Monday, 3 August 2009

Fisking Paul Hutcheon

Having studied nationalism in general and Scottish nationalism in particular for most of my adult life and given that nationalist parties in government form the central focus of my Ph.D thesis, I read with interest Paul Hutcheon's article on Scottish nationalism in yesterday's Sunday Herald. I decided to have a closer look at what The Herald's leading investigative journalist had to say. My comments in red.

Paul Hucheon

Not exactly a promising title. And good to see The Herald not bothering with accuracy such as, you know, spelling their journalist's name correctly...

know whether last week's Clan Gathering and "diaspora forum" made me want to reach for my revolver, or laugh at the obvious stupidity of it all, but it did give rise to thoughts about politics and Scotland's small place in the global economy.

In the wake of "David Kerr Gun Gate" is the gun metaphor a wise idea? Or simply aimed at shooting down the SNP's by-election candidate? (oh look, I can do it too...)

Cynicism first. Ten years on from the first Scottish parliament election, it seemed depressing that the electorate was being asked to re-engage with clan "chiefs" who had an alleged link to their families going back hundreds of years. Even worse was the idea that we should somehow shake the tin at the global Scottish community in a bid to fund God knows what.

Okay, I'll be fair. The Clan Gathering and tartan malarky is all very "kitch." But tourists - in particular, Americans - love tracing their Scottish roots. It's a very profitable opportunity.

But it did get me thinking about what has been the biggest political development since devolution. Most people say it is the smoking ban. Others believe it to be free personal care or the abolition of tuition fees. These are unlikely contenders as they were policies that were not linked to any larger script, and were introduced by different first ministers.

A more accurate answer may be the way our political culture has moved towards nationalism and embraced everything Scottish. From Holyrood debates on tartan registers and Scottish number plates, to funding our own international aid policy and clan gatherings, national identity has moved centre-stage.

I think that's a fair analysis. But bear in mind, the SNP were in opposition for 8 out of the first 10 years of devolution. That surely attests to effective opposition in promoting their agenda and forcing the government of the day to discuss (or, at the very least, recognise) their view.

This creeping nationalism is only noticeable these days when somebody goes too far, such as when a MSP complains about English cricket on television, or a row is manufactured over which flag should fly above Edinburgh Castle. Now that they're in power, the SNP can use the resources of government to go full-throttle on an idea they could never afford to promote with their own money.

Again fine. But let me ask this. Why, when Labour came to power in 1997 (or the Tories in 1979) were their policy goals not described as "creeping conservatism" or "creeping socialism"? Because they did the same thing - promote their idea of how governance should work by actually implementing what they could through their government status.

But nationalism, in whatever guise, is a distraction from the only debate that ultimately counts in politics: the distribution of power, money and opportunity. What is "Scotland", if not an invented community dreamt up by a bunch of white guys a few hundred years ago? A similar group of landowners invented other countries such as "Belgium", "Austria" and "Wales", but our national narrative is created to pretend that our bit of turf is somehow special.

Every national narrative does that. And it is - or it should be. It's home, Paul. Tell me you don't think of your house as special - or distinct - from other people's? It's the same principle really. Talk about "invented communities" all you want (by the way, I think the academic phrase you are looking for is "
Imagined Communities") but I think most people would agree that they feel some kind of connection to some kind of community - whether that is family, village, town, region, nation, country, continent.

The con-trick of nationalism is to spin a fairytale that a country - Scotland, Timbuktu - has a specific set of characteristics that marks it out as innately different. Its "people" are then conditioned to feel pride in what is effectively an accident of geography, or get dewy-eyed about the random part of the globe they just happened to be conceived in.

And the "con-trick" of journalism is to stick a few words together in a newspaper and report an opinion as fact. See, I can twist things too. Fine, it's an accident of geography where I was born but I don't see what the problem is in wanting to see others from your own "community" do well and a sense of pride in their achievement.

Gordon Brown's promotion of British patriotism - a two-bit, dog-eared version of nationalism - made a laughable attempt at linking "Britishness" to respect for democracy. This in a country that still has legislators and a head of state based on heredity.

Agreed. Though I guess the problem for Brown in doing so is that "Britishness" has never been defined in the same sense that its component nations have - in a historic sense I mean. Their national stories are already constructed while Brown has to start at the beginning.

Salmond's insistence that Scots have always been big on compassion and "community" is equally absurd. A glance at Scotland's contribution to the British Empire, or the Sighthill residents' reaction to the arrival of asylum-seekers, should quickly challenge that perception.

Again, agreed. Reckon there are a few liberties being taken on that score.

Nationalism, including the civic Scottish version, is also a value-free zone. There is no logical Scottish position on wealth inequality, feminism or reforming public services. Most SNP policies are tactical compromises designed solely with the intention of promoting independence. Far from being a liberating force, nationalism is more akin to a ball and chain, or a set of blinkers that prevent people from seeing the world as it is.

Hold on. The SNP is a party. Scottish nationalism is a movement. Conflating the two doesn't help understand them. The SNP have evolved (2007 election) into a
catch-all party - focusing not solely on a part of the electorate (the left, the centre, the right) but promoting policies which would appeal broadly across the political spectrum, just as Labour did in 1997. SNP policies are tactical compromises - absolutely - but the underlying principle of self-determination is not.

These gripes could be countered if Scottish nationalism was a movement based on social justice, but it is not. Around 50% of the SNP's election warchest in 2007 came from right-wing businessmen who supported the poisonous Keep The Clause campaign in 2000. The party's financial muscle also wants a continuation of the same economic philosophy that has dominated politics since the 1980s, the sole difference being that it should be wrapped in tartan bunting.

Again you conflate Scottish nationalism as a movement with the party machinery of the SNP. I accept that, as the main proponent of independence, the SNP drive nationalism in Scotland, but a movement and a party are two different things. On the point of funding, I suspect that those who supported the SNP - Brian Soutar in particular - did so for tactical reasons. They'd probably be more at home with the Conservatives but backed the horse likely to beat Labour in Scotland. But in politics, financial backing is important. I disagree strongly with Soutar's politics, but if he had not funded the SNP, would we be having this discussion?

As for the SNP's many broken promises since entering government, the one policy it did not ditch was the multi-million-pound tax cut for businesses, a policy that has not created any jobs and which did not have an evidence base, but was fully funded and pushed through as one of Salmond's key priorities.

Two things. 1) The SNP are a minority government but campaigned on the expectation that, at the very least, they'd be in coalition government. They can not be expected to deliver on every election promise on that basis. I suspect you know that, but that wouldn't sell papers. 2) Governments don't create jobs. Businesses do. Again, I assume you didn't get to where you are without knowing that. The business rates cut was designed to attract business to Scotland while giving assistance to businesses here in the hope that, yes, they'd be able to recruit more people. But then what happened? Oh yes, a recession - which the Scottish Government had no control over.

A plausible argument for an SNP government could have been that Salmond, a loner and political outsider, would use the levers of power to confront vested interests and take away decision-making from the cliques that dominate public life.

However, the opposite has happened. Rather than challenge the establishment, Salmond has tried to co-opt its leading members into his Nationalist tent. Sir Angus Grossart, Sir George Mathewson and Sir Tom Farmer are all Salmond confidantes, while at times it seems you need three letters after your name to impress our monarchist first minister.

I've heard similar reports from inside the circle.

A recent interview also confirms that Salmond is now supping from society's other poisoned well: organised religion. As well as cosying up to the Catholic Church and Muslim leaders, the first minister has taken it upon himself to declare that he, too, is a man of faith. Not that he takes it to ridiculous lengths, like going to church, but simply that Christianity has had a profound effect on his life.

This combination of nationalism and religion is a recipe for keeping people dumb, poor and unable to understand the rational world that exists outside of their wee bit of hill and glen.

Hang on. I'll accept that the First Minister's recent declaration of faith leave a little to be desired... but I think you are mistaking nationalism for socialism. You know, religion being the "
opium of the people" and all that. I have more confidence in people as rational beings to judge for themselves whether religion or politics in important to them, and which road of faith (in religion or politics) to take.

According to this world view, it matters little that you work 50 hours a week for poverty pay, get treated like dirt by employers or are let down by public services, because at least you love your country and have Jesus in your life.

Drivel. Utter drivel.

For all his Europhilia, Salmond's influence on Scottish politics is pushing us more towards a US-style political culture, where discussions on wealth get less air-time than hand-wringing debates on identity politics and what it means to be an American. The last Holyrood election, like every presidential contest since 1960, was a political beauty contest. And Jack McConnell, let's face it, was no Jack Kennedy.

True - to an extent. But I think you forget Tony Blair. He was the one who originally made politics in this country a more presidential style. Salmond just used it effectively in 2007.

In a UK context, Salmond is perhaps the Tony Benn or Enoch Powell of Scottish politics: a maverick politician who, by force of personality, makes unreasonable ideas seem reasonable to large chunks of the population. Take him out of the equation, as was the case when he resigned the SNP leadership in 2000, and his party nosedives.

And there it is. Couldn't have an article on Scottish nationalism without bringing out the Nazis eh? Salmond as
Enoch Powell? That's an unreasonable idea but nothing short of what you'd expect from the Scottish press. Associate the SNP with anti-immigration and right-wing politicians without actually examining their policies.

In the meantime, Salmond and his ministers are using the powers they have to pump nationalism into the water supply. It may not be poisonous, or even have damaging long-term effects, but the recipe will do little to cure the economic problems that persist in this and every other country.

I'm sorry - is that last sentence a cry that the Scottish Government should have more economic powers? Or simply a criticism of the SNP for not doing something that it can't actually do?


Oh well. I really do look forward to the day when the parties and the press can have a rational, grown-up discussion about the constitutional future of Scotland. Sadly, with articles like this and the reluctance of politicians - from both sides of the debate - to clearly articulate a positive case for their view, I'll probably be waiting a long time yet.


subrosa 3 August 2009 at 10:04  

Excellent review Malc although I would like to see politicians from ALL sides debate not just both sides.

Anonymous,  3 August 2009 at 12:06  

Superb Malc, a thoroughly scound deconstruction.

An analysis of 'scottish unionism' and the deep political divisions that it encapuslates is well overdue from the national papers.

Could Paul be the man to carry out the job.

Anonymous,  3 August 2009 at 18:42  

I don't think your review is particularly illuminating or objective in it's critique. Especially, immediately jumping to the conclusion that to place Enoch Powell and Tony Benn as comparisons to Salmond is somehow a reference to him being a Nazi!! I think you have displayed bias at best, paranoia at worst. I notice you didn't mention Tony Benn made him seem like Stalin.

Anonymous,  3 August 2009 at 19:44  

Thanks Malc. I seethed when I read that article and am seriously thinking of not buying The Herald /Sunday Herald in future. Could I ask you to send a shortened version of your blog to the SH for publication? I hope that others too are intending to rebut some of the more ridiculous statements.

Allan 3 August 2009 at 20:52  

Some points...

1)"Why, when Labour came to power in 1997 (or the Tories in 1979) were their policy goals not described as "creeping conservatism" or "creeping socialism"? Probably because the New Labour project was so focused on promoting non socialist policies, you would have been laughed at if you had described New Labour as remotely socialist. The Tories on the other hand could be described as nothing other than Conservitive, the creeping bit was not really required.

2)"The SNP have evolved (2007 election) into a catch-all party - focusing not solely on a part of the electorate (the left, the centre, the right) but promoting policies which would appeal broadly across the political spectrum" Not really sure about the last bit. LIT somehow failed to captivate the people who would have benefited, yet bizarrely the cutting of business rates has survived despite the huge gap between rich and poor. The SNP still have a way to go before they appeal accross the political spectrum.

Oh for an opposition who really cared about the common 5/8th's.

3)"On the point of funding, I suspect that those who supported the SNP - Brian Soutar in particular - did so for tactical reasons." and not because the SNP dropped plans to look into the de-regulation of the bus network, and nothing at all to do with the transport companies reported dissatisfaction with the OAP/Dissabled free transport card (which has seen Firstbus drop its eligability in the Glasgow area between 1am and 6am).

4)"Governments don't create jobs. Businesses do" That'll be why Iain McMillin was critisising... no... castigating Salmond for addressing the Diageo march. How dare our First Minister show sympathy with the workers. That'll be why lobyists are now queing around the block to meet Cameron then.

5)"I have more confidence in people as rational beings to judge for themselves whether religion or politics in important to them, and which road of faith (in religion or politics) to take." Sorry, i don't, then again I live in the West of Scotland, which is severly blighted by a little thing called sectarianism.

6)"But I think you forget Tony Blair." Have you forgotten about Thatch already? Blair may have taken that style of campaigning forward, but thatch and her advisers wrote the book on presidential campaigning in a parlimentary monarchy.

and 7)"Couldn't have an article on Scottish nationalism without bringing out the Nazis eh? Salmond as Enoch Powell?" This point is actually true. Benn is the a very good advocate of socialism, while Powell was the first high profile advocate of Friedmanesque Moneterism, Thatch in this respect influenced by Powell. Salmond is Scotlands most eloquent advocate of Independence.

Alex 4 August 2009 at 00:02  

The great thing about Hutcheon's article is that it contains something to irritate anyone, regardless of their political affiliation or preferences. Well, anyone apart from the dreariest type of Labour troll whose views appear to be rooted in undergraduate agit-prop of the 1970s or 80s.

Anonymous,  4 August 2009 at 08:13  

when you are not being heard what did you do at school,become irritating.

excellent review.

one thing that is true is these head bangers sense an oportunity has been has,but it was never there in the first place.

what scotland needs is a big shot of freemarket policy and drastically reduced goverment.

scotland is living way out of its means,and as an independent country would inherit 10% 0f the uks debt,
about £100 bn,
but not all the oil,

making it a basket case from day one.

Stuart Winton 4 August 2009 at 08:50  

Is there a term for a fisking of a fisking?

A 'wallaceing'?

Malc 4 August 2009 at 09:49  

Subrosa & Wardog,

Reckon I was preaching to the choir with you two!

Malc 4 August 2009 at 09:53  

Anon 1,

It's particularly nice to hear from someone who is scared to put their name to a comment. However, I'll respond anyway. It wasn't meant to be objective - it was meant to bring to light the glaring errors and opinion-dressed-as-fact in Hutcheon's article.

As for Enoch Powell, the man is in famous for his "Rivers of Blood" speech - any comparison with him inevitably draws comparison with his anti-immigration views. Tony Benn might have be a maverick lefty, but at least he is a decent man. And given the Scottish's press history in this department, I reckon its a fair concern.

Malc 4 August 2009 at 09:55  

Anon 2,

I did send a copy of it to Paul Hutcheon himself. I don't expect he'll read it, much less comment. But that's how it goes - as a journo, you make your comment and ignore the reaction. C'est la vie.

Malc 4 August 2009 at 10:01  


1 & 6 fair points. Bear in mind I'm just 25 though, so didn't experience Thatcher campaigning. I do remember Blair's 'Presidential' style though.

2 - The point was that they did, in fact, grab votes from across the spectrum - which was what their aim was. Basically catch-all is the only way you can win an election, and thats what they did. It's a tactical move though, no more.

3 - Perhaps. But both parties will deny such "cash for policies" accusations.

4 - I never said that folks would agree. But basic economics shows that its businesses who create jobs. Governments create conditions.

5 - In my view, humans are rational actors, capable of decision-making. Religion and politics are some decisions people can make. I think that, you disagree. Fair enough.

7 - Yep. See above for why I riled at the comparison.

Malc 4 August 2009 at 10:03  


Reckon you're probably right with that! I guess even die-hard socialist Labour types (if any of them still exist!) would be irritated by the Tony Benn-Alex Salmond comparison as well.

Malc 4 August 2009 at 10:06  

Anon 3,

To an extent I agree (and this is where my small-c conservatism comes through). I believe in smaller government, free market policies and less regulation. I just think that the smaller government should be run from Edinburgh and not London.

I'm not entirely sure if you've read Hutcheon's article. If you did, there's no way you could think it was excellent.

Malc 4 August 2009 at 10:06  


Feel free to fisk the fisk. Drop me a line when your done.

Allan 5 August 2009 at 18:46  

Thanks for responding. I have to say fair enough, though with point 2 they didn't do enough to grab votes from accross the spectrum. Otherwise the SNP would have been closer to an overall majority and might have ben able to enact some of their (popular) policies. But hey, i can't quibble we don't have an uninspiring New Labour clone in Bute House so...

I can assure Anon 3 that the very last thing Scotland needs is a shot of Freemarket policy.

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