In recent times Kevin McKenna has become a regular weekly contributor on Scottish affairs in the Observer. It is only Scottish readers who enjoy the benefits of his insights – readers in England get in the same space those of the feisty Nick Cohen. (My preference would be to have both.)
Not that I always agree with McKenna. At first I quite liked his contributions. He seemed to be very much his own man, an independent observer, no supporter of a party line. More recently he has been coming across sometimes as over-confident, even self-satisfied. He is deeply critical of the Scottish Labour party (while not exactly a fan of the Scottish Tories or Lib- Dems) whereas he seems to be welcoming a second referendum on Scottish independence.
In any event it is one of his recent pieces that deserves an answer. And in offering that answer, my late daughter Sarah has been much in my mind. Let me explain why. At school in Aberdeen, she characteristically insisted on taking a class in woodworking despite being the 'wrong' gender. In my kitchen today I have several wooden chopping boards. One of them is of special value because Sarah made it in her class, and recently – like now – it has been much in my mind. Why? Because of the way it is decorated. It is round, plain wood on one side, but on the other Sarah chose to decorate it with a large St George's cross in the middle with two smaller ones above. The colours are the white and red of the English national flag.
I thought nothing of it at the time. But looking back now I realise that Sarah was making another of her defiant statements. She was English and proud of it – if her fellow pupils thought differently she didn't care. I suspect she'd been made fun of for – like her mother – sounding English. But English, not Scottish, is what she wanted to be. In answering back she was becoming a very aggressive snowflake.
The title of Kevin McKenna's article is: 'To Scotland's snowflakes: it's a big, bad world.' Snowflake has emerged as a witty, trendy term of abuse. Originally deployed by the middle-aged and elderly on the political right to get back at a younger generation much too committed to what they saw as political correctness gone mad, the term has come to be used to describe more generally all those seen as so thin-skinned and wimpish that they need to be protected from ideas they dislike. Hence all the fuss over student demands for 'safe spaces' and even the banning of speakers seen as too controversial from university campuses.
In the opening section of his article, McKenna has a lot of fun at the expense of what he claims are ludicrous examples of the snowflake phenomenon: a Glasgow University theology course which offers students a 'safe zone' from biblical horrors, and veterinary colleges offering their charges protection from the more disturbing graphic elements of their coursework. He goes on to suggest that soon something will have to be done to ensure that our future medics are not so fragile and emotionally vulnerable that they have to be protected from the physical realities of their profession.
At this point, however, the jokes come to an end, and we reach the real point of the article. 'The Snowflake Tendency,' McKenna writes, 'has even begun to infect political discourse in Scotland.' He goes on to argue that those who suggest that a second independence referendum could be anything other than a routine exercise in the democratic casting of votes are simply wrong.
I cast myself among those who find the prospect of a long drawn-out second referendum much more daunting than he does. And I utterly reject the idea that the so-called 'snowflake tendency' has any relevance in this context. If McKenna believes that a second referendum will be conducted in an atmosphere of democratic sweetness and light, he is the one who is living in cloud cuckoo land. Does he remember the mob of Yes supporters, last time round, surrounding the BBC headquarters in Glasgow doing their best to intimidate BBC reporters they regarded as insufficiently obsequious in their questioning of the leaders of the Yes campaign? He may have forgotten, but those who work for the BBC have not, and who can blame them?
McKenna enjoys mocking the idea that its potential 'divisiveness' is a legitimate reason for objecting to a second referendum. He is wrong on this score too. A second referendum will be deeply divisive. The first one was. Has he forgotten the streets of Glasgow in the closing days of that campaign – dominated by Yes supporters who believed they were going to win? No supporters in their houses were defined only by their understandable silence.
What will it be like second time round? The pressure to win for the nationalist cause will be even greater than last time. Effectively a now or never opportunity. If there is any doubt about the outcome, or even that it could be a close run, then I believe the campaign will become the reverse of McKenna's 'one-day exercise in democracy'. The post-union enlightenment brought deadly religious extremism to an end in Scotland, but Scottish society has never been noted for its absence of destructive factionalism. (Think Celtic vs. Rangers). A second independence referendum is simply going to reinforce that familiar reality.