Union blues: Was the referendum a transformative moment for Scottish politics?

Books by Alan Cochrane, David Torrance, Peter Geoghegan and Iain Macwhirter on the Scottish referendum prompt reflection on what happens next.

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Alex Salmond: My Part in His Downfall
Alan Cochrane
Biteback, 324pp, £18.99

100 Days of Hope and Fear: How Scotland’s Independence Referendum Was Lost and Won
David Torrance
Luarth Press, 188pp, £9.99

The People’s Referendum: Why Scotland Will Never Be the Same Again
Peter Geoghegan
Luarth Press, 177pp, £9.99

Disunited Kingdom: How Westminster Won a Referendum But Lost Scotland
Iain Macwhirter
Cargo Publishing, 174pp, £8.99

On 17 September last year, the day before Scotland voted by a 10-point margin to remain part of the United Kingdom, I attended the Scottish National Party’s final referendum campaign rally at the Perth Concert Hall. The event began smoothly enough. Saltires were unfurled, the PA system played nationalist pop anthems and activists massed in front of the main stage. About 25 minutes in, however, the mood changed. A section of the audience started jeering. A BBC News team, led by their political editor, Nick Robinson, had appeared in the gallery. SNP officials gestured frantically for the heckling to stop. Moments later, Robinson and his colleagues left.

Huge numbers of independence-supporting Scots now loathe the BBC and large parts of the mainstream press along with it. Their view is that the media were active participants in the referendum debate, agitating on behalf of the Union – and, in some cases, they are right.

Take Alan Cochrane, the Scottish editor of the Daily Telegraph. In his diary of the poll, Alex Salmond: My Part in His Downfall, he freely admits to cropping the Telegraph’s output for the benefit of the No campaign a few months before the vote.

[The Better Together chairman Alistair] Darling rang and asked me not to publish my bashing of Downing Street as it would simply add fuel to the flames . . .
I had already thought about not filing it and told Darling that . . . Jenny [Cochrane’s wife] said I should do what Darling asks. He’s in charge after all. It’s not really good journalism but what the hell does journalism matter?

This is a startling admission that reflects badly on both Cochrane and his employers at the Telegraph. Yet it is not conclusive evidence of a widespread conspiracy among journalists and politicians to discredit the idea of independence. Cochrane is a particularly bad-tempered unionist and Alex Salmond: My Part in His Downfall is an awful book, full of rambling insults (most of them levelled at the SNP) and boring anecdotes. You get the sense that he would have done anything to undermine the Yes vote as polling day approached.

Wider coverage of the referendum, however, suffered more from clumsy reporting than it did from conscious favouritism. The BBC, for instance, in its search for an easy headline, often regurgitated the claims made by anti-independence business leaders. This gave the impression of institutional bias, whereas most BBC correspondents were diligently objective.

The sense of bias was reinforced by the complacency of Westminster journalists, whose writing on Scotland was often threadbare and ill-informed. Only in the final weeks of the debate, as the gap between Yes and No began to narrow and panic descended on Whitehall, did the London press pack finally wake up to what was unfolding north of the border.

Scotland-based writers could be every bit as lazy and superficial as their London counterparts. Like Cochrane, David Torrance, a commentator best known for his 2010 biography of Salmond, also kept a referendum diary. This has now been published as 100 Days of Hope and Fear.

In a short introductory essay, Torrance says that he hopes 100 Days provides an “insider’s perspective of a historic constitutional event” as well as an insight into the “working life of a freelance journalist”. The book does offer these things, but in hopelessly disproportionate quantities. Over 190 pages spanning the final three months running up to the vote, Torrance describes his schedule of TV appearances and radio interviews, his trips abroad (to Basel, Frankfurt, Barcelona, etc) and his frequent exchanges, on Twitter and in person, with nationalist critics. Much of what he presents as insider analysis amounts to little more than gossip between columnists. When he attempts to be self-deprecating, he comes across as pompous.

This entry, covering a visit to the European Parliament in July, is typical: “Another dinner al fresco and some nice Alsatian beer; amused myself by thinking of turning this journal into a pale imitation of Roy Jenkins’s European Diary, which was more a catalogue of good lunches and fine wines than political life in Brussels and Strasbourg.” Other entries, as in this exchange at the gates of Christ’s College, Cambridge, are only tangentially relevant to the referendum:

Porter: “Which European country are you from?” Me: “Well, I’m from Edinburgh, which is part of this country.” Carl: “For the time being!” Fnar fnar.

Fortunately, 2014 produced a wealth of high-quality Scottish political literature to compensate for the (equally voluminous) weaker material. The best piece of work to emerge so far is The People’s Referendum by Peter Geoghegan. Geoghegan, an Irish journalist based in Glasgow, frames the referendum in an international context by travelling from the Hebrides to Catalonia and the Balkans in an effort to understand the rise of sub-state nationalism and the growing appeal of identity politics.

Instead of drawing information from official sources, Geoghegan builds his narrative around the experiences of ordinary people. In Coatbridge, a post-industrial town
in North Lanarkshire, he meets Scots-Irish republicans campaigning for a Yes vote and Orangemen desperate to preserve the Union. At a rally in Barcelona, he encounters a spokesman for the “Friulian liberation movement”, a tiny secessionist group in north-eastern Italy. And in Banja Luka, the capital of the Bosnian Serb Republic, he watches as his taxi driver conceals a small Orthodox Christian cross before venturing into a Muslim neighbourhood.

In one chapter, Geoghegan tours the pit villages of West Fife with Britain’s last surviving communist councillor, a septuagen­arian named Willie Clarke who, it transpires, is an enthusiastic Yes supporter:

His voice rose, shaking slightly as it did. Each sentence started gently, but built into a forceful finale. It sounded like an oration he had delivered before. “Independence will come. It’s like the tide, you cannot hold it back. It’s going to happen.”

There is great warmth in Geoghegan’s writing. He empathises with his subjects regardless of their politics. In contrast to Cochrane and Torrance, who focus on the PR “air war” fought between Better Together and Yes Scotland, he takes an intimate look at the lives of individual Scots as they confront – or embrace – the prospect of deep-seated constitutional change.

Had more journalists followed Geoghegan’s lead, the media would have emerged from the referendum in better shape. As he writes: “The key difficulty for the media during the [vote] was not one of intentional bias but often of an inability to reflect the vivacity of the campaign back to its participants. That is hardly surprising. The ‘tablets of stone’ model of journalism – spin doctors and party hacks feeding morsels to favoured members of the Fourth Estate – has long held sway in Scotland.”

One journalist who has remained refreshingly free from this cynicism is Iain Macwhirter, the Sunday Herald columnist and veteran observer of Scottish and British politics. In Disunited Kingdom, a concise and lucid account of the referendum battle and its aftermath, he charts the main flashpoints in the approach to September 2014.

A critical turning point for Macwhirter – the moment when Westminster, he believes, “lost” the Scots – was the Chancellor’s announcement in February 2014 that Scotland would not be allowed to use the pound if it left the United Kingdom. “Osborne’s ‘Declaration on the Pound’ placed Scotland in a new position of regional subordination,” he writes. “If Westminster was claiming the common currency of the UK was now exclusively English property, then it seemed to me that the old unionist bargain, if it ever existed, had ceased.”

Counterintuitively, Macwhirter argues that the referendum result was a substantial – even potentially transformative – achievement for Scottish nationalism, which only entered the mainstream of society in Scotland in the 1990s. He explains how Yes campaigners, many of them young and artistically inclined, generated a sense of cultural momentum that made Better Together look flaccidly conservative, sticking “to the simple message of what became known as “Project Fear” – a relentless assault on the risk factor in the [Yes] prospectus”.

Macwhirter concludes that, the prospect of a federal Britain having receded almost as quickly as it surfaced in Gordon Brown’s last-minute vow-making, Scottish independence is now more or less inevitable. “And we may not have to wait very long to see it,” he writes.

It’s not clear what bearing the media had, if any, on the outcome of the September vote. Many nationalists are convinced it was pivotal, particularly in the last, frantic days of the campaign, in tipping the scales against them. If Macwhirter is correct, they will have an opportunity to test that theory soon enough.

This article appears in the 20 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Still hanging

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