Union Blues | New Statesman | February 2015

On 17 September last year, the day before Scotland voted by a 10-point margin to remain part of the UK, I attended the SNP’s final referendum campaign rally at the Concert Hall in Perth. The event began smoothly enough—saltires were unfurled, the PA system played nationalist pop anthems (such things exist, by the way), and activists gradually massed in front of the main stage, waiting for Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon to arrive.

About 25 minutes in, however, the mood suddenly changed. A BBC News team, led by its political editor, Nick Robinson, had appeared in the gallery and a section of the audience had started jeering. SNP officials gestured frantically for the heckling to stop. Moments later, Robinson and his colleagues left.

Huge numbers of independence-supporting Scots now loathe the BBC and large parts of the mainstream press along with it. They have come to believe not just that media organisations were active participants in the referendum debate, but that journalists were intentionally agitating on behalf of the Union—and, in some cases, they are right.

Take Alan Cochrane, the Scottish editor of the Daily Telegraph. In his newly published diary of the poll, Alex Salmond: My Part in His Downfall, he freely admits to cropping the Telegraph’s output for the benefit of the No campaign a few months before the vote took place.

“Alistair Darling rang and asked me not to publish my bashing of Downing Street as it would simply add fuel to the flames,” Cochrane writes. “I had already thought about not filing it and told Darling that . . . Jenny [Cochrane’s wife] said I should do what Darling asks. He’s in charge after all. It’s not really good journalism but what the hell does journalism matter?”

This is a startling admission that reflects badly on both Cochrane and his employers at the Telegraph. But it’s not conclusive evidence of a widespread conspiracy among journalists to discredit independence. Cochrane is a particularly sloppy and bad-tempered reporter, and Alex Salmond: My Part in His Downfall is, frankly, an awful book, full of rambling political insults and boring anecdotes. You get the sense he would have done anything to undermine the Yes vote as polling day approached.

But clumsy reporting, much more than conscious favouritism, was the chief defect in wider coverage of the referendum. The BBC, for instance, in its search for an easy headline, often regurgitated claims made by anti-independence business leaders as uncontested fact. This gave the impression of institutional bias. In reality, most BBC correspondents were relatively objective in their reporting of the campaign.

The sense of bias was reinforced by the complacency of Westminster lobby journalists, whose writing on Scotland was often threadbare and ill-informed. Only in the final weeks of the debate, as the gap between Yes and No began to narrow and panic descended on Whitehall, did the London press pack finally wake up to what was unfolding north of the border. 

And yet, Scotland-based writers could be every bit as lazy and superficial as their London counterparts.

Herald columnist David Torrance—a commentator best known for his 2010 biography of Salmond—also kept a referendum diary, which he has now published as 100 Days of Hope and Fear. In a short introductory essay, Torrance says that he hopes 100 Days provides an “insider’s perspective of a historic constitutional event” as well as an insight into the “working life of a freelance journalist”.

The book does offer these things—but in hopelessly disproportionate quantities. Over 190 pages spanning the final three months running up to the vote, Torrance describes in tedious detail his schedule of TV appearances and radio interviews, his trips abroad (to Basel, Frankfurt, Barcelona, etc.) and his frequent exchanges, on Twitter and in person, with nationalist critics. Much of what he presents as insider analysis amounts to little more than inane gossip. When he attempts to be self-deprecating, he comes across as pompous.

This entry, covering a visit to the European Parliament in July, is typical: “Another dinner al fresco and some nice Alsatian beer; amused myself by thinking of turning this journal into a pale imitation of Roy Jenkins’s European Diary, which was more a catalogue of good lunches and fine wines than political life in Brussels and Strasbourg.” What does this observation tell us about the “historic constitutional event” at hand? Are readers seriously expected to find it in any way, useful, interesting, or insightful? 100 Days is littered with these mindless side-notes.

Fortunately, 2014 produced a wealth of high-quality Scottish political literature to compensate for the (equally voluminous) weaker material. Perhaps the best piece of work to emerge so far is The People’s Referendum by Peter Geoghegan. Geoghegan, an Irish journalist based in Glasgow, frames the referendum in an international context. He travels from the Hebrides to Catalonia and the Balkans in an effort to understand the rise of sub-state nationalism and the growing appeal of separatist politics.

Instead of drawing information from official sources, Geoghegan builds his narrative around the experiences of ordinary people. In Coatbridge, a post-industrial town in North Lanarkshire, he meets Scots-Irish republicans campaigning for a Yes vote—as well as Orangemen fighting to preserve the Union. At a rally in Barcelona, he encounters a spokesman for the ‘Friulian liberation movement’, a tiny secessionist group in north-eastern Italy. In Banja Luka, the capital of the Bosnian Serb Republic, he watches as his taxi driver conceals a small Orthodox Christian cross before venturing into a Muslim neighbourhood.

In one chapter, Geoghegan tours the pit villages of West Fife with Britain’s last surviving communist councillor, a septuagen­arian named Willie Clarke who, it transpires, is an enthusiastic Yes supporter: “His voice rose, shaking slightly as it did. Each sentence started gently, but built into a forceful finale,” Geoghegan writes of Clarke. “It sounded like an oration he had delivered before—‘Independence will come. It’s like the tide, you cannot hold it back. It’s going to happen’.”

There is a lot of warmth in Geoghegan’s writing. He empathises with his subjects, regardless of their politics, and, in stark contrast to Cochrane and Torrance, both of whom obsess endlessly over the PR ‘air war’ fought between Better Together and Yes Scotland, he takes a careful look at the lives of individual Scots as they confront the  looming prospect of radical constitutional change.

Had more journalists followed Geoghegan’s lead, the media would have emerged from the referendum in better shape. “The key difficulty for the media during was not one of intentional bias but often of an inability to reflect the vivacity of the campaign back to its participants,” he argues. “That is hardly surprising. The ‘tablets of stone’ model of journalism—spin doctors and party hacks feeding morsels to favoured members of the Fourth Estate—has long held sway in Scotland.”

One journalist who has remained refreshingly free of this cynicism is Iain Macwhirter, the Sunday Herald columnist and veteran observer of Scottish and British politics. In Disunited Kingdom, a concise and lucid account of the referendum battle and its aftermath, he charts the main flashpoints in the approach to September 2014.

A critical turning point for Macwhirter—the moment when Westminster, he believes, “lost” the Scots—was the Chancellor’s announcement in February 2014 that Scotland would not be allowed to use the pound if it left the UK. “Osborne’s ‘Declaration on the Pound’ placed Scotland in a new position of regional subordination,” he writes. “If Westminster was claiming the common currency of the UK was now exclusively English property, then it seemed to me that the old unionist bargain, if it ever existed, had ceased.”

Counterintuitively, Macwhirter argues that the referendum result was a substantial—even potentially transformative—achievement for Scottish nationalism, which only really entered the mainstream of Scottish politics in the last two or three decades. Macwhirter explains how Yes campaigners, many of them young and creatively inclined, generated a sense of profound cultural momentum that made Better Together look deeply conservative by comparison.

With the prospect of a federal Britain having receded almost as quickly as it surfaced in Gordon Brown’s last-minute vow-making, Macwhirter concludes that Scottish independence is now more or less inevitable. “And we may not have to wait very long to see it,” he writes.

It’s not clear what bearing—if any—the media had on the outcome of the September vote. Many nationalists are convinced it was pivotal, particularly during those last, frantic days of the campaign, in tipping the scales against them. If Macwhirter is correct, the SNP will get a chance to test that theory very soon.

 

This article is a review of Alex Salmond: My Part in His Downfall by Alan Cochrane, 100 Days of Hope and Fear: How Scotland’s Independence Referendum Was Lost and Won by David Torrance, The People’s Referendum: Why Scotland Will Never Be the Same Again by Peter Geoghegan, and Disunited Kingdom: How Westminster Won a Referendum But Lost Scotland by Iain Macwhirter.

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