Scotland has a strange relationship with those in power and authority. We tend to buy into the romantic stories that we are a radical, restless nation, who fear no one and question and challenge everything.
The truth is very different. To some there is a suspicion of those in power; but across society, the political spectrum, and mainstream media, there has consistently been in Scotland a lack of curiosity about who has power, and a near-complete absence of a culture and practice of investigative journalism or activism.
This isn’t just about the media, but about public culture, life and attitudes. If we look briefly at the experience of the media, we can see a very different set of patterns from England. The established Scottish papers, ‘The Scotsman’, ‘The Herald’, ‘The Scottish Daily Express’ and ‘Scottish Daily Mail’ were all products of the once-powerful liberal establishment – a pattern that could be said to dominate until the late 1960s and early 1970s. None until then or since became beacons of investigative journalism, despite numerous talented editors and staff passing through their doors.
The experience of broadcasters has been equally problematic. Both BBC Scotland and STV have had in their existence lots of excellent journalists, but structurally and culturally, neither has had the autonomy and self-confidence to lead, challenge and explore some of our leading institutions. BBC Scotland was born as part of the patrician, imperial state at its peak, and has never fully broken free of these moorings; STV was always a commercial proposition about making money.
Some people may think this is all in the past, but it is still what shapes our prevailing attitudes to power; the experience of Thatcher, anti-Thatcherism and the Scottish Parliament encouraged this, with its emphasis on ‘the Scottish consensus’, which has been used as a cover for some sections of institutional power to talk the language of an egalitarian, social, just Scotland, while doing little to advance this.
Two examples in the last week point to the continuation of this problem with power, and the complete lack of interest of large parts of our society to do anything about it, and even worse, to collude with the systemic abuse of power; namely, the unfolding sagas of the Catholic Church and Glasgow Rangers FC.
The allegations which led to the resignation of Cardinal Keith O’Brien have been called by Tom Devine, ‘possibly the biggest crisis of the Scottish church since the Reformation’. It is illuminating to note the way this story has been portrayed in the media, and how people have put it (or not as the case may be) in the wider context of known problems of the Catholic Church in Scotland and the world over.
Cardinal Keith O’Brien was the head of the Catholic Church in Scotland and the UK, and a global figure and influencer in the inner sanctums of the Catholic establishment. On February 24th this year, Catherine Deveney in ‘The Observer’ broke the story of three priests and one former priest alleging ‘inappropriate acts’ by the Cardinal (1); the following day he resigned and made a guarded public statement that, ‘For any good I have been able to do, I thank God. For any failures, I apologise to all whom I have offended’ (2).
One factor which gave the story additional edge in Scotland was the continual cultural war the Catholic Church has articulated since the advent of the Scottish Parliament on sexuality, and in particular, lesbian and gay rights. This was the tenor of O’Brien’s period, and before him, Cardinal Winning, who had fought the devolved administration on the abolition of Clause 28; O’Brien’s similar megaphone diplomacy, which seemed to increase in relation to falling church numbers, included declaring that government proposals on same sex marriage were ‘harmful to the physical, mental and spiritual well-being of those involved’ (3).
In a STV ‘Scotland Tonight’ programme last Monday (25.2.13), John Haldane, a ‘Vatican adviser’, said without being challenged that, ‘I understand the ‘something must be done’ reaction … If there were questions of illegality for example which are not an issue, whatever the upshot of this, there is no question of illegality – so it is not a matter for the prosecutor or the police’. He consistently called the allegations, a ‘private matter’ which would be dealt with by a ‘private investigation’, which begged the question of how could he make this assessment; and that the potential conflict of interest of a ‘Vatican adviser’, should at least be noted.
The only challenge to this view came from journalist Martin Hannah calling the whole thing an ‘abuse of power’ and doubting the Catholic Church in Scotland’s capacity to investigate itself; he did not directly challenge Haldane’s views.
Switch over to a BBC ‘Newsnight Scotland’ special on religion the same evening and a four-person panel including Haldane and Green MSP Patrick Harvie. The whole programme featured no acknowledgement of the longer story of the systematic abuse by many in the Catholic Church of its power and influence, and the detailed pattern of sexual abuse across the world. Not one mention; nor one mention of the plight of the abused and victims of the church in the O’Brien case or generally. Here was an example of the Scottish strange relationship with authority showcased even amongst enlightened opinion.
Fast-forward a week to ‘Scotland Tonight’ and ‘Newsnight Scotland’ (4.3.13), the latter with a special on the issue. Both failed to address in any sense that this was about abuse of power, with Haldane working overtime again appearing on each programme. A note of praise must go to Catherine Deveney of ‘The Observer’ who first broke the story and has acted as an example to all of us, asking with a dignity and calmness questions of those in power.
A week after the story broke, Haldane in the ‘Sunday Times’ laid into critics of the church as ‘ranging from hyperbolic to fantastical’ (4). And a ‘senior church figure’ declared of the alleged victims of O’Brien, ‘It smacks of vicious revenge and to hell with the consequences … It’s spite. It’s vindictiveness’ (5). Not much sign of contrition there, empathy or PR awareness. The following day as the seriousness of the allegations against O’Brien became more evident, Haldane changed course and wrote of O’Brien ‘admitting sexual misbehaviour’, concluding that, ‘there is the charge of public hypocrisy’ and making the Christian case for ‘forgiveness’; all without addressing his volte-face from 24 hours previously (6).
Now look at the case of Glasgow Rangers FC last week and how its crimes and misdemeanours were handled by public authorities. Finally we had the report of the Scottish Premier League (SPL) into Rangers administration of all of its financial, contractual and other arrangements between the club and players and officials over a decade, in relation to the use of Employment Benefit Trust (EBT) payments and arrangements: an inquiry Rangers dragged their feet on and refused to fully co-operate with.
Rangers had over a decade paid 57 players (and a number of officials) nearly £48 million in a scheme set up to avoid and evade taxation. Many of the most prominent Rangers stars of the last few years gained financially from this and left the taxpayer with a hole in their pocket. Step forward Barry Ferguson, Billy Dodds, Ronald de Boer, Peter Lovenkrands, Nacho Novo, Kris Boyd (currently being hailed as the prodigal son upon his return to Kilmarnock), and many more.
The SPL investigation (chaired by the respected Lord Nimmo Smith), the third by football authorities into Rangers, found them guilty of deliberate non-disclosure, but offered no real, tangible penalty. Instead the Rangers ‘oldco’ were fined £250,000, a penalty the SPL conceded would not be paid, and came to the conclusion the club gained no ‘unfair competitive advantage’ from any of this.
This is all part of the climate of shameless corporate tax avoidance ranging from Amazon and Google to Starbucks and Vodafone. And large parts of Scotland just collude and connive in this in even small ways which matter, and reduce the moral fabric of our public life. A couple of days after the SPL finding Rangers guilty, one of the 57 former Rangers players, Billy Dodds, was holding forth on BBC Scotland’s “Sportscene’ as if he had nothing to be ashamed of. One question we can ask is why are BBC Scotland using our public money to pay tax avoiders?
The Long Revolution of Modern Day Scotland
This isn’t about being anti-Catholic or anti-Rangers; both are huge, influential institutions which have contributed for good and bad to Scottish society, and made us who are.
There is a longer, deeper, probably irreversible set of changes going on in all of this that we seldom reflect upon. Scotland has been going through a long revolution, characterised by a crisis of traditional authority and institutional power. It can be seen in the current maelstrom within the Catholic Church, the downfall of Rangers FC, the state of the Scottish Labour Party, and of course, the unethical behaviour of banks such as RBS and HBOS. This is in many respects a Scottish manifestation of the deep crisis of the British establishment, evident from the political class, to media, senior police, and banks.
We have to recognise the state of institutional Scotland, and that parts of it are as rotten, corrupted and beyond repair, as are the elites which have so misgoverned and pillaged Britain (while being content to continue creaming off largesse for themselves, while making a point out of punishing the poor and vulnerable).
Most of us like to think that Scotland is better than that, and that we are collectively as a culture and nation a more moral community than that of the British establishment. Yet, if we are to dare to hold such a sentiment, we have to act collectively on wrongdoing, abuses of power and immorality and illegality in our public life.
To do that we (including good Catholics and good Rangers fans) have to recognise that our public culture of holding those with power, wealth, privilege and status, has been historically and contemporaneously weak. And challenge the silences, omissions and evasions of public life. That’s what links the Catholic Church, Glasgow Rangers, Cardinal O’Brien and Billy Dodds. And the fact that some of this has come out, no matter how unsatisfactory, shows that change is slowly and painfully happening. But we have to want to act and challenge the remnants of the closed order of Scotland before they try their very own version of that British establishment mantra: ‘restoration’.
1. Catherine Deveney, ‘UK’s top cardinal accused of ‘inappropriate acts’ by priests’, The Observer, February 24th 2012,
2. Robert Bigott, ‘Cardinal Keith O’Brien resigns as Archbishop’, BBC News, February 25th 2013, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-21572724
3. Deveney, op. cit.
4. John Haldane, ’This gives us a chance to build a new church’, Sunday Times, March 3rd 2013.
5. Gillian Bowditch and Jason Allardyce, ‘Lost at See’, Sunday Times, March 3rd 2013.
6. UKIP, ‘We, the People: UKIP’s straight-talking manifesto for the Welsh Assembly elections 2011’, UKIP, 2011,