Alex Salmond visits London, Alan’s friends – and was Orwell on the right or left?

Looking forward to the Scottish First Minister's NS lecture on 4 March, wondering what's gone wrong the BBC's arts programming, and remembering Stuart Hall.

Alex Salmond after signing an agreement for a referendum on Scottish independence in October 2012. Photo: Getty

There has been a lot of hand-wringing of late from metropolitan commentators about the threat Alex Salmond poses to the unity of these islands. It’s as if they have belatedly understood that soon they could be living in a permanently Eurosceptic, Tory-led, rump United Kingdom while Scotland forges a new identity as a pro-European social democracy on the Nordic model (“Oh, dear Scots, please don’t go!”).

While many of the London elites – media, business, political, economic – have been complacent about the reasons why so many Scots wish to break from or at the very least reconfigure the multinational British state, we at the New Statesman have not.

A few weeks before the 2011 Scottish election we published a leader warning Labour that it was facing the prospect of a defeat in Scotland that would have far-reaching consequences. A few days later, Ed Miliband, speaking to one of my colleagues, expressed bafflement that we should have published such a leading article. It turned out to be prescient; Labour was deservedly routed in Scotland. We were on the road to September’s independence referendum.

****

On Tuesday 4 March, Alex Salmond will come to London at our invitation to make his case for independence. “I am looking for­ward to using this New Statesman lecture,” the First Minister said, “to outline how an independent Scotland will be both a progressive beacon and a powerful economic counterweight to the pull of London, which can help rebalance the social and economic structure across these islands which has seen the UK become one of the most unequal societies in the developed world.”

It is this desire among Scots to create a more balanced economy and a less unequal society that makes it certain that even if a majority says no to independence, the SNP would still have won. The present constitutional settlement in the UK is unsustainable. The centre cannot hold. The desire of the Scots and Welsh for greater autonomy is growing and too many people in England feel disenfranchised and disaffected.

It’s not for nothing that last autumn a radical populist such as Russell Brand was able to dominate the political conversation, or that Nigel Farage is so ubiquitous. The anti-Westminster mood is hardening.

****

Alex Salmond is above all a gradualist. He might not win independence this time around – I expect the vote to be close – but he knows that, if Great Britain is to remain a coherent nation state, then federalism is inevitable. He also knows that, even if they lose, the nationalists will come again and again. There is no turning back. The status quo is unacceptable to all except the most insular unionists.

****

The Financial Times dismissed Alan Yen­tob’s 8 February BBC2 profile of Hanif Kureishi as an “hour of portentous complacency”. Yentob, who is 66, has been working at the BBC since 1968. He mystifyingly still occupies an elevated position as the corporation’s premier arts film-maker, as if in all that time no one of comparable talent has emerged to challenge his authority or replace him. (Why is it the male presenters who last so long at the BBC?)

Yentob has become a hagiographer. Worse still, the BBC allows him to make indulgent, uncritical programmes about his close friends – such as Kureishi and the architect Richard Rogers, husband of Ruth Rogers, chef-owner of the River Café restaurant in west London, a favourite haunt of the bearded arts supremo and his pals.

It gives me no pleasure to say that the only film in Yentob’s flagship Imagine series I’ve managed to watch to the end was last year’s offering on Machiavelli. But even this well-intentioned programme featured contributions from another of Yentob’s friends, the psychologist Adam Phillips, and ended with the BBC man back at Broadcasting House smugly comparing himself to a Machiavellian anti-hero, as if we hadn’t already seen enough of him in front of the camera. BBC Television – which brought us Monitor, Omnibus, Arena and The Late Show – was once celebrated for the distinction and ambition of its arts programmes. When did it begin to go wrong?

****

I first encountered Stuart Hall’s writings when I studied A-level politics at my local sixth-form college in Essex. The lecturer was an enthusiast of the new cultural studies and he used to show us recordings of the TV programmes Hall made for the Open University. He also gave me Raymond Williams’s short book on Orwell to read. “Was Orwell on the right or left?” he asked.

Hall, who died on 10 February at the age of 82, was one of the most penetrating analysts of the emergence of the new right. Through his essays in Martin Jacques’s Marxism Today he reached a wider audience and popularised the term “Thatcherism”. A couple of summers ago I sent my then colleague Jonathan Derbyshire to interview Hall. “When I saw Thatcherism,” he told the NS, “I realised that it wasn’t just an economic programme, but that it had profound cultural roots. Thatcher and [Enoch] Powell were both what Hegel called ‘historical individuals’ – their very politics, their contradictions, instance or concretise in one life or career much wider forces that are in play.”

For Hall, Thatcherism was a “hegemonic project”: she did not merely wish to liberalise the economy, she wanted to change the soul of the nation, and she did. We are still living with the aftershocks of the Thatcher counter-revolution, as events in Scotland remind us.

For details of Alex Salmond’s NS lecture, visit: newstatesman.com/events