Friday, May 18, 2018

The case for Chris McEleny

As you probably know, voting is now open in the SNP depute leadership election, and if you're part of the 2%+ of the entire population of Scotland that are members of the SNP, you have until 8th June to cast your vote.  I'm proud to have just cast my own first preference vote for Chris McEleny.  Whatever happens from here, it's reasonable to state that Mr McEleny's presence in the contest has had a positive impact - his forthright statement that an independence referendum should be held within the next eighteen months has prodded the other two candidates to go further on the referendum issue than perhaps they otherwise would have done.  Julie Hepburn has now said absolutely explicitly that the mandate for a pre-2021 referendum should be used, and while Keith Brown is still the most cautious of the three candidates, he has acknowledged at least the possibility of a referendum taking place in as little as twelve months.  So it's no longer the case that a vote for Keith Brown is specifically a vote against an early referendum - but it still troubles me greatly that Mr Brown hasn't (as far as I'm aware) completely excluded the possibility of letting the pre-2021 mandate expire.  I think it's fair to say that a vote for Chris McEleny is still by some distance the most emphatic way to vote in favour of an early referendum.  There are no ifs, buts, maybes or get-out clauses in his pitch, and the message that the membership will be sending if he wins this contest will be absolutely unmistakeable.

Apart from his distinctive stance on referendum timing, Mr McEleny has prioritised the value of local government and community politics.  But one other thing that has appealed to me is the directness of his language about the failure of the mainstream media to cover Scottish politics impartially.  There's a well-meaning but misguided tendency among some senior SNP people to say that we must never blame the media for the 2014 referendum result, because the real failure lay with ourselves for not getting the message across effectively.  In other words, victory in the future will depend only on an improvement within ourselves, not on an improvement in external players such as the media.  That always sounds like a mantra lifted straight from a self-help book, and it has the enormous shortcoming of not actually being true - or at least of not being the whole truth.  Of course the media are horrendously biased against independence, and of course that was one factor in the narrow defeat in 2014, and of course we should be demanding better - especially from the broadcast media, which is theoretically obliged by law to be impartial in its coverage.

I'll make no bones about it - if Chris McEleny doesn't win, I hope Julie Hepburn does, and I've given her my second preference vote without any hesitation.  This has the feel of a contest that could be a lot closer than was initially anticipated.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Is Sarah Smith auditioning (again) to become Scottish Tory press officer?

As you probably know by now, the Scottish Parliament voted at 5pm today to deny legislative consent for Westminster's EU Withdrawal Bill, and did so by a thumping 93 to 30 margin.  It would be an unprecedented breach of the Sewel Convention for the UK government to proceed without consent, but that is apparently what they are minded to do.  So we're now into uncharted waters twice over - not only are we heading towards the first clear breach of the Sewel Convention, but we're also awaiting a date in the Supreme Court as the UK government makes its first ever attempt to have legislation of the elected Scottish Parliament struck down by judges.

It's probably fair to say that you wouldn't quite have a full appreciation of the significance of these events if you've been relying on the "analysis" of the BBC's Scotland Editor Sarah Smith, which has been embedded into the main online BBC article on the subject.  According to her, this won't actually be the first overruling of the Scottish Parliament by Westminster - it supposedly happened last year when Theresa May said no to an independence referendum, and nobody cared then, and nobody will care now.

Just a few snags with that -

1) It's a fictionalised version of what happened last year.  Nobody has a clue whether Theresa May would have got away with saying "no" to an independence referendum, because she didn't say "no" to a request that was actually pressed.  She was given respite by Nicola Sturgeon's voluntary decision to put the request on hold for a year or so.  The day of reckoning is yet to come, but perhaps isn't too far off.

2) It's an utterly bogus and irrelevant comparison anyway.  It is not within the devolved competence of Holyrood to require Westminster to pass a Section 30 order, so the "now is not the time" schtick (as outrageous and undemocratic as it was) did not represent a breach of the Sewel Convention or of the devolution settlement.  The current plans to transfer powers from Edinburgh back to London without consent most certainly do.

3) How dare a BBC editor tell her viewers what they care about and what they don't care about?  That's pure propaganda, and is exactly the sort of thing a Tory spin doctor would say - "the people of Scotland don't care about this, they want Nicola Sturgeon to get on with the day job, etc, etc".  By contrast, and not unreasonably, the SNP line is that of course the people of Scotland care about protecting the devolution settlement they voted for so emphatically in the referendum of 1997.  What business is it of a BBC editor to adjudicate for herself, on the basis of no supporting evidence that I'm aware of, that the Tory spin is factual and the SNP perspective is not?  (Especially given that any alleged public apathy has been cultivated by the BBC burying its own coverage of the power-grab wherever humanly possible.)

It's particularly ironic to recall that Sarah Smith is the daughter of the late John Smith - the man who popularised the view that devolution is the "settled will" of the Scottish people.  I wonder what he would have made of his daughter's notion that people don't actually care about their own settled will.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Have the Sunday Herald built bridges after last week's misjudgements? (Spoiler: No, they've doubled down by going Full Leask with a disgraceful front page attack on Alex Salmond.)

You might remember a while back that CommonSpace took a brief financial hit after running an attack piece about Wings Over Scotland that had a particularly ill-judged and highly provocative headline.  Robin McAlpine very deftly rescued the situation a few days later with an article that didn't really acknowledge that CommonSpace was responsible for its own mistake, but that nevertheless struck a sufficiently conciliatory tone that by all accounts a lot of cancelled subscriptions were swiftly renewed.  The Sunday Herald has found itself in a very similar pickle in recent days after a number of missteps in last week's edition that disappointed many loyal readers, and infuriated others.

Most obviously, there was the front page photo from the pro-independence march in Glasgow that gave the completely distorted impression that those on the march waving saltires and the Union Jack-wielding counter-protestors were roughly equal in numbers.  (The reality was that there were tens of thousands of the former and only a couple of dozen of the latter.)  An obvious defence is that it was simply a very striking and thus publication-worthy image, but that doesn't really wash, because it was used to complement coverage in text that was similarly distorted, ie. that gave the impression that the only real significance of the march was that it had caused 'division' and brought about an 'ugly' stand-off.

Eyebrows were also raised at an apparent new editorial line that Nicola Sturgeon should 'prioritise' a UK-wide re-run of the EU referendum (one that might well see Scotland outvoted yet again) over a second independence referendum.  From a journalistic point of view there's nothing wrong with that new stance, but when you've built up a loyal readership on the specific basis that you are a pro-independence paper, you shouldn't really be surprised that those readers feel there has been a breach of trust if you start actively undermining the campaign for independence.  If a paper's collective views on self-determination and the constitution have 'evolved', that's fine, but probably the best thing to do is be up-front and honest about it, and allow readers to decide whether the time has come to look for a new 'home'.  Claiming earnestly to still be pro-independence while simultaneously pushing a blatantly indy-sceptic news agenda is only going to lead to confusion and resentment.

You might have thought that the Sunday Herald would have reflected on the damage done last week, and would be in full-on bridge-building mode this week.  That they would have followed the wise example of Robin McAlpine by making moves to reassure disgruntled readers that nothing had changed and that we're all still on the same side.  But not a bit of it.  Instead, they've doubled down with a front page that sends an unmistakeable message that a great deal has changed.  It contains what I can only describe as a despicable attack on Alex Salmond that in none-too-subtle fashion pursues the barking mad "the Russians are everywhere!" agenda of Mr David Leask from the paper's anti-independence daily sister publication.  Leask of course always strenuously denies that his weird obsession with smearing Salmond represents in any sense a grudge against the SNP or against the pro-independence movement, but to hold that line he's had to draw a wildly implausible distinction between a so-called "real" or "mainstream" SNP that has supposedly disowned Salmond (have you noticed anyone actually doing that?) and the "Trumpist" or "Putin stooge" interlopers led by Salmond himself.  As I've noted before, it's a bit of a stretch to ask people to accept that a politician who was leader of the SNP until only three-and-a-half years ago, who indeed has been leader of the SNP for roughly one-quarter of the party's entire existence, and who led the Yes campaign in the 2014 independence referendum, is somehow not "real" SNP.  In fact, the question might reasonably be asked: if Alex Salmond of all people is not "real" SNP, then who the hell is? We haven't heard a credible answer to that question from Leask or the Herald so far.  Perhaps the Sunday Herald can come up with one now that they appear to be foolishly going down the same path.

I know that defenders of the front page story will point out that the Sunday Herald can't be expected to let its pro-independence views get in the way of reporting the news.  But the snag is that the comments of Mr Litvinenko's widow about Alex Salmond are not a news story that has just spontaneously appeared out of thin air.  She presumably didn't ring up the Sunday Herald offices and say "I've just got to get this off my chest, guys".  They sought her out and solicited a view from her about a subject that she might well not have given much thought to otherwise.  It's a piece of "news" that has been artificially generated by the Sunday Herald completely from scratch.  They knew exactly what they were doing, and all I can say is this: if for whatever reason you're out to "get" Alex Salmond, you might as well own what you're doing, because people can see straight through you anyway.

We're told that the editor of the Sunday Herald has responded to the criticisms of last week's paper in a special article.  I can't find it online yet, but judging by David Leask's excitement it looks set to be quite a belligerent response of a "the problem is the readers, not the journalism" variety.  It's precisely that kind of attitude that is killing the traditional media.  Sooner or later journalists are going to have to comes to terms with the fact that the days of a passive audience that never answers back, and that doesn't have anywhere else to go, are long over.