Alex Salmond’s dilemma

Does the election result in Scotland threaten the Union?

That Alex Salmond "bestrides the Scottish political world like a colossus", as the novelist and historian Allan Massie puts it in the Times this morning (£), is indisputable. Massie describes Thursday's elections for the devolved Scottish parliament, in which the Scottish National Party won a clear majority, the "most extraordinary" in his lifetime.

Indeed, he goes so far as to say that the Union looks "far shakier" today than it did a fortnight ago. Yet the implications of the SNP victory (and the routing of Scottish Labour in seats it previously regarded as safe) are nevertheless ambiguous.

Massie reminds us that the election was, in effect, a referendum on Salmond's leadership (and the SNP ran an unabashedly presidential campaign that left the hapless Labour leader, Iain Gray, without a prayer), not on independence. Salmond's dilemma is this: "He is on top of the Scottish political world, yet opinion polls consistently show that only about a third of Scots want independence."

Salmond has a delicate calculation to make, therefore, though some of his colleagues clearly see the result as a mandate for a referendum on independence in the near future. The SNP justice minister, Kenny McAskill, declared in his victory speech in Edinburgh East that: "It is time for Scotland to take responsibility and become a nation once again." Salmond, though, is too canny a politician not to recognise the seductions of hubris.

But whatever timetable for a referendum the SNP ultimately decides upon, the election in Scotland has merely emphasised something that we knew already: the United Kingdom's constitutional settlement is a botched job. Shortly after the formation of the Tory-Lib Dem coalition government last year, David Runciman wrote an excellent piece in the London Review of Books mulling the likely consequences of an election in which Labour had lost England to the Conservatives but held its end up in Scotland.

"What no coalition of any stripe can change," Runciman wrote, "is the underlying reality of the situation: at present Labour can only govern England from Scotland, and the Tories can only govern Scotland from England."

The question we now have to ask, as Salmond luxuriates in an overall majority in the devolved parliament north of the border, is whether, at the next general election, Labour will be capable even of doing that. "The one result that could have signalled the end of the United Kingdom", Runciman argued, was "if Tory dominance in England had been matched by SNP dominance in Scotland, leading to a deal on independence which would have squeezed Labour out in both". The outcome of the Scottish election might just have made such a result in 2015 more likely.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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The economics of outrage: Why you haven't seen the end of Katie Hopkins

Her distasteful tweet may have cost her a job at LBC, but this isn't the last we've seen of Britain's biggest troll. 

Another atrocity, other surge of grief and fear, and there like clockwork was the UK’s biggest troll. Hours after the explosion at the Manchester Arena that killed 22 mostly young and female concert goers, Katie Hopkins weighed in with a very on-brand tweet calling for a “final solution” to the complex issue of terrorism.

She quickly deleted it, replacing the offending phrase with the words “true solution”, but did not tone down the essentially fascist message. Few thought it had been an innocent mistake on the part of someone unaware of the historical connotations of those two words.  And no matter how many urged their fellow web users not to give Hopkins the attention she craved, it still sparked angry tweets, condemnatory news articles and even reports to the police.

Hopkins has lost her presenting job at LBC radio, but she is yet to lose her column at Mail Online, and it’s quite likely she won’t.

Mail Online and its print counterpart The Daily Mail have regularly shown they are prepared to go down the deliberately divisive path Hopkins was signposting. But even if the site's managing editor Martin Clarke was secretly a liberal sandal-wearer, there are also very good economic reasons for Mail Online to stick with her. The extreme and outrageous is great at gaining attention, and attention is what makes money for Mail Online.

It is ironic that Hopkins’s career was initially helped by TV’s attempts to provide balance. Producers could rely on her to provide a counterweight to even the most committed and rational bleeding-heart liberal.

As Patrick Smith, a former media specialist who is currently a senior reporter at BuzzFeed News points out: “It’s very difficult for producers who are legally bound to be balanced, they will sometimes literally have lawyers in the room.”

“That in a way is why some people who are skirting very close or beyond the bounds of taste and decency get on air.”

But while TV may have made Hopkins, it is online where her extreme views perform best.  As digital publishers have learned, the best way to get the shares, clicks and page views that make them money is to provoke an emotional response. And there are few things as good at provoking an emotional response as extreme and outrageous political views.

And in many ways it doesn’t matter whether that response is negative or positive. Those who complain about what Hopkins says are also the ones who draw attention to it – many will read what she writes in order to know exactly why they should hate her.

Of course using outrageous views as a sales tactic is not confined to the web – The Daily Mail prints columns by Sarah Vine for a reason - but the risks of pushing the boundaries of taste and decency are greater in a linear, analogue world. Cancelling a newspaper subscription or changing radio station is a simpler and often longer-lasting act than pledging to never click on a tempting link on Twitter or Facebook. LBC may have had far more to lose from sticking with Hopkins than Mail Online does, and much less to gain. Someone prepared to say what Hopkins says will not be out of work for long. 

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