Media critic writes in defence of the ‘totalitarian’ SNP government


Retired media analyst John Robertson takes issue with press criticism of the SNP in government

‘Arrogant, dismissive, illiberal, reactionary, totalitarian!’ 

What, UKIP? Not UKIP? Don’t tell me I’ll get it. Is it that guy in Turkey? I know, it’s that Kim Thingy in North Korea isn’t it? Wrong, wrong, wrong, it’s John Swinney and Nicola Sturgeon! Says who? Kevin McKenna said it in the Herald last weekend. Here’s a quote:

John Robertson
John Robertson

‘There is a curiously illiberal and reactionary strain running through its (SNP) core which seems to belie its socialist credentials’

I was quite stunned by the quote above, not long after having been fully gobsmacked by the headline:

Aim of independence is put at risk by SNP’s arrogance.’

Now, I’ve criticised the SNP recently in this throbbing digital organ. In particular, I had a go at what seemed to me like a trend toward a more presidential style in both the appearance and the language adopted by the First Minister. Like many SNP members I want a more collegiate style with less of the ‘I’ word. I’ve also criticised the new national testing programme for schools from what Kevin McKenna would, I hope, recognise as a liberal perspective.

Further, I’ve attacked the SNP leadership’s ambivalence with regard to fracking, especially former energy minister, Fergus Ewing.  So, I think I’m a critical friend rather than a dupe. However, McKenna goes a long way beyond what I’d consider reasonable criticism, into the kind of potentially damaging critique that Unionists will savour.

I will concentrate on rebutting McKenna’s substantive points rather than commenting on his colourful language, used throughout the piece. Here are a few examples, to give you the flavour:

  • Named Person Scheme was soundly trashed
  • A Party whose language is a Caledonian version of Orwellian double-speak
  • Army of superannuated advisors
  • Critics howled down and accused of pandering to paedophiles
  • Christian groups jeered and intimidated
  • Encouraged by a bunch of indolent academics

As a retired and now wholly indolent academic, I suppose I’m still offended by the jeering at my former profession.

Let me list the examples of allegedly illiberal or reactionary actions undertaken by the SNP before tackling each to show how they can be characterised more accurately as admittedly imperfect but still benign, well-intentioned and progressive:

  • Named Person Scheme
  • Prisoners’ Voting Rights
  • New Women’s Prison
  • Minimum Alcohol Pricing
  • Police Scotland
  • Offensive behaviour at Football Act

Kevin McKenna’s assertion that illiberal and reactionary policies belie socialist credentials is puzzling. Socialism, by definition, tends to be pretty illiberal with regard quite a range of freedoms deemed damaging to the interests of the majority. If you’re one of the 1% or less who cherish the freedom to exploit others in some way, then you’ll find socialists pretty controlling. Good, I say.

More than half of the piece is taken up with the first issue in the list. Revealingly, perhaps, McKenna writes early on: ‘But dear God in Heaven, this Party’s arrogance will be its undoing.’ Dear God in Heaven? I’m an atheist, thank God, so this made me twitch. If you want to find illiberalism, have a wee keek in the Old Testament. Don’t go expecting the big G to sympathise with liberalism. The case taken to the Supreme Court in London, against the Scottish Government’s Named Person Scheme, was made and funded by the pretty fundamentalist Christian Institute.

Named Person: Key plank of SNP strategy
Named Person: Key plank of SNP strategy

McKenna has written before, attacking the scheme and labelling it melodramatically ‘SNP Big Brother’. I used to be a schoolteacher. I’ve seen the bruises and reported them to no effect. I’ve heard the stories of abuse. I’ve seen the haunted wee faces when going ‘home’. I’m right behind the scheme. The Named Person Scheme got full cross-party support at Holyrood. It’s supported by the Children and Young People’s Commissioner and the Royal College of Nursing. According to a piece in The National on March 9th:

‘SCOTLAND’S “leading children’s charities and public sector stakeholders” have launched a staunch defence of the Scottish Government’s controversial named person’s policy, accusing the campaign against it of misleading the public.’

The National described the critics as ‘evangelical Christians and other groups’. The Herald newspaper has described one group of critics as ‘fundamentalists’ who ‘are being probed for financial irregularities.’ The Catholic Truth blog says the Named Person Scheme is ‘Chapter 2 of the Communist Manifesto writ large’. Doesn’t the Communist Manifesto have some good Socialist credentials? I’m getting confused.

So the SNP is, at times, illiberal and reactionary? Correct me, readers, but haven’t evangelical Christian groups and the Catholic Church a stronger history of such, on issues such as the rights of women, gays, humanists, socialists, prisoners and minority sects to name a few? I think the SNP are pretty good on these issues.

Further, both evangelical Christians and the Catholic Church tend to be really reactionary on the Theory of Evolution. The SNP, however, has a proud record of confirming the theory by referring to evidence that Scottish Labour politicians are often dinosaurs. Jim Murphy as a pterodactyl lookalike was everywhere in 2014. Admittedly, the Vatican does have a long record of liberal attitudes toward fascist dictators. In contrast, the SNP’s Natalie McGarry even went to Turkey concerned about a really illiberal leader and got herself arrested for her trouble.

For me, perhaps the worst thing is this:

‘Consider again Mr Swinney and Ms Sturgeon, the words of the Supreme Court judges on your deeply flawed Named Persons legislation. “The first thing that a totalitarian regime tries to do is to get at the children, to distance them from the subversive, varied influences of their families and indoctrinate them in their rulers’ views of the world.”’

Does he really think the Supreme Court judges meant us to think of the Scottish Government’s scheme as in any way an example of the work of a totalitarian regime? The above quote appears on page 34 of 39 pages and is only part of a wider, generalised, explanation of the European Convention on Human Rights. When I see the term ‘totalitarian regime’, I think of Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, the Catholic Church in Medieval Europe, or more recently in Ireland. The Vatican, even in recent decades, has had much more of totalitarianism about its actions than our fine wee social democracy does.

As for ‘subversive, varied influences’, aren’t these the very things the Christian groups who brought the complaint would be most keen to deny their children?

The Prisoners’ Voting Rights issue has nothing to do with socialist credentials. I really doubt that any Christian groups, the Catholic Church or indeed most of the leftist public, would be with Kevin McKenna on this one. I actually agree that non-violent prisoners should be able to vote but his use of the issue to attack the SNP, particularly, makes no sense. The new women’s prison cancellation is credit to Women for Independence but this group contains SNP members too. Minimal alcohol pricing is widely supported even by liberals and socialists. Only the neo-liberal supermarkets benefit from preventing it and the EU’s ban is clear evidence of the power of the corporations.

Police Scotland: Locked in various controversies
Police Scotland: Locked in various controversies

Police Scotland, I agree, have made mistakes on stop and search, carrying weapons, investigating a death in custody and spying on journalists. However, the merger had all-party support and we need to remember sometimes just how liberal our police are. You’ve only got to read of the regular behaviour of police in the USA, in France, Turkey or in London to get a bit of proper perspective. It was Police Scotland which was recently asked to help the NYPD learn how to arrest people without shooting them dead. Finally, the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act has been a major success, reducing offences significantly over two years. Again, if we’re talking illiberal and reactionary, how about the bigotry and violence the act has helped reduce?

As I wrote this, I was a wee bit afraid. I never write stuff about Islam or Israel. I’m frankly scared to do so. I would never write about Rangers or Celtic for the same reason. I’m wary of seeming to attack Catholicism generally if I mention the Catholic Church’s well-known historical presence and guilt in much of the child abuse reported. Kevin McKenna has written in the Scottish Catholic Observer on ‘Celebrating Catholics in Scottish Life’. My wife used to be a Catholic. My oldest boy is a Celtic fan. I’d support a united Ireland. But I would no more celebrate Catholics in Scottish life than Presbyterians in Scottish life or Dudists in Scottish life. All Praise the Big Lebowski! Here’s why I’m anxious. I think McKenna’s piece with its righteous anger about the Named Person Programme is anti-secular, irrational, religion-based propaganda. There, I’ve said it.

John Robertson is a retired professor specialising in media at the University of the West of Scotland