“I don’t watch the news any more. I just lie to myself and cut out the middle man” (Frankie Boyle)
“If I walked on water, my accusers would say it is because I cannot swim” (Berti Vogts, former Scotland football manager)
I like bridges. When I was a wee boy, I used to visit my granny in East Lothian, and not far from her house, on a good day, you could see the majestic twin structures crossing the Forth in all their glory. She always told me that the only reason they built the road bridge was so that folk could get a better view of the rail bridge. She was only half joking. Actually, I’m not sure she was joking at all.
I’ve thought about that a lot these last few years. I regularly drive across to Fife and often can’t decide where to look – right, to the iconic nineteenth century rail bridge, or left, to the emerging (and now complete) Queensferry Crossing. Both are testament to the endless capacity of human beings to innovate. The new bridge created employment for 20,000 Scots, plus many more from across the world. Despite the lack of UK Government funding, it was completed ahead of schedule and well under budget. It is, by any sensible benchmark, a huge success deserving of the highest acclaim.
It takes a special, warped sort of talent to put a negative slant on the story, so I suppose we must commend the mainstream media for achieving what seemed impossible.
The first hint of trouble came on “Good Morning Britain” when the reporter from London told the nation: “today I am standing on the Forth of Firth”. And then, despite not knowing where she was, got torn into us anyway.
“Costs eventually reached £1.35 billion for the bridge”, she helpfully informed us. Which is at once technically correctly and deliberately misleading. The correct story, of course, was that the final cost was a full £250 million under budget, and didn’t cost the English or Welsh taxpayer a penny. This, however, doesn’t fit with the narrative that the Scottish Government is hopeless with money and is not to be trusted with big projects. We don’t help ourselves sometimes – we’re like that guy you meet in the street and say what a nice day it is. “We’ll pey for this!”, he’ll say. Of course transport links aren’t perfect. I should know – I run a business from Stranraer, where it actually takes longer to reach Glasgow than it did thirty years ago. That said, the Scottish Government has a decent track record and reaction to the recent Northern Isles Ferry Fares deal from some folk was, to put it charitably, a bit dispiriting.
Gordon Brown called the new bridge a “British” project, despite the UK Govt refusing to get involved in the funding (we’ll be chipping in handsomely for crossrail and HS2, mind you) and claimed the credit for securing the rail bridge UNESCO world heritage status, when actually it was the Scottish Government that did that. Clearly, the new bridge isn’t the only immobile Fife based structure that is as bold as brass.
But hold on a minute. HS2? Trident? Aircraft carriers with no aircraft? Being lectured about vanity projects by this lot is like Imelda Marcos telling you to go easy on the retail therapy.
It’s not only here, however, that the news is fake. This week’s flooding in Houston brought to mind the infamous pictures of people affected by Katrina in 2005. A young black kid is struggling waist high through the waters carrying a loaf of bread. The caption tells us he’d looted a grocery store. In the same paper, a white couple are in the water carrying groceries that they’d “found” in a shop. What those two pictures and captions say about the racial divide in America is terrifying.
But here we have a media class whose entire function appears to be the belittling of its own people. Ruth Davidson – the singular most overrated politician in Scottish political history – is a great example of media bias. Her recent call for her party to move on from constitutional question confirmed what many of us suspected: there is a major political party in Scotland that is obsessed with independence, and it isn’t the SNP. The Tory policy cupboard is bare. She has made not one representation about Brexit to U.K. Govt. She could have insisted on Barnett consequential funding after DUP bung, but didn’t. This is a leader happy to take the plaudits for a better than expected General Election, yet who goes to ground when two Stirling councillors were found to be variously racist and anti-Catholic, belatedly returning to blithely state that the two individuals had undergone diversity training with the group Nil by Mouth, which was news to the charity which had never been contacted. To everything else, we can add the charge of dishonesty.
Two things come to mind. Firstly, it can’t have been difficult to find racist / sectarian comments on prospective councillors’ social media timeline, so why weren’t they? Or, secondly, were they known about but not deemed serious enough for them to fail the vetting process? Or even advantageous for a party chasing the votes of the “No Surrender” goons who terrorised George Square on September 19th 2014? And, thirdly, if you’re the kind of individual who needs diversity training, how can you possibly be fit for public office in the first place?
But these questions weren’t asked. They never are. There’s nothing to see here. Anyway, Bake-Off is back on the telly. Eat your cereal.
So the dogs bark and the caravan trundles away. Be very wary of being told to move on. Blair said it after Iraq. It’s what interim Prime Minister Theresa May said after the recent election fraud scandal. It’s what the Hillsborough families were told to do for a quarter of a century. It means there are things, big things, that they wish you not to see. It means you are onto something. It means you’d be well advised to check you’ve written a will.
Perhaps it’s human nature to go as far as you are allowed.
I often think this about our politicians. Ruth may well have figured out that if you can declare, live on air on the night of the referendum vote, that you’ve illegally opened the ballot boxes and been encouraged by the results, and not been prosecuted, then it’s highly unlikely that a fib about a couple of nondescript councillors will cause you even the slightest difficulty. And the depressing thing is this – she was spot on.
I sometimes think this about the Carmichael case in Orkney. I watched your man Alastair during the 2014 referendum when he blithely guaranteed no EU referendum, continuing EU membership and strong farm financial support after a No vote. I wonder how that turned out? He has never, ever, been asked about this. It’s therefore perfectly logical to think that you can smear the democratically elected FM of Scotland, deny you did so and ultimately keep your job. And he was right, too.
Different rules apply. Kezia Dugdale, in a final act of spitefulness, resigned as Scottish Labour leader on the day the new Queensferry Crossing opened. On the day the world’s attention should have been on Scotland and marvelling at the architectural work of genius that is the new bridge, the mainstream media was spending its time trying to shore up the reputation of the outgoing Labour chief – a leader who, remember, actually took over from the disastrous Jim Murphy and lost a further 40% of the remaining vote, who gained only one new vote in the last UK election for every fifty that the SNP lost; who was so poor that even the bang-average Ruth Davidson stormed past her in the polls and put Labour into third place – something that had never happened in Scottish political history. She led a party that cheered to the rafters when the tactical voting that they encouraged saw Tories returned to rural areas like mine, making a hard Brexit that will affect remote places like Stranraer disproportionately, more likely. And yet you wouldn’t know any of this from today’s news.
The Scottish farming industry isn’t spared this media imbalance. A recent farming publication waxed lyrically about Michael Gove, allowed Ruth Davidson to promise support for Orkney post-Brexit (which is about as plausible as Carmichael’s claim in 2014), but then described the Scottish Government’s handling of the recent CAP payments as “abject”. This seems absurdly unbalanced. Where are the journalists saying “yes, the IT failure was regrettable, but fair play to Holyrood for holding up their hands and finding some money to keep the industry going – which DEFRA failed to do in 2007”. The default position is always – in farming, as in education and certainly in health – that we are in a crisis. Yes, we should hold our leaders to account but by constantly talking our industry down for naked political gain we lower the morale of the people with the most to lose – the individuals themselves. Fake news stories about catastrophe then become self-fulfilling prophecies.
And yet it could be so much better.
It isn’t all baloney. Driving to Perth last week ahead of a couple of meetings, I was listening to “Reflections” on Radio 4, and the journalist David Aaranovitch was interviewing Harriet Harman about her life in politics. I was going to turn it off, as I’d always kind of dismissed her as part of the Blair / Brown / Mandelson / Iraq / New Labour betrayal of the late nineties and early noughties. But I’m glad I didn’t. I got pelters for quoting the woman, but sometimes the sentiments are unarguable, whatever their source.
“Today’s unreasonable demands”, she said, “are tomorrow’s conventional wisdoms”.
That’s so true. I said in passing to my eldest son, Magnus, when waiting for a flight to Majorca last year, that when I was his age (12) planes had a smoking section. He flat-out refused to believe me. Now even smokers welcome the ban and when bampots like Farage call for the legislation to be revoked, it just sounds nuts. My granny never wore a seatbelt. Drink driving used to be accepted. Slavery was a thing. These things were the accepted wisdoms of their time, and demands for reform were seen as unreasonable – always by the elite who had, sometimes literally, the most skin in the game. Nothing new there, then.
As one of the growing number of Scots who wish Scotland to determine its own future, I take heart from her maxim. And so should you. Even those who see the wish for Scottish independence as unreasonable now allow that a newly re-born independent Scotland will soon be the convention. It is now not a question of if, but when.
We’ll still be thrawn. It will still be dreich, we’ll still have midges and we might still have to watch other teams in major football tournaments, as we won’t be there (although the day Iceland reached the quarter finals last year was the day our excuses ran out. I just wish I could remember who they beat in the last sixteen. It’ll come to me). It will still be pishin’ doon at Stranraer Show. We won’t be better than anyone else in the world. We’ll just be as good as them. “Wha’s like us?” Eh, actually everybody.
If you support the cause, take heart from her words. It’s a long game but we’ll get there in the end. And if you don’t? That’s ok, too. A few years from now we’ll be living in a better Scotland, with its own media, and we’ll get on just fine. We’ll realise that, actually, what we asked for wasn’t unreasonable. We’ll wonder what all the fuss was about. We won’t have found a new Jerusalem. We’ll just have discovered something more conventional, more lasting. We’ll have achieved normality. Nothing more, nothing less.
It sometimes feels difficult from our starting point. But so too, once upon a time, did bridging the Firth of Forth.
Alec Ross is a regular contributor with The Orkney News