26 November 2014

The Scottish Review is having an extended break. SR will be re-launched early in January 2015.

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The Scottish Review is published by the Institute of Contemporary Scotland

Editor: Kenneth Roy
Deputy Editor: Islay McLeod

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* This week's banner: Communication in Scotland. Photograph by Islay McLeod

The last
in the
current series

The official colour of Scottish thinking

I
Oliver Brown
was a witty nationalist. It is not quite a contradiction in terms; or wasn't. We could do with him now. After the Hamilton by-election in 1967, which few of the current proselytisers will remember, Brown wrote that 'you could feel a chill along the Labour backbenches looking for a spine to run up'. They're still looking for that spine. It seems to be more elusive than ever.

When they gave me the Oliver Brown award – it's dished out every year to someone in the Scottish arts or media – I used the acceptance speech to propose a newspaper, an existing one or one not yet born, which was sympathetic to nationalism.

At that time – we're talking maybe 12 years ago – the indigenous quality press in Scotland was still vigorous and big-selling. It was dominated by papers edited by distinguished journalists, papers devolution-minded but hostile to independence. The nationalist cause had few friends in the media. I reckoned there might be a gap in the market for an intelligent paper prepared to argue for outright home rule.

The propaganda sheet just launched by the American-owned Herald group is not the paper of my imagination. I didn't visualise my new paper (or the old paper reborn) as a cheer-leading enterprise, launched by its editor around some SNP mass rally with an exhortation to the faithful. Good God, no. The idea of any self-respecting editor attaching himself to such a convention would have been anathema. Or rather the convention would have been the stuff of biting satire: the new first minister, straight from the staff room after morning break, hilariously miscast as a rock star.

The paper of my lazy dream would have been of the sceptical, iconoclastic nature that I've always associated with the best journalism. It would have resisted any link with a political party; it would have been vigorously receptive to opposing points of view; in short, it would have been more than a house journal for the devout. And it certainly wouldn't have been owned by Americans; it would have been a native enterprise. So much for the dream.

II
What of the reality? I think inevitably of my own reading. The Spectator is a deeply conservative magazine, though not necessarily with a capital C. Its political columnist used to be Alan Watkins, who was not a Tory, and from whom I learned more about English usage than I ever did from the factory system of Scottish education.

Under Andrew Neil ('editor-in-chief'), the Spectator is more right-wing now than it was in Watkins' day. Still, I remain a faithful reader. It is useful, often rather enjoyable, to be fully informed about the opinions of the side you don't tend to agree with – it is a personal stand against the totalitarian tendency that exists within all of us. Rod Liddle is ghastly, but I adore his column. He utters the unthinkable and utters it well.

Who dares to utter the unthinkable in Scotland? The simple answer is: precious few. But there is a tremendous market for the propaganda sheets. They're everywhere on social media and now we have one in print – two if you count its Sunday bedfellow. Good for the Americans; they're such entrepreneurs, unlike poor state-dependent us.

Furthermore – a word I use too rarely; it is such effective sticking plaster – it's nice to have like-minded folk clubbily agreeing with each other – that lovely sense of being safe, of being protected from the unthinkable. When a loose-living Spectator columnist (Henry Fairlie) ended up in the cells one night, and the police telephoned the family home, Mrs Fairlie said that she was relieved to hear it; for once she knew where Henry was. I have the same feeling about the readers of the propaganda sheets. Not that they're loose livers. Heavens, not a bit of it. If only. But at least we know where they are in the morning: in their own little cells, cluck-clucking approval of every predictable sentiment.

Consensus. That's what we like in Scotland. It's the only thing we can agree on – the right to agree. Most columnists have signed up to this reassuring principle. The Herald group, the one owned by the Americans, is groaning with columnists agreeing with each other.

There are occasional eruptions of eloquent polemic. The Observer's Kevin McKenna is vicious; and he can write. But he too is on-side these days; he too is part of the great consensus. We need scarcely concern ourselves with the dissidents. They are few in number and irrelevant to the future of our small country.

III
Hey, what about us? This edition marks the completion of 20 years of continuous publication. SR began as a quarterly print journal in January 1995; Andrew Marr wrote that it amounted to nothing and wouldn't last.

It moved to six times a year, then to chunky paperback format twice annually, and in February 2008 achieved a remarkable metamorphosis as an online weekly. I look back on its survival against the odds with a certain satisfaction. But the last year has been miserable.

SR was never an overtly political magazine. It was concerned with Scottish society and culture, sure, but only this year has it become overtly political. Short of loopy detachment, it had no alternative. Everything in Scotland is now framed in political terms. Everything. There is no escape from bloody politics. This year I have come to loathe bloody politics. It's no way to live. But it's the way we have come to live: most of the media voices nodding vigorously in unison, the rest of the population sourly divided as seldom before.

I spent most of the year worrying about the magazine's lack of political balance. Two Yes sympathisers, Gerry Hassan and Alex Bell, occupied adjoining berths week after week with no corresponding space for a No columnist, for the very good reason that I couldn't find anyone who would stick his (or her) head regularly above the parapet.

Unengaged by the process, bored by it most of the time, I wrote next to nothing about the referendum until the final days, when the roughing-up of Jim Murphy, the demonstrations outside the BBC, and what felt like the systematic vandalism of No campaign material convinced me that bloody politics had gone too far. The readership – one week it reached a dizzy 81,000 – was a source of little pleasure. It was a relief when we shed most of the passing trade.

The apparent conversion of the Scottish Review – though largely illusory – alienated the sort of people who prefer to have their prejudices massaged rather than challenged. We have lost the more thin-skinned Nats, the ones who brandish the propaganda sheets at rallies as models of impartial journalism. The Unsubscribed liken us to the BBC and the Daily Mail – wow, we're that professional? Or, with their well-developed sense of grievance, they complain that we girn too much. The new establishment demands nothing less than blue-sky thinking. Grey skies – under which most rational people live in Scotland – are Westminster's fault, like everything else.

The readership? It's hardly shifted. We're back to where we were. You win some, you lose some. But I end this year, five weeks early for a small sabbatical, with the thought that although there is a greater need for sceptical journalism in Scotland than ever before, particularly as we prepare for the likelihood of an arrogant one-party state, there is less space for scepticism and less tolerance of it when it appears.

This edition brings the curtain down: not quite 'The Mousetrap' but a decent run. When we return in January with a re-launched SR, the stage will look different and feel different and there will be some new faces among the cast of characters. But the usual suspects won't have changed – they never do.

Kenneth Roy is founder editor of the Scottish Review