The Daily Record was once a giant of Scottish life, at its height read by one in every two Scots.
The days of such sales figures are long gone but some newspapers retain a certain status, conferred by journalism or symbolism.
The Record qualifies on both counts and even if it is no longer Scotland’s most-read title, it is a daily distillation of what much of Scotland thinks and in particular the central belt working class.
I love the Daily Record. I truly do. It’s the best newspaper in Scotland for political reporting, a distinction earned during the referendum campaign. Through a mixture of hard news and populist campaigning, editor Murray Foote has achieved a quality of journalism that tabloid nostalgists associate with the “glory days”. The 2000s, and the paper’s wince-making mimicry of its nearest rival, are a distant memory. They have almost – almost – redeemed themselves for “Keep the Clause”.
It was one of the most rewarding moments of my career to see an essay I wrote about my grandfather and Scotland’s changing politics reprinted in the Record, the paper that granddad took every day. Like most people 30 and upwards, the Daily Record was always around the house when I was growing up, like a neighbour who popped in for a cup of tea and a natter.
So it is in that spirit of admiration and with respect to its role in the political debate that I consider the paper’s endorsement of Jeremy Corbyn for the leadership of the Labour Party. And what an unhinged, airy-fairy, moon-howling piece of nonsense it is.
The Record has usually been sensible Labour. This is not a sensible decision. It is an endorsement of an extreme man with extreme views and extreme associations.
The accompanying editorial is passionate and shot-through with anger about the policies of the present government and the impact the paper believes they are having on the low-paid and the vulnerable. But there is not a word, not even a hint, of an alternative. “Corbyn’s anti-austerity message inspires people and restores their faith that a better way is possible.” What is that better way? What would a Corbynite economic programme look like? It’s not enough to hate the Tories, you have to offer a better plan.
In place of a blueprint, we are offered chicken soup for the left-wing soul. The Record intones that “we desperately need to reconnect Labour with its roots”, as though this was a daring and original strategy. When Labour lost government in 1979, it spent more than a decade trying to reconnect with its roots before eventually deciding it might be worthwhile reconnecting with the voters. The two decades in the wilderness brought about by that self-indulgent soul-searching hurt Daily Record readers a great deal, yet their paper now proposes another generation of righteous impotence.
What are the Labour Party’s roots? Labour was founded so that working people, organised through mutuals, cooperatives and trade unions, could leverage power through the ballot box. It was not set up as a debating society or a pressure group. It is Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters, not the hated “right-wingers”, who want to tear Labour away from these roots. Corbyn backers openly admit that he cannot win an election in this country and yet this seems only to magnify their fervour. They are not voting for a future prime minister; they are voting to stick two fingers up to the country. At some point, Labour is going to have to come to terms with the general election result.
When Corbynistas speak about Labour’s “roots”, they invariably mean the revisionist history of the labour movement peddled by the far-left. But the Labour Party is a reformist, not a revolutionary outfit, at different points in its history pursuing democratic socialism, social democracy, and liberal egalitarianism. Corbyn is poised to throw all that away in favour of ideological purity and oppositional sentiment.
But wait, the Record says, we don’t want any of that. We recognise that Labour has to be electable too:
Corbyn must learn from the lessons of history. In the 1980s, Labour’s rigid principles opened the door to more than a decade of Thatcherism. Far from protecting the poor, the high principles of the left ensured their sacrifice to a right-wing government. That is why a Corbyn leadership would have to temper these principles with the pragmatic and practical desire to govern.
This paean to moderation would carry a little more clout if it wasn’t crowbarred into a hagiography of the most dogged foe of pragmatism and practicality since Tony Benn. But we leave contradictory behind and veer into absurdism with this nugget:
It is not an abandonment of social justice to seek popular support for your policies. The only way poverty can be eradicated is if there is popular support for Labour policies. That means speaking not just to the true believers but seeking to convert people too.
These words appeared, I remind you, in a leader endorsing Jeremy Corbyn.
It goes on like this across two pages. The writing flows freely but the thinking comes hesitantly, as if in unspoken admission that they are backing a winner in September but a loser in May 2020:
Somehow, the party must weld the enthusiasm around Corbyn’s principles to the wider popular appeal that wins votes.
Labour must get back to its roots. But not too much or it’ll be unelectable. The Tories are wicked. Lots of people turn up to his rallies. Something must be done.
You call that a leader? I call it an emotional spasm.
Such is the tortured logic of an editorial that doesn’t mean what it says. Not on the indignities of austerity and economic mean-spiritedness. On those questions, the paper has a proud record of standing up for the humble and humbling the powerful. The problem is not insincerity so much as an internal conflict, and not about a hitherto obscure Labour backbencher but about the Daily Record’s place in Scotland and Scotland’s place in the world.
Contrary to popular mythology, the Record did not counsel a No vote in the independence referendum. It was one of several newspapers that left the matter up to its readers, a sure sign that it was unsure how the vote would go. It was an acknowledgement too that readers were divided on the question and no savvy newspaper editor knowingly offends half his readership.
Instead we had The Vow, an extraordinary exercise in activist reporting that sought to hammer out a cross-party consensus on further devolution in the event of a No vote. Where the Better Together parties had failed for years to reach agreement, the Daily Record pulled it off in the dying days of the campaign (and what at that point looked like the dying days of the United Kingdom).
While the famous parchment paper front page did not swing the referendum to No, it guaranteed there was a framework within which the Unionist parties had to operate after September 18. Whatever the deficiencies of the Scotland Bill – and I think they are legion – the Record’s securing of a substantial slate of new powers for the Scottish Parliament is an under-acknowledged triumph for campaigning journalism.
The Nationalists have still not forgiven the tabloid, for they console themselves with the myth that it was the Record wot won it for Better Together. It had to be. For if those who voted to stay part of the UK were not hoodwinked by The Vow, if they consciously chose the Union over independence, then it would mean that the private fears of some Nationalists were true. Scots would be a nation of quislings, cowards and forelock-tuggers after all. If you are as driven by dreams of national strength as the SNP is, that is devastating to contemplate.
The irony is that for all they inveigh against the Daily Record, it is moving steadily in their direction. A great many more page leads and spreads are dedicated to castigating the monstrous Tories than the SNP government in Edinburgh, which has a fair few failings to be getting on with. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon couldn’t ask for better coverage anywhere outside the pages of The National. (That beehive haircut picture aside.)
The Record’s journey has been Scotland’s journey and it did not begin in the dying days of a frenzied referendum campaign. As the academic David Seawright documents, the tabloid’s and the country’s long meander away from Unionism began in its shift from the right to the left:
When the Daily Record was a Tory supporting paper it readily used the idea of ‘alien’ socialism but by the 1964 Election the Record was now equating Labour with ‘Scottishness’, a vote for ‘Labour was a vote for Scotland’… The Unionist ethos was no longer rooted in Scottish consciousness, the Conservative Party in Scotland would now be the party perceived as having an ‘alien’ identity; an ‘anglicised’ one.
Demonising the Conservatives as “anti-Scottish” worked when the Record could point to Labour as a viable alternative. Now Labour are the Red Tories, the Record finds itself tarred with an “alien” identity and it must choose between the party it has supported for 50 years or the country it aspires to speak to and for. And the paper knows what Liz Kendall knows: The country comes first.
That’s why the Corbyn endorsement feels like a final roll of the dice. Perhaps some unforeseen turnaround will deliver him to the door of Number 10 and an authentically socialist UK will remove the need for independence. But if it doesn’t, the Daily Record has distanced itself from New Labour and backed the SNP’s favoured candidate for the Labour leadership. It is another step and while there are still a few more to go the end point seems inevitable.
I’m not saying Murray Foote has made up his mind yet. Maybe he hasn’t even daydreamed about the layout of the splash. I don’t know if the necessary phone calls and emails have been exchanged with London. But I am convinced when a second referendum comes, there will be no more vows and no more equivocations. Scotland’s champion will champion independence.