21 March 2013
Why can't we have
the secret diary
of Alex Salm0nd?
Fit subjects for satire. Caricatures by Bob Smith
Finding myself recently in the company of someone with senior editorial responsibility at one of Scotland's national newspapers, I ventured the opinion that there isn't much in the way of social and political satire evident in the Scottish press. Apart from the occasional cheeky account of proceedings at Holyrood, neither the Herald nor the Scotsman employs this genre in their reporting and commentary.
The newspaper man did not disagree with me, though he did point out that Scotland does sometimes feature in the UK-wide online publication, 'The Daily Mash', which casts a satirical eye over current events. For example, a recent item took a dig at the alleged tendency of Scots to blame their problems on others (particularly the English) and wondered who we would blame if the country voted for independence. In the course of the piece, reference was made to a fictitious professor of Scottishness at the University of Arbroath, an appointment which might have raised a wry smile from Alf Baird, in view of his SR article (14 February) bemoaning the dominance of non-Scots in senior posts at Scottish universities.
Shortly after the conversation I came across a piece on the right-leaning website 'Think Scotland' entitled 'Why the lack of Scottish satire?', written by James Corbett. He observed: 'In almost every developed country there's at least one satirical magazine, and maybe a TV show or two. In Scotland there's nothing'. We have no equivalent of 'Private Eye' or 'Have I Got News for You?', or even the Radio 4 programme 'The News Quiz'. It is true that Scottish entertainers sometimes feature on the last two but the emphasis is on what is happening 'nationally' (defined in UK terms).
With regard to print publishing, part of the reason is no doubt financial as it would be difficult to attract readers and advertisers in sufficient numbers to be commercially viable (particularly at a time when the mainstream press is struggling to survive). But it is worth asking if there are deeper reasons for the absence of satire and, if it were to be offered (perhaps in online format), what it might consist of.
Despite a contrary self-image, Scotland is in fact a deeply conformist country. Those in positions of power value bureaucratic restraint more highly than intellectual incisiveness. The way to get on is to defer to authority, to wait respectfully until patronage is bestowed upon you, above all not to rock the boat. Irreverent wit is not appreciated; indeed evidence of a humour bypass is seen as desirable. The result is that public discourse is too often marked by a soft consensus, which fails to engage with hard issues, and a collusive climate of complacency among decision makers. Many previous articles in SR provide examples of this – in government, public bodies and the professions.
If it were possible to launch a satirical publication, what might it contain? There is no shortage of potential material. One item might be a 'Bute House Bulletin', equivalent to the court circular from Buckingham Palace, featuring the comings and goings at the first minister's official residence (takeaway deliveries, cabinet secretaries being summoned for a dressing down, foreign dignitaries of dubious provenance being subjected a pre-referendum charm offensive). There would also be plenty of scope to send up the deliberations of those guardians of Scottish culture – the National Trust for Scotland, Historic Scotland and Creative Scotland. The Edinburgh International Festival and Fringe might be quite difficult to satirise since many productions now verge on self-parody, but the preciousness of certain 'artistes' would surely merit a mention.
Other events which would invite attention include the annual royal pilgrimage to Balmoral, with all the bowing and scraping that accompanies it. I note that my old university (Aberdeen) has recently joined the deferential band of followers by appointing the Duchess of Rothesay as its new chancellor: she was 'elected' unopposed by the university's general council. I wonder how many graduates really think she is well-qualified for the post. The royal focus could be extended to a regular feature on the Scottish aristocracy, covering issues as diverse as land ownership, business interests, fake tartanry and rip-off visitors' centres.
Spoof diaries have been a successful feature of 'Private Eye' and the format could be adapted for the Scottish scene. The imagined literary styles of Alex Salmond (self-regarding bombast), Johann Lamont (dull earnestness), Ruth Davidson (brash enthusiasm) and Willie Rennie (irritating niceness) would have limited appeal. An alternative could be Sir Peter Housden, the most senior civil servant in Scotland. We already have a clue as to his writing style, as shortly after his arrival in Scotland he started a much-ridiculed blog, penned for the edification of his subordinates. His role right at the centre of government would make him an ideal target for mischievous speculation.
Local government should not escape attention. An award for civic bungling could be initiated. Edinburgh (trams), Glasgow (George Square), Aberdeen (Union Terrace Gardens) would all be strong contenders and I am sure that Dundee, given its rather chequered history in local government administration, could be relied upon to enter the competition.
It is a mistake to see satire simply as a frivolous activity by and for people who don't have serious responsibilities to discharge. Good satire can not only expose the failures and hypocrisies of those in charge, it can also highlight problems that need to be addressed, giving voice to the views of ordinary citizens who might otherwise be denied that opportunity.
In many countries suffering under oppressive regimes, satire has been one of the first steps towards a more democratic system. A country that lacks satirical outlets is in danger of vesting too much power in those official agencies which set the policy agenda and use narrative privilege to perpetuate myths. As we move towards some form of press control, this should be of concern to us all.
Walter Humes held professorships at the universities of Aberdeen, Strathclyde and West of Scotland and is now a visiting professor of education at the University of Stirling