Coming Up for Air North of the Border: The British Media, Scotland, the SNP and the Crises of Britain

The Scottish Nationalist Party has always been a problematic entity for the British media to understand. But its failed court case on the Prime Ministerial debates demonstrates the unmistakable tone of gripe and grievance and a reversion to the "old brand".
Gerry Hassan
29 April 2010

The SNP are, generally, a force for good in, and for, Scotland. They have been a decent, honest, mostly progressive government. They have, like all the mainstream Westminster parties, struggled to elucidate a vision about the economy and society post-crash, but they have continued to express a very different, mostly generous and outward-looking voice since then.

The SNP have always been a problematic entity for the British media to understand, represent and reflect the views of; once upon a time they could just portray them as outsiders, eccentrics and cranks (like a more weird version of Liberals), and then when they had to take them more seriously, they could portray them as dangerous radicals (even lefties) who were out to destroy the very fabric of British life. Now they find it impossible to square the illogicality of ‘separatism’ with the cautious, conservative, mild-mannered party and politicians they see before them.

This portrayal of the SNP has also been seen in how Scottish politics have historically been ‘understood’ by the British media, and to a significant extent large parts of the Scottish media. The dominant way of representing Scotland has been to place it in a tartan quarantine zone and to separate it off as a special case from the rest of the UK, seeing these ‘difficult Jocks’ as a bunch of perpetual restless natives and whingers.

Pre-devolution it was all so much simpler for the media. All you needed to do to capture a Scottish debate was gather together a group of Scottish male MPs (and Scots MPs until 1997 were nearly exclusively male) on the Westminster College Green. Talk could then turn to the latest initiative from St Andrews House and the Scottish Office team, and the opposition parties (who since the mid-1970s would always total three, thus acknowledging multi-party politics), could bemoan the lack of understanding in the governing party, or if they were attacking the Tories, even question their democratic credentials.

This was all a bit of a game, very much a boys’ game, played in the safe sanctuary of the shadow of Westminster, a parallel version of Scotland existing in London, validated by the British political system, but only a sub-section of this more important show.

Post-devolution, this traditional way of doing it just does not work. Westminster MPs are no longer able to understand, reflect and explain what happens in Scotland, or understand how a very distinct Scottish politics is developing behind their backs. In part this is a product of electoral systems: the distortions of FPTP leading to the unrepresentativeness of Westminster Labour MPs, and the PR systems for the Scottish Parliament and local government. In part, it is a whole set of political dynamics unfolding, of which they are not agents, but mere bit actors.

Therefore, when the British media try its best from its perspective to understand Scotland, you often end up with a very unsatisfactory experience. Thus, it was this morning when I was on Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme with presenter Jim Naughtie, discussing with Iain Macmillan, Head of CBI Scotland, and Carol Craig, writer. We were supposed to be talking about the merits of independence, in an item that never mentioned independence once (1).

Naughtie and other Westminster broadcasters when they come north know that somehow and somewhere Scotland is a different place. I am not sure if it helps or hinders here that Naughtie is a Scot, because the Scotland he once knew and covered no longer really exists; I take the view that is a marginal issue versus the cultural and structural issues at work in the media about Scotland.

Such perspectives acknowledge that Scotland has a Parliament, a different party system, culture and style of politics. But it is about so much more than that and at their best they lurch about looking for a metaphor or allegory to cover their grasping for air; often you can literally here this grasping, struggling and mental ravelling and unravelling going on: an attempt literally to come up for air north of the border.

The Nationalists, the Debates, Going to Court, and the Crises of Britain

This brings me to the SNP court case on the Prime Ministerial debates. I understand why the SNP felt they needed to do this, and why they were so motivated. They have been marginalised and ignored in this Westminster election like no other since February 1974. This is even more insulting and irritating when you remember that the SNP are Scotland’s Government.

The Prime Ministerial Debates show the strange nature and beast that is British politics, its rather unhealthy, centralised, hollowed out state, and the bizarre nature of the UK: semi-reformed in terms of devolution, semi-rotting from the head down. These debates, have on the one hand, galvanised and energised the election, but they have also sucked in the last remaining shreds of legitimacy and life left in British politics, and centralised and concentrated it even further, on to three men, Brown, Cameron and Clegg.

The debates are both ‘British’ and ‘English’ at the same time, in the way that the Westminster mainstream party manifestos are both ‘British’ in some respects, and mostly ‘English’ in many other respects.

This brings us to the challenge of the English dimension, which is both everywhere and nowhere in this election, silenced – in that it does not have a distinct, democratic voice - and yet vied over by all the main parties. Eventually this strange and unsatisfactory situation will have to move, or more likely, be forced to move. We will see in the near-future, English political parties such as English Labour and the English Conservatives, English party leaders, English manifestos, and English party leader debates.

The answer to the problems the Prime Ministerial Debates have thrown up cannot be addressed just by broadcasters, but requires political action and reform, namely rethinking the notion of what ‘Britain’ is. Until that point and the emergence of an English dimension and voice, this is always going to be messy and unsatisfactory.

The SNP court case was both a legal action and a political intervention, and it has become the main SNP election issue in this campaign. Whatever you think of the SNP’s stand, whether you are for the party or against it, what the party’s positioning here did had a number of consequences.

It brought the SNP centrestage in the Scottish and British media, winning it with £50,000 court costs, up to four days significant media coverage - quite an impressive return for your investment. Yet at the same time, the inevitable consequence of this was that the dominant message of the Nationalists in this campaign has been one of politicians talking about politicians and their representation and time in the media. This may have an obvious connection amongst SNP politicians to ‘fairness’ and how power in Britain is exercised, but not in a way which has relevance to most voters.

There has also been a sense that this reactive action has shown how little the SNP (and this would be true of Plaid Cymru as well) have to say in a Westminster election. Their dominant message has been one of complaining about broadcasting, and it seems having little to say of originality or substance about all the great affairs of state: the debt, public spending, the overwhelming crisis of the entire system, beyond the most shockingly empty platitudes.

Maybe I am being too hard on the SNP here, because the Westminster parties have hardly covered themselves in glory in all of this. Yet, there has been something shocking and insensitive in the SNP (and Plaid) making along with the PM Debate, the main spine in their campaign, getting more money for Scotland (and Wales) out of Westminster. This seems to me, firstly, a denial of the financial realities of Britain, and second, a reversion to the pre-devolution role of the Nationalist parties, always acting as advocates for more money and threatening rebellion all the time if they don’t get their way.

A wider point here is the long-term transformation of the Scottish Nationalists which I have written about elsewhere (2), and which has stressed the positive qualities and potentials of a self-governing Scotland. Post-crash, the party has at points slipped back from this message, and I detect in the party’s approach to the Prime Ministerial Debates, the unmistakable tone of gripe and grievance, of seeing Scotland and ‘Scotland’s Party’ being wronged and affronted. In this sense, while understanding why the SNP took the court case, I do think the leadership, after several years of investing in ‘the new SNP’, have reverted to ‘the old brand’, and in so doing, made a significant, strategic mistake.

Then there is the question of how the British media understands Scotland, displayed in the ‘Today’ programme item I referred to and so many other items. The Scottish dimension isn’t just about Scotland; I think this is something it is profoundly difficult close to impossible to get London based broadcasters to understand (including Scottish born ones). Really, when it comes down to it the media portrayal of Scotland comes from its understanding of the nature of the United Kingdom; and this draws from the wider political elite and governing class story and account of the UK. This was once an inclusive, flexible one (notably in the days of pre-democracy), but which has become, notably as the people have more and more moved centrestage, a strange story of a partial, problematic history which has not moved with the times, but in reality, regressed and morphed into something ugly, lacking tolerance or respect.

How can this ever be got across? The United Kingdom isn’t a unitary state; it never was and never will be. It is a ‘union state’ or as is now argued by Jim Mitchell, ‘a state of unions’ – with four different unions (3). It will probably take the coming together of the multiple crises of the British state to even begin to challenge this.

Scotland isn’t just about five million people in some cold, northly settlement getting worked up about their own romantic notions. Instead, it is a specific expression of the multiple crises of Britain, both long-term and current. The long-term crises of Britain’s economy, society and where the state sees itself in the world, have already produced the partial and failed revolutions of Thatcherism and Blairism; in the present day, the economic, social and democratic crises and disjuncture of British politics have led to the current levels of anger and fury at the political and economic establishments.

It is no accident that the current election campaign has seen the most inept Labour and Conservative campaigns in living memory. These two traditions have brought us to our current impasse, selling us the deceits of the last thirty years, of the bloviators and apologists for the Thatcher and Blair revolutions, and are unable to openly concede to us, that the brave new world they promised of ‘economic efficiency and social justice’ and ‘living on thin air’ has been shown to be a Potemkin village.

Then there is the fact that the traditional, powerful Labour and Conservative stories of Britain, one progressive and a peoples’ story, the other, a civilising, noble version in its own terms, have exhausted themselves and ended, humiliated by the Maoist revolutions of their party leaderships.

There is no going back to the supposedly gentler Britain pre-Thatcher or pre-Blair. ‘The kaleidoscope has been shaken’, as the once triumphalist Blair said at the peak of his powers, post-9/11, and also at the moment when hubris and over-reach destroyed the New Labour project, and turned it into something truly grotesque which will have far-reaching consequences for us for the rest of our lives.

The Scottish dimension has many characteristics, but one of them is like other decent, democratic and concerned folk in the rest of the UK, just trying to make sense of what has happened and navigate our way out of the debris and wreckage.

To my mind and wishes, that Scottish project is intrinsically linked to the idea of what Joan McAlpine calls ‘real self-determination’ (4), something which makes a different Scottish society, as well as a nation. That project, of shifting from self-government as a nation to self-determination as a society, is a vision worthy of Scottish radicals and nationalists in any and no party, and one the SNP has been hesitant so far to begin articulating and fleshing out. Scotland though like the rest of the UK is on the move, and the old certainties and assumptions are weakening and being discredited by the day.


1. BBC Radio Four, Today Programme, April 29th 2010.

2. Gerry Hassan (ed.), The Modern SNP: From Protest to Power, Edinburgh University Press 2009.

3. James Mitchell, Devolution in the UK, Manchester University Press 2009.

4. Joan McAlpine, ‘SNP Lost Court Case’, Go Lassie Go, April 28th 2010,


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