The rise of nationalism around the world is a shocking, disorienting experience.
Mainstream politics is under threat like at no time since the 1930s. Demagogues are coming to power, journalists face intimidation, once sturdy institutions and assumptions are collapsing like derelict tower blocks. The political character of entire countries is transforming almost overnight.
Nowhere is this more visible than in the United States. But viewers glued to Donald Trump’s presidency as if to a Netflix thriller should familiarise themselves with the original series.
The new world disorder is greeted with more equanimity in Scotland, a testing ground for the potential of identity politics in recession-hit economies. Across ten years, the SNP has concentrated power, stifled dissent, bullied opponents, and divided the country along a nasty dichotomy of nationalist vs unionist.
Much of the blame lies with Alex Salmond, Scotland’s first First Minister of any stature but also our first post-liberal leader. For all their protestations about “civic” nationalism, the SNP under Salmond was instrumental in the cowing of non-nationalist Scotland. The change of tone hoped for when his successor took over has sadly failed to materialise.
I documented these developments as a journalist but I never expected I might be next. I was wrong and I learned the hard way that journalism and nationalism do not mix.
Last month, I left STV where I was digital politics and comment editor. In my five years there I graduated from reporting to writing comment and analysis on politics. STV’s website is not regulated by Ofcom in the same way as its broadcast output and the company thought incisive commentary could set us apart from rivals.
I prided myself on being a critic of all sides, rebuking Jeremy Corbyn for associating with anti-Semites and David Cameron for pandering to anti-immigrant prejudices. I took the SNP to task for tolerating cybernat extremism but praised Nicola Sturgeon for her leadership abilities. I gave the Unionist parties credit for delivering The Vow but hauled them over the coals for stopping short of the “modern form of home rule” they promised.
Everything I wrote was approved in advance by the head of digital and on several occasions I was told that my work had been praised in STV board meetings. But as I grew more sceptical of independence and began to question if it was just souped-up nationalism I found myself a target for the SNP’s cybernats.
Then in spring 2016, STV’s chief executive Rob Woodward held a briefing for MPs at Westminster. I wasn’t there but was told by someone present that Pete Wishart and John Nicolson had “hijacked” the proceedings and launched an “ugly” denunciation of me.
As double acts go Wishart and Nicolson are less Montrose and MacEwen than Abbott and Costello. Wishart, a walking snarl, is the former keyboard player in Runrig whose greatest achievement as an MP is being the former keyboard player in Runrig. A BBC broadcaster whose career stalled — columnist Euan McColm memorably compared him to “an Eddie Mair tribute act playing matinees at Pontins” — Nicolson changed tack and went into politics, entering Parliament in 2015.
They are figureheads of the anti-journalism wing of the SNP, a faction which has come to define the party’s attitudes to scrutiny and accountability. Journalists are malefactors working against the SNP and “lazy” regurgitators of untruths.
Wishart began hectoring STV about me on social media and I was immediately concerned. When a colleague found himself uninvited to press conferences at one Glasgow football club, STV stood by him — for a day, before capitulating and sending another journalist to cover the story. I didn’t fancy my chances.
I was right. Soon Nicolson, who sits on the powerful Westminster media committee, joined in. I was summoned to a meeting with STV’s head of digital and head of news and told my role was being changed. I could edit STV’s politics page or I could write but I could no longer do both. As the head of news put it: “We can’t afford to have a member of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee complaining about us.”
I couldn’t believe this was happening. Two SNP MPs had used the bully pulpit of Twitter to lean on STV and STV had caved. And now their online politics and comment editor would no longer be allowed to edit and comment on politics online. This wasn’t Kafka, it was Lewis Carroll.
Twitter is a red herring. As Wishart told a newspaper editor, he had complained to Woodward that my journalism was “crap”. And the very people whose job it was to resist political interference acquiesced for an easy life. The novelist JK Rowling did more to support me with her tweets than any of my editors at STV.
I don’t blame Wishart and Nicolson. They are nationalists and conduct themselves accordingly; no one laments the character of a viper when it bites. The fault lies with “Civic Scotland” and its unhealthy relationship to power. In some cases this is a function of ideology but the real problem is structural. An adversarial press, independent academy, and non-aligned third sector are key pillars of a liberal society. In Scotland — despite and in some ways because of devolution — the bolshie approach is reserved for the UK Government.
For many years Westminster was antagonist in the home rule morality play, the longest-running show in Edinburgh, and much of Civic Scotland has failed to move on. The Scottish Government, while still held to account by some, is viewed as somehow more benign, more palatable, more our sort of people. Scotland gives all the impressions of an advanced polity but that facade rests on hollow institutions: A parliament of biddable backbenchers and scant scrutiny; a media lacking resources and corporate gumption; a voluntary sector conscripted into politics; and an intelligentsia that has already made its mind up.
When reports emerged that I had been gagged, the Scottish branch of the National Union of Journalists rushed to dismiss them — without speaking to me. Nationalist hacks lent their support to Wishart and Nicolson and the BBC aired a “debate” in which neither pundit bothered to contact me or confirm any facts before broadcasting wild speculation and assertion. Best of all was the charity board member who endorsed STV’s decision on Twitter. The charity? Scottish PEN — the campaign for writers’ freedom of expression.
Orwell lamented that English intellectuals “would feel more ashamed of standing to attention during God Save the King than of stealing from a poor box”. Scottish intellectuals would gladly tan the poor box for a selfie with Nicola Sturgeon. Far from sniggering at national institutions our intelligentsia act as a patriotism police, charging political and cultural dissidents with “self-loathing”.
The Scottish establishment is a curious creature, a lion convinced it is a mouse. Yet however much we like to pretend otherwise, the Caledonian Elect exists and its only distinguishing characteristic is composition. The British establishment prides itself on exclusivity but its Scottish counterpart pursues converts with evangelical zeal, the lustre of democracy paying court to our national myth of egalitarianism. Many are the familiares eager to lend a hand against heretics.
There is now in Scotland a Nationalist nomenklatura of true believers and latter-day converts, sincere and cynical alike. They are united in their support for independence and the 24-Hour Grievance Hotline that passes for a government at Holyrood. In return, they benefit from a revolving door between nationalist politicking and prominent positions in business, the public sector, media and NGOs. Across Civic Society those politically out-of-step are pressured, cajoled and harassed, not only by government but by its boosters in these sectors. Last month, a senior NHS bureaucrat launched an astonishing public attack on a journalist, calling him “disgusting” and accusing him of “trying to deflect from the NHS humanitarian disaster over the border”. His crime? He reported on the 1,700 Scots whose operations were cancelled in 2016.
Other journalists have hardly fared better. When Alex Salmond stood down as First Minister after his referendum drubbing, the Mail, Express and Telegraph were banned from his final press conference. The Guardian refused to send a correspondent after Salmond’s office insisted on choosing which one. The sensitive wee soul even admits to calling the editor of this newspaper over a reporter’s tweet, though nothing will surpass the open letter he penned denouncing his own biographer.
In the New Scotland, even journalists’ union the NUJ can’t be relied on to stand up for a free press. When reporters came under attack from nationalists during the referendum, the NUJ’s Scottish organiser declared that “serious abuse and threats to Scots journalists is mainly from small group of BT [Better Together] supporters.” When Nick Robinson spoke of the intimidation he faced, the same union boss blamed the BBC broadcaster’s “personal politics”. He even publicly sided with a Nationalist exposed for her false claims about the NHS over the reporters who exposed her.
Things aren’t much better in the academy. It’s bad enough that the Nationalists champion obscure cranks peddling conspiracy theories about the BBC. That they also busy themselves bullying dissenting voices in the professoriate is more alarming. When the principal of St Andrews University voiced fears about research funding after independence, Alex Salmond’s spin doctors drafted a retraction praising the SNP government and demanded she sign it. The then First Minister even telephoned the academic and treated her to a “loud and heated” call. SNP minister Shona Robison complained to Dundee University when a respected history professor spoke at a Better Together event while our friend Mr Nicolson asked bosses at Birbeck College to give a psychology lecturer “a little extra marking” after she criticised him on Twitter.
One might expect business to be more distant from all this but that’s not always the case. I saw this at STV in its courtship of the SNP, a friends-with-benefits arrangement fated for a messy breakup. There is an alarm that should go off in any organisation when it gets too close to government. At STV, that alarm always seemed to be on silent.
There are the conference suppers held exclusively for the SNP, promoted in 2016 by switching the TV screens outside the news studios to declare “STV WELCOME SNP”. Or the decision to allow a Nationalist MP to embed himself in the newsroom for two days and participate in editorial meetings. Take the critically acclaimed Road to Referendum documentary that was presented by pro-independence commentator Iain Macwhirter and produced by an SNP activist and later MP. Not to mention the 2015 Hogmanay special, with Nationalist comedian Elaine C Smith interviewing Nicola Sturgeon, her mother, and her sister. It was like a North Korean Family Fortunes — only one team allowed and the survey always said “SNP”.
STV is drunk on access and stumbles over the line so many times it no longer remembers that the line exists. Given the intimidation of industry leaders during the independence referendum — the phone calls and raised voices and thinly-veiled threats — it’s not surprising that businesses are keen to keep ministers on side.
Nationalism is an all-consuming worldview. A conservative can accept the need for change and still be a conservative, a socialist that class alone doesn’t explain all injustices and still be a socialist. A nationalist must subordinate all things to “the restoration of Scottish sovereignty” or forfeit their place in the tribe. Under this most barren of ideologies there is only national pride and nothing else. Independence is always the answer because nationalists spend so little time thinking about any other question.
This allows for great leeway on other matters of public policy. The SNP can pose as civil libertarians at Westminster and govern as authoritarians at Holyrood. They can shift from believing in scrapping the council tax to retaining the council tax, with equal fervour and scarcely an admission that the policy has changed. It is why Nicola Sturgeon could go from casting doubt on EU nationals’ right to remain in 2014 to castigating Theresa May for doing the same in 2017. You will search in vain for a Scottish nationalist of any standing who will acknowledge these contradictions, let alone criticise them.
Epistemic closure is all the rage in Scotland these days. Independence enthusiasts cling to The National, one Nicola Sturgeon sticker offer away from pure fanzine, and assail those trying to hold the Scottish Government to account. The First Minister, who ought to know better and does, lends her office to fanatical howls of “SNP bad”, the faithful’s favoured chant when confronted by bothersome facts. One cartoonist beloved of the nationalists refuses to satirise the SNP until after independence, lest he undermine The Cause. The practice of boycotting pro-UK businesses such as Asda and Barrhead Travel is now so commonplace that MPs and MSPs admit to doing it. Even the Tunnock’s teacake, beloved staple of Scottish larders, is biscoctus non grata.
The most unnerving aspect of my experience was that I’m not an investigative journalist. I wasn’t uncovering secret reports or exposing corruption. I’m a commentator. I analyse policies and personalities and give my take on events. I wield no power save the ability, on occasion, to coax 20 minutes out of someone’s day, and even then they may disdain or dismiss what I have to say. My words, if you are so disinclined, can be waved away as the scribblings of a fool, a quisling, or whatever is the cybernat insult du jour.
But this the Nationalists could not do. Having co-opted so much of the third sector, academia, and some of the best and worst of Scottish journalism, they want it all and they want it waving flags. And when you can’t do that, when you have to point out their mistakes or remind them that nationalism is not sanctified by some cant about social justice, you must be destroyed, anathematised, made an example of.
This hostility to open inquiry has bled into public policymaking, epitomised by the decision to ban genetically modified crops without scientific advice. Reasonable people may disagree about GM but not to seek evidence in the first place is an act of intellectual cowardice. It’s little wonder the post of chief scientific adviser went unfilled for 18 months. In the nation of Fleming and Hutton, blind faith now trumps the scientific method.
As the world peers from behind quivering fingers at what President Trump will do next, we would do well to reflect on the importance of institutions. America’s founding fathers designed a government of divided powers to ensure no one individual or party could become too powerful. Democrats who decry Trump’s outrageous presidential orders must now sorely regret the executive overreach they supported under Barack Obama. They forgot the first lesson of American history: Power unchecked is a charter for tyranny.
Institutions and customs matter. Whether it’s an inquisitive press or academic freedom, they are the guardrails of democratic societies. Government must be held to account, politicians must not influence the media, and ministers ought not to co-opt independent organisations — otherwise we risk leaving ourselves open to another Trump, or worse.
If Scotland is going to make a half-decent stab at devolution, and especially if it aims to be independent in the near future, it will need real democratic infrastructure. Journalists will have to be more sceptical — please but please can we stop referring to “Nicola” in our newsrooms? — and academics free to deal in constitutional realities and not just national ambitions. Third-sector organisations will have to be honest about the pressure they are sometimes put under or forgo public funding altogether.
We all want Scotland to succeed but we are not all in this together. Governments are there to make policy and journalists are there to hold them to account, no matter if they are based in Edinburgh or London and no matter how awkward it makes the boss’s next Malbec with a minister. The same goes for voluntary sector bosses, church leaders and academics. We are not friends. We are not partners. We are not stakeholders. The soppy sodality of “Civic Scotland” was all fine and well in the birthing of devolution and saw us through the parliament’s teething problems — but it’s time to grow up.
Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Contact Stephen at email@example.com.