Reasoned debate is the first casualty in post-referendum Scotland
Today, both sides exist in the echo chamber of social media where biases are confirmed, not challenged
Former leader Alex Salmond addressing the SNP conference in Glasgow on Sunday. Photograph: Danny Lawson/PA
In one of Scotland’s finest novels, Lanark, author Alasdair Gray imagined a Glasgow where people suffer from strange diseases, before they gradually disappear.
Gray fervently believes in independence. In his column in the National this week – “the newspaper that supports an independent Scotland”, it declares on its banner – Gray imagined as dystopian a future for his homeland as anything in his novel.
Having made a garbled comparison with London’s actions during the Curragh Mutiny, Gray writes that he could see London moving soldiers into Scotland to quell the next attempt at independence. “I once thought a UK government would never do such a thing to an independent Scotland, but now think that there are no crimes of violence or fraud that a strong nation will avoid when seizing the natural resources of a weaker one,” he wrote.
That Gray should imagine such a possibility in 2015 is one thing; that nobody in Scotland seemed to find the thoughts of a man regarded by some as Scotland’s Joyce as being in any way remarkable says much about the febrile mood that exists.
For now, politics in post-independence referendum Scotland, as it faces into the May 7th general election, is about belief, about faith – apostates are not to be debated with, not to be understood, but despised, and, wherever possible, to be destroyed.
Perceptual gulfThe gulf in understanding between the sides is immense. For the Scottish National Party, the last-minute pledge of extra devolution for Scotland in the final days of the referendum campaign stole from them the dream of independence.
Four in every 10 of those who voted Yes last September believe that too. Yet the most detailed research so far done, by the Centre for Constitutional Change, has found just 3.4 per cent of No voters were persuaded by “the vow”.
Equally, the SNP’s opponents are guilty of their own calumnies. The Conservatives argue that an SNP rejection of their queen’s speech would be “an outrage” against the British people, which displays a sorry understanding of the worth of each MP’s vote.
During last year’s campaign, the Yes side argued that the media was united against them – the Daily Record, for example, was pro-Labour and the union; the Daily Mail was pro-Tory and the union.
If they fumed about newspapers, they also railed against BBC Scotland. Several thousand people protested outside its Glasgow Pacific Quay headquarters: the SNP denied it was directly involved in the protest, though many there were party members.
Six months on, tempers have heightened, if anything. In the city on Sunday, former SNP leader Alex Salmond stood in front of 2,000 delegates near the end of the party’s rally. From the floor, a questioner told him he had stopped paying his BBC licence fee, still a legal requirement in the UK, though thousands appear to have followed the same path.
Media biasMaking no mention of the man’s decision not to pay, Salmond said he had not been surprised by newspapers, but the degree to which the BBC had been influenced “by the headlines in a biased press” had surprised him. The situation had improved since the referendum result, he happily went on, because the experience “has scarred the BBC and there has been some gain from it already from our perspective”. The audience declared its agreement.
Undoubtedly, there were mistakes made by the BBC. Senior staff came from London too late in the campaign to properly grasp the changes that had taken place on the ground in Scotland.
If anything, however, the biggest problem faced by the BBC’s local operations in Scotland was low self-confidence, believing it was always going to be open to attack in a debate that had become increasingly partisan. In Scotland today, one must choose.
Salmond’s central problem during the campaign centred on his inability to ease middle-ground Scots’ fears about the economic risks attached to independence. The currency question was not answered.
Economic questions have strengthened in the face of the near-collapse in the price of oil, badly holing the prospectus the SNP put before Scots. The oil revenues, if prices stay steady at new levels, of an independent Scotland would be just one-fifth of those predicted.
None of this has made any difference in a Scotland where – leaving aside partisan points raised by dyed-in-the-wool unionists – anyone who tries to raise questions of substance is automatically accused of “talking Scotland down”.
Today, both sides – but principally the SNP and Yes side, which increasingly have morphed into one in the six months since the referendum, exist in the echo chamber of social media where biases are confirmed, not challenged. It augurs poorly for the future of debate in Scotland if people not only refuse to listen to arguments but actually deny them the right to exist.
Mark Hennessy is London Editor