The ‘Great Debate’ isn’t just Unionist versus Nationalist

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By Lesley Riddoch

Perhaps it’s a mistake to read comments and message boards, or perhaps it’s the only way to check how columns are received.  Either way there’s just one question in the minds of some readers: is she one of us?

Never mind the merits of my first Newsnet Scotland column or the referendum roadshow proposal it contained – the question for some was simple. Is the writer a nationalist? And how can we be sure?

By Lesley Riddoch

Perhaps it’s a mistake to read comments and message boards, or perhaps it’s the only way to check how columns are received.  Either way there’s just one question in the minds of some readers: is she one of us?

Never mind the merits of my first Newsnet Scotland column or the referendum roadshow proposal it contained – the question for some was simple. Is the writer a nationalist? And how can we be sure?

Well I’ve written for a ‘nationalist organ’, repeatedly interrupted Advocate General Jim Wallace during BBC Scotland’s Burns Night TV debate, and when asked if I felt British on BBC Radio 4’s Any Questions responded: “Born Wolverhampton, parents from Caithness and Banffshire, school Glasgow, university Oxford, post graduate Cardiff, BBC trainee London, first job Edinburgh, never been to the Isle of Man – and 100% Scottish.”

Cheeky with unionist politicians, resolutely Scottish and happy to write for an independence supporting news site (which happily pays NUJ rates to journalists.)

Yip – guilty as charged m’lud. But does that mean I must be a card-carrying member of the SNP?  Do readers need to know which way I’ll vote in Autumn 2014 before they can read a word about poverty, communities, energy or the Waterboys concert last month?

Perhaps I exaggerate. But since penning a Newsnet column last month, I’ve had several invitations to speak at SNP branches, a welter of SNP branch Facebook friend requests, and some suspicion from hitherto friendly unionist politicians.

Jings. Is it so hard for people in camps to understand that most Scots are united by one thing – a profound dislike of camps?

As the yes and no campaigns get ready to launch I wonder if either camp knows how encircled, wary and suspicious they appear to the general public. I mention this not as a member of any party but as a progressive Scot who wants the most empowering debate possible over the next two years.

I want the referendum process to open up hitherto taboo subjects like land reform, centralisation, the enduring power of the establishment, Glasgow’s sub East European health outcomes, the scandal of Europe’s most expensive heating in its most energy-rich country, and the need to fund Early Years Care big-time and fast. Maybe all the levers of an independent state are needed to resolve these big structural problems  – maybe they aren’t.  One thing’s for sure, this is the way I’ll make up my mind about independence. And I suspect I won’t be alone.

Doubtless that’s why party leaders – particularly Alex Salmond – have called for the debate about Scotland’s future to be as profound, respectful and far-reaching as possible.  But that won’t happen in a climate of name-calling and knee-jerk sectarian aggression – from either ‘side’.

Deprivation, for example, is not automatically tackled by independence (nor indeed by the status quo).  And yet for some indy activists, poverty’s only worth debating if it scores points against the Union and thus furthers The Cause. Issues – to warriors on both sides – are only of instrumental interest. All that matters is using them to win the Big Bunfight in 2014. Most people think the other way round. If independence can fix what’s broken in Scotland and develop what’s overlooked, many voters will seriously consider the indy option. If it can’t, they won’t.

I understand some folk fervently believe our constitutional status causes every ailment in Scottish life. Discussing anything but independence is like fiddling while Auld Reekie burns.

Comrades. Many of us are old enough and ugly enough to have experienced such thinking before. Feminism – for example – was irrelevant to many socialists. After the defeat of capitalism all inequalities would wither and die. So women’s rights, apartheid South Africa, nuclear weapons or Scottish Home Rule were considered ‘bourgeois’ distractions. Ah, don’t you miss the good old days when a cause that beat fiercely in your own heart was always deemed ‘incorrect’ by some Oracle-like (and usually self-appointed) militant gatekeeper?

Then came the long Labour years before the first Scottish Parliament where those considered ‘off message’ were simply frozen out of civic life. Only ‘our people’ got a taste of power. To their credit the new SNP government shared some of the power. Labour’s Henry McLeish chaired the Prisons Commission. The non-aligned former BBC News boss Blair Jenkins chaired the Broadcasting Commission. A founder member of the Isle of Eigg Trust (myself) chaired a taskforce to reverse depopulation on the island of Rum. Quietly impressive.  

The SNP’s ability to employ the skills of fellow travellers without trying to co-opt or nobble them has been one of its greatest strengths. But are the gloves about to come off now?

Will there be only one game in town? Will a rhinocerous-like hide be needed to venture onto online forums?  Will writers be judged by the presence or absence of their nationalist credentials?

The need for conformity might be understandable if we were living through Scotland’s version of the Easter Rising.  We’re not.  Happily we are nowhere near the Irish situation where describing your own home as either Ulster, the six counties or the Province ‘gave the game away’ and meant automatic assignation to a specified part of the unionist / nationalist spectrum.

Of course, self-appointed gatekeepers of ideological purity are present on all sides of the constitutional divide, but some nationalists are spring-loaded to hurl themselves into virtual print at the slightest hint of disloyalty. In many ways, that’s not surprising, nationalists were unquestionably denied equal treatment on old platforms like BBC TV and radio and therefore migrated quickly to control new platforms online.

I worked in BBC Scotland for 20 years (leaving in 2004) and found a general tendency to super-serve the Scottish establishment in the selection of guests and callers.  Apart from a few memos suggesting preference for Tory speakers in Radio Scotland debates when that party had one MP north of the border (memos I ignored), there was relatively little direct interference from London. There didn’t have to be. The BBC struggles against a near automatic suspicion of anything beyond the mainstream – wherever that mainstream flows. A London-based BBC chief said to me once: “We’re all for diversity as long as people agree with us.”  He wasn’t joking.

The Beeb – tasked by the British Government to reflect nation (singular) onto nation – is the UK personified. So how could it handle the notion that from 1999, the SNP, not the Tories, was the official Opposition in Scotland? Week after week at Queen Margaret Drive I’d point out the SNP had to be included in discussions about everything from truancy or fluoride in water – because the public had elected them to be the Opposition.

And yet many BBC producers believed the important faultlines in politics ran elsewhere – between labour and capital, worker and employer, socialist and tory, even east and west, Highland and Lowland or Scot and Gael – so they couldn’t visualise how a nationalist contribution might fit in. Far, far easier to go with the familiar.

That was eight years ago. Things may have changed.

One thing’s for sure though. A toxic, defensive environment isn’t good for democracy – online, on TV or on Newsnet Scotland.

 

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