A series of illuminating conflicts in the last week – Graham Spiers's resignation from the Herald and the J K Rowling/Natalie McGarry argument on twitter – show something revealing about modern Scotland.
Spiers' departure from the paper, along with Angela Haggerty's sacking from the Sunday Herald, brought up numerous issues. One immediate issue was where power lay in the newspaper group – with open disagreement emerging between the Herald and Sunday Herald editors. More fundamentally it touched upon the legacy of the Herald as one of the traditional bastions of unionist establishment Scotland, and the continued toxic issue of Rangers FC.
The Rowling/McGarry case saw the SNP MP challenge Rowling to condemn the anonymous twitter account of 'Brian Spanner’ (who has a track record of online abuse) who the author had called a 'good man’ for donating to her charity. Rowling stood her ground and asked McGarry to show where she had ever colluded with or condoned any misogynist or hateful tweet. No answer came from McGarry who went silent and then apologised.
It is relevant that McGarry, only elected in May 2015, had the SNP parliamentary whip withdrawn in November, and was named as part of a police investigation into missing funds from the campaign group Women for Independence she helped set up. The overwhelming view on social media seemed to be game, set and match to Rowling, but that didn’t stop some of the more evangelical nationalists from claiming McGarry had humiliated Rowling – which seemed a judgement from another universe.
Scotland has historically had a problem with debate, and in particular debate which holds those with power to account. The verbal and mostly male culture of flyting and rumbustious exchanges has disguised the fact that Scotland’s democratic intellect has never been that diverse an assembly.
Scotland has been characterised until recently by a hierarchical, controlled society – a place of unforgiving elders, permissive authority, and rigid rules, regulations and accepted behaviour. Central to that power was a Protestant establishment. You cannot understand the Herald story without referencing that the paper – along with most of the mainstream press – came from and represented the liberal unionist establishment; one that was Protestant, anti-Catholic, and firmly upholding dominant elites and interest groups (law and other professions) in this case in the West of Scotland. The Herald remained part of this society until some point in the 1960s, maybe even into the early 1970s.
It didn’t investigate religious discrimination and Catholic no-go areas in society. Glasgow Rangers was never systematically challenged or faced the power of journalistic scrutiny on its practice of never signing Catholics until Mo Johnston in 1989, or on the wider culture of Protestant triumphalism. It could equally be said that Celtic FC, which did sign Protestants, wasn't held to account for a whole host of things either. Instead, the whole arena of West of Scotland football culture, its aggressiveness, ugly side and related violence around the Old Firm was left untouched.
The conceit of modern Scotland is that all this has changed. But it hasn’t. The Herald, like the entire mainstream media, did not investigate the crisis in Rangers that led to the club’s downfall and liquidation – the malpractice and abuse of a historic club by a succession of owners.
The opposite is also true. Modern Scotland isn’t, as some claim, going to the dogs. Muriel Gray last week in the Daily Telegraph commented that politics in Scotland 'used to be debatable and enthralling. Now it is tribal, identity politics, for us or against us. Tragic'.
When exactly did that 'enthralling’ democratic spirit inhabit and define us? It didn’t when the Kirk ruled this land, or the Liberal Party in the 19th century, or the Labour Party in the 20th century. Scotland was defined by all sorts of self-preservation societies, networks and elites, as well as being disfigured by all kinds of taboo subjects – from religion and sex to politics.
There was widespread anti-Irish Catholic prejudice across society. The Church of Scotland issued an infamous report into the Irish in Scotland in 1923, which it took them until 2002 to apologise for. Lest we think this was just a West of Scotland problem – in the 1930s in Glasgow and Edinburgh, anti-Catholic parties promising the banning of Catholics from public sector jobs and repatriation, won significant support and council representation. In Glasgow, Scottish Protestant League won 23% support in 1933, splitting the right-wing vote and aided Labour to power. In Edinburgh, the Protestant Action Society were led by John Cormack who held his South Leith ward until his retirement in 1962, standing individual candidates in the ward as late as 1971 and 1972, while polling derisory votes.
Scotland did not have a public debate on homosexuality until the abolition of Section 2a/Clause 28 in 2000. The legalisation of male homosexuality happened in 1980, 13 years after England and Wales to near total public silence – such was the embarrassment of most of our leading politicians (Robin Cook, David Steel and Malcolm Rifkind being rare examples). Until recently the Gordon Wilson-led SNP was as bad as the dinosaur/dead wood elements of Labour on this issue.
Let’s start by being honest about the realities of Scotland – where we have come from and where we are now. No doubt in 18th-century establishment Edinburgh in the midst of the Scottish Enlightenment it was easy for certain male philosophers to pontificate on all sorts of worldly affairs. But this was nowhere near the environment described by Andrew Marr that 'all of Edinburgh was involved in saloon discussions'. There were the small matters of class and gender.
In the 20th century, gatherings of Scottish writers, poets and thinkers, mostly men, could indulge their flyting aided by drink and a sense of collective bonhomie. But some seem to have mistaken these small groups of significant storytellers (for example, Hugh MacDiarmid, Sorley MacLean, Hamish Henderson) for the voices of society. They were not and never have been.
Scotland has come far – but it still seems content with the appearance of democratic debate rather than the practice. Look at the Scottish Parliament. The 'idea’ is ennobling. People rightly feel proud and attached to that idea. But the reality is rather different. The parliament has rarely been the democratic assembly and voice of the nation, and real power resides elsewhere: in the Scottish Government, public bodies, and corporate and big business elites: i.e.: mostly where it sat pre-parliament. Yet, a significant part of our country does not seem to mind or show an interest in this.
Take the fact that we don’t seem to do lots of laws very well anymore. The foxhunting act didn’t actually outlaw foxhunting. The Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Behaviour Act makes it a crime to sing certain songs at or going to a football match, but you could sing them as long as you are going to or at a rugby or cricket match. This isn’t even then about 'hate crime’, but location crime.
Both of these acts came from the need to be seen to do something. Scotland has a problem with sectarianism and the behaviour of sections of Celtic and Rangers support. Yet, as historian Tom Devine has pointed out: 'I don’t know of any other country where songs to do with religion or history are criminalised’ and no country with an Irish Catholic community has legislation outlawing sectarian songs. That doesn’t say anything positive about contemporary Scotland.
There is a significant sense of fragility and tension in parts of public life illustrated by the Graham Spiers/Herald case and Rowling/McGarry exchange and reactions. It could also be seen in how 'the Glasgow Effect’ stramash around artist Ellie Harrison exploded at an intersection of arts, culture, class and the uses of public monies. Apart from social media’s ability to allow controversies to catch fire and act as an amplifier, this touches upon how substantive conversations and dialogues take place, the power of elites and institutions, and what happens when and where power begins to move and change and become less certain – as has happened in the media, football and politics in recent times.
Scotland has become a more disputatious, messy, contested place – and in the process become more uncomfortable and unpredictable. Once there were clear and understandable boundaries in public life; now those boundaries are much less clear-cut and more porous – which is a positive development, but does mean that not all the voices which emerge are edifying. We still have a long way to go – embracing more debate not less, and encouraging more messiness and unpredictability – but we also have to identify new voluntary rules for how we live and respect one another. These would include how we can more openly look at ourselves honestly, not accept superficial change and appearance as the real thing, and identity and hold power and elites of all kinds to account.
There are still too many shibboleths and taboos in our land. Working-class children still get discriminated against across society. No-go areas and no-entry signs still affect too many people in a more subtle way than for Catholics and the Irish years ago, but still erect powerful barriers restricting life chances. The SNP have to, as one observer put it, 'get out of the mindset of "no bad news"', while at the same time some supporters are content to parade themselves as 'the new establishment’ and seek patronage and preferment.
Noise matters, but it can also annoy and distract. Equally, the sounds of silence in a society tells you something profound: about where power sits, who has voice and who does not. The late Charles Kennedy once said of the adversarial nature of Westminster: 'Too much silence in politics, it was once said, is much more ominous than too much noise'. The writer Alison Kennedy (no relation) reflecting on Scottish society wrote about the importance of silence: 'Go into any place where history is stored and listen. Hold your breath. Hear how still it is. Librarians and archivists will keep their visitors quiet, but this particular silence has nothing to do with them. It runs through buzzing computer rooms and waits in busy record offices, it is always there'.
Silence is always present in the most raucous and heated exchanges – political, economic, religious. It was there in the indyref, in the gaps and exchanges which always mean that the phrase 'the entire nation is in conversation’ is never true, and as misguided as Andrew Marr’s take on the Enlightenment.
The numerous communitarian and collectivist accounts of Scotland (from 'Jock Tamson’s Bairns’ to 'Flower of Scotland’ and 'We are the People’) have seldom noticed this, or the limits of their appeal and that they don’t speak for the entire nation. There has been an insider/outsider dynamic to this casting out of dissenters, heretics and people who don’t fit in, marginalising and stigmatising their views – from the Irish to lesbian and gays to all sorts of minority groups.
Historically Scots seem to have jumped from one set of stories and elites to the next: the Kirk, Liberals and Labour, and some fear that the SNP is the next. We have to act and be better than that: and having thrown off the old orthodoxies of Labour Scotland not buy into a fixed mindset of the new nationalist message. The Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche observed 'when we reject the single story, when we realise that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise'. That is the danger of an over-unifying, monocultural Scotland: 'the danger of a single story'.
Who has voice and status matters, as does how we speak and relate to each other, and how we examine and hold accountable those with power and in elites. Scotland historically has not had a great record on the latter, but has a good story of convincing itself that everything is all right in our inclusive, progressive country and that our limitations are the faults of others – Westminster, Tories, London Labour.
Perhaps if we were to change one thing – we would recognise that while structures and institutions matter, so do the cultures and the psychologies of power – and alongside it, powerlessness. Too many people across our society are diminished and restricted by the legacies and practices of exclusion and enclosure which have marked our society. Our public life and politics offer a narrow menu which more often than not fails to counter this, and instead thrashes about in frustration and anger. We should at least start talking about this, understanding where we have come from, and then begin a serious programme of changing public life and democratising Scotland.