Seeds of tyranny being sown in Scotland?

Is the nationalist camp in Scotland really creating an atmosphere of intimidation against opponents of independence? There are now real fears of a creeping soft authoritarianism

All fair? Or ready to intimidate?
Tom Gallagher
On 3 March 2015 09:55

Usually, there isn’t too much common ground on big political issues between the artists, writers and performers who inhabit the cultural world. The nature of intellectual endeavour suggests that these creative types are individualistic, edgy and hard to dragoon behind an established position.

However, the marathon referendum campaign in Scotland turned such an assumption on its head.

Scotland’s writers and performers were overwhelmingly in favour of independence, at least the ones who spoke out. 2,000 of them flocked to join a ‘National Collective’ of pro-independence ‘creatives’.

Its manifesto proclaimed: ‘We support independence because of the opportunity that comes with the ultimate creative act – creating a new nation.’

Chris Deerin, the Daily Mail’s chief Scottish columnist, is a culturally clued up Scottish journalist who is rather sceptical of this lofty claim. He believes that a lot of them are ‘merely exploiting a pivotal national moment for the purposes of self-promotion’.

The ruling SNP wastes little time on securing Scotland’s economic future but it is absorbed with acquiring control over the direction taken by national culture. One of Alex Salmond’s last acts before he retired as First Minister was to intervene in the supposedly independent process of funding for the arts and secure £1 million for a favourite theatre group.

Deerin thinks Scottish culture has been set back a generation by the readiness of so many luminaries to act as performing seals for a political cause. Much of their  written output from the referendum years (the campaign lasted almost three years!) consists of shrill protests against the ‘Sassenachs’ (English foreigners) usually ‘toffee-nosed’,  thereby combining an ethnic and a class prejudice.

Another journalist, David Torrance noted the fury with which Andrew Redmond Barr of the National Collective reacted to the  British themed launch of the Commonwealth games in Glasgow.

In a recent book, Arts of Independence, the poet Alan Riach took delight in relating to readers how when he met Queen Elizabeth II at a 2013 reception for poets that she  hosted in Buckingham palace, he showed no trace of deference and made her aware of his Scottish outlook on things.

A lot of Scottish intellectuals who recognised the vigour and inclusivity of an over-arching British culture kept their heads down during the bad-tempered and sometimes rowdy months of political campaigning. Some of them  are in the tradition of energetic  and talented Scots who over the last 300-400 years helped to shape the boundaries and content of British culture and disseminate its influence far and wide.

Arguably, one of them is James MacMillan, a prolific and widely performed composer whose work has been influenced by his Catholic faith. He has little patience for performers and playwrights who believe their place is in the vanguard of the march of revolutionary nationalism.

Last week, Chris Deerin re-tweeted a 2011 article of MacMillan’s in which he revealed that it had been the proprietorial attitude of the ex-rock star and high-profile cultural impresario Pat Kane towards the national cause which had led him to sever any  remaining affinities with political nationalism.

MacMillan had written: ‘The last time I saw him was at a post-devolution party at the National Museum of Scotland; the kind of lavish event where the Scottish liberal elites gather to exult in one of their regular self-congratulatory orgies of entitlement and privilege. He looked at me, with tears in his eyes and said falteringly “Look at all this James; we are now the new modern Scottish establishment.” Something snapped in me that night, and I’ve never been the same since…’

The composer was soon taken to task by Gerry Braiden of the [Glasgow] Herald who sometimes struggles to keep his own nationalist sympathies out of stories that might benefit from a more cerebral analysis.

He tweeted about the 2011 article:  ‘The Top composer laments artists' involvement in politics...then calls for scrapping of Scottish & European parliaments’. Macmillan quickly denied this claim and tweeted ironically that ‘the wonderful renowned separatist artists must never, EVER be criticised! Because that would be antiScottish’.

Those titles in the Herald group which have overtly embraced nationalism have seen their circulation rise. This is particularly true of the Sunday Herald and a new overtly pro-independence daily, the National which sells over 10,000 copies daily since its launch in November.

But, according to critics, there is a price for this success. It is acquired by ignoring stories, covered elsewhere, which reveal  the intolerance of some SNP followers who post inflammatory attacks online or else take to following and photographing Labour activists as they campaign for the party.

The recent revelation that the BBC’s chief political correspondent, Nick Robinson would be off work due to battling a lung condition was initially greeted with glee by at least one ‘cybernat’ who did not bother to conceal his SNP allegiance. It led to condemnation from Salmond’s predecessor as First Minister, Lord McConnell .

The veteran Scots journalist Bill Grieg expressed the hope that the SNP ‘can campaign without such awful people’ and remove them from the party’.

Chris Deerin was sceptical if there would be much interest in the nationalist end of the Scottish media. Last  September, several thousand SNP supporters had converged on the BBC’s Glasgow headquarters, protesting against Robinson’s allegedly biased referendum coverage.

The type of media outlet which is reticent about probing or condemning the actions of party fanatics but is happy to include a journalist who disparages a composer for speaking out against excessive political conformity is one that is bound to flourish in an era of deepening political restrictions.

One of the signs that Scotland may be close to entering an era of soft authoritarianism is the SNP’s decision to appoint a named person or guardian to supervise every child in Scotland under the age of 18 in the teeth of  huge concern.

C.J.Sansom, the Edinburgh-born Anglo-Scottish novelists was sufficiently alarmed by the authoritarian demeanour of the SNP that he wrote a long appendix in his recent novel, Dominion setting out  his main fears.

Ewan Morrison, an award-winning author and screenwriter, left the pro-independence campaign due to the absence of any real debate.  The assorted left-wingers maintained a spurious unity ‘by imaging the power they will wield afterwards...a fantasy of unity...The Yes campaign has had to be emptied of almost all actual political content. It has had to become a form of faith’.

Effie Deans, is the pro-British Scottish blogger who currently perhaps has the most profound things to say. Perhaps her critical edge was acquired by the long period she spent in Russia and her insight into the Russian world, reinforced by returning to Aberdeenshire with a Russian husband.

Last autumn, she wrote that so intimidating had the atmosphere become in Scotland by the close of the referendum campaign, she felt easier expressing her mind in public even in Putin’s Russia.

These words were written after numerous ugly incidents which even prompted the veteran reporter for Independent Television News Tom Bradby to write that the level of intimidation and abuse which he witnessed was ‘certainly highly unusual in the democratic world’ and worse than what he had observed in his first journalistic assignment in Northern Ireland.

It is worrying that so many of Scotland’s thinkers and artists are so unconcerned by the  continuing pressures faced by opponents of the ruling party as a general election approaches; and it is sad that a composer  who does speak out, instead of being given a hearing, is mocked by a pro-government journalist.

Russia was once briefly as free as Scotland still is now, but it was a failure to resist creeping tyranny that has allowed the nightmare seen there today to unfold.

Tom Gallagher’s latest book, ‘Europe’s Path to Crisis’ was  published in paperback by Manchester University Press last October

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