We were lucky. At first we were lucky. Such is the metrocentric nature of the beast, the London-based media exhibited scarcely a flicker of interest in the resignation of Steven Purcell (now ‘recuperating in the sun’ – surely one of the quotes of the year). Even when the more lurid details started to emerge, ‘the nationals’ were relatively unmoved.
Had the city boss in question been, say, the mayor of London rather than the leader of Glasgow City Council, we would not have heard the end of it. But the low profile of Mr Purcell served him, and Scotland, well. It has been said of Baroness Ashton that once she was unknown in Britain and now she is unknown all over Europe. Mr Purcell was spared that wider obscurity.
But our luck seems to have run out. The leading article in the current issue of the Spectator magazine is headed: ‘The scandal of Scotland’. It begins: ‘A politician, a cocaine dealer, blackmail, links to organised crime, and the mysterious death of a teenage boy: it is hard to think of more potent ingredients for a political scandal’.
Even in that first sentence the thriller writers of the Spectator are egging the plot a bit. I have not read anything to suggest that the death of the teenager, said to have been a friend of Mr Purcell, was in the least mysterious. What is the Spectator implying – that the city’s mafia had him bumped off on the steps of the City Chambers? The unfortunate young man suffered from chronic ill-health and perhaps the stress of Mr Purcell’s departure may have contributed to his sudden collapse. But there is no mystery about it, at least in the sense suggested by the magazine.
The story gets worse. We are told that a former First Minister resigned in an expenses scandal. I do not recall it as much of a scandal. It amounted to nothing at all. It was a Sunday School picnic compared to the expenses claims, subsequently revealed, of many of our friends in the south. There was no moat involved.
The Spectator also claims that ‘some MSPs have been arrested for drunkenly setting fire to hotel curtains’. This may be a reference to a splendid night at Prestonfield House Hotel organised by the Herald some years ago, when Lord Watson became irritated by the inattentions of the staff or by his failure to be named Scottish Politician of the Year or whatever. But it is news to me that the act of fire-raising which took place that night was collective in character. If the Spectator has evidence that our elected representatives go about the country routinely setting fire to hotel curtains when they have one too many, I think we should be told. For the Spectator, the Purcell affair is symptomatic of a wider malaise in Scottish politics. ‘After devolution, Scotland is fast becoming a foreign land about which the English know little and care less…Eleven years after devolution, it is clear that it was the wrong reform for Scotland…’
Mr Purcell can be blamed for many things, not least his decision to leave the country rather than face his critics. The timing of his departure was particularly wretched in that it coincided with the deaths of the three asylum seekers who jumped from the Red Road flats. If ever the city could have used some decent political leadership, it was the weekend of those suicides. But it is hard to see how he can be held responsible for England’s lack of interest in Scotland – for the London media never was interested in Scotland. If a flake of snow falls in Islington, the world comes to an end; if it misses its target, and descends on Perthshire instead, it is a matter of no importance. It is also difficult to see any logic in the link being made between Mr Purcell’s downfall and the failings, real or imagined, of the devolution settlement. It was not as if he was one of the naughty MSPs setting fire to hotel curtains. He was not even a member of the parliament.
There is no mystery about the Spectator’s publisher. It is our old friend Andrew Neil. Recently he appointed Fraser Nelson, a fellow Scot, as editor. Mr Neil and Mr Nelson are having lots of fun at the expense of the old country. Who can blame them? Scotland is rich in satirical possibilities at the moment. Perhaps we should not take Mr Neil and Mr Nelson, and their mischief-making in the Spectator, too seriously.
Yet it is worth remembering that this magazine is the organ of the chattering classes. Although it is right of centre politically, it is read by most people of influence in London, of all political persuasions and none. It carries more clout than most newspapers. It is extensively quoted. A leading article in the Spectator headed ‘The scandal of Scotland’, however flawed in its detail, suggests that our luck has indeed run out. Damage has been done to Scotland’s reputation and it is no longer locally confined.