A few weeks ago, Gerry Hassan alerted me to a horde of old cartoons at a shop in Shawlands and I salivated at the prospect of expanding my modest collection of political caricatures and drawings, many of which grace the walls of my bathroom. I have a couple of old Tatlers (depicting peers of the realm), George Younger as defence secretary, a portrait of the late John P Mackintosh and, my favourite, an original Martin Rowson of Alex Salmond following victory at the 2011 Holyrood election.
Those in Shawlands turned out to be practically every cartoon ever produced by the late Jim Turnbull, who worked at the (Glasgow) Herald for several decades. Unfortunately, they were in no particular order when I finally got to the shop, but I had great fun rummaging through several drawers of cartoons. I had one particular image in mind: Turnbull's famous lion motif following the 1979 devolution referendum, with the caption 'I'm feart.' But I couldn't find it anywhere, and indeed I later learned that it had sold on eBay in 2015 for a modest £95. I cursed myself for having missed it.
Still, Turnbull used the lion on more than one occasion, for example after the 1992 general election, when he depicted it shackled to a ball marked 'London' and asking 'Whit Noo?' at the prospect of another five years of anti-devolution Tory government. In another, which I also purchased, the then Labour leader Tony Blair is shown telling George Robertson (his shadow Scottish secretary) and Robin Cook 'No Representation Without Taxation!' – a reference (I'm assuming) to his surprise decision in 1995 to hold a two-question referendum prior to legislating for a Scottish parliament.
Later, I tracked down Jim Turnbull's obituary online and learned that he had contributed his first cartoon to the Glasgow Herald in 1969, having spent a few years at the Daily Record. As Alan Jenkins, a former Herald editor, remarked upon his death: 'When you mention Jim Turnbull, that image of the lion is what springs to mind.' I'm now pleased to have one of his (deliberately non-rampant) lions in my collection.
When Jim Turnbull died in 2004, Scottish politics – which he had covered during the eventful 1970s, 80s and 90s – had become a rather drab affair, a competent but vanilla coalition of Labour and the Liberal Democrats in devolved power in Edinburgh and the then unassailable Tony Blair near the end of his second term as prime minister. He'd have had no inkling of an SNP victory a few years later, let alone an independence referendum in 2014.
For my generation of journalists, however, we've lived and breathed little else since the 2011 Scottish parliament election. So I felt a sense of déjà vu when, last Wednesday evening, I made my way to Eastwood for the launch of a new local 'Yes' group, which had asked me to talk about the 'benefits' of independence. They seemed surprised that I had agreed, but, as I told them, I'm generally happy to take part in such events, it's just that I'm rarely asked – presumably folk think I'll say no. Professionally, however, it makes sense for me periodically to gauge the temperature of the independence movement.
And judging from a chilly Wednesday evening in Eastwood – an area now represented by Conservatives at both Holyrood and Westminster – that temperature remains high. The sheer extent of the anger from those gathered at a local school, an impressive turnout of more than 100 people, was quite something. I should say that they were perfectly civil towards me, which made a nice change (at last year's SNP conference I was hissed at, denounced by Mhairi Black and called a 'horrible bigot' by a female delegate), but during a Q&A the usual targets got it in the neck, chiefly the 'mainstream media,' and particularly the BBC.
I did my best to combat some of what I regarded as the wilder charges. Sure enough, someone mentioned the 'McCrone Report,' a memo written by the economist Gavin McCrone in the mid-1970s and later released under freedom of information. In essence, this predicted that North Sea oil revenue would make a theoretically independent Scotland rich beyond the dreams of avarice. In the past decade, however, this otherwise unremarkable document (its calculations were, by and large, in the public domain) has morphed into a conspiracy theory. It was suppressed by the government, some nationalists claim, with journalists joining in the cover-up.
Now that's an interesting account of what was a confidential piece of civil service advice, just not a very credible one. Today's Scottish government does its best to prevent doubtless similar documents entering the public domain. I pointed all of this out, but it fell on reluctant ears.
There was also a fascinating contrast when a woman in the audience asked about the Irish border issue. I replied that if one part of Ireland remained in the single market and the other did not, then it was difficult to see how some sort of border could be avoided, in Ireland as well as on the mainland. This met with little response, but when Dr Craig Dalzell from the Common Weal think tank more or less agreed, he was warmly applauded for his frankness. But then he is pro-independence and therefore has permission to be sceptical of SNP arguments. As a journalist, I did not. That said, a couple of those present told me afterwards that they had changed their view of me, which was heartening. The organisers also made me an honorary member of 'Yes Eastwood,' and my membership card now sits on my desk at home in Edinburgh.
The uneasy relationship between the independence movement and the media also came up when I gave a lecture on 'political reporting' to students at the University of the West of Scotland (UWS) in Ayr. This was my first formal (and therefore paid) lecturing gig since completing a PhD at UWS last year, so it was an interesting experience, and one I took care to prepare for. Luckily, I was in my comfort zone, and so hopefully gave the second-year students some insights into the sort of work that's sustained me for the past couple of decades.
I also tried to keep it light. In passing, I mentioned being 'unfollowed' on Twitter by the first minister, which prompted one student to demand (quite reasonably) a fuller explanation when I invited questions. Others asked about Twitter echo-chambers and the declining trust in journalism. I found my mind wandering back to Jim Turnbull's cartoons, which in so many respects captured a more straightforward – and arguably less angry – era in Scottish politics.