The heather set on fire

Perhaps the only heather that’s caught fire…

by Douglas MacLeod
Author, historian and former BBC producer

Good morning Wee Eck. Wake up and smell the … er … what exactly? Well one thing is for sure, beloved leader, it isn’t the heather on fire. You have achieved something truly remarkable. You have launched a campaign for an independence referendum in an ancient nation and have been met with… nothing very much.

Alex Salmond MSP 'Wee Eck'
Alex Salmond MSP
‘Wee Eck’
A few weeks ago, a former colleague posted on a social network site a plea for anyone in the area of a planned broadcast debate on independence to please come to the venue so slight was the interest.

Such debates as I’ve seen or heard are stuffed full of usual suspect party activists banging old drums.

The ‘Yes’ campaign, showing in enough opinion polls to count as a trend, is stuck in a Sargasso Sea of indifference. Could it be, dear Eck, that your legendary and justified reputation as a savvy political operator, has faltered and that your finely honed instincts have deserted you at the very moment when triumph seemed to be within your grasp?

Gosh. That’ll make a great play one day, a tragi-comedy of positively Greek proportions. They’ve even got the words for it. You know them, that great old double act, fresh from the debacle of the Great Broon of Fife, Hubris and Nemesis.

"Pinkies up, Morningside tearoom independence"
“Pinkies up, Morningside tearoom independence”
Of course some of the cause of the failure of the heather to ignite may be due to the somewhat strange rallying cry of the ‘Yes’ campaign. This ain’t Mel Gibson, daubed in the far from authentic blue stuff wielding a bloody great sword and leading the charge towards proud Edward’s army screaming “FREEDOM”.

This is pinkies up, Morningside tearoom independence. We’re keeping the Royal Family. Same head of state. We’re keeping the pound. Same currency. That raises some difficult economic questions. Defence? We’re keeping NATO. Right, so same foreign policy? Well maybe. More really difficult questions. Better fudge that one. Independence lite.

I think the indifference goes deeper, to the heart of the contempt felt by most people for a political class. Let us search, Wee Eck, for that lost time when there was a dawn and it was bliss to be alive and to be young was very heaven. I refer, of course, to that earlier referendum when the heather did catch fire. The concept of devolved power in general and of the blueprint for a Scottish Parliament drawn up by the Constitutional Convention had a good press.

Yet underneath it all was deep political cynicism. Who wanted devolution? For the SNP it was a transitory stepping stone to independence. The vast majority of Labour’s big beasts simply saw it as a way of shooting the Nationalist fox. Yet they joined forces in a ‘Yes’ campaign, including some well-known Labour figures who were visibly gritting their teeth.

Gordon Brown - Stayed in Westminster
Gordon Brown – Stayed in Westminster
The great beasts of Labour – the Gordon Browns, Alasdair Darlings and George Robertsons – stayed put in Westminster. The electoral list system – devised by Labour to prevent an SNP majority – ensured that party bosses could award sundry apparatchiks with a good crack at putting MSP after their names.

In a piece for the New Statesman in 1999 the veteran Political correspondent Tom Brown, analysed the new intake of MSP’s. There were 33 former councillors; 14 had been researchers, MPs’ gophers and bag-carriers and ‘have never had a proper job’. The result was, particularly on the Labour Back benches, a group of politicians who, to be kind, didn’t exactly represent the sharpest political intellects of our generation.

An old Scots word was brought back into common usage by broadsheets of record and tabloids alike to describe our parliamentarians and their performance in the early debates: “numpty”. In 2007 it was voted Scotland’s favourite word, according to a poll by BT Openreach.

Ex-Councillors and bag carriers
Ex-Councillors and bag carriers
Brown found that ‘Politicos, local government functionaries, trade unionists, lecturers and lawyers make up four-fifths of the parliament.’ This was hardly the ‘new politics’ which had been promised; rather it re-enforced the growing notion of an out of touch professional political class.

The public relations problem was exacerbated because they were being scrutinised by some of the sharpest political commentators around who had cut their journalistic teeth at Westminster and come home to cover the promised excitement of the ‘new politics’ in the Scottish Parliament.

It led to an outburst from Tony Blair: “A bunch of unreconstructed wankers” was how he famously characterised the men and women of the Scottish press in a moment of irritation as those early bad reviews came in. A little later, in March 2000, addressing the Scottish Parliament, then meeting in the Kirk’s Assembly Rooms on the Mound, his language was more measured, but the sentiment was much the same. After accusing the hacks of doing what they could to knock over an edifice that they had been instrumental in erecting, the Prime Minister declared: “Scepticism is healthy. Cynicism is corrosive. And there is no cause for it.”

Tony Blair. Picture: World Economic Forum
Tony Blair
Attacked the media
This was a classic case of trying to shoot the messenger. As Blair castigated the hacks, Executive Ministers were admitting (privately) that parliament did itself no good by setting as its first priorities the business of deciding on MSPs’ holidays, wages and expenses.

There was a barrage of bad publicity to be taken into account: political lobbyists and their high-level connections (“lobbygate” ); the ever rising costs of the new parliament building, where again the new polity did themselves no PR favours by selecting a celebrity panel which choose a daring design and a site bought from one of the Tory party’s financial supporters; meantime ministers and MSPs demanded more and more space for themselves, the building programme dropped further behind schedule and costs soared to an eye watering ten times the original estimate. It is little wonder that public support dwindled.

The referendum would have been won even if the notorious 40 per cent rule that had stymied hopes of an assembly in 1979 had applied. The first election produced a more than sixty per cent turnout, high by modern standards. The second election produced a turnout of just over 49 per cent. The long hoped for Scottish parliament had become just another modern political institution inspiring, at best, nothing very much in the hearts of most Scots at worst the usual justified contempt of the modern voter for politicians. Subsequent electoral turnouts have hovered around fifty per cent.

There, Wee Eck, lies the source of your Nemesis. There was no great landslide victory at the last election. Half the electorate didn’t vote. A mandate to govern through Holyrood? Yes. A launchpad for independence? No. Methinks you fell for the trap that befalls many a successful politician, you started to believe your own propaganda. I asked who wanted devolution? The answer is, of course, the Scottish people. What they got were cynical politicians pursuing their party agendas, and much waffle and ineptitude.