Tom Gallagher: Much of the UK media now endorses the break-up of Britain

In terms of ruthless manipulation of the media, the New Labour of Alistair Campbell and Philip Gould  has been eclipsed by the Scottish National Party. It has been in power longer with more resources at its disposal and is far more ruthless.

This matters because media management has become a central lever in the SNP’s strategy to break-up the United Kingdom.  Nicola Sturgeon’s separatists are even managing to lure into their orbit London publications with a world audience. They have dropped their scorn for Scottish nationalism due to wounded fury about the demise of their beloved project of European integration.

It is easy to dismiss the SNP as a campaigning force that simply got lucky a decade ago against dud opponents like Brown and Blair’s Labour and which were then offered a referendum on their goal of separation by a misguided David Cameron.

The SNP is better understood as a supremely effective power machine. In lieu of governing well, it has tightened its grip over Scotland by capturing or subduing its institutions.  The universities, the third sector, the police, and the Catholic Church have all been co-opted or silenced by deft use of patronage, offers of protection, or interference in their governing arrangements.

But it is the print and broadcasting media that the SNP has really sought to influence and re-shape. It starts with an enormous advantage since it directly employs far more journalists than any Scottish newspaper. From SNP-run local authorities to First Minister Nicola Sturgeon's office, it employs a battery of special advisers drawn from the Scottish media.

The SNP not only provides regular work in what is often a casual and unpredictable profession. But it gives journalists the whiff of power, the feeling that they are bit-players as historic deeds are performed in Scotland.

In return, the SNP expects praise and probably can’t believe its luck when it comes in the sycophantic truckload as happened with the gushing profile of Nicola Sturgeon in the Financial Times last week.

It rewards journalists who depict Scotland in monolithic terms as an entity firmly apart from the rest of the UK in the way its inhabitants think and feel on issues big and small.

It is delighted when even journalists not signed up for independence write on the basis that Scots are more progressive and less hidebound than ‘the English’. Last Monday when Sturgeon demanded a second referendum, a young unionist journalist  knew he would earn kudos with the SNP media machine when he wrote that ‘Boris Johnson's announcement that he backs the construction of a new royal yacht truly is the perfect end to a big day for Nicola Sturgeon’. @JamieRoss7

It is journalists with unionist  affiliations whom the SNP hopes to sway. If, like Alex Massie of The Spectator, they share the SNP’s Europhilia, then it is a coup when he produces not one but dozens of articles asserting that a time of troubles will surely follow Brexit and it is increasingly hard to see how the Anglo-Scottish union can endure.

Currently, there is a huge  groundswell of opposition to another  referendum. No Tory Prime Minister has been more in tune with Scots for a long time when, as Theresa May said last week, holding one ‘wouldn’t be fair to the people of Scotland’ with so much still to be worked out about Brexit.

But numerous supposedly neutral or pro-union journalist popped up to say another referendum was inevitable, and the Tories would be punished for not giving Scots the chance to have their say. They were much quieter when Sturgeon revealed a new party line on the EU: Yes it was a ‘democratic outrage’ Scotland was being taken out but once the dust settles Scotland will no longer be seeking full membership of that body.

Offering a more detached perspective on the EU was a bid to win back the 400,000 supporters who voted Leave last June and who have grown chary about the EU’s version of independence. BBC Scotland’s veteran analyst Brian Taylor helpfully intervened to describe the SNP’s approach to the EU as merely a ‘route-map’ rather than a rejection.

Other broadcast journalists who are occasionally disrespectful to the SNP can expect a torrid time. The talented Stephen Daisley was silenced by his employer Scottish Television (STV) last autumn after a series or irreverent articles about the party.

Earlier in the year, STV’s chief executive Rob Woodward had been assailed by angry Nationalist MPs when he held a briefing at Westminster. John Nicolson, a member of the Commons media committee, denounced Daisley’s partisanship 'and he was gagged by the broadcaster'.

The UK government has been slow to realise just how crucial the SNP views media warfare as a means of securing its key objective.  In 2016 Damian Collins, the Conservative  MP and head of the media committee, even recommended that Scottish viewers be able to opt out of the 6pm BBC news and be given their Scottish-orientated programme instead. But thankfully this was overruled by the Government.

The SNP will have to rely on its existing channels of influence to  frame everything in Scottish terms and depict the rest of the UK, ‘England, ‘the T-o-r-e-e-s’, ‘Westmonster’, as ‘the other’. In the last two years, one of  the most effective counterweights to this demonisation of the rest of Britain has come from a non-party citizens initiative Scotland in Union.

Its campaign, opposing a second referendum was launched in Glasgow on 14 March, and by the 18th nearly 200,000 people, mostly in Scotland, had signed a petition against one, started on the 13th. The presentation to a big audience by its new chief executive, Graeme Pearson, a former senior police official and Labour MSP, was effective. But David Torrance, perhaps the most influential interpreter of Scotland to the rest of the UK was unimpressed.

‘If today's @scotlandinunion event is any indication, then union is doomed: muddled arguments & a predominantly elderly/tweedy audience’. @David Torrance

The SiU had 12,000 people signed up as supporters (its now 20,000 and rising) and it was pointed out to Torrance  that many of them would have been unable to attend due to work or study.

A few hours later the night editor of the Scottish edition of the Times, Katherine O’Donnell, described as ‘exceptionally ill-judged’ a billboard poster just put up by SiU which proclaimed:

‘REFERENDUMB,More Instability. More uncertainty. It’s stupid to have another referendum now’. @kathy_odonnell

Pro-British Scots can’t win: they  are either country squires or else provocative poster-makers. In truth they are an intrusion for much of the media in Scotland, which has decided this is a contest between risen Scots natives and English overlords.

In a binary conflict there is no room for the fact that the leader of the Conservatives, Ruth Davidson, is Scotland’s most popular politician, that Theresa May has helped shed the party’s aloof image, and that there is rising distrust of the EU in Scotland.

Too many journalists have staked their career on reporting non-stop turmoil from Scotland. They know that if support for a referendum continues to be very weak, then it means no commissions to write op-eds on the ‘Scottish crisis’ and that the story will soon fade away until the terms for Britain quitting the EU are finalised.

This is a relief for a lot of settled Scots who work for the British state or companies for whom there is just no point in remaining in a separate Scotland. As long as Sturgeon hogs the headlines, it means jobs, mortgages, long-term planning for their children’s future or their own retirement are up in the air.

These people rarely if ever feature in stories from the Scottish media blob. I had to rub my eyes in surprise when a story appeared in the Guardian on Friday about what folk in Clackmannanshire thought about a referendum. But it soon turned out to be by a veteran English journalist Matthew Engel who shames the Scottish hacks by going out & soliciting grassroots opinion.

Many Scots journalists belong to a profession where hard drinking and living go with the territory. They are often free-wheeling folk without dependents who revel in the political instability that freaks out more settled Scots with numerous commitments.

It is hard to divine from their copy that the SNP has never obtained more than 25 per cent support from the Scottish electorate. Since Brexit they no longer have to tone down the articles that they submit to London outlets where enthusiasm about the imminent liberation of the Celtic periphery used not to be so widely shared.

But that has changed. For publications like The Economist and the Financial Times have caught a big dose of the Scottish emotional clap. So traumatised have these cosmopolitan titles been by Brexit that they will sponsor any resistance movement even if it is the previously derided SNP. Bagehot in the Economist writes with respect about  Scottish secessionism and thinks it could prevail even if economically it is nuts. Edward Lucas, the energy editor, even re-tweeted the musings of an SNP MEP that unless Britain was at the EU table it would be part of the menu.

Meanwhile the FT, which has recruited a pro-SNP Scottish correspondent, Mure Dickie, publishes a sycophantic profile of Sturgeon two days after an article by Chris Deerin (formerly of the Telegraph) with the baseless subtitle, ‘A spasm of English nationalism makes the case to demand another say on Independence’.

London is the centre of the communications industry not only for the UK but  for much of the English-speaking world. It matters when titles read  by very influential people suddenly find daily articles arguing that it might after all be sensible for Scotland to bolt from the UK without any means of support.

George Osborne has found a perch as editor of The London Evening Standard to preserve his influence and fight a rearguard action against Brexit. But in getting major London titles to accept, or respect, its madcap agenda, the SNP has beaten him to it and the consequences for Britain could be dire.

Tom Gallagher is a retired political scientist living in Edinburgh. His book Scotland Now: A Warning to the World was published in 2016 in paperback and Kindle editions.

Tom Gallagher

  • Bonce

    Its really easy to stop Scottish independence from happening. Do not allow them to hold another legally binding referendum until after the next Scottish election in 2021.
    By then support for the SNP and Independence will inevitably decline, especially now its clear that the EU does not want them, and they will be poor and isolated without being part of the UK.
    The reason why Wee Jimmie is so desperate to get another referendum between now and 2019 is because this will be her best chance of winning the vote.

    • Labour_is_bunk

      “especially now its clear that the EU does not want them”

      .. unless you’re connected to the FT in some way.

    • Bonce wrote:

      Its really easy to stop Scottish independence from happening.

      Who in England wants to stop that from happening?

      • Bonce

        Those who see the potential in the long term of Scotland becoming some kind of North Korean style basket case, who has alliances with other basket cases which is just on our border.

        In terms of security and military strategy long term, its best if we keep Scotland part of the union.
        Its also important to note most Scots do not support independence and support for both independence and the SNP is on the decline.

    • james

      The whole thing should be put to the whole of the U.K. That might produce a very interesting result.

  • Craig Martin

    The SNP referendum = Anti-Brexit rhetoric in a kilt.
    And the last gasps of two wet fish (sturgeon/Salmon[d]) before their time is up.

    • Andy

      SNP = Tartan Nazis.

  • Colkitto03

    Sturgeon now says that Scotland will keep the pound. So we have the potential that an independent Scotland won’t control its own currency or interest rates.
    Why do the media have a go at explaining the possible consequences of this?

    • She can (and does) say any damned fool thing. I suspect England might have something to say about that.

      • Andy

        Anyone can use Sterling. But Scotland will end up in the same state as Greece – issuing debt in a currency other than your own. A recipe for going bust.

        • Very true, both points. Especially when mismanaged, and she will. We used the Spanish reale, and the pound, especially in trade, nearly till the Civil War, although we had our own. Which is where the old Americanisms about “two bits, four bits, six bits, a dollar” come from, the reale divided in 8, and a dime was ‘a short bit’.

          • Andy

            There are actually two Unions – the 1707 Union of Parliaments and the 1603 Union of Crowns. King James had needed a pension from Queen Elizabeth so he could live (somethings never change) and after the Queen died he had wanted to unite the Parliaments too. Scotland was ruled by letters to the Scottish Privy Council and Commissioners. At the 1707 Union the Scottish pound, which just over 100 years before had parity with the English pound, converted at 12:1. Given that Scotland has an enormous deficit I can see a Greece like situation developing in rather short order. What many of us in England find hard to take is that Scotland has everything – sway over nearly all her affairs – but we have nothing. And we are expected to pay to have our noses rubbed in the proverbial. We are getting pretty fed up with it.

          • I’ve noticed. Well, we have the same situation developing with California, although not as bad, yet anyway!

          • Andy wrote:

            There are actually two Unions – the 1707 Union of Parliaments and the 1603 Union of Crowns.

            There are actually three unions: the 1536 union with Wales, the 1707 union with Scotland and the 1801 Union with Ireland and whatever subsequent legislation modified that for Northern Ireland. The so-called ‘Union of the Crowns’ is a Scotch fiction, a bit of nonsense invented by the Scotch, a people renowned for such inventiveness, and considered by them, alone, to be a ‘canny’ take-over of England. They still congratulate themselves on it.

            No one in England had ever heard of ‘the Union of the Crowns’ until the three hundredth anniversary celebrations of the accession of James I. What actually happened in 1603 was that one man came to wear two separate hats. They were not thereby united, except in the Scotch imagination. I have several hats but putting them all on my head at the same time does not make them one. The crowns were united when the kingdoms they symbolised were united in 1707 and not until then.

  • Frank

    What I’m struck by is the comparison of the Mainstream Media’s coverage of the Brexit vote and that of the 2014 Scottish referendum. If the YES side had won the referendum, the BBC, Guardian et al wouldn’t have dared to give sympathetic coverage to calls for a do over, or denouncing those that voted for independence as stupid, xenophobic or racist. They arguments against this would have been that they’d be creating bad blood between the two new countries. And more than that, the idea that Parliament could/should over rule the vote, would’ve been unconscionable!

    The detached, or even sympathetic coverage of SNP posturing by the wider national media, is very telling. You’d think that it was more important for those in the remain camp to preserve Britain’s membership of a political union ( which they swear is not a nation, nor does it have any such ambitions!), than it is to preserve an actual 300 year old country. There’s all this moaning about EU grants that will go away when Brexit is implemented. What about decrease of 250 Billion dollars of the British GDP if Scotland breaks away? Why no outcry about the inevitable cuts?

  • Politically__Incorrect

    It does appear that the Remoaning media is still fighting the EU referendum campaign by backing the SNP calls for 2nd referendum. Presumably not because they see any sense or virtue in Scottish independence, but anything that irritates patriots and pro-unionists has got to be good to them.Ex PM Gordon Brown has now entered the fray with his “3rd way” which is basically a collection of bribes to keep the SNP at bay. Better not yield anything now. Scotland is already one if the most devolved national regions in the world. We are tired of being blackmailed by the SNP. It is really up to the Scottish electorate to decide if they want to continue being led down the the route of instability. One thing is certain. If there is 2nd referendum and Scotland decides to remain in the UK, then I suspect the Scottish people will not take kindly to further talk of independence.

  • The English and Scottish nationalism has been buoyed by the media since the mid nineties. Started by tabloids promoting support of the England football team by using the flag of St George during Euro 1996 – something that was rarely before (Union Jack or three lions being more popular)

    Scottish nationalism being triggered seemingly by Mel Gibson’s movie ‘Braveheart’ the previous year and fuelled by New Labour appeasement since (which of course spectacularly backfired for them).

    Of course most people know the EU needs to break the United Kingdom first in order to absorb the three countries successfully. What better way than to sow discontent and stoke nationalistic fires. If the ‘Establishment’ cannot win get their way via direct democracy (EU referendum) then they will use other means at their disposal.

  • Labour_is_bunk

    Not sure how much lower the FT can sink – for many years now its been giving out its own brand of intellectual hysteria and is seriously challenging the Guardian as to who can pack the most nonsense into its pages.

  • Dave S

    Maybe London as usual is interested in what happens in Scotland but in the English shires there is indifference now . Stay or go -so what- is the attitude I hear. Sturgeon is regarded as a very annoying joke and it no longer matters what Scotland does. Still there is some sentiment for the Highlands, stag pictures and the pipes but that is about it.
    We voted to leave the Eu and that is that and if the Scots for some unfathomable reason want to leave the United Kingdom and voluntarily join a fading project then more fool them.
    Sorry about the Scots who would like to stay in the union but it is up to them to vote the SNP out instead of rewarding their hostility to the union with nearly all the Scottish seats in the Commons.
    There is nothing we in England can do. It is up to the Scots and on current form it looks like the union is doomed .

    • Dave S wrote:

      ‘ … it looks like the union is doomed‘.

      I hope so but have always believed that it is going to survive until we English are given a say on its future. I doubt the British will allow that however.

  • The constant bellyaching from the SNP is only a mild irritant for the English. The real problem is Westminster and the asymmetric constitutional ‘settlement’ that we had no say in and which discriminates against England. We have a political class that obsesses over Britishness but has little or no feeling for England. The vote for Brexit was, in part, an English rebellion against the UK. It’s time for an English parliament, either within the UK or outside the UK.

    • Toque wrote:

      The real problem is Westminster and the asymmetric constitutional ‘settlement’ that we had no say in and which discriminates against England. We have a political class that obsesses over Britishness but has little or no feeling for England.

      I wholeheartedly concur and have said precisely the same thing since the devolution referenda in 1997.

      Nice to see something on the subject from you again Toque. English nationalism seems to be hibernating; however, the farce now playing Scotland offers an ideal opportunity to rouse it. Is there anything significant happening?

      • Europhobia (or opposition to the EU) is taken by many as English nationalism by proxy so it will be interesting to see whether Brexit leads to an increase in actual English nationalism (demand for English governance, citizenship).

        John Denham is doing good work at Winchester but I’m not aware of much beyond that. A lot depends on the dynamic with Scotland. I suspect that the English will be implored to bury their English identity for the sake of the Union, and to agree to yet more concessions to Scottish nationalists. We could do with some up-to-date polling to see what the mood of England is in regard to that.

  • TheRightToArmBears

    ‘ . . with so much still to be worked out about Brexit.’

    What’s to be worked out about Brexit? We leave, stop paying them money, re-establish our borders, re-claim our fishing grounds, and they buy from and sell to us. What’s difficult? Unless the civil service are allowed to get their grubby and sticky fingers on the alleged ‘so necessary’ negotiations, the negotiation can be cut short by stopping the money now and hitting the EU bunnies between the eyes with reality.

    Greman, French and Italian banks, already teetering on the edge, will be yelling at Juncker to agree to anything to save them. They’d do it to us and have threatened us with everything they can think of. Should we care? I don’t think so so, but then I’m an Englishman, and May cares more for immigrants than she ever did for me and mine.