‘Outlander’ and Contemplating Detachment: a 21st Century ‘Scotch on the Rocks’?

The drama series ‘Outlander’ starts tonight…well, I say ‘starts’, but it will actually start broadcasting its third series to most territories in September – and a 4th has been greenlit by Sony Pictures. We’re just a wee bit behind here. But that’s quite unusual these days, is it not? When I were a lad, if a US TV series started, you knew it would often be some time before it made any sort of ‘terrestrial’ schedule, with Sky (and British Satellite Broadcasting, for those that remember it before the merger into BSkyB). ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’, for example, took 3 years to come to the BBC, despite its ratings success. These days, we generally expect ‘big’ series to be picked up tout de suite, and even if satellite has a veto first, terrestrial (which these days means FreeView) will have it a year later.

But ‘Outlander’ has been going for a while now. Ostensibly a time-travelling fantasy (but then so was ‘Life on Mars’, and how good was that?) set in 1743 Scotland, from the books (eight since 1991) by Diana Gabaldon, it features an English nurse a year after the end of the Second World War, who is transported back to the mid-18th century. It has a strong pedigree, though – developed by Ronald Moore (responsible for ‘Battlestar Galactica’, acclaimed at the time as ‘the most damning indictment of the Bush addministration on television’), with Ira Steven Behr (one of the main movers on ‘Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’) and with music by Bear McCreary (of ‘The Walking Dead’ and ‘Battlestar Galactica’ fame), as well the actor who portrays the unfortunate Edmure Tully in ‘Game of Thrones’, so it has some talent around it. Even more than that, the production was given ‘creative sector tax relief’ by the Treasury of the UK Government in 2013 to facilitate studio development.

And yet…the UK was noticeably absent from the global list of territories when the first of its 8 episodes aired, at the start of August 2014. There were rumours that the delay to the broadcast had been orchestrated by the Westminster Government – and a queue of people keen to shout down such nonsensical tinfoil-hat wearing paranoia.

Interestingly, this was confirmed via Wikileaks in April 2015, when an internal Sony Pictures memo dated June 27th 2014 showed that there was a meeting with David Cameron on 30th June to discuss (as one of three topics) “the importance of OUTLANDER, (i.e. particularly vis-a-vis the political issues in the UK as Scotland contemplates detachment this Fall)”. Sure enough, ‘Outlander’ did not broadcast on time with the rest of the territories, in spite of being where much of the production was filmed and based. Indeed, it was not until March 2015 when the series was first available to the UK – and even then, it was via Amazon Prime video.

Surely this cannot be the case – that a UK Government would intervene in broadcast schedules for such a thing? Well, the UK Government has been somewhat bitten by this before – in 1973, a ‘political thriller’ penned by one Douglas Hurd (later to be part of Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet) was turned into a six part series and broadcast by BBC Scotland. It cannot exactly be described as sitting amongst the greats of political thrillers, such as ‘House of Cards’ (or, perhaps, ‘Edge of Darkness’) – Wikipedia describes it as assuming “that there would be a political crisis in which the Scottish National Party would emerge as a serious force. A paramilitary organisation operating on the fringes of the SNP, the Scottish Liberation Army, stages a rising, seizing Fort William…” In spite of the fact that it was not showing Scotland or the political movement for self-determination in any sort of serious way – indeed, it was somewhat ridiculing Scottish independence – it seemed to actually act as something of an inspiration regarding independence to some people, leading to a rise in support for the idea. One can imagine that this might have had Cameron’s government wary of making a similar error of judgement…particularly as the polls started to narrow.

I also wonder a little about ‘Reign’ – the 16th century dramatisation/fantasisation of Mary Queen of Scots’ life, continually under threat from English attacks and subterfuge…I don’t recall that premiering in end 2013 start 2014, as it did in the rest of the world’s main territories? If you watch it, it hardly looks very dangerous to anything, not even taking itself that seriously – and yet…returning to ‘Scotch on the Rocks’, it apparently proved controversial – so much so that the BBC had to declare that it would never be shown again: “Both the novel and the television serial proved quite controversial. The BBC promised at the time never to show the series again, and it was believed the master tapes had been wiped because of the controversy. In 2012 it was stated that the series had not been wiped and that the tapes are held in the archives of BBC Scotland, although contradictorily it is believed only episodes 1, 4 and 5 have survived.” If such  a show could become political dynamite, then what else might inflame those rebellious Scots?

As a preview, I watched the first episode of Outlander ‘in advance’ last night – I learned that my childhood understanding of the word ‘sassenach’ as meaning ‘lowlander’ (hence central belters as well) may in fact have been flawed. The show is well executed, but ‘Establishment threatening’? As Christian Wright notes: “The Outlander series is set in Scotland in 1743 and it explores among other things the relationships and attitudes of British occupying military forces toward the local population. The picture painted is often one of British repression and brutality borne of visceral contempt for Scots. It seems there were no limits to which HMG would not go to subvert the referendum campaign while simultaneously the Prime Minister told the Nation independence was entirely a matter for the Scots. Eight months before the referendum vote, diplomatic cables had revealed, that Cameron was conspiring with 34 foreign governments to traduce the Scottish Government and to publicly oppose Scottish independence. HMG was also caught planting negative stories in foreign newspapers, implying the Scots were not capable of self governance.”

The series starts tonight at 9pm on More4 – I know, hardly ‘mainstream’ – but Lesley Riddoch says its worth a watch, so why not see what scared David Cameron 3 months before the Independence Referendum?


“From a SPE perspective, your meeting with Prime Minister Cameron on Monday will likely focus on our overall investment in the U.K. – with special emphasis on… the importance of OUTLANDER (i.e., particularly vis-à-vis the political issues in the U.K. as Scotland contemplates detachment this Fall).” (Sony Internal Memo, 27th June, 2014)

A Grim Sense of Foreboding in the North: The Only Way is Down from an ‘Electoral Tsunami’…

The message from the pollsters for Scotland is somewhat grimmer: it is hard not to come to the conclusion that the snap election has taken all the parties not only by surprise, but – with the noteable exception of the Conservatives – has left them with no time to garner the necessary resources required to mount an effective election campaign. Again, this comes as yet more questions are being asked about Conservative funding sources that are bypassing scrutiny, and including donations up to a hundred thousand pounds. Sadly, this has meant that – even with their new financial resources as the third largest political party in Westminster and the vast increase in their membership – the SNP machine has been outbought by sheer mass of paper through letterboxes. It will be interesting to see how well the honed team of footsoldiers on the ground can resist that onslaught.

For it is an onslaught from substantively one party: the Conservatives. Labour are only targeting 3 seats, and the LibDems a similar number. As a result, Labour voter contact lists have collapsed in 31 seats (e.g. from 3,020 to 3 in the constituency of Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, and from 1,621 to 31 in Aberdeen South). The Scottish Greens, as guarantors of the independence referendum mandate in Holyrood, are only standing one candidate, their star Patrick Harvie, in Glasgow North. The Conservatives are targeting 15 seats…although early assessments made it hard to see where more than eight would come from. Eric Joyce noted this when he observed at the start of May that bookmakers seemed to expect the Conservatives to win two seats from the SNP, leaving a 52/4/2/1 breakdown. Similarly, two days ago WoS noted the best odds offered for all 59 Scottish seats, to conclude that the bookies were expecting a 48/6/4/1 breakdown – still well short of the 12 seats the press was predicting for Ruth’s party in the curious bombast of the council election results.

However, the weather has been bad today in Scotland, which may well act in the wrong direction for the eventual result with low voter turnout: the Greys have the greatest likelihood to turnout – especially using postal votes – and without a campaign based around independence the SNP was criticised in the council elections last month for not being able to inspire their usual turnout – although their votes acquired were massively increased, and the vote share only dropped by 0.03%. [Of course, it wouldn’t have been relevant for a council election to run it as a campaign on independence, but that didn’t stop Theresa May and Ruth Davidson trying to subvert the local elections into just that. Politics is a game to them, more than anyone else.] Today Joyce reiterated that if the anti-Conservative vote came out, the party would be exceptionally lucky to get 4 seats.

There has also been a certain mirroring of the two major parties fortunes down south…so as Theresa May has increasingly discredited the Conservative campaign, so Ruth Davidson’s support has begun to stall. Combined with Corbyn’s surge in popularity leading to Scottish Labour recovering in the polls (ironic, given that Scottish Labour have been his most virulent internal opponents within his own party, desperate for him to fail), some last minute polls have shown Labour taking back second place in Scotland from the Conservatives.

Most polls have had the SNP on 41-42% – some 7-8 points down on their 2015 ‘tsunami’ – which puts them close to the tipping point at which they will start to lose a lot of seats under First Past the Post Westminster rules. The Electoral Calculus tool prediction models the data to give the SNP 42-56 of the final 59 seats – at one end, doubtfully equalling their unbelievable success of two years ago, at the other…well, it may seem bad as it is much lower, BUT – it is still over 71% of the Scottish MPs. (see the Conservative Michael Forsyth graphic above for what that would have signified in the twentieth century in Westminster…)

Of course, this will be spun as a major disaster by opponents and media alike…but it would not be half bad as a result. It would also have them well-placed to fight the next General Election – again taking seats from other parties – with an appropriately long ‘non-snap’ build-up period. In the short-term, the potential loss of star performers such as Moray’s Angus Robertson, Gordon’s Alex Salmond and Perth’s Pete (yes, from Runrig) Wishart would be real blows – as well as the heroic Borders’ Callum Kerr (who has the most vulnerable majority of 328).

I fear, however, that the weather and an inability to motivate the 18-24s might extract a higher cost. The Greys have been an unusually abused section in this election, receiving direct attacks from Theresa May when Conservatives are normally happy to leave alone the most right wing and likely-to-vote demographic of the population, and it would be nice if that backfired up in Scotland as well as down south…but the Greys are also the most unionist demographic, and they will probably feel zero inclination to desert the Conservatives for abuse of their pensions, if the union is their most sacred concern.

The exit poll indication has been known to pundits such as John Curtice since 2pm, although they will not reveal it until the polls close, which will be within half an hour. It usually has some surprises, but is not far off the final mark. I may watch it through the gaps between my fingers…

“Not long now until the army of terrible grandparents tick the ‘fuck everybody but me’ box” (@TheSteveBurnio on Twitter before the polls opened)

Can they really make June the end of May?: The Sound of Far Off Shouting From Way Down South…

I have tried to avoid the day-to-day poll fascination that has occupied this blog in previous years, but in the wake of the attack in Manchester an interesting trend has appeared regarding voter intention across the UK for the General Election on June 8th. What makes it interesting, is firstly that it was conducted by YouGov, and we have a regular record of the vote going back to just before May called the vote in April, so a good means of direct comparison. Secondly there is the timing: it was held over Wednesday and Thursday of this week – in other words, clear of the Manchester attack and the first day of response to it, so it can be used as a means of assessing if the predicted ‘Manchester Attack Effect’ has taken place…or what the nature of it might be.

When YouGov polled in April, they showed the Conservatives with a 24 point lead over Labour. As of 25/5 (see above), it was down to 5 points – apparently the damage was even greater on Monday before the Manchester attack, so the 5 points was a ‘recovery’ for May.

Conservatives 43% (-5)
Labour 38% (+14)
Liberal Democrats 10% (-2)
SNP / Plaid Cymru 5% (n/c)
UKIP 4% (-3)
Greens 1%

The collapse in May’s support is testament to what one observer described as the Conservatives trying to erect a personality cult around someone with absolutely no personality – it also reflects how increasingly mocked she has become, the more she has tried to stage manage her rare appearances, and consistently fails to answer any questions that are actually asked of her…to nothing less than a comedic degree. The footage of her abyssmal performances now fill a not insignificant chunk of YouTube.

More seriously, the juxtaposition with the Manchester attack (and the subsequent London Bridge follow-up only a couple of days ago) has had an impact on Theresa May that is likely the opposite of what the attackers had hoped. I remember seeing a similar manoeuvre, made by those who supported violence in the hope of radicalising Muslims for jihad, on October 29th 2004, four days prior to the election between John Kerry and George Dubya Bush. I had just got off the flight from Glasgow at Logan Airport in Boston, and was walking through a narrow corridor towards passport control. At one particular dog-leg in the passageway, there was a huge widescreen television present, and it was broadcasting a hot news item: Osama bin Laden had just delivered a message (via Al-Jazeera) urging the American people not to vote for Bush, criticising him for negligence and his subsequent response. I was arriving to campaign for Kerry, but as soon as I saw that, I knew that the election was over – the US public would likely react predictably to being told what to do by a non-American. Sure enough, Dubya won a few days later – which was almost certainly bin Laden’s objective: it was more in his interest to have someone likely to react aggressively abroad, than an intelligent diplomat in the Whitehouse. I felt the same way with the Manchester attack – scheduled just before the election, with the aim of provoking a radicalising response from a right wing foreign interventionist government.

And yet, that was not what happened.

Instead, the attack called into question May’s competency as Home Secretary in cutting 19,000 police from England and Wales – so that she needed to deploy troops on the streets as replacement police officers during the subsequent emergency. [In contrast, in Scotland – where police numbers have been maintained by the Scottish Government – this was not necessary.] One senior advisor to David Cameron commented that in the light of this Theresa May should be resigning for her failure as Home Secretary, rather than seeking election as Prime Minister. A harsh judgement indeed from one’s ‘own side’ (if such a concept actually exists within the Conservative Party).

So instead of the perhaps hoped-for boost to her ratings that the attackers may have planned for – and that any Conservative Government would have expected in the wake of a terrorist attack – Theresa May’s rating and lead plummeted. Desperate to defend their chosen anointed one, the Telegraph and Mail ran stories trying to attack the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn when he pointed out that foreign intervention in Iraq by the UK had made the UK a more likely target for terrorists (this should not have been contentious, as it had been publicly confirmed by two previous heads of MI5 – but this is an election campaign, when the journalistic memory grows more desperately selective with the approach of polling day)…yet Corbyn’s support (particularly amongst the more resolutely cynical of his party’s supporters, and the 18-24 year old demographic) continued to rise.

Now, only a couple of days before the vote on Thursday, a poll has emerged showing a Conservative lead of only 1% over Labour. In the mix with a load of ‘final final’ polls from the disparate group of companies trying to redeem their tarnished reputations from the 2015 General Election, it now becomes simply a question of decibels: as ever, the closer to polling day, the more loudly the different parties shout their narrative, supported by polls that show everything from a 1 to 12 point lead for the Conservatives, and consequences ranging from hung parliament to Conservative landslide respectively, and all becomes a noise. The louder you shout, the more chance you have of selling your narrative, and convincing the public that yours is the winning side that they want to be on. James Kelly has noted a seeming disconnect between the high level Conservative ‘message’ (which, lest we forget, is supported by the huge majority of current Labour MPs who actively oppose their own leader – because he is not a New Labour Blairite) that Labour is about to be hammered into oblivion, and the lack of ANY polling supporting this narrative from ANY of the companies. In 2015, a few wise observers (take a bow, Wings Over Scotland) had been predicting for well over a year that regardless of how well Labour was polling, they would never be elected to government, simply because the number of people that thought Ed Milliband could be Prime Minister was way too low…especially against Cameron’s incumbency effect. In contrast this time, as much as Corbyn still has not great ratings in this regard, he is against an incumbent Prime Minister who has laughably unravelled since the launch of the campaign. It is a different proposition – if people can hear that, above the shouting…

In 24 hours the polls will have closed – but the bulk of the results are merely about defining the context within which the second independence referendum will take place. Hardline Conservative – likely to refuse and therefore provoke the Scottish Government to call one anyway – or heavily chastened by Labour inroads, and the possibility of horsetrading. The starting pistol fires soon…

“ So the European Broadcasting Union [@EBU_HQ] has found the UK press the least trusted out of 33 countries. Again. This wouldn’t matter much, we’re used to it, it’s not a surprise. …the failure of the British press is a dire cultural and political problem we’ve just become used to. …Now Corbyn is neatly aligned with terrorism and Theresa May is steadfast and strong. The election is over. There are soldiers on the streets and propaganda in your newspapers. There is little more to say.” (Mike Small, ‘Media, Terrorism, Democracy’, 25/5/2017)