There’s always a dilemma in being an editor – even at the lowly level of this blog. Do you give oxygen to articles you regard as unhelpful out of a sense of balance or, if they’re irredeemably hopeless, out of respect for the status of the writer?
My initial reaction to an item this week was to recoil in horror and silence in case the author had flipped. You know, lost his marbles. But after contemplation, and a carrion feast in the Unionist press, I’ve changed my mind.
In October my friend Alex Bell sent an email about his new project, a magazine – ‘confident and intelligent without being tribal’ – pitched at the level of the Spectator and New Statesman. There would be comment ‘across the spectrum, a celebration of our cultural achievements and coverage of global events’. Sounds good, although of course, there are reasons why Scotland doesn’t already have such a product and that made me doubtful. (The market is small. Potential readers already get the New Statesman or Spectator which has Scottish content. We have Bella and Left Review in this territory. The stable of writers is small and already has other outlets. Magazine culture has never gripped Scotland has it did Ireland and even Wales).
But hey…this is the age of new media. So when I saw on Twitter Alex’s article for Rattle magazine denouncing the SNP as flawed and even immoral, I assumed it was a publicity ruse to drum up investors. Its tone was so hyperbolic and its conclusions so hare-brained that it reminded me of this year’s classic zoomer hit, Adam Tomkins’ children’s fantasy, in the same Spectator, of life under the cruel and sinister SNP. And indeed, within minutes it was being quoted extensively by the mad professor as proof positive that the SNP were liars and charlatans. That was after another impartial judge of Scottish affairs, Labour lackey David Clegg at the Record started the feeding frenzy in earnest. So this was already more than stirring up controversy, it was arming the opposition. There is a point at which unflinching criticism turns into self-flagellation. Until now Alex has made a cogent case, regularly, for the SNP being instinctively too conservative and, as head of policy, he suffered the frustrations of this more than most. His leftish impulses were repulsed by a party that has built success on never getting too far ahead of the conservative Scots. I tend to agree with him but satisfy myself that the politicians who have actually dedicated their adult lives to the Cause and taken the trouble to get elected, know a deal more than I do about what people will support. So far it seems to be working, no? I’m always amazed at the rocketing ambition of people inside the political bubble who want to set the national Sat Nav to Destiny. They expect the People to rise up and demand a New Order when most voters want the bus to come on time. The SNP is already asking the Scots to throw out the constitutional settlement of three centuries and create a build-your-own sovereign nation. It’s a tall order without demanding they also turn upside down the social model they are used to. How radical do you want ordinary people to be?
So the Nats could be more ambitious and polish their radical intentions but then no party fulfils everyone’s hopes. They only have to encapsulate the ideas that come closest. Maybe RISE comes closer to Alex’s ambitions, or maybe he just gets bored easily and needs to move on intellectually. He has a fierce intelligence, a long commitment to the Cause and I’d never doubt the integrity he applies to his words. Indeed I think since leaving the government he’s written another book.
Sadly this Rattle article reads like the outburst of a defector rather than the rant of a critical friend. It feels as if it should bookended with the words: ‘…and therefore it is with regret that I remove myself from the campaign for independence and commit myself to working within the Union.’
You can’t really accuse your own side of deliberately misleading the voters and of acting immorally and still claim to be a friend, can you? This sounds like the apotheosis of an acrimonious departure ending in schism. I assume it’s well intended and designed to trigger internal soul-searching but I’m afraid the Tomkins-esque terminology will do little to endear any Nationalist engagement with his criticisms, rather leading instead to ostracism. If the magazine is to avoid tribalism, the editor may want to revisit the definition of the word.
Although the media coverage I’ve seen takes at face value the factual content, I’m afraid that, journalistically, it is a failure as there is virtually nothing but polemics here. Like a blog, it’s a fiery blast and any factoids that might have supported his assertions were shrivelled to a crisp in the heat of rhetoric. Worse, as a Nationalist, I see him repeat exactly the same flaw as the Express, Mail and Telegraph in his analysis of the economic case. I read in vain for any concept of what an independent economy might look like. He relies for his damning verdict on the official numbers provided by Treasury sources, totally missing the point of independence – making choices that suit Scotland. That means finally seeing the actual accounts, not the ones that ascribe spending to Scotland that never comes here and loading Treasury assessments of our debits rather than actual figures. He allows for no movement on debt for example during years of negotiations, but simply assumes our economy will carry on with the same spending commitments we have now. What would be the point of independence if that were true? These are the words of a man who has no faith in the very idea he has been promoting for three decades.
Let me address a wider point. He writes: ‘Independence needs facts and planning. The leadership fear those facts will rip the party apart. The SNP is growing comfortable in its role as the Scotland party within a lop-sided UK, while pretending it is still fighting for independence to keep the party together.’
The weekend the SNP won the Scottish election 2011, I called Kevin Pringle in Salmond’s office from my car in Moidart. I told him that, with a referendum inescapable, there was an urgent need for an independent organization systematically disseminating information on Scotland, the EU, NATO and the UN. A think tank was required, separate from the party, whose research would inform the debate and become a trusted source. If nothing was done, anti-Scottish interests and those with an anglo-centric outlook would do the work instead and create a one-sided view. If the SNP leadership used their contacts, they could find backers for the project although it would remain independent. As Alex himself told me later, he, as key adviser, turned the idea down. Yet it would have established the ground for research and media-informing intelligence on all matters relating to independence – ahead of the Unionist mob and the IFS. Who was afraid of facts ‘ripping the party apart’ then?
And that phrase ‘pretending it is still fighting for independence’. That’s nice, isn’t it? All those folk I see on Maryhill Road on a wet November night knowing that every vote counts no matter how well you’re doing, giving their time and investing their hopes in the Cause…just pretending, are they? Or are they – and am I – just willing dupes manipulated by the cynical leadership?
There is a disdainful tone running through this piece which will delight Jackie Baillie but it is one that does no favours to Alex Bell and Rattle. It has the feel of Johan Lamont’s farewell – hard words, some necessary, but falling into recrimination that hints at deep resentment. Just as ‘Branch Office’ was the gift that goes in giving for the Nats, so ‘Independence is Dead’ from Salmond’s adviser may be the undying motto of Rattle magazine.
Still, Alex wanted publicity. And, you have to agree, he got it!by