Scotland 2015: Total electoral polarisation

Scotland is convulsed by confrontation as the SNP and its supporters intimidate opponents. Democratic civility is treated with contempt, and prejudice and disdain are the order of the day

Scotland as polarised as ever
Tom Gallagher
On 13 April 2015 08:09

Unusual happenings for any democracy have created a riven society in Scotland. For two years, a referendum campaign was dominated in the media and the streets by the Nationalist side. It lost by a bigger majority than the Tories did in 1945.

Nevertheless, the mobilisation gathered pace as the size of the SNP quadrupled virtually overnight. Mass rallies occur displaying  ardour and, for  many, a sense of revanchism. There is a determination to speedily re-run what SNP leaders earlier proclaimed to be a once in a generation referendum.

The media has played a big role in this upsurge. For years, the SNP has devoted far more attention to the information war than to  policies after independence. Its media strategists are more influential than any cabinet minister. Probably the SNP would make key concessions on policy issues if only it could acquire control over state broadcasting.

Cultivating influential media voices or discrediting those who are unbiddable or hostile have been key party priorities.

The stage has been reached when several media notables are ready to police their profession and make extraordinary claims that  might cause hesitation even in the SNP about Scotland’s role in the vanguard of human progress.

A case in point is Kevin McKenna. A seasoned operator from a family steeped in Glasgow Labour politics, his career had stalled until, several years ago, he decided to re-invent himself as the most uninhibited media backer of the SNP.

The London Observer published a characteristic example of his journalism just after the SNP, on 29-30 March, staged what was probably the biggest political conference Scotland has ever seen.

McKenna was in no doubt that here was ‘a revolution’ that ‘terrifies the main parties’. There was a new political citizenry. They were un-servile, self-reliant and exuberant, possessing a long-term approach.

He mocked ‘sclerotic media chums’ who, disorientated by the scale of the changes, ‘attempt to smear this new popular nationalism’.

Days later, the patience of Iain MacWhirter, ex-BBC correspondent, snapped over claims from the Daily Mail’s columnist Chris Deerin  that ‘Scotland has become a soft and sappy nation, intellectually listless, coddled, a land of received wisdom and one-track minds, narrow parameters and mass groupthink’.

But the image of a mature, assertive and democratically-inclined mass movement is hard to square with certain awkward facts.

Last month, the new membership voted overwhelmingly for a conference motion enshrining democratic centralism. All of the party’s MPs are now required to sign a code of conduct pledging they will not ‘publicly criticise a decision, policy or another member’ of the SNP’s Westminster group, either in parliament or in other venues such as the media.

The leadership also enjoys grassroots backing for the decision to embrace full fiscal autonomy which will leave Scotland’s extensive public sector to be financed from its own small tax base and not a UK block grant.

The SNP now admits there will be a shortfall of £7.6 billion in Scotland’s finances but assumes that borrowing on the world market can forestall austerity.

McKenna concedes that ‘the sums don’t add up’ but he believes the very same Scots who are livid with Tory austerity are happy to endure the SNP variety since eventually there will be ample economic rewards.

He refuses to consider that what he sees as a spirit of self-sacrifice might be touching naivety springing from massive dumbing down about the simplest economics.

But McKenna is right about the ‘exuberance’ in an emotion-laden party. The trouble is that it  keeps spilling over into sinister behaviour.  As I write, the media is carrying reports about the offices of the Labour and Tory parties in Aberdeen being daubed  with ‘Quisling’ slogans.

At an SNP rally in that city earlier, Faisal Islam, SKY television’s chief political correspondent, was told that it was a Scot who should be covering such an event.

He tweeted: ‘Its only place I been questioned about suitability to report a story on basis of my background’

Anti-British views radiate from the party’s ample pro-Republican following in the West of Scotland. This may have prompted the writer and arts administrator Muriel Gray to tweet on 7 April:  

'Politics now like a religion in Scotland. Used to be debatable and enthralling. Now? Tribal. Identity politics. For us or against us. Tragic’.

Elements of a personality cult have dominated the SNP and it is unclear how far  they will recede under new leader Nicola Sturgeon.

Kevin McKenna was disdainful  when fellow journalist Euan McColm observed, as Alex Salmond addressed the conference about his new book, that ‘if he’d scratched his nose, they’d have cheered’

Politics remains very much for insiders which is the case with most revolutions; what’s unusual perhaps is that a massive number  of Scots are prepared to celebrate this state of affairs.

McKenna never pauses to reflect on where fantasy economics, ugly street incidents and leader worship has led before but as in his latest Observer column directs ceaseless  fire at ‘old Etonians’ and ‘their midnight horse-trading in the Westminster gin palace’.

The contempt for democratic civility contained in this phrase perhaps makes it possible to understand why Labour’s Margaret Curran, standing in Glasgow East, is followed by SNP activists who photograph and heckle her as she attempts to canvass voters.

There is even some evidence that the new SNP leader is afraid of the lengths that some of the party’s followers are prepared to go. She was notable in condemning the deluge of online attacks which the BBC’s James Cook recently received, prompting him to say on on 4 April,’ What an extraordinary level of vicious abuse I have received today for simply reporting the news. Is this the country we want folks? Is it?’

Perhaps Nicola Sturgeon is a lawyer with a finely-tuned sense of history; Robespierre, the lawyer who led the French revolution at its most crazily radical phase, ended up on the guillotine.

Kevin McKenna, might also reflect that for journalists who play at being mock revolutionaries themselves, it rarely turns out well at the end.

Tom Gallagher’s latest book is Europe’s Path to Crisis: Disintegration via Monetary Union, published in paperback last October by Manchester University Press

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