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Times’s online edition and Farquharson issued an apologetic tweet: “Student paper that interviewed Alex Salmond has now withdrawn the quote, so we’ve removed my column from online.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 

 

I hear you’re a racist now, SNP

 

© Hat Trick Productions

 

Well, that was nice of the Scottish Labour Party.  Last weekend, they held their spring conference and presumably, like any political party, they hoped they’d present themselves in a good light.  Good enough to win a few new voters or, in their case, win back a few old voters.  Because in recent years the Scottish Labour Party has haemorrhaged support – in 1999 it had 56 seats in the Scottish Parliament and another 56 in the Westminster one, compared with 24 Scottish seats and just one Westminster seat today.  And a great many of those former Labour voters have defected to the pro-independence Scottish National Party.

 

So in their wisdom what did Scottish Labour do?  They got Sadiq Khan, the Labour Mayor of London, to come to Scotland on Saturday and give a conference speech that accused the SNP of racism.  Yep, that’ll win those old supporters back.  Call them racists.

 

Specifically, Khan talked of “Brexit, the election of President Trump and the rise of populist and narrow nationalist parties around the world” and said there was no difference between the likes of the SNP and “those who try to divide us on the basis of our background, race or religion.”  Which sounds like a pretty good definition of racism to me.

 

Admittedly, when Khan delivered the speech, he tried to tone it down slightly – but the damage had been done for it’d already been printed in the Scottish Labour-supporting tabloid the Daily Record.  And it sparked a tremendous uproar from SNP supporters, furious that despite backing a party that’s probably the most pro-immigration and pro-European Union of the major parties in Britain today, they’d been told they were no better than, say, the British National Party, National Front and English and Scottish Defence Leagues.  You know, real racist organisations.

 

One thing that stuck in many people’s craws was the fact that back before the referendum on Scottish independence in 2014, while the SNP had campaigned for a ‘yes’ vote, the BNP, National Front, EDL and SDL had all campaigned for a ‘no’ one.  Indeed, the racists’ campaign literature had often warned that in an independent Scotland the SNP would bring in more immigrants, more refugees, more Muslims, etc.  Though I have to say this picture tweeted by ex-BNP leader Nick Griffin as a warning about how an independent Scotland would look is so cool it surely made more people vote for independence than against it.

 

© Metro

 

Incidentally, Khan’s mention of religious divisiveness seems ironic too considering that there have been moments in recent history when his party in Scotland has cosied up to the pro-Protestant, anti-Catholic Orange Order – Labour councillors in Falkirk handing more than £1000 of public money to the Order in May 2016, for instance, or Labour-controlled Glasgow City Council throwing more cash at it in June 2012 so it could stage street parties in honour of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.

 

https://www.commonspace.scot/articles/8416/labour-party-council-leader-votes-give-orange-order-community-funding

http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/13060185.City_funds_Orange_events/

 

Labour’s response to the furore was to claim that, because Khan comes from a British Pakistani family, anyone disputing his ‘SNP equals racism’ claims were themselves racist. Labour Member of the Scottish Parliament Anas Sarwar, also of Pakistani descent, tweeted: “Quite ironic that 2 brown guys are being abused / trolled by mob of angry white men in a racism row.”

 

Actually, the people who got angry about Khan’s speech included the correspondent Robert J. Somynne, lawyer Aamer Anwar, entrepreneur Yasmin A. Choudhury and SNP politicians Humza Yousaf and Tasmina Sheikh, none of whom are ‘white guys’.  Not all of them are ‘guys’, either.

 

At least Khan received some backing from Scotland’s not-in-love-with-the-SNP mainstream press.  Among those voicing support for him were Stephen Daisley, columnist for the totally non-racist, pro-immigrant, pro-refugee, pro-Muslim Daily Mail, and Iain Martin, former deputy editor, head of comment, columnist and blogger with the totally non-racist, pro-immigrant, pro-refugee, pro-Muslim Telegraph newspapers.

 

Then on Monday evening the Guardian newspaper poured fuel on the fire and published an opinion piece by a PhD student at Stirling University called Claire Heuchan.  Baldly titled THE PARALLELS BETWEEN SCOTTISH NATIONALISM AND RACISM ARE CLEAR, the piece promptly started its own shitstorm.  By the time the Guardian decided to close the comments thread underneath, two hours after it’d appeared, there were 1242 comments – many of them not written in admiration of Heuchan’s thought-processes.

 

Well, regular readers of this blog will know that I’m sympathetic to both the SNP and its goal of an independent Scotland and I have to say Heuchan’s Guardian piece annoyed me even more than Khan’s speech, mainly because her arguments were so half-baked.  For example: “Zeal for national identity invariably raises questions of who belongs and who is an outsider”, which makes me wonder why this has to be a peculiarly Scottish issue.  After all, zeal for national identity in Britain as a whole amputated the country from the European Union recently and left many EU nationals living in Britain fearful for their futures.  Actually, if national identity’s so bad, shouldn’t Heuchan be petitioning for Britain to shed its borders and merge with France, Germany and everywhere else in Europe?

 

She criticises the independence movement for its supposed belief that that Scotland is better than England, which will be news to those who simply want an independent Scotland run by the people who live in it – including English folk, ethnic minorities and EU nationals – because they believe it would be better run that way than by Westminster.  Not better than England or anywhere else, but just better than how Scotland is now.

 

She castigates independence supporters for holding England “accountable for all the wrongs of imperial expansion while denying this country’s own colonial legacy”, which forgets that prominent pro-independence Scottish historians like Tom Devine have written extensively about Scotland’s role in shaping the British Empire.

 

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/scotland/6524149.stm

 

Then there are the claims that Heuchan, who’s a person of colour, makes about whiteness.  Being white means your’re entirely immune and oblivious to racism, apparently.  The trade unionist Claire Hepworth is criticised for tweeting that she’s never heard any of her SNP-supporting friends and followers being racist.  “Comments such as Hepworth’s only make it harder for people of colour to come forward about the discrimination we face…”  Suggesting that because she doesn’t know anyone who’s racist, Hepworth is an accomplice to racism.  And a claim that “(w)hite SNP supporters and allies have never been subject to racism” seems unlikely considering that many SNP voters in Scotland are of Irish descent or belong to other white national groups and quite possibly have been subject to racism.

 

Soon after the Guardian’s comments thread was closed, Heuchan disappeared from Twitter too.  I imagine certain newspapers like the Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph and the also totally non-racist, pro-immigrant, pro-refugee, pro-Muslim Daily Express will soon be running horror stories about her being hounded off Twitter by racist SNP scumbags.

 

To be honest, I suspect the real reason why the Twitter account vanished was because people were reading her past tweets and finding items from before the 2014 independence referendum that showed she was a ‘British and proud’ activist campaigning for a ‘no’ vote. Now Heuchan is free to define her identity whatever way she likes.  But it might have been wise to temper her piece with a wee bit of balance and admit that British nationalism can be racist too.  Ask those many people who were abused on British streets for speaking a language other than English during the giddy days that followed dear old Blighty voting for Brexit.

 

No political movement consists wholly of angels.  I’m sure a few racist bampots who object to both coloured people and English people do support the cause of Scottish independence.  And I know that in the past the SNP had its share of anti-English bigots.  (Though in the 1980s I knew some Scottish Labour supporters who’d mouth off about ‘English bastards’ too, on account of them voting Maggie Thatcher into power every four years.)

 

But if the pro-EU, pro-immigration SNP are going to be maligned as racists, what does that make Theresa May’s Conservative Party, hellbent on steering Britain out of Europe, using EU nationals in Britain as ‘bargaining chips’, ramping up the rhetoric against immigrants and refugees and toadying to a bigoted thug like Donald Trump?  Indeed, what does that make Sadiq Khan’s Labour Party, now that at Westminster they’ve resolved to support the Conservatives over Brexit?

 

Worse, I’d say.  Much worse.

 

© The Independent

 

A sense of entitlement

 

(c) The Times

 

When I lived in London in the early 1990s, I used to drink occasionally with a Scotsman who worked for the Labour Party.  In fact, he was an advisor to its then-leader, the late John Smith.  Our relationship was testy and at times gave way to complete fireworks, because my own political sympathies lay with the Scottish National Party.  I recall one time remarking to him that I didn’t understand why the Scottish wing of the Labour Party and the SNP couldn’t cooperate more.  After all, many of their policies were similar.  And didn’t they have a common enemy – the Conservative Party, who were in power at the time?

 

My Labour Party associate gave me a pitying look and spoke very slowly, as if I was retarded and might not understand his words.  “Look,” he said, “The SNP hate us and we hate them.”  And that, as far as he was concerned, was that.

 

During the 20 years since, that’s been my main impression of the Labour Party’s raison d’être in Scotland: hating the SNP.  Never mind trying to do anything constructive or innovative.  So long as they’re in a position where they can screech and scream all day long about what an evil bastard Alex Salmond is, they’re happy.  (I’ve just checked out my old Labour associate’s Twitter feed and, sure enough, he’s ranting on it about Salmond: “What nice hotel at taxpayers (sic) expense is Mr Salmond going to be put up in tonite (sic) for.”)

 

This hatred seems to spring from the other defining characteristic of Scottish Labour: a mighty sense of entitlement.  They see themselves as top dogs in Scotland.  Scotland’s their territory.  Until 2005, Labour returned about 50 out of 72 Scottish MPs to Westminster.  After that total of 72 MPs was reduced to 59, Labour kept the lion’s share of it – they’ve got 41 in the current parliament.  Traditionally, Scottish politicians played a disproportionately large role in the UK-wide party – John Smith, Gordon Brown, Robin Cook, John Reid, George Robertson, Douglas Alexander, Jim Murphy.  Even that political chameleon Anthony Charles Lynton Blair could claim to be Scottish and make his scaly skin turn tartan (admittedly not very convincingly) by talking about his childhood, which included periods spent in Edinburgh and Stepps, near Glasgow; and about his schooldays at Edinburgh’s prestigious Fettes Academy.

 

And many a Labour loyalist, having served time at Westminster, has ended up in cosy, comfortable and ermine-clad retirement in the House of Lords.  See the likes of John Reid, George Robertson, Michael Martin and Helen Liddell, lords and ladies to a man and woman.

 

Yes, I know.  In 1999, during Blair’s premiership, Labour did set up the devolved Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh.  But I’m sure it was seen as a means of keeping additional numbers of loyal Scottish Labour Party hacks in lucrative employment and it was designed not to rock the boat in any way for London.  The Scottish parliament was organised so that no party (i.e. the SNP) could ever win an outright majority in it and its ruling executive would always have to be a coalition.  And the biggest party in any coalition, Blair and co assumed, would always be the Scottish Labour Party.

 

It was a shock for Labour when in 2007 the SNP won the biggest number of seats in the Scottish parliament, eschewed coalitions and ran Scotland for the next four years as a minority administration.  And it was an even bigger shock for them when in 2011 the SNP achieved the impossible and managed to win an overall majority of seats in the parliament.  Hadn’t Labour’s finest minds arranged things so that this would never happen?  This left the SNP free to do whatever they liked, which included holding last month’s referendum on Scottish independence.

 

Yes, it must be tough for long-time politicians and apparatchiks in the Scottish Labour Party to see Scotland – their stomping ground, their fiefdom, their station of departure for the gravy train that runs all the way to the House of Lords – turn on them, reject them, betray them and climb into bed instead with those evil, conniving bastards in the SNP.  There’s nothing worse than having a sense of entitlement and then not getting what you believe you’re entitled to.

 

At this point, I should say that there’ve been Labour politicians, north and south of the border, whom I’ve respected.  For example, I had a lot of time for John Smith.  His unexpected death in 1994, which opened the way for Tony Blair, left us with one of the great what-ifs of British politics – what if Smith had lived to become prime minister instead of Blair?  And over the years I’ve also admired Tony Benn, Robin Cook, Dennis Skinner, Tam Dalyell, Dennis Canavan, John McAllion, Ron Brown and even – long ago, before he became a purveyor of putrid piffle – George Galloway.  The problem is, all those guys proved to be too independently-minded and off-message to fit comfortably with a London-based Labour leadership that’s increasingly expected obedience and conformity from its politicians.  One way or another, all of them became isolated.  At best, they were politely ignored.  At worst, they were treated as pariahs.

 

With the Scottish Labour Party on the winning side and the SNP on the losing side in last month’s independence referendum, Labour should currently be in rude health.  But instead, the weeks since the result have seen the party stricken with divisions, tensions, insecurity and pessimism.

 

During the referendum campaign, it surely stuck in many Labour supporters’ craws to see their leaders singing from the same hymn-sheet as David Cameron and George Osborne, the hated Bullingdon-Club millionaires of the Tory Party.  And the fact that the areas of Scotland that did vote for independence in the referendum – Dundee, Glasgow, West Dunbartonshire and North Lanarkshire – were supposed to be Labour strongholds can’t have helped party morale either.

 

Although UK Labour-leader Ed Miliband put his name to a pledge that Scotland would receive more devolved powers in the event of a ‘no’ vote, it’s become clear that Labour is the party least enthusiastic about bestowing new powers – less enthusiastic even than the Tories.  Meanwhile, post-referendum, membership of pro-‘yes’ parties like the SNP and the Scottish Greens has rocketed and, if the opinion polls are to believed, the SNP could take more than a few seats off Labour at the next Westminster election.

 

Clearly, if Labour is to survive in Scotland, it needs to be a truly Scottish party.  It can’t any longer be tied to and subservient to the Labour Party in London.  It has to be able to devise its own centre-left policies that appeal to a Scottish electorate.  But with Ed Miliband – a leader who genuinely seems not to ‘get’ Scotland – at the London controls, backed by a rabble of Neanderthal old-school Scottish Labour MPs in Westminster who have no wish to cede power to the party north of the border for fear of losing their own status, perks and privileges, that isn’t going to happen.

 

I’ve just read that Johann Lamont, leader of the Scottish Labour Party for the past three years, has announced her resignation.  According to the BBC news website, she claimed that “the Labour Party must recognise that the Labour Party has to be autonomous and not just a branch office of a party based in London…  We must be allowed to make our own decisions and control our own resources.”

 

These comments might possibly be the first brave and wise things Ms Lamont has said in what’s been a pretty inept and unimpressive political career.  But it’s worth reminding her that only a month ago, on September 18th, she had a golden opportunity to make the Scottish Labour Party autonomous, and responsible for its own decisions and resources, and not the branch office of a party based in London.  By urging people to vote ‘yes’ in the independence referendum.