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Islay McLeod

19 September 2014
The Yes side
was its own
worst enemy
Kenneth Roy


I
The closest I ever got to Scotland's first minister – though he was only a humble MP at the time – was when the two of us had adjoining billets in a newspaper. It led to an interesting inter-columnar exchange which Alex Salmond, judging by his recent actions, seems not to have remembered. If only he had, he might be looking forward to a happier future.

One week, on the back of some fresh SNP advance, I recalled what Andrew Cruickshank, the venerable Scottish actor, had once told me about nationalism. Auld Cruickshank said that what he would like to see in Scotland was 'a gentle and civilised nationalism'. I wrote that I liked the sound of a gentle and civilised nationalism, but that it too often felt like a contradiction in terms.

The chap in the adjacent column was stung into a response the following week. Mr Salmond said that he too believed in the idea of a gentle and civilised nationalism and that, in his opinion, the Scottish National Party exemplified this ideal. We let it go at that, though it would have been an intriguing subject for continuing discussion.

In the last 10 days of the campaign, the phrase 'a gentle and civilised nationalism' kept entering my head. What, I wondered, was gentle and civilised about the intimidation of journalists outside the BBC in Glasgow? Or Mr Sillars' 'day of reckoning', a phrase with deeply unpleasant connotations? Or the oppressive atmosphere in which the last stage of the campaign was conducted, making it impossible for supporters of the union to wear badges or put stickers in the windows of their homes without fear of retribution? What was gentle or civilised about any of this?

Of course the first minister was not directly responsible for these excesses. But he had a duty to try to put a stop to them. Instead, confronted by the press about the disagraceful scenes at the BBC, he claimed they were part of a 'joyous' exercise of democracy. Mr Salmond has a peculiar idea of what constitutes joy. The organiser of the Yes campaign, Blair Jenkins, also defended what happened at the BBC: more reprehensibly in his case because Mr Jenkins used to be a broadcaster himself.

When Jim Sillars made his disastrous intervention, hogging valuable airtime for the best part of a critical weekend, no doubt he was enjoying his last moment in the sun. Perhaps he little knew that he was basically closing down Scotland as a place in which to do business; his judgement has never been particularly sound.

But Mr Jenkins then had a responsibility to disassociate the Yes campaign from the rantings of this 'nationalist leader' (as the media inconveniently labelled the man of many parties). Instead, he issued a statement full of weasel words, which began by saying what a wonderful job Mr Sillars was doing – the precise opposite of the truth. It was 24 hours before Mr Salmond feebly distanced the cause from the sinister 'day of reckoning', but by then a great deal of damage had been done.

It seems no time at all – it is no time at all – since an opinion poll gave the Yes side a 2% lead. One columnist in the Scottish Review called it a 'historic' poll, while another – Alex Bell, former policy adviser to Alex Salmond – predicted in its wake that the winning side would poll 55% of the vote. He was more or less right. The only problem is that the winning side has turned out to be the opposite one.

Maybe the poll wasn't really historic after all. Maybe it was just a poll. All the same, it is a pretty terrible commentary on the Yes campaign, and Mr Salmond's leadership of it, that it managed to convert a 2% lead into a near-11% deficit in 10 short days.

It is true that the poll belatedly galvanised the leaders of the UK unionist parties. We then had the infamous rush over the border by Cameron and Co, and a series of powerful speeches by Gordon Brown which, in the opinion of polling analysts, brought some wavering Labour voters back into the fold. But this doesn't fully explain the dramatic late shift from the widely predicted 'knife-edge' result to such a clear and decisive one.

There is no doubt in my mind – although it can never be proved – that the bully-boy tactics of a significant minority of Yes supporters alienated many decent people in Scotland, including some who would otherwise have voted for independence.

A gentle and civilised nationalism? It didn't feel like it – and Alex Salmond has paid a heavy price. 'All political careers end in failure'. His just did. (4.30pm, Friday: resignation announced).

II
And what about that saintly man, Kenyon Wright? Where stands the canon this fine morning?

In July, he submitted for publication in SR a short (300 word) piece headed: 'It's about Power, stupid'. I must admit to having been surprised by its angry tone, the capital P, and its clarion call for independence: this from the guiding light of the Scottish Constitutional Convention, Mr Deevolushun, the 'architect of the parliament'. Though not literally the architect; I wouldn't blame him for that.

I replied: 'Many thanks for sending your latest piece. It is very short – too long for the Cafe, too short for a main article; and it inevitably poses the question of whether the Constitutional Convention was always a staging post to independence. If you would be interested in answering this question, I would be interested in publishing it'.

He got back to me promptly: 'Yes, I do feel given the total absence of any sign that the UK's constitutional mess is ready for reform, that independence is the unfinished business of the convention, which had to be content with devolution. I will send you something on this as soon as I can'.

That was 18 July, two months to the day before the referendum. I waited for Kenyon Wright's article, which would have been a fascinating contribution to the debate, but article came there none. No doubt it slipped his mind or he had better things to do, yet I'm disappointed. I would have welcomed his explanation of why the Scottish Constitutional Convention, in which he and my old friend Joyce McMillan laboured so long, did not divulge to the public at the time that devolution was far from being the ultimate destination of its ambitions: that it was merely the first watering hole on the journey.

Did we not deserve to be told this before we dutifully signed up to the devolution project? To put it bluntly: were we not misled? If Kenyon Wright would care to address this question from his elevated position in the wreckage, I repeat my offer to publish it.

III
Ah, the writers and journalists. Where does one start? The fanatical support of most of the leading luminaries in the Scottish literary 'community' was always ominous news for the Yes campaign, though it would be easy to over-state their influence.

Writers are not trusted as political thinkers and have a poor track record in the cause of Scottish home rule – ever since that old goat MacDiarmid proved such a liability to John MacCormick and his national covenant. The covenant movement nobly collected two million signatures for a parliament in Edinburgh as long ago as the early 1950s, beside which the 1.6 million votes for independence last night looks rather unimpressive. But MacCormick's prodigious achievement – subsequently dismissed by Gorgeous George Pottinger's Royal Commission on Scottish Affairs – was no thanks to MacDiarmid.

His successors have been among the more unforgiving devotees of the Salmond crusade. The few dissidents in that community – the handful who were brave enough to declare for No – were treated with contempt by their fellow writers. So much for intellectual openness – though such behaviour has been unhappily symptomatic of a more general intolerance.

What was true of the writers of fiction was true with semi-colons attached to the Scottish commentariat, most of whom abandoned any pretence of objectivity. The performance of the Herald group of journalists was astonishing: one of its commentators addressed a Scottish republican rally while another became such a cheer-leader for Yes that, as recently as last week, he was advising his twitter followers how to behave during the party leaders' visit to Scotland. ('No egg-throwing'). How can such people ever expect to be taken seriously again? They have reduced themselves to the abject level of fans with laptops.

IV
In the end, the people of Scotland came out in glorious and unprecedented numbers, two million of them casting their vote for the preservation of the United Kingdom. The turnout and the majority have left opponents of that union nowhere to go – well, at least for a generation. The people have spoken, the bastards.

Kenneth Roy is editor of the Scottish Review