From Sunday Herald, 16/6/13
I don’t know about the Scottish cringe, but I found Thursday’s Edinburgh Question Time toe-curling. It was a nightmare version of the referendum campaign, complete with an omni-rant from George Galloway, the Respect MP, forming a devil’s alliance with the Ukip leader, Nigel Farage – a demented glove-puppet – to claim, mendaciously, that the latter had been the victim of ugly anti-English behaviour when he last appeared in Scotland.
I felt some sympathy for the journalist Lesley Riddoch, trying confusedly to make a moderate non-party case for voting Yes against those two unionist foghorns. The SNP Westminster leader, Angus Robertson, made the cardinal error of attacking the programme for bias. This never works because it looks like an attack on David Dimbleby, who is of course a national institution. Robertson may have had a case since he was outnumbered three to one, but in these situations you just have to suck it up because whingeing antagonises viewers.
Having worked on BBC programmes like Question Time I’m sure there was no political bias intended by the producers. It doesn’t work that way. They just wanted a good old confrontation, a rammy, and because it was Scotland they knew they could get away with it. If it had been Question Time the week before, say, the Eastleigh by-election in Hampshire, rather than Donside in Aberdeen, they wouldn’t have dared pack the panel with eccentrics and nationalists representing constituencies in another country.
But better get used to this, because I suspect the QT spat is what next year’s referendum campaign will be like, only on a larger scale. The SNP are wrong to assume that they will get favourable treatment from the broadcasters in 2014. The ‘story’ of the referendum will be nationalists trying to break up Britain and setting Scot against English. We have seen nothing yet.
The BBC generally takes its editorial agenda from the press, and the UK press in the run up to the referendum will be ferocious. The Scottish press is already intensely hostile to independence so imagine how the Sun and the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph will cover the referendum for their predominantly English readers? They will portray the SNP and the Yes campaign as anti-English bigots and grasping splitters.
Even the liberal Guardian presented last month’s confrontation between Scottish anti-racism demonstrators and Nigel Farage in Edinburgh’s Royal Mile as a “battle of nationalists”, suggesting a moral equivalence between Ukip and the SNP. There will be many more such confrontations engineered in the run up to September 2014. Alex Salmond will be portrayed, inaccurately, as a liberal version of the French nationalists, Jean Marie Le Pen. The SNP will be compared with ethnic nationalist parties like the True Finns.
There will be lots of boring and balanced BBC Scotland programmes on late at night that no one will watch, and then a series of dramatic UK-led prime time debates chaired by David Dimbleby and Jeremy Paxman which will define the campaign. It will be about acrimonious divorce rather than the highly nuanced and consensual separation proposed by Yes Scotland. Television doesn’t deal in nuance.
And anyway, from an English point of view, the story IS about the break up of Britain. How else can they be expected to understand it? It’s no use the Yes campaign complaining that they don’t want to set up border posts or victimise English people and that they want to keep the Queen and the pound. It will be entirely natural for the fifty five million people who do not live in Scotland to feel a sense of rejection when they hear that Scotland might vote to leave the UK, taking North Sea oil with them.
There will be lots of “vox pops”, those supposedly random but highly selective interviews with citizens of the English street, which will no doubt reveal a well of antagonism towards Scots over things like free personal care and free tuition fees being paid for by English taxes. These attitudes have already been exposed in research conducted by the Institute for Public Policy Research, IPPR, in its report last year, “The Dog that Finally Barked”, which noted growing hostility towards Scots.
Holyrood policies like tuition fees are not paid for by English taxpayers, but out of the fixed bloc grant set by the Barnett Formula. Free care has to be financed by economies elswhere in the Scottish budget. But try explaining that to a working class undergraduate in Brentford who is racking up debts at the rate in excess of £9,000 a year in order to get a degree that probably won’t get him a decent job. Or to English families selling granny’s home to finance her nursing care.
I felt every sympathy with the bright young woman in the Question Time audience who expressed her dismay at the inability of either side to address the real issues in the referendum. But sitting next to her was a misguided young man who seemed to believe that Scottish people were routinely victimised when they travel to England. Guess who David Dimbleby chose to focus on? That young man and those like him, will be pursued by UK newspapers and his views relayed to English readers.
The portrayal of the Scottish debate as divisive and essentially about ethnic chauvinism will be encouraged by Scottish politicians like the Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson and Labour’s Anas Sarwar, who recently described Scotland as a “dictatorship”. Figures like the former President of the Scottish Law Society, Ian Smart, will no doubt be asked to elaborate on his view that Scotland may “turn on the Poles and pakis” after independence.
Many Scottish voters will be horrified by what they see of themselves refracted through the prism of a hostile London media. They don’t want to be accused of breaking up anything, let alone hating English people and foreigners, and many will simply turn away from the whole debate in disgust.
What can the Yes campaign do about this? Not a lot. I have argued before that the Scottish government could try to convene a new cross party constitutional convention to build a consensus for post referendum Scotland. But that isn’t going to happen because it would look like defeatism by the SNP, and anyway the other parties wouldn’t participate. Labour wants a convention after the referendum – a pointless exercise which will be ignored by Westminster after a No vote.
But one bright note: the Question Time audience sounded more intelligent than the politicians, and since they were all 16 and 17 year olds, made a pretty strong case for lowering the voting age for all elections. I’d trust them a lot more, certainly, than the middle aged white men on the panel.