Up until now, the SNP has been seen as as a decent government, less in thrall to the corporate classes than Cameron's Coalition. But the pact made between Scotland's First Minister and the Murdoch media empire punctures this moral high-ground. Can he reclaim it?
Alex Salmond, Scotland’s First Minister, has emerged as a significant player in the Leveson inquiry. This is a result of the release of 163 pages of emails from News Corporation which have publicised the extent of their contacts with the Scottish Government.
The charge is that the Scottish Government were prepared to go into bat for the Murdoch empire as a quid pro quo for ‘The Sun’ supporting the SNP in last year’s elections. This is contested and denied by Rupert Murdoch and Salmond.
What is incontrovertible is that Salmond agreed last March to make a call to Jeremy Hunt, Culture Secretary, to support Murdoch’s BSkyB takeover bid. This call was meant to happen, but didn’t.
To Salmond, this train of events is about the business of promoting Scotland, jobs and investment, as he has commented, ‘arguing for the Scottish interest is what this government does’. At First Minister’s Questions yesterday, he stated, ‘the job of a First Minister is to advocate jobs for Scotland’.
Beyond the accusations and denials, we now know that the Scottish Government last year had a policy of supporting the BSkyB bid, believing in Salmond’s words that it would be ‘good for Scotland’. This official policy was never publically announced, kept secret and only came out yesterday in the avalanche of News Corp emails.
There is a pattern here of modern politics and politicians; Alex Salmond’s courting of Rupert Murdoch follows Thatcher’s ideological love-in with Murdoch. From this New Labour learned to love the Murdoch empire, and subsequently the Cameroon Conservatives and Salmond’s SNP have followed suit.
Salmond’s style of politics seems to involve ‘big beast politics’, of deal making, attracting controversial, charismatic, alpha-males and being impatient or oblivious to the downside of such actions. There is an attraction to wealth and power from Fred Goodwin to Donald Trump (giving evidence to the Scottish Parliament yesterday against wind farms in light of his relationship with Salmond going sour), and Rupert Murdoch.
The actions of Salmond and the SNP are what modern, successful parties do. New Labour fawned at each of these figures as well, as have the Tories. The SNP like New Labour at its peak are a ‘big tent’ coalition, from corporate interests to social democracy.
Rupert Murdoch has said that Alex Salmond is ‘an amusing guy’ and that he is ‘interested in the writings of the Scottish Enlightenment and intrigued by the idea of Scottish independence’. The latter is well known and seen as possible payback for a perfidious British political class now eager to spurn him. His interest in the Scots Enlightenment has so far evaded any students of Murdoch’s media output.
Alex Salmond will probably escape from this latest episode, aided by the weakness of his Scottish opponents. Labour’s leader north of the border, Johann Lamont, did well yesterday in their parliamentary exchanges, showing a genuine moral indignation, without landing a killer punch. A more likely outcome for Alex Salmond unless he changes course is that the slow drip of his infatuation with ‘big beasts’ along with a lack of serious party opposition will gradually diminish him: the way it did Blair.
Scottish self-government has been shaped by a belief that Scotland can govern itself, mobilise resources and do better than the British state with its record of Afghanistan and Iraq, market fundamentalism and a broken political class.
That is still true, and up until now it has been aided by a decent, competent government led by a popular leader. The Scottish government and civil service are still, despite the Murdoch saga, not in hock to the corporate classes, outsourcers and vulgarians of Anglo-American capitalism. Scotland’s public services are not being broken up and handed over to private interests. Yet, the events of the last few days show that Salmond has a blind spot to crony capitalism and the manipulated politics and democracy which fed it.
This matters to the crucial debate about Scotland’s constitutional status. The moral dimension in this has become a bit less clear this week and could become even cloudier unless Salmond and the SNP learn some fundamental lessons.
The SNP and self-government forces are going to have to become explicit about their different Scotland, make choices and flesh out a progressive politics. This will entail speaking about a different kind of economy after the Blair-Brown bubble, championing social justice, and practicising a very different politics. A generally well-disposed nation awaits a politics of this terrain, from either the SNP, Labour or other self-government forces, having giving up on the Tories long ago and the Lib Dems in the last year. An alliance with Rupert Murdoch and advocating for his business interests shouldn’t have any part of this.
This article was first published in the Guardian's Comment Is Free.