The Sunday Herald, Selfies and Supermarkets: The Last Weekend of the Campaign

Sunday – the day of ‘OpenAirYes’ on the Meadows. I can feel that I am becoming more and more run-down as the last days start to take their toll, (even one large zit starting to appear on my face – sorry for the TMI) and even after a solid 8 hours sleep, my legs are becoming solid girders, and I want another 8 hours sleep to follow. But it is up to the stall for ‘OpenAirYes’, the stall being moved to Middle Meadow Walk for the day, to give room for National Collective.

On the way, I grab a Sunday Herald, then sit on the bus, scanning the ‘indy selfies’ front page double spread…until, with a guffaw, I find myself, 7 across and 17 down (if you are interested). I have gained some weird ‘credentials’ for having been a part of this thing – just through that one image, that one act of vanity (taken before I had the zits, I am pleased to note).

Striding with a bit more confidence, I make it to the site, a band playing ‘Children of the Revolution’ a la Moulin Rouge as I approach – Kaye is there, and the stall is on its way. Down towards Sainsbury’s, about halfway between us and the crowd for National collective, a Better Together stall has appeared. It seems appropriate that they are down there – Cameron’s summoning of the supermarket bosses to Downing Street (possibly with an offer of even more tax breaks?), followed by the announcements an hour later that ‘prices may go up or down in an independent Scotland – then filtered through the magical filter of the BBC to become ‘prices may go up in an independent Scotland’….well. Given what we have been told for years, about costs for Scottish produce being elevated in Scotland because they have to be sent down south to a distribution centre before being sent back up again…it kind of flies a little in the face of that. But hey ho – that won’t make much difference when the asteroid strikes us for being independent, will it?

The onslaught of supermarket announcements following on from the (formerly) great and the good of the failed banks pronouncing their own end of the world scenario…countered only by Tim Martin, Chairman of Wetherspoons, saying there is no problem, and dismissing the claims of politicians and businessmen “who should know better” of an independent Scotland’s economic prospects. It is hard to say, but there is a real reaction that is palpable against this onslaught. Of course, these ideas have traction – they are basic (if not also baseless) fears, therefore will have an impact – but you can sense a degree of disillusionment even beyond committed ‘Yes’s…that it is even starting to repulse the undecided, and drive some of them into our arms. It will probably affect the percentage of undecided that come to Yes at the end – our ratio of 2:1 has been excellent, and would be enough to win the day comfortably on the polls for some time, but that is going to drive it down to 50:50 transformation, I would say. Of course, the last undecided are going to be the hardest to win over – some of them have only recently shifted from soft ‘No’s and will be frightened back there again – but it is always sad when something reinforces that sense that ‘if we lose this, then Scotland will have been robbed through lies’. Some of us have felt that way about BBC Scotland for a while…then there was the spectacular own goal of Nick Robinson last week. Allegedly, the comparative videos from that press conference (the one from the live BBC news Channel with Alex Salmond’s complete 3 minute answer to Nick’s question and Nick’s annoyed heckling, and the one that Nick put out on BBC news saying Salmond ‘did not answer’) have had traction with some ‘No’ voters, who have started to realize that perhaps you don’t need to own a tinfoil hat (or be a university academic) to believe that the BBC exhibits overt political bias.

We stretch bunting between a tree and a lamppost (as ‘designated tall person’ I get that job – finally, something that I can – almost – uniquely contribute!), and set up. Margaret, Kathryn, Frances, James and Jamie is there with his National-ly Collective smoothness, and soon we are getting deluged by people – there is music, the adjacent ‘Ninja Buns’ stall (not an exercise programme, but a food dispensary) is doing a brisk trade. The badges are vanishing, balloons zooming off the stall to indy bairns, the posters slowly eroding, but as ever, the one commodity that is the most sought after, is…the legend that is the Wee Blue Book. It doesn’t ‘cure’ everyone of ‘Nawness’, but its hit rate is unbelievably high, with over a quarter of a million in circulation around Scotland in just a month since Wings Over Scotland’s Stuart Campbell finished the most tightly referenced piece of literature on the Referendum. ‘Yes’ campaigners desperately try to find stashes of them to get out to the undecided – we are even running out of ‘Don’t Knows’ and starting to hit ‘No’s with it. Marco appears at the stall – he had 20,000 copies, and his stock is now entirely gone – we went through loads in the past week, and I have taken to hiding them. People come up asking for them, and I ask if they ACTUALLY have people that they can try to persuade with them. There will be a souvenir edition if we win – but hoard the copy and you take it out of circulation, potentially losing votes in the process.

And some ‘Wingers’ turned up at the stall – the Major (again) and the legend that is Morag. Morag had some Plaid Cymru helpers out working the rural villages (note – they may have come up, but they are NOT being paid – contrast that with Better Together…), and it was good to meet them on the stall. They asked me about the polls – as most people do now, these days. I gave him my caveats – polling companies using Westminster voting intention rather than Holyrood voting intention, 16/17 year olds, the voter registration drive – and the potential for postal vote fraud (still not heard anything more about that missing bag of Dunbartonshire postal votes). All things being even (I say) I am still quietly confident, and would not be surprised at a final 60:40. I realize within that that we may well not get Edinburgh – but the information from Glasgow seems extremely positive, and they are almost five times the population: if we win Glasgow, Edinburgh becomes irrelevant.

Of course, it is a matter of personal pride and shame if my home city does not ‘vote the correct way’ (lol – sounding like the Simpsons video of Groundskeeper Wullie), but one has to be realistic, and Edinburgh is the city in Scotland least likely to go for ‘Yes’. I know this as I look around the hordes going up and down the Meadows – even when I see that the ‘Better Together’ stall halfway down the hill only has people with Yes badges at it, mobbing them with questions as to why they are not voting ‘Yes’. We send some people down there, just to make sure it does not get out of hand – there is no need for anything uglier than an Orange march at the meadows this weekend. Occasionally we see a couple of individuals with No badges or t-shirts start to walk down Middle Meadow Walk…only to suddenly realize there is a sea of Yes badges walking up the hill towards them, and you can see a realization dawn on their faces. That maybe they are not quite the dominant majority that they thought they were.

I meet Will Macleod, the US correspondent who did that brilliant summary on a US radio station of all the material that was not getting covered at all on the BBC, and we walk down to the National Collective assembly, passing the crowd of ‘Yes’ people around the ‘No’ stall, where everything still seems well under control. At National Collective, Hue and Cry’s ‘Labour of Love’ kicks in, and a man with a huge Alastair Darling papier mache head starts bustin’ some dance moves, much to everyone’s delight. The party feel continues – people are happy, people are smiling. People believing that we are going to Win.

Soon enough it is 6pm, and we start to pack up as people begin to disperse. If this is the best that Edinburgh can do, then – good though it is – it is not what we have seen on videos from Glasgow and Perth this weekend. It is sobering, but not entirely disappointing. I head for home with my Sunday Herald – wondering when I am going to get time to read it.

Because…well, can I tell you a secret? I should probably confess something to you: my fears for ‘The Last Weekend’. You see, we have had something of a shortage of media ‘support’ up here. All newspapers vigorously (and unquestioningly) opposed to a Yes vote. Until 2 months ago. The Sunday Herald came out for ‘Yes’ – alone amongst all press (and with television coverage that has produced fascinating academic studies revealing political media bias in a western state). Some thought – it’s just a cynical commercial stunt. To be fair, if so, then it was well-calculated – their sales have increased 25% in two months, when their nearest competitor lost 11% over 6 months. But their daily sister paper, The Herald, had some of the most venomous opposition to Yes, from their political editor, Magnus Gardham. So cynicism was justified. And now I come to my secret fear. That the Sunday Herald would perform a volte-face akin to a matador, and stab ‘Yes’ in the heart with a ‘change of mind’ on the last Sunday before the vote. But here’s the thing – they didn’t. Admittedly, there was the comedy story about Alan Magee’s opinion piece (see previous post) – but the Sunday Herald is still behind ‘Yes’.

So, not an emotional ‘trap’ for ‘Yes’ supporters after all.

Which is ‘Nice’.

 

“I think there’s been a massive amount of nonsense talked, especially by businessmen, about Scottish independence. There’s no reason why Scotland shouldn’t thrive as an independent economy.” (Tim Martin, Chairman of Wetherspoons)

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A Binary Mess of a Decision: Salmond’s Trust & The Social Media War

It’s a funny thing about politics – you cast a vote in secret, and it is up to you whether you disclose it afterwards. So how does this work differently in a referendum? Well, in a multi-party election, its fairly easy for uncertainty of ‘actual choice’ to play a role: even if you know someone well enough to know their political views, a comfortable region of doubt still usually exists – perhaps their clearly articulated political viewpoints are still nebulous or ill-defined enough localized to 2 or 3 different political parties. Let’s face it, even when some people used to say they were for an independent Scotland, it was quite often the case that that statement would be ‘suffaced’ (like a preface is to a prefix, so a sufface is to a suffix 🙂 ) by ‘but I don’t trust the SNP’. I can remember Magnus Linklater’s poll in the Scotsman at the time of the 1992 election which said something very similar, with over 50% wanting independence, but political support for the one party wanting to deliver that objective at less than half that figure. So party political votes cannot be clearly mapped on to personal beliefs in a clear way – and you might well be left suspecting that dear Aunt Jessie might have voted for the Conservatives with her unusually ‘traditional’ view on immigration, but could not be 100% certain – especially if tactical voting came into play.

The Referendum is different. Apart from not being about any politician or party, it is a simple Yes or No. Binary decision. So in a broad sense, it is much harder to hide your reactions to a variety of issues, and not give away which way you’re inclining in your vote, when there are only two options – and that is with uncertainty in the casting, before knowing the result. It will be even easier to tell afterwards – the response will be a link between your beliefs and whether your vote was on the winning side or not.

So even if you don’t raise the issue with others – you can get a sense fairly quickly, in any long period with a colleague conversing on anything else. Even with the big switch over the weekend, when everything seemed to step up a gear, you could have a good idea from people’s various levels of tension.

To be fair, many ‘No’ voters (from experience on the stall) seem easy to spot: their refusal to think or engage with the question that has been so marginalised for so long pushes them swiftly into the open, and as the tide of Yes support rises around their feet, that stuttering confusion as incoherence rises along with incredulity leads to only one response:”…just….No!!!”. A lot of this inarticulacy – often coupled with an insistence that this is not something that will be discussed – comes from the last decades of marginalization of the idea of Scottish independence as merely a joke commodity. Surprisingly, this has dictated much of the press coverage since the SNP majority, which has been (until a few weeks ago) fairly universally condemnatory and abusive of anyone contemplating Yes…and most especially of that First Minister.

As others have noted before, this is a somewhat bizarre approach. As much as personalizing a campaign makes it easier to pretend it is one person and thus easier to discredit, the one person that they have chosen does remarkable public satisfaction and trust ratings.

Yesterday I mentioned how so crude a metric as his ‘FaceBook likes’ were soaring in the last 3 weeks. Better Together would no doubt say that this was no doubt the CyberNats, well-trained members of the SNP machine, all-powerful as mythical creatures tend to be – yet the membership of the SNP party (although easily the largest in Scotland) is only around 25,000. Alex is today on 57,145, Nicola on 39,071, John Swinney on 10,527. In August last year, a poll examined how much the public (regardless of whether or not they agreed with the individuals concerned) felt that they were acting in the best interests of Scotland.
On the Yes side: Alex Salmond +15, Nicola Sturgeon +12, Patrick Harvie -14
On the No side: Alistair Darling -11, Willie Rennie -13, Anas Sarwar -18, Ruth Davidson -18, Johann Lamont -19, Michael Moore -20, David Cameron -42

The same poll asked which of these the public believed were telling the truth about independence. On the Yes side: Alex Salmond (-3), Nicola Sturgeon (-5), Dennis Canavan (-19), Blair Jenkins (-31)
On the No side: Alistair Darling (-27), Michael Moore (-43), Anas Sarwar (-47), Blair McDougall (-62)
On this basis, the combined net trust ratings were Yes -58, No -179, making the No campaign slightly over three times as distrusted as Yes.

The following month, September 2013, another poll looked at the satisfaction ratings of the four party leaders: Alex Salmond: Overall rating +11; David Cameron: Overall rating -45; Ed Miliband: Overall rating -46; Nick Clegg: Overall rating -53

As a leader midway through second term leading government, those are remarkable satisfaction and trust ratings, in comparable terms, given that the No campaign has decided to try and focus their attention on identifying the campaign solely with him and noone else.

As in the creation of a single isolated personality, so for the pretense that there is only one group in Yes. But that is one of the things that I like about ‘Yes’ – it is a truly broad umbrella, with all sorts of groups contained within it. I like the breadth of ‘Yes’, and the wide-ranging skillset of its diverse supporters. Like Business for Scotland. I confess at the opening show of the Willie Macrae play last month at the Edinburgh Festival, I found myself behind Michelle Thomson, the Managing Director of Business for Scotland in the queue – then had the embarrassment of experiencing a ‘fanboy crisis’. I blustered an apology at the end of the performance, explaining that it was a little weird for me, as I had been watching her on YouTube the previous night. Right, so THAT went well, then….

Or there is also National Collective, whose creatives I have referred to elsewhere, and not forgetting Radical Independence, Women for Independence, Academics for Yes, NHS for Yes, Disabled for Yes, Wealthy Nation…And yet many of these groups are barely referred to at all during Referendum coverage. Because, as in the same way as ‘Yes’ has to be solely identified with Salmond (see ‘Conflation and Personalisation’, elsewhere on this Blog) following the strategy highlighted by Professor John Robertson’s research (University of the West of Scotland) on media bias, so all groups must merely be ‘SNP fronts’ – which of course is hilarious in the context of the stooge Astroturf organizations (see ‘Fake Plastic Grass Roots’ elsewhere on this blog) parachuted in to try and give the ‘No’ campaign a veneer of credibility. That same ‘personalising’ strategy that eliminates the ‘Yes’ movement and the grassroots campaign in favour of leaving Alex Salmond as somehow the only person in Scotland that wants this to happen, also airbrushes every other group out, eliminating the broad umbrella or ‘kirk’ of ‘Yes’, in favour of painting it solely as the SNP – and nobody else. That way it shuts down and denies any discussion of this being a ‘popular’ movement – one born of and sustained by the people, with whom sovereignty is retained.

And yet still the Yes support has risen. Almost as though people are finding the guidance on ‘who to trust’ from elsewhere. Perhaps from themselves. Out there, exploring on the Internet. Using Social Media: becoming the Caledonian version of the Arab Spring. Ignoring the media machinery for the state. Against all the odds.

IF we manage it.

 

“If Scotland becomes independent, it will be despite the efforts of almost the entire UK establishment. It will be because social media has defeated the corporate media. It will be a victory for citizens over the Westminster machine, for shoes over helicopters. It will show that a sufficiently inspiring idea can cut through bribes and blackmail, through threats and fear-mongering. That hope, marginalised at first, can spread across a nation, defying all attempts to suppress it. That you can be hated by the Daily Mail and still have a chance of winning.” (George Monbiot)

The Revolution will NOT be Televised: How BBC Scotland became McFox News

One of my favourite sessions in the Edinburgh Fringe’s ‘All Back to Bowie’s’ thread, was the one concerning the media in Scotland. Iain McWhirter and Peter Arnott with a representative from National Collective, and a provocation by former BBC Scotland and Good Morning Scotland anchorman Derek Bateman, all of whom rejected the idea of overt bias by the BBC, but bemoaned the top-down London-dominated mindset in BBC Scotland, and the way that the BBC received its agenda directly from the (again, London-dominated) press, especially at a time when 25% of its journalists (mainly from News and Current Affairs) had been axed from BBC Scotland over the preceding two years, contributing to a “cultural helplessness in our media”. Derek is a staunch defender of the BBC from accusations of ‘bias’, although he does blast its Head of News for not realising the political landscape had moved in both 2007 and 2011. So, at the same time as a majority of us had decided that we trusted Holyrood more than Westminster, BBC Scotland was still trying to decide whether it was “Strathclyde Region renewed, or a Mini-Me Westminster” (as Bateman put it),  regarding Holyrood as Billy Connolly’s ‘wee pretendy parliament’ – and thus already moving away from its audience.

I myself came to my slightly more cynical position a while back: it was probably around two years ago that I made the contentious comparison of the BBC in Scotland with Fox News.  I had just seen BBC Scotland’s determined presentation of the local council results, and noted the stark focus of the BBC in treating the Glasgow Council results as exceptions to their otherwise standard rule of assessing a gain in comparison to the previous council election.  This was in striking contrast to the coverage of the other channels. Glasgow, as you may recall, had a series of individuals that defected from Labour after being in post for some years, nearly wresting control away from the council’s Labour group.  The BBC decided that these positions were ‘Labour wins’ – despite the fact that Labour had those positions in the previous council, thus making them ‘Labour Holds’, as opposed to ‘wins’ from independents (with a small ‘i’).  The variance of this assessment was something that I found quite shocking, as it was not being extended to other council posts that had had by-elections – and had the effect of reducing the SNP’s tally of gains relative to Labour, on a night when the SNP won the popular vote in the council elections for the first time ever.

After such an inauspicious beginning, I started to look more critically at the BBC’s coverage, and started to see more and more similarities with a certain US TV station.  You see, for some time, I had followed the FaceBook page ‘We Survived Bush, You’ll Survive Obama’, and had picked up on a lot of techniques used to try and discredit an administration not favoured by a particular broadcaster.  You know the sort of thing – not just failing to report ‘good news’ stories, but also reporting everything in a negative context. So Obama drinking a Pepsi becomes an attack on Coca Cola, Obama getting caught in the rain becomes a squandering of water during a drought…that kind of thing.  I was surprised how easy it became to spot similar stories on BBC Scotland – even down to new figures showing that the jobless figures were dropping faster than the rest of the UK, when the story became uniquely not about that, but about zero hours contracts (as though they only happened in Scotland) instead.

So, yes – I confess that, around this time, I started to refer to BBC Scotland news as McFox News, similarly dedicated to traducing the government of the day, regardless of the news. In this regard, it is interesting to note that Freedom of Information requests to NHS Boards in Scotland had increased by almost 700% from Labour’s last year in power at Holyrood to the SNP taking power there in 2007. BBC Scotland’s Eleanor Bradford has been conspicuous in the reporting of stories attacking the NHS in Scotland, and the FoI requests increase would seem to suggest that the broadcaster was fishing for ‘bad news’ stories in an attempt to undermine confidence in both the Scottish Government run by an SNP administration and the Scottish health service.

I would have to admit that I have a little bit of experience in this realm, as I do a lot of work in China, a country where the control of broadcasting is so effective that for most citizens the Tiananmen Square massacre of June 1989 never actually happened. Of course, it is hard to make an argument comparing the Chinese state broadcaster (called – without a trace of irony – ‘CCTV’) to the BBC – but I confess that my illusions about good old ‘Auntie Beeb’ (as I was raised to understand it to be), started to fall away a couple of years ago. In this context, little things such as online comments being closed down on BBC Scotland political and economics stories on its website, yet being completely open on the BBC websites for England, Wales and Northern Ireland, started to take on a different complexion.

At this time, it became hard not to consider the accusation that far from being the arbiter of peace, harmony and democracy, the BBC was actually acting very much as a state broadcaster under much more obviously repressive regimes.  In this context, the explosion of television programmes with ‘Britain’ or ‘British’ in the title since the SNP majority government was elected in 2011, is quite startling. This list represents (not exhaustive – at the end of this piece) only those shown in the first months of 2014 – and it is interesting to reflect how many such programmes existed before 2011 – can you remember any of these being broadcast before then?

Of course it could be ENTIRELY coincidental, but the fact that most of them are subsequent (rather than in the run-up to) the London 2012 Olympics is perhaps revealing: one could, perhaps cynically, review them as a policy by the BBC designed to submerge Scottish (and other) identities within an aggressively-promoted ‘Brand Britain’. I did see one commentator opine that perhaps in the past the BBC had had a policy to avoid this sort of thing, in order not to push Scots and others into feeling alienated, and was now heavily overcompensating for this in a ‘mass rebranding’ exercise, as the BBC had realised that this strategy had not worked?

All of these are (comparatively) subtle ways of subliminally attempting to alter people’s identity perception – and would certainly tie in with more overt acts to suppress the Scottish identity in other aspects, e.g. Red Arrows at the Commonwealth Games Opening Ceremony being blocked from flying blue and white (as they have done before at Scottish events), the decision to host Armed Forces Day on the same weekend and in the same town as the 700th Bannockburn anniversary (unusual, as noted elsewhere, given that Armed Forces Day was last held in Scotland a mere 4 years ago). These are all trappings of the Age of Empire, which have been ramped up in the run-up to the Referendum, and some of which were evident during the Commonwealth Games (as I have noted elsewhere).

In this context, it is of little surprise that alternative podcasts such as Referendum TV (anchored by McWhirter and Riddoch, amongst others), Bateman Broadcasting (by Derek) or even DateLine Scotland have sprung up, to fill the empty niche of referendum-related broadcasting, and compensate for the dearth of programming from BBC Scotland at this critical time. So, yes – all of the above is why I was one of ‘those people’ demonstrating outside the BBC at Pacific Quay during the Commonwealth Games, and singing along to the wonderful Queen parody ‘BBC Blah Blah’ (check out ‘Yew Choob’ on YouTube).  At just over 1,200 people (we each had to take a unique number, in order to counter the BBC’s previous underreporting of our numbers), we were not a huge contingent – but we at least matched the numbers that turned up that same weekend to the free Armed Forces Day event in Stirling.

I would close with a line akin to ‘BBC Scotland ignores this trend at its peril’, but by this stage, I think that BBC Scotland frankly understands too little to care – as it perhaps always has, ever since devolution.

 

 “Don’t bemoan the media. Be the media.” (Jello Biafra)

List of BBC TV programmes in the first half of 2014 with either the words ‘Britain’ or ‘British’ in the title:

The Great British Year

Britain’s Empty Homes

The Great British Bake-Off

Harrow: A Very British School (Sky 1)
Martin Clunes: Islands of Britain
Full Throttle: The Glory Days of British Motorbikes
Great British Railway Journeys
Up All Night: Britain on Call
Britain’s Funniest Comedy Characters
Fool Britannia
Britain’s Secret Treasures
Britain and the Sea
Fake Britain
Britain’s Secret Terror Force: A Panorama Special
A History of Britain in Numbers
A Great British Christmas with Sarah Beeney (CH4)
Shipwrecks: Britain’s Sunken History (
BBC4)
Young, British and Broke: The Truth about Payday Loans
Keeping Britain Safe 24/7
Reel History of Britain
Nigel Slater’s Great British Biscuit
Great British Garden Revival
Heston’s Great British Food (CH4)
Great British Sewing Bee Christmas Special (
BBC2)
Britain’s Killer Storms (CH4)
Britain’s Favourite Xmas Songs (CH5)
Pothole Britain – Drivers Beware! (CH5)
Battlefield Britain (
BBC4)
UK’s Best Body (The Active Channel, Sky 281)
The Year Britain Froze (More4)
The Year Britain Flooded (More4)
Sex, Lies, and a Very British Scapegoat (ITV)
Brit Cops: War on Crime
Brit Cops: Law & Disorder
Brit Cops: Rapid Response
Brit Cops: Frontline Crime
Boozed Up Brits Abroad (Sky Living)
Great British Ghosts (Drama)
The Ladybird Books Story: How Britain Got The Reading Bug (
BBC4)
Legends: Roy Orbison – The ‘Big O’ in Britain (
BBC4)
Britain’s Hardest (Challenge)
JFK: The Final Visit to Britain (
BBC2)
Britain’s Favourite Christmas Songs (CH5 )
Britain’s Craziest Xmas Lights (CH5)
The British Invasion: Herman’s Hermits (Sky Arts 1)
Sacred Wonders of Britain (
BBC2)
Britain’s Got Talent (ITV)
A Very British Murder with Lucy Worsley (
BBC4)
The Hidden World of Britain’s Immigrants (
BBC2)
Battered Britain: Storms, Tides and Floods
Fred Dibnah’s Made in Britain
Ade in Britain (STV)
Britain’s Great War (
BBC1)
Gibraltar: Britain in the Sun (CH5)
ACI: Britain’s Worst Crash (National Geographic)
Hidden Histories: Britain’s Oldest Family Businesses
Britain’s Best Bakery (STV)
Benefits Britain: The Bedroom Tax (CH4)
The Boats That Built Britain (
BBC4)
Kidnapped; Betrayed by Britain? – Panorama (
BBC1)
Britain’s Bronze Age Mummies: A Time Team Special (CH4)
Hungry Britain – Panorama (
BBC1)
I Never Knew That About Britain (STV)
Permission Impossible: Britain’s Planners (
BBC2)
Pop Charts Britannia: 60 Years of the Top 10 (
BBC4)
Britain on Film (
BBC4)
The Nature of Britain (
BBC2)
The British (Sky Atlantic)
A Very British Renaissance (
BBC2)
Border Country: The Story of Britain’s Lost Middleland (
BBC2)
Rule Britannia! Music, Mischief and Morals in the 18th Century (
BBC4)
British Touring Car Championship Live (
BBC4)
Jet! When
Britain Ruled the Skies (BBC4)
Great British Menu (
BBC2)
The Battle for
Britain’s Breakfast (BBC2)

The Pitiless Storm and the Unequal Union

In ‘The Pitiless Storm’, one of the highest profile Referendum shows in this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe, David Hayman portrays a trade union leader on the eve of accepting an OBE. In composing his speech, he is caught between the critical gaze of his memories of his father, his 17 year old idealist self, and his departed ex-wife’s abandonment of New Labour in the wake of the February 2003 80, 000 anti Iraq war march in Glasgow. Cornered in the nexus of his founding principles, Hayman capitulates to the inevitable acceptance that Labour have abandoned their values, and for the hope of any social justice for his people, that he has to go against his traditional party’s line and vote Yes in the independence referendum. The transformation of the character is hardly a subtle metaphor: the character is committed to the Union and the ideal of the benefits that it should – yet has failed – to bring, and undergoes a Damascine conversion on the night before his Knighthood (which I think an OBE is?). Yet Hayman’s personal commitment to Radical Independence makes him eloquent in his embracing of the character in both aspects – as well as somewhat impatient with questioners during the informal post-production conversation that he conducts with his audience while sitting on the edge of the stage. Perhaps that is why Argyll Council appears to have been systematically suppressing advertising for Hayman’s one-man show, although it still seems a massive overreaction, that on balance is more likely to provoke a ‘Streisand Effect’ (where an attempt to suppress information actually has the reverse of the intended result) in response.

Labour’s underpinning argument for the Union – that of collectivising, of uniting together and sharing effort helps working people – although a fine principle – is not supported by the evidential experience. The idea that a million families with children were lifted out of poverty in the ten years following their 1997 election is somewhat shaky grounds for justification of maintaining the Union, following the consequences of the next 3 years of that same government.

One argument I see from ‘No’ advocates along the ‘stronger together’ thread, is that the United Kingdom is ‘greater than the sum of its parts’. Is it? Frankly, I’m not sure that currently it is equal to the sum of its parts, never mind greater than them. The majority of the UK is held back from fulfilling its potential as more is poured into the city state of London – London is probably fulfilling its potential, but the rest certainly is not. Much of that is due to simple realpolitik: the Westminster Government (whether acting in the EU or elsewhere) will understandably fight for the interests of the majority of their population – which is the south-east of England. Scotland’s different needs with regards to population dispersal, fishing and farming, re-industrialisation and immigration are often argued against because they simply do not suit the agenda of the rest of the country – indeed those needs are diametrically opposed with regard to reindustrialization and immigration.
We are told the Union is ‘the most successful union in history’ (although it is hardly that, given a fair chunk of it left in 1922 – essentially the state that went to war in 1914, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, no longer exists to commemorate that hundred year anniversary), but if the ‘No’ campaign is to be believed as sincere in making this statement, then it has a romanticised view of how well the Union has actually worked for Scotland: it hasn’t, and the centralisation in London noted by Vince Cable is also making it a bad experience for the NE of England (and frankly other parts of the UK) as well.

In economic terms, we regularly hear that Scotland has been financially supporting the Union (in the sense of putting far more in than it gets out) for 33 years. Business for Scotland has argued that this is likely to have gone on for much longer, the former civil servant John Jappy noted figures in 1968 (before the oil boom) that showed that Scotland was paying disproportionately more per head even then. This is supported by figures showing that in 1952-1953 Scotland paid 410 million in revenues, and received only 207 million back in expenditure. Even more damningly, government figures for income and expenditure from 1900-1922 (recorded in HJ Paton’s book The Claim of Scotland) show that Scotland was receiving between 21% and 40% of its taxes in expenditure (I’ve excluded 1914-1918 for obvious reasons). Records seem to have been stopped in 1922 at the time of Ireland’s departure, perhaps in some trepidation that these figures might fuel ideas that Scotland was getting a ‘raw deal’, and give them similar ideas about secession (a harbinger of McCrone, in some ways). We may be the wealthy cousin in terms of supporting the Union, but we have not had the economic benefits of the Union that the other two regions (SE England and London) have had that so fundamentally sponsor the Union – and in that sense we appear to have been very much left as the ‘poor relation’ in terms of what is received back.

And this lack of economic distribution has resulted in a lack of opportunity – which can be indicated quite effectively by looking at figures of population growth and emigration from Scotland (either to London or further afield):-
– Between the 1981 and 1991 censuses, over a quarter of a million Scots left Lanarkshire and the former Strathclyde region alone.
– Between 1971 and 2011, England’s population grew from 45.9 million to 53.0 million, whereas
Scotland’s rose from 5.2 million to 5.3 million. That is a contrast between 15.5% and 1.9% growth over 40 years;
– Going back further, between 1952 and 1965, 345,000 people left Scotland;
– From 1901 to 2001, England’s population increased by 60%, whereas Scotland’s increased by 10%.

Armed conflict, of course, will take a proportion of these figures – and others have argued elsewhere over (for example) the higher per capita cost to Scotland of the First World War (although 53 parishes in England and Wales had all their servicemen returned from this conflict, there were no such settlements in Scotland or Ireland that achieved this). Although a family tradition of military service is an important factor, one has to remember that families rarely opt for such careers, when there are other opportunities (such as agriculture) which would enable people to stay at home.

Beyond the lack of population growth, the statistic of 19% of the population of Scotland being in poverty (this should be the country with the 14th highest GDP per head in the world, remember), and the burgeoning of foodbanks after 307 years of Union, are also not great indicators that there has either been a Union dividend, or that we are indeed ‘in it together’. In Westminster, the Labour Party failed to get a full turnout to pass their own motion to end the Bedroom Tax (the absentees would have been enough to secure the vote), yet enthusiastically voted for a welfare cap. In addition, they have promised to go even further on welfare cuts than the current government – cuts with an implementation deadline of 2016, that the Child Poverty Action Group has said will push a further 100,000 children in Scotland directly into poverty by 2020, following the 30,000 children pushed into poverty in 2013 alone. In health terms, this is further reflected: in particular, the correlation between long-term Labour wards and low life expectancy in Glasgow is striking. Life expectancy for males in Glasgow’s East End is lower than some warzones (including the Gaza Strip): Labour may espouse that it cares about the worker in Grimsby as much as in Glasgow – but that doesn’t mean that they are going to do damn all for either of them.

This picture of a donor sector of the UK, that has suffered disproportionately as a result, becoming historically poorer than elsewhere in the UK, is not a pretty one: in particular, the squandering of oil resources (at the same time as the possible benefits to an independent Scotland were kept secret in the suppressed McCrone Report of 1975) means that the UK is one of only two oil-producing territories in the world NOT to form an Oil Fund. And this is not an exclusively one party problem: this fiscal recklessness has been repeated by Westminster governments of all colours, and is not simply the domain/devoir of Conservative or Labour Governments, but of Westminster governments as a whole. This has resulted (as the old joke goes) in Scotland being the only country in history to discover oil – and become poor.

“If you agree that society’s ills transcend borders – of course they do – then you should wish to eliminate the influence of these elites from as many people as quickly as possible. The fastest way to do that is to vote Yes. Voting Yes removes the Lords’ power over Scotland forever in one fell swoop, and sends the unmistakable message that we won’t tolerate such injustice any longer. We can stand as equals with our friends in England, Norway, Iceland, Ireland, and beyond, and start building not just a better country, but a better world. It will also be the biggest slap in the face the British establishment has ever faced; a wholesale rejection of austerity; a rejection of weapons of mass destruction and reckless environmental policy; a rejection of centralisation and neoliberalism. This majestic act of defiance could be just what the left in England, Wales and Northern Ireland needs. A single act of defiance can inspire revolutionary movements.” (Magnus Jamieson, National Collective)

Old Testament Countdown with Subliminal Yes: 40 Days and 40 Nights to go

I spent Friday night watching National Collective Presents… at the Scottish Storytelling Centre. On the way in, I noticed the adjacent shop on the High Street had two prominent posters – one being ‘Are You Yes Yet?’, the other with Karen Dunbar’s Chewin’ the Fat character sniffing a Better Together mailing, with her catchphrase ‘Ah smell s***e’ writ large. It set a nice tone before climbing the steps into the Fringe venue for the evening’s National Collective Presents…Peter Arnott (author of THAT famous ‘Dinner with the Nos’ blog post…) recited a letter from Sir Walter Scott, expressing his exasperation at Scotland rocking the boat, when he had done so much to invent it (within the Union) to make it as harmless as possible. It followed a remarkable short film called ‘Scotland Is?’ which played around with the geographical absurdity of the idea of ‘wee Scotland’ compared to other nations. After Peter, Gerry Campbell performed with guitar and video installation, before Janice Galloway’s last minute replacements took to the stage.

They were a dynamic performance poet duo of Rachel McCrum and someone whose name I did not catch. Rachel was from Donaghadee, and (always a sucker for a northern Irish accent) delivered delicate lilting work, that seemed to convey her optimism of encountering an environment where political change could happen without the violence that she had known while growing up. But it was the one whose name I did not catch (I scribbled her down as ‘Jenny maybe’ on some paper on the way home), that really took me by surprise. Her recitals of ‘Edinburgh’ and ‘Carrier Bags in the Trees’ complete with the characters that she expressed within them really struck a resonance in my ‘son of Edinburgh’ imagination (to the extent that I was surprised to find she was from North Ayrshire). But it was an observation that Jenny Lindsay (Ok, I confess, I had to look her name up afterwards online) made, talking briefly about her ‘journey to Yes’ that caught me. When originally invited to participate with National Collective, she felt that she had to make clear to the organizer that she was not a Yes, but an Undecided. The organiser said that was no problem – then asked her a quick couple of questions: ‘So are you voting No?’ ‘Well, of course not!!’. ‘And are you going to vote?’ ‘Well…yes.’ And that was how she realized that she was a ‘Yes’ after all.

I can’t help wondering how many that mental transition might be true of, Subliminal Yes: come the day, come the polling station, come the moment in their own private polling booth. I’ve heard it described – perhaps less poetically or powerfully than Jenny’s work – as the ‘Fuck it Factor’: that when people stare down at the paper on the day, a significant percentage of currently undecideds will go – ‘Why not?’

The poster outside the venue in the shop window had said ‘Are You Yes Yet?’ Perhaps another should say ‘Are You Yes – and you just don’t know it yet?’ In less than 40 days we’ll all know.

 

“I’m voting Yes, not because I think Scotland’s a great place – but because I want it to be.” (Jenny Lindsay, amazing slam poet)