There are moments in my life when I realise that my priorities are horribly out of kilter. My obsession with football, for example, is total. I’ve never watched my wedding video right the way through and probably couldn’t even find it now, but I’ve got Leigh Griffiths’ two free kicks against England saved to my YouTube account and I watch them on a loop. I’ve watched Scotland, through thin and thinner, for the best part of four decades.
I’m terrible at remembering birthdays and anniversaries but I know the winners of every European Cup since 1956. I find myself in important meetings and wondering why Stranraer’s form has suddenly dipped for no apparent reason. It’s really quite tragic.
With typical Scottish perversity, my favourite memory is following the national team to Dortmund for a European qualifier – which we lost. The German fans were absolutely brilliant, and didn’t complain when we put an industrial sized bottle of fairy liquid into the town square fountain, temporality turning Dortmund into an alpine ski resort.
Beer was €2 a pint and I was with my pals. We hadn’t bothered with a hotel, but a lovely woman kept her bar open for us into the wee small hours until it was time to head to the airport. When people are asked about the great moments in their life they always talk about kids and weddings. That goes for me, too. But, to borrow from Bogart and Bergman, I’ll always have Dortmund.
In the kind of quirky detail that football often throws up, the Scotland manager was in fact a German – Berti Vogts. He came to the job with a big reputation – he’d led his country to glory at Euro96 – but his reign at Scotland was ignominious and ended after an inglorious draw with the mighty Faeroe Islands. He was a perfectly nice guy but entirely unprepared for the ferocity of the Scottish press, who mercilessly criticised him, even on the rare occasions (like his win over a fancied Holland) when he got it right. He summed up his experience of the press thus:
“If I walked on water, my accusers would say it is because I can’t swim”.
I thought about Berti this week when reading a couple of stories. For a unionist Scottish press – a tautology if ever there was one – and its followers, for whom the glass is always barely half full, this was a bad week. The BBC Scotland website must have had the Yoons in distress. The Scottish economy was outstripping the UK’s. There was a hugely positive report on the Scottish NHS. If that wasn’t bad enough for them, Rangers had been beaten by the fourth best team in Luxembourg and lost their tax case with HMRC. There was even talk of the Orange Walk getting banned from Glasgow. It must have felt like the end of the world.
How these first two stories – the economy and the NHS – were reported tells us much about our press, our politics and our national character. This week’s press reminded me of PG Wodehouse’s quip about it being easy to distinguish between a Scotsman with a grievance and a ray of sunshine. If you mention what a fine day it is, you’ll be told “aye, but we’ll pey for this”!
Talk up the achievements of an individual and someone will say that they “kent his faither“. Don’t get above your station. Know your place. Eat your cereal. But something more troubling than dour pragmatism is at play here.
Early this week, initial reports hinted that the imminent report on the Scottish economy would not make good reading (unless you’re a unionist) and prominent unionist rentaquotes were wheeled out to blame the Scottish Government. However, it turns out that the Scottish economy is actually doing rather well and it outperforming the UK by 0.6%. Suddenly, the critics were silent. Two things struck me about the subsequent reporting.
Firstly, why lambast the Government on the basis of a report that hadn’t yet been published and then, when it arrives and is favourable, fail to ask those same critics for their reaction?
And secondly, given that it’s a bright ray of sunshine in a dark year, why report it so negatively?
Why write “Scotland staves off recession”, when the real story is “best growth in the whole of the uk”?
Why, indeed, put a negative, anti-independence slant on the largely encouraging Nuffield report into Scotland’s NHS?
By never informing people accurately of what is really being done on their behalf, the media commits the sin of misleading readers. That’s why people think education and health is failing – but that’s neither true nor fair to teachers or health workers who are constantly undermined by negative reporting.
Scotland’s long-term membership of the union largely depends on a pro-union media making enough people believe that we are too wee, too poor and too stupid to run our own affairs. The papers panicked this week because good news stories don’t sit with that narrative. Project Fear is alive and kicking, and I’m quite convinced that The Scotsman has its headline ready for the day when Scotland achieves independence: “Blow for Sturgeon as SNP loses Raison d’Etre”.
And anyone who things Westminster cares about us hasn’t been paying attention. I’m old enough to remember when Labour ruled Scotland. Opposition parties mocked them as the “Feeble Forty”, as sheer mathematics meant that their sizeable block of MPs were powerless to stop the destruction of Scotland’s heavy industries and working class communities, and could only watch as the country’s miners were demonised as “the enemy within”.
Today we have thirteen Tory MPs who could, if they chose to, become the most influential group in Scottish political history. They could defy the whip and refuse to support the government until the £2.9m of Barnett consequentials due to Scotland after the DUP bung are paid in full.
They could, but they won’t. Because their loyalty is to their party and its mad rush to Brexit, rather than to their own constituents. They could, in an afternoon, secure transformational levels of funding but their loathing of the SNP government trumps everything. Scotland is poorer because of their petty tribalism. Holyrood will once again have to mitigate unnecessary austerity and then will be blamed for not doing better with the money that was denied them.
And then they’ll tell us to get on with the day job. Again. Which, contrary to reports, is going rather well, and not just in the areas of health and finance. Amongst all the manufactured kerfuffle over Nicola Sturgeon’s statement on a second independence referendum (which was a complete non-story, as she simply repeated what she said in March), it seems the government has been busy.
In the farming industry, for example, over 90% of Pillar One monies have now been paid to producers. Yes, it’s been a slow and distressing process, but it’s getting there. The contrast with DEFRA’s response to a similar I.T. failure in 2006, when they threw up their hands and did nothing – could not be greater.
Scotland’s sheep farmers will receive £6.7m this week, benefitting over 1000 businesses in Scotland’s poorest land. Improvements to deer management have been announced, and £2.4m will be sent to milk producers. A report suggests that numbers of cod, haddock and whiting will be up this year. In just about every devolved area, Scotland is ahead, or at least on par, with the rest of the UK. Not bad, for a government reportedly obsessed with independence.
During the first Scottish Independence Referendum, I was struck by how many Scots talked their own country down. It was almost as if some wanted independence just so they could say “ah telt ye” when it all went pear shaped. In a country replete with paradox and contradiction, I’m struck by how exhausting it is championing a great place when so many of its inhabitants, egged on by a biased media, want it to fail.
Well, I want us to win. We might never walk on water, but we can swim as well as anybody.
Scotland has a great story to tell. Let’s tell it.
Alec Ross is a regular contributor to The Orkney News