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The rise and fall of Wings over Scotland

How a partisan pro-independence blog irrevocably transformed online politics in Britain.

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A furious blogger is logging off. That this is a genuine news story tells us something about the extraordinary phenomenon of Wings Over Scotland, “the world’s most-read Scottish politics website”. The site was launched in 2011 after the SNP’s shock Holyrood majority, when the real prospect of independence gave the whole thought-world of Scottish politics a jolt of entropy and excitement. Identifying a gap in the market, Wings swiftly emerged as a fixture of pro-independence comment, a hyper-partisan media monitor with terrier persistence and a rottweiler bite.

Now its Bath-based editor Stuart Campbell says the site is “over”, and that it would be pointless to carry on “while Nicola Sturgeon busily turns Scotland into a vicious, spiteful, intolerant, authoritarian and misogynist country I’ll be ashamed to come from and am already afraid to live in”. Take that for a short measure of the blog’s paint-stripper aggression. It was directed at Sturgeon’s political opponents for most of the past decade, as Wings became the Yes movement’s go-to source of media rebuttal and counter-attack. Today, the site is awash in transphobic vitriol and conspiracy theories, and the man who did most to radicalise the “alt-nat” worldview is winging away from mainstream reality. The site has been toxic for years – Campbell was banned from Twitter in late 2019 – but the rise and fall of Wings Over Scotland holds many lessons about the country’s changing media and political culture.

Political blogs spread like fungus in the early 2010s, but Wings stood out from the start. A former videogames journalist, Campbell took the belligerence and no-limits humour of gamer culture and applied them to electoral politics in an abusively entertaining style. Campbell quickly became the outlaw king of the nationalist hardcore, a sarcastic outsider laying waste to Scotland’s overwhelmingly unionist mainstream media. Notionally left of centre, it’s hard to explain the site’s powers of intimidation to readers outside Scotland. Imagine if Guardian journalists took a deep breath before nervously checking the leftist Skwawkbox, or Guido Fawkes toyed with launching a political party to embarrass the Tories.

Beyond the cybernat bubble, the site became a guilty pleasure for those who enjoyed Campbell’s gleeful trashing of Scotland’s crumbling newspapers and of the once-hegemonic Labour Party. As the people who’d managed Scotland for decades were daily castigated as hapless fools and liars, it sometimes felt as though Wings was demolishing a whole conception of political reality and possibility. The site gave confidence and swagger to readers who came back several times a day to howl at the emperor’s nakedness, and to demand nothing short of the total cleansing promised by independence. On reflection, there are clear echoes of Trumpism in these swingeing attacks, an invincible sense of rightness that fed on its contempt for journalism and its rules.

[See also: If not now... never? Nicola Sturgeon on the battle for a second Scottish referendum]

Before long, fiery Wings articles were being cited and shared by nationalist politicians, creating headaches for the SNP’s own communications team, who emphasised they had no control over the blog. Wings was never tied to the SNP, but Campbell was a powerful media outrider before he became a liability, and finally a significant foe. Accusations of transphobia and misogyny – first levelled in 2013 by the pro-independence blog A Thousand Flowers – continued to mount. By 2020, Graham Campbell, the BAME Convener of the SNP’s ruling body, described Wings as “an alt-right fascistic platform”. The councillor for Glasgow, who is also the co-convenor of SNP Socialists, argued that supporting Wings was “incompatible” with civic nationalism.

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How did it all go wrong? Using the internet to overthrow accepted reality seldom ends well, but it wasn’t the transgressive qualities of Wings that brought the site low. Ironically for a man who made his name (and a crowdfunding fortune) with gratuitous attacks on Scottish Labour, Campbell’s downfall began when he sued the party’s former leader, Kezia Dugdale, for impugning his reputation. The case concerned a truly nauseating "joke" Campbell tweeted in 2017, concerning a Scottish Tory politician, and Dugdale’s description of the joke as homophobic. Dugdale won, with the Sherriff’s judgement noting that Campbell “has chosen insult and condemnation as his style. He has received these in return”. Many readers who’d previously tolerated the site’s nasty side finally decided it was beyond the pale.

But at the blog’s peak in 2014-15, Campbell was one of the most influential figures in Scotland, and certainly the loudest non-party voice in politics. The SNP designed and stage-managed the Yes campaign, but bloggers such as Wings helped it to go viral, with Campbell distributing nearly a million printed copies of his Wee Blue Book to local campaign groups. At Yes stalls and meetings across the country, Wings pins and insignia were a common sight. Relations with the SNP were always distant and often uneasy, as the party faced constant demands to condemn the “vile” pro-independence blogger who was both tarnishing and advancing the cause. The party repeatedly condemned online abuse and distanced itself from Wings, but never to the satisfaction of their opponents. The SNP’s dilemma was obvious: not only was Campbell a forceful enemy of their enemies, he was adored by many of the “YeSNP”’s most passionate supporters.

An SNP insider is sceptical about Campbell’s reach beyond his own fevered niche. “We’ve never been overly concerned about him moving the needle of public opinion, or changing perceptions on a large scale. The people Wings reached were not ‘the public’ as such”. True, but there is no doubting his stature within the pro-independence movement. In a surreal 2019 interview on Alex Salmond’s TV talkshow, the disgraced first minister and the “cancelled” blogger trade independence war-stories as though generals of equal rank. Salmond chucklingly recalls attending indyref campaign events in which Wings’ Wee Blue Book pre-empted his own speech, and he found himself answering to Campbell’s internet-assembled propaganda rather than the Scottish government’s official white paper on independence, the work of hundreds of civil servants.

The Guido Fawkes blog is probably the closest analogue in moving poisonous attack-blogging to the centre of political power, but that came via integration with the right-wing tabloids. By contrast, Wings began well beyond the horizon of Scottish politics, in leafy Bath, and Campbell has seldom visited the country where his supporters gave sleepless nights to traditional journalists. He remains an outsider about whom little is known beyond his online avatars, and his edgelord prose has attracted other outsiders and self-styled mavericks. The site was a key conduit in launching the breakaway Alba Party earlier this year, though the Salmond comeback vehicle was rejected at the polls, attracting less than 45,000 votes. It’s a mere fraction of Wings’ weekly audience, but underscores the difference between blogging and electoral politics.

At one time the blog seemed capable of narrowing that distance, but Wings, too, is subject to the laws of demography. In September last year, New Statesman analysis found that Scots aged 16-34 “overwhelmingly support independence, with some polls putting the support for Yes as nearly three in every four”. They are the future of the Yes movement, and Campbell’s cruelties are not to their taste. “The fact he doesn’t live in Scotland matters”, says an SNP source. “He hasn’t lived in Scotland for a long time and didn’t understand the country. I think he was totally out of touch with younger people here.”

It’s true that Campbell’s animus against “woke” progressives in the SNP matches that of grizzled nationalists several decades older than him (he is 53). But in another sense his distance from devolved Scotland and its media scene was precisely what made Wings possible. Launching his missiles from Somerset, Campbell could afford to be poisonously offensive without fear of bumping into his targets at an event. To a degree, the dramatis personae of Scottish politics remained, to Campbell, like other ageing members of a 4chan forum: people who supplied him leaks, jokes and titbits over the internet.

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The site’s readers will miss Wings, but what does it leave behind? The newspapers Campbell took such pleasure in tormenting have continued their decline, and are now in a truly parlous state. The picture is only superficially brighter in the world of independent political media. Wings transformed the landscape through gigantic crowdfunding efforts, raising upwards of £100,000 at a time, and other DIY pro-Yes media have also attracted significant funds from true believers backing an alternative voice. Well over a million pounds has been raised by the various pro-independence blogs and video startups, but there is precious little journalism to show for it. Shakily produced content often has the air of a lock-in at the politics bar, with endless repetition of the pet talking-points of the fanbase in place of meaningful interrogation of events. Competence in basic journalistic craft is rare in this world; last week the pro-independence blogger Craig Murray was sentenced to eight months in prison for contempt of court, after repeatedly ignoring orders not to render complainers (accusers) in the Salmond trial identifiable.

Though never formally tied to the National – a pro-independence paper launched shortly after the independence referendum – Wings did a great deal to build a loyal audience for Yes fans hooked on a partisan worldview. The paper is owned by the US media conglomerate Gannett, and its more substantial sister title the Sunday Herald – the first major newspaper to declare for independence – was quietly shut in 2018, due to continuing cuts at its parent company. Given that around 50 per cent of the Scottish electorate now favours independence, a professional-quality media reflecting those views is notable by its absence. 

[See also: Scottish independence poll tracker: will Scotland vote to leave the UK?]

In 2014, the journalist Iain Macwhirter warned that “Scotland has a national political system, but is in danger of losing a national media”. Without the economies of scale of the English media, and with only one dedicated public service media organisation, the sector is dominated by the BBC. The corporation is viewed with deep suspicion by some independence supporters, and in June 2014 an angry crowd of Yes supporters, several carrying Wings banners, marched to its Glasgow HQ to vent their accusations of bias. BBC Scotland is caught in a no-man’s land between representing the nuances of contemporary Scottish politics for its Scottish licence-fee payers, and the orthodoxy of UK politics from the top.

Campbell says he’ll take a “finally-final decision” on closing the blog in November, but few believe we’ve seen the last of him in Scottish politics. His huge platform and loyal audience have obvious value to other “alt-nat” ventures, whether or not Salmond’s Alba Party endures. There’s no question Wings over Scotland played a significant role in shaping the country’s current political culture, but it’s a very mixed legacy. An SNP source emphasises the broader success of the Yes campaign in winning the online debate in 2014. “Wings was not by any means the main element of that, but it was part of it, alongside blogs such as Bella Caledonia and many others”.

In truth, the energy and influence of the site ebbed some time ago. As journalist David Leask observes, “hyper-partisan bloggers have been moved further to the fringes by the very logic of their craft, by their constant need to find new targets for bile and new wedge issues to exploit”. As Sturgeon’s SNP achieved growing electoral hegemony, there was less need for nationalist commando raids into enemy media territory – and the “unionist MSM” has precious few citadels left to defend. The purview of the site shrank to infighting among sections of the Yes support, and then poisonous splits in the SNP itself. The outlaw king was reduced to a conduit for inside-politics intrigue, publishing leaked minutes and counter-briefings to favour the Joanna Cherry-Alex Salmond faction, and bewailing the “Orwellian” climate of a country he rarely visits. In short it stopped being fun, even for Campbell himself. If Wings over Scotland is leaving the constitutional battlefield, it does so having transformed the nature, reach and intensity of online politics in Britain – and seldom for the better. For Scotland’s media and political culture, there will be no going back.

Scott Hames is the author of "The Literary Politics of Scottish Devolution: Voice, Class, Nation" (2019).

Dominic Hinde is a journalist and academic based in Edinburgh and the author of "A Utopia Like Any Other: Inside the Swedish Model" (2016).