following the shock of a sudden tightening in the opinion polls) and offered everyone the moon on a stick, William Hague – deputizing for Cameron in the House of Commons – reassured backbench Tories that these promises were merely the equivalent of electioneering promises.  There was no guarantee that they’d ever be passed into law.  At the time, oddly, Hague’s comments didn’t get much coverage in the newspapers.

 

Whichever party wins power in Westminster in 2015, Conservative or Labour, the brutal austerity measures continue.  They come hard and fast under Prime Minister Cameron, slightly less hard and slightly less fast but painfully longer under Prime Minister Miliband.  As the money-pot gets smaller, so the share of it allocated to Scotland shrivels up too.

 

The Scottish Rugby Union decides to stop playing Flower of Scotland as the Caledonian anthem before international rugby matches, because the line that goes, “…we can still rise now, and be a nation again!” is attracting too many embarrassing jeers from opposition fans.

 

Astonishingly, Alastair Darling’s prediction that North Sea oil would run out in 2017 proves to be wrong.  The black stuff, contrarily, keeps on flowing, through the 2020s and 2030s and beyond.  However, no complaints are heard coming from the UK Treasury.

 

A few years from now, the implementation of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) sees the National Health Service in Britain become a lucrative new market – a veritable smorgasbord of pickings – for transnational companies whose priority is profit rather than the care of patients.  North of the border, the NHS is supposedly the Scottish NHS, a distinct and separate entity.  But when the devolved administration in Edinburgh stresses its distinctness and separateness and tries to exempt it from TTIP, which is privatising / ravaging health services elsewhere in Britain, those private companies take the administration to court.  In court, the companies win their case by arguing that Scotland and its NHS aren’t distinct or separate.  Scotland’s merely a region of a country, the UK.  After all, didn’t its population vote to confirm that regional status back in 2014?

 

London keeps on expanding, sucking investment and talent out of the other parts of the UK, including Scotland.

 

Sooner or later, the day arrives when Nigel Farage’s greatest and wettest dream is fulfilled: a UK-wide referendum on continued membership of the European Union is held and it results in a UKIP / Tory majority in southern England voting to leave the EU.  A majority in Scotland vote to stay in it, but they’re outnumbered by the anti-European brigade down south.  All those old scare stories about an independent Scotland being booted out of the EU suddenly look hollow.

 

Boris Johnston, a man whose concept of British geography doesn’t extend beyond the M25, becomes British Prime Minister…  But no.  It’s time to abandon these predictions before they make me suicidal.

 

I suspect the constant refrain in a post-‘no’-vote Scotland will be the same question that Johnny Rotten – sick to the teeth of the manipulations of manager Malcolm McLaren – put to his audience at the end of the final concert by the original Sex Pistols at San Francisco Winterland in January 1978: “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”  As people in Scotland realise they’ve been cheated, I think momentum will build again for independence.  I only hope that in the meantime the place doesn’t endure the sort of punishment it received, courtesy of Margaret Thatcher, between the two devolution referendums in 1979 and 1997.

 

But maybe all my pessimism will prove unfounded.  Maybe tomorrow I’ll be in a state of shocked euphoria.  We shall see.

 

Eight things I’ve learnt from the Scottish ‘no’ campaign

 

Less than a fortnight remains before the people of Scotland vote on whether their country should be independent or should remain part of the United Kingdom.  During the past year I’ve avidly followed the campaigns by the ‘yes’ side (i.e. ‘go for independence, Scotland!’) and the ‘no’ side (i.e. ‘don’t do it, Scotland!’) and I have to say I’ve found the information put forward by the ‘no’ one particularly enlightening.  I’ve learnt many things from it and, in several cases, I’ve had to drastically revise what I thought I already knew.

 

By the ‘no’ campaign I mean the official campaign-group Better Together and other unofficial ones like Vote No Borders; and the political parties who’re backing a ‘no’ vote, namely the Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats and UKIP; and newspapers that are sympathetic to the ‘no’ cause like the Times, Sun, Daily Telegraph, Financial Times, Independent, Guardian, Daily Mail, Daily Express, Scotsman, Herald, Daily Record, Press and Journal, West Highland Free Press…  Well, basically everyone apart from the Sunday Herald; and those many, ordinary-but-vociferous ‘no’ supporters who write to and post online in the newspapers.  So here are eight things I’ve learnt whilst reading and listening to the arguments in favour of voting ‘no’, put forward by this large and intellectual body of opinion.

 

One.  Scottish nationalism was invented by Mel Gibson.

 

(c) Paramount Pictures

 

I’d mistakenly believed that the desire for Scottish independence could be traced back to the founding of the Scottish National Party in 1934 and that the question of whether or not Scotland could be a self-governing country again had bubbled fitfully since then.  And I’d mistakenly thought that, in the eight decades since, independence had been supported and promoted by people like John MacCormick, Hugh MacDiarmid, Ian Hamilton, William Wolfe, Winnie Ewing, Tom Nairn, Margo McDonald and Jim Sillars.  But I was wrong.  Don’t blame me for misunderstanding Scottish political history, though.  I’d read about it in a book called The Battle for Scotland, written by Andrew Marr, who was obviously lying.

 

In fact, I’ve learnt from ‘no’ supporting politicians, journalists, activists, Tweeters and comment-posters (who surely know what they’re talking about) that all this stuff started only in 1995.  Until 1995, the Scots had been contented, docile citizens of the UK, happy to describe themselves as ‘British’ rather than ‘Scottish’, to sing God Save the Queen as their anthem at sporting events and to let Westminster make their decisions for them.  But then a terrible thing happened.  An agent provocateur appeared.  He roused those previously-loyal Scots and transformed them into a rabble.  Yes, an anti-Semitic Australian with a booze problem donned a kilt, painted his face blue, picked up a broadsword and charged along a muddy field screaming “FREEEE-DUUUUM!”  And that’s how this troublesome Scottish independence nonsense began.  With a film.  Called Braveheart.

 

You might think it far-fetched that a political movement supported by hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of (clearly deluded) people could be triggered by something as trivial as a Hollywood movie, but there are other examples of this.  I’ve seen Logan’s Run, the 1976 science-fiction film about a society of rich, beautiful and privileged people who have their every wish fulfilled living in a plastic future utopia that’s basically a giant shopping mall – a utopia where anyone who has the temerity to become wrinkly, diseased, disabled, unproductive and dependent on the state (by growing old) gets vaporised by a death ray.  That was obviously the blueprint for Thatcherism.

 

Two.  All Scottish women live in kitchens.

 

The last time I was in Scotland I thought I saw a few women out on the street, but I realise now this was probably a mirage caused by unusual climatic conditions.  (The Scottish weather had been unseasonably clement – i.e. it was above freezing and not pissing with rain all day).  Scottish women never actually go outside.  This I’ve learnt from watching the recent Better Together advert aimed at ‘undecided female voters’.

 

From imagist.com

 

Scottish women, you see, are much too busy to venture beyond the parameters of their kitchens.  And when they aren’t cooking meals, washing dishes and scrubbing floors, they sit at their kitchen tables, sipping coffee out of giant flowery mugs and complaining about their husbands, or ‘men-folk’ as we say in Scotland, who will insist on blathering on about boring things that women can’t understand, like politics.  The man whom the poor woman in the Better Together advert is married to is particularly unreasonable in this regard.  He insists on talking about the referendum during breakfast, instead of eating his cereal.  I mean, the thought of it.  What a creep!

 

Of course, ladies, you need to do the right thing regarding this referendum business, which is so complicated it’ll probably make your heads explode if you try to think about it.  Just vote ‘no’.

 

Three.  Nothing is more horrible than being related to foreigners.

 

I hadn’t realised how ghastly my family life was until I heard many ‘no’ supporters argue that an independent Scotland would mean Scottish people with relatives in England would see those relatives suddenly become ‘foreigners’.  That got me thinking.  Foreigners must be horrible people.  It must be absolutely dreadful to have them in your family.  And actually – oh God, no! – my family is already infested with foreigners.  My dad was born in the Republic of Ireland – a bloody foreigner.  My aunt, uncle and three cousins are Australians – more bloody foreigners.  And my girlfriend’s an American – another one of those foreign scumbags!  I can only thank the ‘no’ campaign for alerting me to the awfulness of my situation.

 

Actually, three leaders of the political parties supporting a ‘no’ vote have had to live with this dire state-of-affairs for years.  Ed Miliband, for example, is the son of a Pole and a Belgian, while Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage are married to a Dutchwoman and a German respectively.  So I think it’s very decent of Nick, Ed and Nigel to support the ‘no’ campaign, to spare many people in Scotland the horrors they’ve had to endure through being related to foreigners.

 

Four.  ‘Yes’ supporters don’t love their families.

 

From the drum.com

 

In fact, it’s just as well that ‘yes’ supporters don’t love their families.  It won’t matter to them if those families end up full of foreigners.

 

Five.  Hadrian’s Wall stood on the border between Scotland and England.

 

I once lived in the north-eastern English city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and I was sure that the famous wall erected by the Roman Emperor Hadrian had its eastern end there, in the North Tyneside district of Wallsend.  I was also sure I’d once cycled across northern England alongside the route of the wall, from Newcastle, through places like Heddon-on-the-Wall, Chollerford and Walton, and finally to Carlisle.  All of them are a good way from the border with Scotland.  Indeed, Wallsend must be about sixty or seventy miles from it.

 

However, my memory must be faulty.  According to many comments by ‘no’ supporters I’ve read, about the English having to rebuild Hadrian’s Wall to prevent millions of starving refugees flooding south from a bankrupt independent Scotland, or about the Scots having to rebuild Hadrian’s Wall to prevent millions of political refugees flooding south from a totalitarian independent Scotland, the wall must’ve stood on the border.  After all, if the wall was in England, wouldn’t rebuilding it mean lots of English people in Cumbria, Northumberland and Tyne and Wear would be imprisoned in Scotland?

 

Also, Rory Stewart, the Conservative MP for Penrith who’s sometimes known as ‘Rory the Tory’, recently tried to organise a cross-border stunt whereby 100,000 people would hold hands along the route of Hadrian’s Wall to show solidarity with the Scots and urge them, symbolically, to stay in the UK.  Now nobody could be daft enough to stage a massive human chain along the border between two countries to emphasise their emotional, cultural and historical links, but actually have everyone stand tens of miles inside one of the countries instead?  I mean, nobody could be that stupid?

 

Six.  Douglas Alexander is Jesus.

 

(c) The Scotsman

 

Douglas Alexander, Labour MP for Paisley and Renfrewshire South and a man who likes to ruminate brainily on Scotland’s constitutional future within the UK if it rejects independence on September 18th, is given copious breathless coverage in Scotland’s ‘no’-supporting press.  Well, so he should be.  He’s a political genius.  After all, as David Miliband’s campaign manager in the 2010 Labour leadership contest, he steered David to triumphant, er, defeat at the hands of his brother Ed.

 

However, what has lately become obvious is that Douglas is not merely an MP and a political genius, but also the Son of God, the Messiah returned to earth so that “we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air” (First Thessalonians 4:16-17).  This was ascertained by a Scotsman photographer who one evening snapped a picture of him standing by the River Clyde in a significantly crucified position.  And verily, the resulting photograph showed Douglas’s head ringed by a halo!

 

Unbelievers have argued that the halo is actually the curve of Glasgow’s Clyde Arc (aka ‘the Squinty Bridge’) in the background.  I don’t accept this, however.  Douglas is irrefutably the Messiah.  He can cure the afflicted with his touch, walk on water and feed a multitude with a few paltry loaves and fishes.  If he was nailed to a cross and had a sword thrust into his side, I’ve no doubt that he’d rise again from the dead three days later.  Actually, maybe we should do this to Douglas just to prove those sceptics wrong.

 

Seven.  Civilisation collapses when someone chucks an egg.

 

(c) STV

 

Recently, Jim Murphy, the brave, wise and noble Labour MP for Renfrewshire East has been on a speaking tour of Scotland’s towns and cities, engaging the local populations in friendly and open conversation about why it’s best to vote ‘no’ whilst standing on an Irn Bru crate and bellowing at them through an amplified microphone.  When Jim visited the streets of Kirkcaldy last week, however, an atrocity was committed by a ‘yes’ supporter.  This thug flung an egg at Jim and almost fatally wounded the gallant MP by making a bit of a stain on his shirt.  Immediately, the media was aflame with anti-independence journalists, commentators, Tweeters and posters proclaiming, quite rightly, that this marked the end of democracy and free speech in Scotland, and the beginning of an onslaught by the forces of fascism and anarchy.  Why, civilisation itself in Scotland was about to fall.

 

Admittedly, a few people pointed out that in the past eggs had been thrown at politicians like John Prescott, Nick Griffith and Nigel Farage, and on those occasions Kristallnacht had failed to materialise.  However, there’s an important difference this time.  Those previous egg incidents had occurred in England.  The egging of the valiant Jim Murphy had taken place in Scotland, where the entire population is liable to go into a murderous frenzy if they catch a whiff of spilt egg-yolk.

 

Eight.  Scottish independence?  It’s all the work of one crazed, evil super-genius.

 

On television you may see politicians like Nicola Sturgeon, Patrick Harvie and Dennis Canavan arguing for Scottish independence, but these are not real people.  They’re merely animatronic puppets controlled from afar by one man.  When he isn’t using remote-controlled androids to do his dirty work for him, he sits at his computer and writes, under a vast array of pseudonyms, all the copy that appears on the pro-independence websites like Wings over Scotland, Bella Caledonia and Newsnet Scotland.  Using many more aliases, he posts too all those pro-independence comments on newspaper-website opinion threads.  Yes, all of them.

 

Any footage you’ve seen of rallies in support of independence involving more than one person is fake – he doctors the footage with computer-generated images to make it look like there were lots of people in attendance.  And you know how recently a million people supposedly signed a petition for Scottish independence online?  That was also him, clicking on his computer a million times.

 

Who is he, this insane, evil but brilliant mastermind, who’s been probably cloned from scraps of DNA from Hitler, Stalin and Chairman Mao and who’s orchestrated the whole Scottish independence campaign single-handedly in a fiendish attempt to bring the UK to its knees?

 

You know who it is.  It’s him!

 

(c) Eon Productions

 

No, it’s not him.  It’s him!

 

(c) Daily Record

 

He’s behind you!

 

From new168.co.uk

 

For the record, I think Alex Salmond – Scotland’s portly and garrulous First Minister and leader of the independence-seeking Scottish National Party – should apologise for a comment he made in a recent interview for GQ Magazine.  During the interview he said he ‘admired’ certain aspects of Vladimir Putin’s presidency, though he qualified that by saying that many of the Russian leader’s policies he didn’t agree with.

 

I have no doubt that Putin has qualities that all politicians are envious of – for one thing, his ability as a tactician, which seemingly has the West dancing on a string over the current crisis in Ukraine – but ‘admire’ was hardly an appropriate verb to employ.  Certainly not for a creature like the ruthless, shark-eyed Putin who, even before you consider his impact on other countries, has made life miserable within Russian borders for ethnic minorities, homosexuals, dissidents and so on.

 

Salmond, I believe, should say sorry and explain that – not for the first time, incidentally – his mouth had got a little way ahead of his brain.  That he’d expressed himself inappropriately: inappropriately to the point of causing offence.

 

If he apologised at some length and with some sincerity, he could also highlight the difference in political cultures between Holyrood, in Edinburgh, and Westminster, in London.  At Westminster the other week, David Cameron’s culture secretary Maria Miller gave an apology for irregularities in her expenses that was so perfunctory and cynical that it provoked an outcry and led to her losing her job.  Salmond would also show a circumspect and self-critical side of his nature that might actually boost his standing.  There’s been a lot of talk lately about how his macho, take-no-prisoners style of politics is off-putting to female voters.

 

He could even take the opportunity to condemn any leader who invades, or threatens to invade, another country for strategic, economic or ideological gain.  No doubt this would have the Labour Members of the Scottish Parliament squirming in their seats, considering how 11 years ago their past leader, one Anthony Charles Lynton Blair, did just that in cahoots with George W. Bush and as a result, according to the Lancet, had by July 2006 contributed to the deaths of 655,000 Iraqis.

 

However, Salmond hasn’t apologised and probably won’t apologise.  This disappoints me but hardly surprises me.   For a start, apologies are not his style.  Also, many of the criticisms levelled at Salmond have come from the UK’s political establishment – the other day, for example, Lord Paddy Ashdown, who once led the Liberal Democrat party, lambasted him for siding with the ‘big and powerful’ rather than with the ‘threatened and oppressed’ – and Salmond no doubt believes that these criticisms are laced with hypocrisy.  After all, at different times in the past, the UK political establishment have tried to court Putin when it suited them.

 

Indeed, Britain and other Western powers have to shoulder much of the blame for what is happening now with Russia and Ukraine.  Back in the early 1990s – which was Ashdown’s political heyday – the G7 and the IMF didn’t attempt to shape a post-communist Russia with a genuine system of social democracy.   Instead, they happily encouraged Boris Yeltsin (a man who in 1993 used troops to attack his own parliament) to lift price controls, impose free-trade policies, slash welfare spending and do a fast-track privatisation of the country’s thousands of state companies.  This left Russia with what Naomi Klein described in her 2007 book The Shock Doctrine as ‘casino capitalism’, a system autocratic in political character but a free-for-all economically.  Thanks to this, Klein noted, a quarter of Russians were living in ‘desperate’ poverty by the mid-1990s.  At the same time it created the culture of super-rich oligarchs and paved the way for Vladimir Putin.  The G7 and IMF, to use Ashdown’s words, sided with the ‘big and powerful’ rather than with the ‘threatened and oppressed’.  For all that Western governments complain about Putin today, they shouldn’t forget the inconvenient truth that they helped to create him.  He’s their own Frankenstein’s monster.

 

Also, I suspect Salmond doesn’t want to set a precedent.  By apologising for the Putin comment, he’d then be under pressure to apologise for some utterance or other every week between now and the Scottish independence referendum in September.  He has few friends in the mainstream Scottish and British media and he knows journalists are scrutinising his every word in the hope of finding ammunition to use against him and against the independence cause, of which he’s supposedly the figurehead.

 

Indeed, the Scotsman has tried to stir front-page controversy with another remark Salmond made during the same interview, concerning Scotland’s tricky cultural and psychological relationship with alcohol — he used the expression ‘a nation of drunks’.  Funnily enough, a claim made a while back by Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont that Scots are ‘not genetically programmed’ to make political decisions caused no outcry at all in the press.  (Both Salmond’s and Lamont’s words have, I’m sure, been quoted out of context.  But in the interests of balance…)

 

What irritates me is not that the mainstream media is determined to play the man, Salmond, rather than play the ball, the Yes campaign for the upcoming independence referendum.  It doesn’t surprise me that the media is desperate to discredit a personality rather than engage with an argument and defeat it with superior arguments.  Playing the man, not the ball, is what politicians and political journalists do, unfortunately.

 

However, the hysterical right-wing middle-class tabloids that populate Scotland’s newspaper racks, such as the Daily Mail, the Daily Express and the Scotsman, have become so obsessed with Salmond that they haven’t realised the ball isn’t even at his feet.  Salmond isn’t the Yes campaign.  The Scottish National Party isn’t the Yes campaign either – it’s just one component of it.

 

The chairman of the Yes campaign is Dennis Canavan, who as a distinguished old-school Labour politician was once MP for Falkirk.  After years of service, Canavan was forced out of the Labour Party because the Tony Blair clique running the party at the time found him too much off-message.  (His replacement as Labour MP for Falkirk was the thuggish Eric Joyce, whose violent, drunken shenanigans in the Houses of Parliament led to public disgrace.  It also triggered a murky chain of events involving the trade union Unite that led to an industrial stand-off at the nearby Grangemouth Oil Refinery and almost caused the refinery’s closure.)  Canavan is practically ignored while the media strives to portray the independence cause as being all about Salmond, Salmond, Salmond.  I have to say that one of the biggest culprits is the London-centric BBC, whose political correspondents seem to be genuinely ignorant of Canavan’s existence and genuinely believe that Salmond heads the Yes campaign.

 

(c) The Herald 

 

In addition, the Yes campaign also includes the Scottish Green Party and various socialist groupings, plus independence-supporting factions from the Scottish Labour Party and Liberal Democrat Party.  There are even right-wingers like the historian Michael Fry who believe that the only way for the Scottish Conservative Party to crawl back from its current position, which is at death’s door, and renew itself is to sever its ties with London and promote itself as a new party within an independent Scotland.  Also under the Yes banner are non-political groups like Business for Scotland and the cultural movement the National Collective, plus a lot of people who see themselves as having no political affiliations at all.  Again, though, the mainstream media would have you believe that these many groups and individuals are but tiny particles making up the dark political miasma that is Alex Salmond.

 

Finally, the identification of all things independence-related with Salmond is annoying on a further level.  It assumes that people in Scotland are incapable of reasoning and making decisions for themselves.  (Which, actually, was what Johann Lamont seemed to say in her ‘not genetically programmed’ comment.)  Forget individual thought – the part of the population that’s countenancing voting for independence, pushing towards 40% according to recent opinion polls, has been seduced by that great evil mastermind, Alex Salmond.  Apparently, everything had been hunky-dory since the Union of the English and Scottish parliaments in 1707, before he oozed along and started brainwashing people with his separatist cant.

 

The Scottish and British media love a good pantomime villain and for them Salmond fits the role.  Conveniently, it also allows them not to focus on the fact that a great many people see reasonable, logical and principled reasons for voting Yes in September.  But then, that’s what most mainstream media coverage of the referendum debate has been so far – a pantomime.

 

Having said all that, I don’t think it would do Alex Salmond any harm if for once he could squeeze the word ‘sorry’ out of his gob.

 

PS.  Two days after writing this post, I got a chance to read the GQ interview that had caused all the kerfuffle.  It’s available at http://wingsoverscotland.com/the-talk-of-the-town/.  It was the interviewer, not Salmond, who used the verb ‘admire’ in relation to Putin.  (Q: “Admire him?”  A: “Certain aspects.”)  That interviewer, by the way, was Alastair Campbell, Director of Communications and Strategy to Tony Blair and supposedly the inspiration for the foul-mouthed Malcolm Tucker in the satirical TV show The Thick of It.  Evidence again of the old saying, “He who sups with the devil should have a long spoon.”

 

Tramnation

 

I’ve always like cities that have tram systems – although I didn’t actually see a tram until I was 17 years old.

 

At the time, I’d just finished working as a grape-picker in a vineyard in French-speaking western Switzerland and was using my earnings from the grape-harvest, such as they were, to travel around the rest of Switzerland and then around Germany.  The trams I saw clanging and clunking down the streets of Basel, Bern, Zurich, Munich, Heidelberg and Bonn, with their wheels trundling along rails set in the asphalt and cobbles, and their trolley poles skittering along overhead wires, looked positively Victorian to me.  Yet in terms of comfort, they were a pleasure to ride on – especially compared to the city buses I was familiar with in Edinburgh, which were noisy, smelly and covered in grime.  Indeed, while I dreamily wandered about those Swiss and German cities and watched the trams rumble by, I was lucky on more than one occasion that I didn’t wander too close to them and get ground into their rails.  Yes, I was so wet behind the ears in those days that I was practically equipped with gills.

 

Since then, trams have been a feature of several cities I’ve lived in and a feature of other cities I’ve visited that made a big impression on me: Prague, San Francisco, Istanbul…  In Australia, Melbourne felt to me more like a ‘proper’ city than Sydney did, possibly because of the majestic street-cars that glided through its thoroughfares.  When I briefly worked in Dublin in 2004, the city had just had its first tram-line installed, from St Stephen’s Green to Bride’s Glen, and everyone I spoke to was as pleased as Punch about it.  The Dublin tram system is called the ‘luas’, which is an Irish Gaelic word meaning ‘speed’.

 

Even the Japanese city of Sapporo, where I lived and worked in the 1990s, had a tram system.  Known as the ‘Shiden’, it was a tiny affair, confined to eight kilometres of track that ran between the inner-city district of Susukino and the bottom of Mount Moiwa on the city’s south side.  It looked its age too – it’d started operations in 1909 – but public affection for it had prevented the city authorities from ever scrapping it.  What I remember most about Sapporo’s Shiden was that in the evenings you could hire it out and hold a party on board it.  You could enjoy the trundling run from Susukino to Mount Moiwa with a giant barrel of ice-water and beer-cans in the middle of the coach and a bunch of drunkards packed into the seats around you.  But that was the 1990s – maybe Japanese Health and Safety culture (if such a thing exists) has now consigned those drunken tram parties to history.

 

And in Tunis, where I live at the moment, what redeems the downtown area of the city for me is that, despite the piles of uncollected rubbish and the fetid-smelling sewers, you are liable at any moment to see a stately, green-painted tram go cruising along the French-colonial streets.  (Invariably, there’ll be a couple of truanting schoolboys traveling for free by sitting on the coupling pin at the back of the last coach.)

 

In the United Kingdom, however, we do things differently.  Whilst city-dwellers in other countries have retained their tram systems into the 21st century, we began the process of dismantling ours in the 1930s.  This was done with the encouragement of the automobile and oil industries, who assured British governments that as soon as the way was cleared for mass car ownership, life would be clean, uncluttered and utopian.  Actually, the axing of the tram networks caused a public outcry as loud as that which greeted the slashing of Britain’s rail system in the 1960s (done under Lord Beeching, who was the Freddie Krueger of British transport history).  But with both trams and trains, the country’s politicians assumed that they knew best and what the people thought was ignored.

 

Glasgow’s GCT network was the final one to go, in 1962.  After that, the only surviving British tramway was in Blackpool.

 

However, recent years have seen something of a comeback for trams in Britain, with new lines being installed in Manchester, Sheffield, Nottingham and Croydon.  And I was pleased, initially, when in 2008 it was announced that work had begun on a new tram system in Edinburgh, which would link the city airport in the west with Leith and Newhaven in the east and run along Princes Street in the centre.  There was something appealingly steampunk in the idea of trams operating again in the city of Robert Louis Stevenson and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – I could easily picture them trundling along Princes Street between Jenner’s Department Store and the Sir Walter Scott Monument, with Edinburgh Castle on its crag forming an ornate backdrop.

 

Unfortunately, as any Edinburgh-er will tell you, the saga that has unfolded since 2008 has been the stuff not of fantasies, but of nightmares.  Supposed originally to have been up-and-running in 2011, the Edinburgh tram system isn’t due for completion now until 2014.  Its budget, meanwhile, has rocketed from an initial estimate of 375 million pounds to over a billion.  And the project has been bedevilled by disputes between contractors and the management company, Transport Initiatives Edinburgh, which was finally relieved of its responsibilities in 2011.

 

The Edinburgh public has been subjected to endless inconvenience around the city centre, where tramline excavations have disrupted transport (and been a continual blot on the cityscape).  The Scottish government, now run by the Scottish National Party, inherited the project from the previous administration, has been wildly unenthusiastic about continuing it and would’ve scrapped it if they hadn’t been outvoted on the matter in the Scottish parliament.  Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond has announced his intention to hold a public enquiry into the Edinburgh trams debacle in the near-future.

 

Meanwhile, as costs have mounted, the planned tramline has been gradually whittled away.  No longer will it go to Newhaven, but it’ll stop in St Andrew’s Square just off Princes Street.  Indeed, it was mooted for a time that the line should be curtailed at Haymarket Station, far short even of Princes Street.  Speculation among original tram enthusiasts (who these days seem to be thin on the ground) that the network might be extended to the north and south of the city, with future trams rattling away to places like Granton and Newcraighall, now sounds like pie in the sky.

 

So how did the Edinburgh trams project go so catastrophically off the rails, before anything had actually started running on those rails?  Alex Salmond claims that he knew ‘in his water’ – Alex Salmond’s water, incidentally, is not an image I want to carry around in my head – that the scheme was a bad idea, because it involved making too many excavations in a historical city where the soil is cluttered with relics from past eras.  In a perceptive article for the Scottish Review of Books, accessible at http://www.scottishreviewofbooks.org/index.php/back-issues/volume-six-2010/volume-six-issue-four/367-the-route-to-nowhere-georgie-rosie, the learned Scottish journalist George Rosie describes workers encountering “100-year-old water pipes, cables from the previous tramway, the remains of a Carmelite priory and a leper hospital, a Victorian water culvert running under Princes Street and more than 300 long-dead corpses lying under Constitution Street in Leith, some of which had lain there since the end of the fifteenth century.”

 

In fact, Rosie sees the problem with the project as being part of a wider narrative.  Scotland’s industrial sector – which a couple of generations ago could have lain those tramlines and knocked out all the trams needed in the space of a few months – has declined nearly to a state of non-existence and the Edinburgh project has had to draw on engineering and consultancy companies from Spain, Austria, the USA, Germany and France.  A Frankenstein’s monster of stitched-together components from two continents, it’s perhaps surprising that more things didn’t go wrong with the scheme.

 

I was in Edinburgh two months ago and such was the scale of the tram-works in St Andrew’s Square and on Princes Street that the city centre looked like Beirut, circa 1982.  Let’s hope that the place looks slightly less apocalyptic when the crowds arrive for the Edinburgh Festival next month.  Here are a few photos:

 

 

 

 

Meanwhile, Iain Rankin must be kicking himself that he ended his Edinburgh-set series of crime novels featuring Inspector Rebus back in 2007.  If he’d extended the series a little longer, he’d surely have had material for one more novel – one where Inspector Rebus had to investigate irregularities in the Edinburgh trams project and found himself embroiled with dodgy contractors, corrupt local politicians and financial embezzlement and wheeling-dealing on a scale not seen since Roman Polanski’s Chinatown.