“Cruden Bay Man Dies After Short Illness” (apocryphal Press & Journal headline. The man in question was Charlie Chaplain, who owned a house there)
About three and a half years ago, in the long run-up to the First independence referendum, I took part in a meeting with pro-Independence group Farming for Yes, for whom I remain an active member. Top of the agenda that day was how we might make inroads into the apparently overwhelmingly unionist farming vote. We were realistic enough to know that we weren’t going to win a majority of the farmers, but we also knew that there simply weren’t enough farmers in Scotland to decide the outcome either way, and that by narrowing the gap we could help get Yes over the line.
To that end, we held public meetings, delivered leaflets, ‘phoned undecided friends and neighbours and wrote letters to the papers. But we were also heartily fed-up with the avalanche of No Thanks banners in fields, and as Wigtownshire eventually voted most strongly against independence I tended to see more banners than most. So the decision was taken that we would each find at least one fellow pro-independence farmer and ask them to put a banner in the most visible part of their land.
So I immediately ‘phoned an obvious candidate, a long-time and strongly nationalist friend. I’d already decided it was a no-brainer. I’d ask him as a courtesy, take it round to the farm, put it in the front field and then we’d go for a pint. Simple. Only that’s not what happened.
He listened to my pitch, and then there was a long silence. “I’ll pop round and see you”, he said. When he arrived, he explained his predicament. Like many farmers, he both owned and rented land. At the time, his business was expanding and he needed to rent some more from a wealthy landlord, a man who hated Scottish nationalism in general and Alex Salmond in particular, so any whiff of separatist sedition would have scuppered the deal. My friend knew that he could have one of my banners or he could have a place to out-winter his cattle. But he couldn’t have both. So I kept my banner and he kept his quiet and rented some ground. And then he voted Yes.
I thought about that exchange again this week in light of the news. At the time, the straightforward way in which my friend stated his belief that the No campaign was driven by the greed and self-interest of the privileged and their desire to hold onto it at any cost rather shook me at the time. They will do anything – anything – to stop it, he said. He was ahead of the curve, but events have revealed much more.
Earlier this week someone with the anti-independence movement Scotland in Union leaked extremely sensitive information to a pro-Independence blogger, information which included the names of their benefactors and the level of their support. Many of those supporters must have been mightily annoyed, especially the many who apparently kept their donations exactly a pound below £7500 – the amount below which the donor may legally remain anonymous.
What the donor list shows is that the anti-independence movement is funded by a small minority of powerful, well-connected, rich people who have the least to gain from self-determination and, in their minds at least, the most to lose. A movement further removed from a grassroots campaign is difficult to imagine. The wealthy and the privileged are backing a cause that will retain for them all of that wealth and all of that privilege. And this is important, as it scotches the myth that their support for No is all about creating a better society for all. It isn’t. It’s entirely about self-interest. It always was.
I’m in this for the long haul. There are many reasons why I’m still doing this, but, jings, money isn’t one of them. Just as well: none of us are making a penny out of this. For those of us who actually do give a damn and who do wish for a more socially just, equal, vibrant, newly independent Scotland, this (along with the other leaked email that exposed an equally small and equally rootless group of anti-independence letter writers) has been a good week.
For one thing, it’s significant to remember that Scotland in Union was formed in the immediate aftermath of the first independence referendum with the specific aim of preventing the calling of a second one which it will lose to Yes by a sizeable margin. Its aims have been reflected, since the autumn of 2014, in a mainstream unionist political narrative whose only aim has been the suppression of democracy. The last general election was fought by the unionist parties in Scotland solely on the basis of refusing the right to call the second vote that Holyrood had already voted for.
Brexit, another movement bankrolled by wealthy self-interest, gives legitimacy to a narrative that, from the Supreme Court judgement on article 50 to the ending of Barnett after the DUP bung to the rolling back of Scottish farming powers (did anyone ask Michael Gove about this today at the Oxford Farming Conference? No, thought not), could lead to the end of the Scottish Parliament and presents a threat to Scottish democracy itself.
But such intellectual pessimism can only take you so far. “Youse have hud yer vote” wins you a few seats in Scotland, but if there’s no political substance behind the bluster you’re soon rumbled. Which is why the Tories are now languishing in third place in the polls. There’s only one political bloc that is obsessed with independence, and it isn’t the nationalists. We are, to borrow a phrase, too busy getting on with the day job.
The Scotland in Union leak should also make us ask questions about our media. Given that the leak must have come from the inside, why has the Scottish media not considered that a story whilst continually reporting minor nationalist rifts as major schisms? And why does it keep saying Scotland doesn’t want another referendum (it, narrowly, does) or that young Scots prefer Corbyn to Nicola Sturgeon (they, overwhelmingly, do not)?
Answer? Follow the money. Who owns the papers? When you think about it, it’s extraordinary that roughly 50% of the population support independence but less than 5% of its papers do. That is a print media not fit for purpose owned by people who have no interest in us apart from the continuation of a status quo that suits their aims. But then balanced reporting isn’t its purpose.
This week has confirmed that the mainstream Scottish media is very much part of the ongoing campaign to remind us how wee, poor and stupid we are. Actually, it didn’t just start this week. Last summer, a BBC headline read, a few days after Scotland’s Leigh Griffiths came within a few seconds of delivering a famous victory against England at Hampden, the headline read “Scotland remain lowest ranked British Nation in FIFA rankings”. Which was technically true, although perhaps a fairer headline might have been “Scotland close in on top Twenty ranking behind improving Northern Ireland and Wales while England tread water”. God, I want independence for many reasons, but not least amongst these is to see if my prediction comes true and The Scotsman headline the day after the vote is: “Blow for Sturgeon as SNP loses raison d’etre”.
New Year, same old. When you’re in the car a lot, as I am, the radio is a constant companion. But I’m getting a bit fed up with him. The last two days have seen Radio Scotland ramp up the “SNP bad” rhetoric to an almost absurd degree. The baby box is getting a real kicking, despite the fact that it’s so far proven to be both popular, costs significantly less and is significantly more useful than David Mundell, whose anti-Scotland office has increased spending by over 500% this year.
But it’s the reporting on the NHS that should alarm us the most. The headline figure is that only 83% of A&E cases were seen within four hours, falling short of the stated 95% target. But, as always, that’s only part of the story. Leaving aside that overall, approval ratings for the Scottish NHS are higher than they’ve been since the devolution vote in 1997, and that by any sensible benchmark they’re higher than any other part of the UK, there has recently seen a 20% rise in admissions, a situation worsened by a greater complexity of cases (which means people need their hospital beds for longer) and a flu virus that has not only seen much of Scotland under the weather but also a higher than normal percentage of NHS falling victim to lurgy, so there are fewer people to deal with the higher admissions. Now, the Scottish NHS is stretched, and it isn’t perfect (although, from my family’s perspective, it’s pretty good). But all of this points to a service that, under unusually high pressure, performed commendably well. That’s the real story.
Today’s John Beattie show led with this “story”. “We’re not here to compare”, he said. But why not? It might be because the BBC in Scotland tends to follow London’s example, and it led with an “NHS crisis” story: maybe BBC Scotland didn’t want to be left behind. But I think the real reason is that in the NHS, as in every other policy area and by any sensible benchmark, and without having anything close to full powers, Scotland outperforms Westminster. Which, awkwardly, doesn’t fit the too wee, poor and stupid narrative. Incidentally, I see the former world number one, fellow independence campaigner and future President of an independent Scottish Republic, Andy Murray, is flying home from tonight to get his troublesome hips fixed. Word of advice, big man. Sell that big house in Surrey and move back to Scotland. The waiting times are shorter.
Seriously, though. A couple of years ago, I made a point about the importance of devolving televised media. It was actually an original pillar of the ‘99 devolution settlement, until Labour removed it at the last minute. They knew that if you control the media then you control the unionist agenda, and the unionist project. Every time I come to Orkney I love listening to the local radio station with local voices viewing the world through the prism of local concerns. It’s what Scotland should do, before and after independence. There’s nothing parochial about that: it’s normal, healthy, outward-looking: like self- determination itself.
The First Minister failed to get my memo this week, so we are not yet independent. The leaked Scotland in Union database makes clear the choice that Scotland now faces. Side over self. Morality over money. A place where there is such a thing as society. In a month in which I travel to Kirkwall for a Burns Supper, Scotland in Union is also holding a “Robbie” Burns Supper (whatever that is). A ticket will set you back £45. Having seen their balance sheets, you find yourself asking why. But it is to the Bard that I leave today’s final words:
““Alas! Have I often said to myself, what are all the boasted advantages which my Country reaps from a certain Union, that can counterbalance the annihilation of her Independence…or even her very name!”
It’s coming yet, for a’ that.
Alec Ross is a regular contributor to The Orkney News