Sunday, 2 February 2014

Accentuating The Positive

Selected highlights from the Independence Referendum Campaign in January.

Alan Cochrane is in a tizz.  The bitterness of the independence debate will create fissures in Scottish society for generations to come, says the Daily Telegraph’s Scottish Editor.  Or maybe it’s the stand-up comedian with a similar name;  I do tend to get the two mixed up.

As Alan sobs gently into his comfort blanket, he should rest assured that kindred spirits are available to offer him a group hug.  For January 2014 was the month when several stalwarts of the No campaign, including Alistair Darling, Jim Murphy and up'n'coming Labour starlet Kezia Dugdale, appalled us with fearful stories of “Cybernats” hurling online poison at them from dank bedrooms across the land. 

Online abuse is disgraceful, but most would agree that it’s (a) a general problem, by no means specific to the referendum debate, (b) a minority pursuit, (c) present on both sides of the argument, and (d) not masterminded from an underground bunker by Alex Salmond.  However, this view proved too nuanced for the Daily Mail, which under its guest editor Senator Joseph McCarthy launched a two-week witch hunt of separatist agitators, even door-stepping a few who’d escaped detection by the elaborate double-bluff of using their real names and not actually saying anything very controversial.

I’m sure Alistair and his friends would be horrified if this unpleasantness were to distract us from the real debate.  So let’s stick with the positive campaign stories of January, such as Alistair’s own heart-warming reconciliation with former neighbour and boss from hell, Gordon Brown.  Through boom and bust they’d shared a brotherly bond, until the day Alistair had spoiled it all by giving an update on the economy in the style of Private Fraser from Dad’s Army.  Now, with Westminster’s throttle-hold on Scotland at stake, they’d put all the volcanic tantrums and self-serving memoirs behind them and were back in harness.

The rapprochement didn’t extend to appearing in public together, which saved someone the job of ensuring all throwable objects were nailed down.  But it did involve Gordon smiling in that peculiar, disconcerting way of his, lavishing praise on Alistair in a speech and even remembering to remove his radio mike before getting in the car.  Gordon is now scheduled to disappear for months on end, as usual, and step in to save the day once Alistair’s cocked everything up.  Alistair’s views on all of this are not recorded, but he seems to be fluttering his eyelashes quite a bit.

Meanwhile, Labour were busy launching their latest buzz-phrase, “pooling and sharing resources”, or, as the rest of us say, “kicking the Barnett Formula in the nuts”.  They also added to the mystery surrounding their classic slogan “a bigger idea than independence”, in a First Minister’s Questions performance by Labour leader Johann Lamont that was extraordinary even by her standards. 

In Johann’s words, which Alex Salmond helpfully repeated back to her in case of any mistake, removing Trident, avoiding illegal wars and tackling child poverty are “wee things”.  Blimey, you might think, this idea Labour’s got must be really massive.  That must be why they didn’t get round to implementing it in 13 years of government.  Maybe they’re worried about its gravitational pull causing tidal surges.  Or perhaps Johann is just looking at independence through the wrong end of a telescope.

The spate of “love-bombing” promised by Better Together was almost a positive story, but didn’t work out as expected.   William Hague marched into Edinburgh to deliver a lecture, long on bombast and short on understanding, that was more of an oaf-bombing.  Then on Burns Night John Barrowman didn’t show a great deal of love, but certainly bombed, punctuating a bizarre Immortal Memory with elephantine asides calling Alex Salmond a pudding.  About his jacket it’s kindest to say nothing, except that the day’s statistics for self-inflicted eye injuries must have been somewhat alarming.

Elsewhere on the explosives front, a stink bomb went off at BBC Scotland, as the University of the West of Scotland released a report demonstrating bias in their referendum news coverage in favour of the No campaign.  Everyone assumed it was part of the university’s “Bleedin’ Obvious” series of reports, a successor to the ground-breaking “Cows Go Moo” and “Ye Canny Shove Yer Granny Aff A Bus”.   

The BBC certainly seemed to assume it wasn’t news, since they didn’t report it.  Instead, in a letter sneakily copied to his boss, they demanded that the author, Dr John Robertson, show them his workings, so that a middle manager with no relevant academic qualifications could “evaluate” them.  “Heroic Apparatchik Debunks Hate Report Using Plain Common Sense” -  now that’s news!

Another notable publication during January was Jim Sillars’ alternative vision for Scotland, in Place Of Fear II.  Its title’s a nifty homage to Nye Bevan, it’s downloadable to your Kindle and, at a sixth of the length of the White Paper, you can read it in an afternoon without your head exploding.  Its release coincided with Jim’s appearance on BBC Question Time from Dundee, where his natural authority never lost its grip on the audience’s attention, even when he strayed off topic into a lengthy reflection on quantitative easing, while David Dimbleby shuffled uncomfortably in his seat, steam gently hissing out of his ears.

Jim doesn’t agree with the SNP on a number of things, including a sterling currency union, so he may have had a beady eye on Mark Carney’s “technocratic” outline of how to operate one.  The BBC marked this key moment in the campaign by switching into “gloating in advance” mode.  Would Salmond be handed his chosen currency option in a bin bag, or be given a dustpan and brush and ordered to sweep up the mess himself?  What would “Ye cannae dae it” sound like in a Canadian accent?  The occupants of Downing Street gathered round the telly with beers and Cheesy Wotsits in anticipation of a rout.

Instead, what we got was a scrupulously even-handed, non-judgmental analysis, a master-class in tightrope-walking over a minefield with a nuclear warhead strapped to one’s back.  The subsequent press conference re-enacted the story of Robert the Bruce and the spider, but with an alternative outcome, as time after time James Naughtie and his colleagues tried to put words in Carney’s mouth, only to be gently encouraged to sod off and get a life.

“The idea of a currency union is now normal, not risky or outlandish,” we thought, until we read the brain-shredding spin in the newspapers the following morning and realised we’d been visiting a parallel universe.  It seems that if you can’t pin a damaging quote on someone, you declare it’s what he didn’t say that matters.  As he left Edinburgh, Carney’s parting words had been, “It’s over, it’s over.”  But it never is.

In the universe inhabited by Better Together, not so much parallel as accessed by falling down a rabbit hole, it was as if someone had flicked a magic switch.  “Goodbye to the pound,” screamed their new leaflet, aimed at commuters on the basis that one must always have something sensational to read on the train.  It’s unclear whether they really printed the 500,000 copies they claimed, or someone in the press office had fat-finger syndrome.

Never mind, though, I’m sure there are many uses to which squillions of unread leaflets can be put.  We could even knit a few together and make a nice new comfort blanket for Alan Cochrane.  I’m positive his old one’s getting a bit worn.

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