I suppose Mark Hennessy didn’t have much luck with timing in publishing his article. “Reasoned debate is the first casualty in post-referendum Scotland,” the morning after Nicola Sturgeon won the UK leaders debate largely because of her reasonableness. As someone who lives in Edinburgh and works in Dublin I didn’t recognise his portrayal of division and rancour in Scotland. It is true that Alex Salmond received several death threats during the referendum campaign, but the worst actual violence involved one egg. Mark might look at the water protests in his own glass house before he starts chucking stones.
There is no doubt that the experience of the independence referendum has galvanised the Scottish part of the UK general election. And there are a lot of people who have been mobilised because they have a restored belief that it is possible to change things through the democratic process. But political change in Scotland is as much about the decline of the Labour Party in Scotland as it is about resurgent nationalism. Gerry Hassan wrote in, “The Strange Death of Labour Scotland,” that there had been a prolonged hollowing out of the traditional Labour vote as the party drifted rightwards, but that elected representatives had remained oblivious because of a culture of entitlement. There has been similar alienation from the party in Northern England, but so far that has merely led to low turnout, although UKIP is trying to change that.
Bizarrely it is only in Scotland that there is a serious intellectual challenge to the politics of austerity. In the rest of the UK Labour was too embarrassed by its failures in office to challenge the false narrative that the financial crash was caused by excessive welfare spending rather than because of failed regulation of the banks and a hugely inflated property bubble. Miliband is still obsessed by demonstrating his “credibility” to the bankers and city traders who got us into this mess.
I don’t know if Mark Hennessy has been speaking with Douglas Alexander MP who recently claimed that it was getting harder to connect with voters because of conspiracy theories on social media. It is of course true that you can find all kinds of nonsense on the internet. But it has also democratised the sharing of information and content. Some of the classic internet hits of the referendum campaign transposed Labour spokespeople in England warning about the dangers of privatisation of the NHS with Labour spokespeople in Scotland insisting this was nonsense and that Westminster could be trusted to preserve the NHS. We also regularly got to see how the headlines of the Scottish editions of UK papers were the opposite of the London editions. Douglas Alexander still thinks Scottish voters can be fooled into voting Labour with lies about how voting SNP will let in the Tories. The internet means that lies get found out.
The academic study of why people voted for the different sides in the independence referendum does indeed make interesting reading. It is possible the “Vow” had less impact than was perceived, although we should remember that 3-4 % is still very significant when there seems to have been a 5% swing to No in the last week of the campaign. Nobody who watched the way the BBC presented the Vow as if it had been handed down on tablets of stone could be in any doubt that it was intended to sway votes. It is probably true, however, that economic fears had a greater impact.
Which is where we come to the BBC. The corporation had two main failings during the referendum. Firstly they did not question the unionist case in the same robust way they questioned the pro-independence case. Gordon Brown and George Osborne were allowed to make pronouncements on the main news bulletins without being questioned. Only ITV showed Osborne running away from the questions of their correspondent after his currency announcement. It was almost comical in the referendum aftermath on the 19th and 20th of September to watch the BBC forensically dissect the inconsistencies and improbabilities of the promises of more powers, when they had failed to query the Vow at the time.
Secondly, and more importantly, the BBC loyally presented a series of headline news stories in the last week before the vote, orchestrated in Downing Street, about major job losses, price rises and pension threats if Scotland voted Yes. The BBC led with a “story” about RBS moving to England before the RBS Board had even finished meeting. The story came from a Downing Street official. The BBC only broadcast that RBS had clarified that no jobs or operations would be involved in a change of registration as a minor aside after three days of wall to wall coverage. It was a similar story with supermarket bosses being coordinated by Cameron to make threats, and the BBC not questioning this or pointing out that other supermarkets were saying prices could fall. And Gordon Brown simply lied about pensions, but the BBC did not question this or point out that UK Government ministers had guaranteed pensions would not be affected (the UK Government pays pensions to Brits on the Costa del Sol or even in Cork).
One does not have to believe in conspiracy theories to know that the BBC badly failed in its duty as an impartial public sector broadcaster. It is also clear in the evidence of the University of West of Scotland study published in February 2014. Which is not to deny that the weakness of the SNP case on currency created the conditions the unionists could exploit.
What is clear though is that we currently have an extremely healthy debate about how we can create a fairer and more prosperous Scotland. A Scotland that welcomes immigrants and engages positively with the EU. Mark Hennessy should come up to Scotland and meet some of the ordinary people who believe they can bring about positive change through politics. It is really quite inspirational.
No irony that Mark Hennessy is London Editor of the Irish Times