From deep within the dark underbelly of Dundee, special correspondent Stuart Winton puts his head briefly above the parapet to examine the seamier side of Yes campaign groupthink and polarisation:
By Stuart Winton
AS SOMEONE who has felt trapped in one of Dundee’s less salubrious areas for more than twenty years I always feel a bit patronised by the likes of commentator Lesley Riddoch. Apparently Lesley has an office in central Dundee, and I can walk there in little more than five minutes. But, and off the top of my head, I can also walk to the sites of around a dozen murders within a similar distance, and that’s just while I’ve been living at my current address. And while I’m sure there are worse locations in which to live in Scotland, the murders are just the tip of a crime and disorder iceberg in an area where the emergency services simply appear to mop things up when it’s too late.
On the other hand, Lesley’s take on Dundee is just a tad different. Of course, there’s the odd nod towards the city’s ‘social problems’, but a quick perusal of her several online pieces about Dundee is more likely to reveal Lesley waxing lyrical about how “winning the City of Culture 2017 title would be the icing on the cake for a transformed city” and about how “this plucky, energetic, wonderful wee city will do the impossible and defeat the pessimists”. Or the likes of this: “Dundee is a very playful city. It’s physically inspiring; the people are so talkative and are the funniest in Scotland.”
But when I get near home I keep my head down, scurry up the stairs as quickly as possible and lock the door. And even that’s no guarantee against the relatively high risk of fire or that someone might try to batter my door down because they’re trying to recoup a drugs debt and they’ve got the wrong address, say. However, Lesley probably doesn’t need to worry so much about such matters in the TV studios and university library, she apparently lives some distance away in rural Fife, and seems to have spent most of her life elsewhere in the UK. Did I say ‘patronising’? How about ‘insulting’ instead. She is an ambassador for Dundee’s ‘One City, Many Discoveries’ campaign. At least we can agree on the content of the slogan, albeit for different reasons!
But to be fair to Lesley, perhaps her rose-tinted view of Dundee can be explained by her relatively tenuous connection with the city, if not wholly excused. The numerous other members of Dundee’s Establishment with a similarly almost one-dimensional perspective who’ve spent their lives living and working here can’t be exonerated so readily.
On the other hand, my own personal perspective as regards such people is generally positive. While I may consider them self-righteous and condescending, and even indirectly dangerous in many ways, on the other hand most are no-doubt ultimately well-meaning.
However, it’s often the case that the more I read from such people the more I doubt their good intentions, and one such moment arose last weekend in relation to Lesley Riddoch, thus the lengthy preamble above. And there’s a perhaps wider message regarding Scottish political discourse that’s worth examining, hence the length of this post.
So last weekend Lesley took part in a radio discussion with English commentator David Aaronovitch, in which they disagreed about the political and ideological outlooks of people north and side of the border. Lesley tried to accentuate the differences, David did the same regarding the similarities. A fairly bog standard political discussion about a hardly original topic, conducted in what seemed like a reasonably civil if robust fashion.
However, Lesley asked for part of the debate to be posted on the Wings over Scotland website, presumably partly because she knew it would be exposed to a considerable number of sympathetic listener-readers. But as any reasonably informed and reasonably minded person would know, David Aaronovitch would also be subject to wholly predictable hyperbole, ad hominen abuse and ‘straw man’ attacks from author Stuart Campbell, which would act as a cue to a storm of ridicule and abuse from his online acolytes. Hence Campbell kicked off with: “Readers unusually sensitive to condescending, patronising metropolitan hacks talking down to far better-informed debating opponents, and who have any easily-breakable items nearby, are advised not to listen.”
Not much point in reading beyond that – in terms of tone and approach I couldn’t really discern much of a difference between the two participants in the radio discussion – and in truth I can’t really be bothered trawling through the below the line comments on the WoS blog to find the more unsavoury examples.
But a not-dissimilar episode from a couple of weeks earlier provides some readily available evidence in a handy graphic published in a, er, Scottish Daily Newspaper.
Thus commentator Chris Deerin – who had until recently been based in London as comment editor for the Daily Telegraph newspaper – had written a lengthy pro-Union piece for the Scottish Daily Mail, which was later published in an abridged form on the Guardian’s website. (And, coincidentally, he has also questioned the view that the Scots and English have fundamentally different political outlooks.)
Among the online comments aimed at Deerin by Yes campaigners were: ‘Akin to Nazi’; ‘Heap of nauseating shite’; ‘Bitter traitor’; ‘Racist’; ‘Utter moron’; ‘Kilted Uncle Tom’; ‘Slimy sycophant’; ‘White supremacist’; ‘Genuine Tory Quisling’; ‘F*** off back to London’.
Indeed, Wings author Mr Campbell had led the way with the distinctly uncomplimentary description “ridiculous cringing joke of a human being”. And when Deerin wrote a follow up piece outlining the abuse he had received, Campbell put a graphic of the article up on his website (what was that about ‘feeding the trolls’?) and hilariously named the file deerinisatwat.jpg. Oh how they laughed!
There was also the usual double standards from the Wings brigade; anyone who persistently uses the royal/editorial ‘we’ is surely just a tad patronizing himself for a start, never mind getting into the more substantive arguments. And while on the subject of the patronising plural ‘we’, there’s surely nothing more presumptuous and irritating in this context than the Yes campaign’s ‘we in Scotland’-style schtick, as used by Lesley during the radio debate. As if they speak for everyone in Scotland!
Of course, Margaret Thatcher was widely panned for using the words ‘we in Scotland’, both because of its monarchical tone and also because she was neither a Scot nor lived here. By the same token, Chris Deerin is told to, er, get back to London, while David Aaronovitch’s residency in Hampstead is highlighted. Stuart Campbell also alludes to the geographical issue in terms of “patronizing metropolitan hacks”, this coming from someone who has for some time been based in Bath, Somerset, England. SNP Government minister Roseanna Cunningham (who has also demonstrated a degree of endorsement regarding WoS) also weighed in in similar fashion, complimenting Lesley on doing “brilliantly against a metropolitan voice telling us we’re not who we think we are!”. But David Aaronovitch didn’t make any claims regarding everyone in Scotland, whereas Roseanna Cunningham presumes to speak for all of us here.
Then there’s the more substantive questions discussed in the radio debate. Lesley pointed out that Ukip is a substantially greater electoral force down there than up here, hence Scots are a significantly more upstanding, moral and wholesome race, er I mean ‘group of people’, and vote for the likes of the SNP instead. Which of course is a pro-independence party which uses the spectre of an alien, distant and unaccountable imperial bogeyman to garner votes, and campaigns for the repatriation of powers from that higher sovereign entity. Moreover, it portrays itself as anti-elites and anti-Establishment, and also advocates controlled immigration. Er, sounds familiar? Of course, I’m being slightly facetious here, but surely the SNP in Scotland acts as a conduit for much of the voter sentiment Ukip benefits from south of the border, thus the latter’s vote share in elections in Scotland and England is hardly a compelling comparison.
Which in turn points to another fundamental double standard in domestic political discourse. Talk about the EU/Europe/Europeans in the way Lesley talks about Westminster/the UK/the English and she’d probably be branded Eurosceptic/ xenophobic or even racist. But perhaps that’s essentially what David Aaronovitch is getting at with his term ‘othering’, whether it’s simply a euphemism or he’s really saying that it’s about something less than some kind of –phobia.
Then there’s the matter of the English/Scottish comparisons per se and, like comparisons of UK/Scotland sovereignty with that of the potential iScotland/EU relationship, the attempts of Yes campaigners to differentiate the two seem abstract, exaggerated and contrived.
Hence Lesley said in a recent newspaper piece: “Scottishness isn’t determined by one-off events. It’s a distinctive way of doing things which rests upon institutions that often predate the Union and modern policies which reflect, develop or revise our characteristic outlooks. When events seem to contradict these rarely articulated but deeply held values, alarm bells ring.”
Yes, it’s gratifying to know that when a perpetrator of one of the violent killings in my neighbourhood is tried under the Scottish court system it’s demonstrating the efficacy of an institution pre-dating the Union. And that since at least one of those killings has been categorised as culpable homicide rather than murder it’s good to know that that reflects “OUR characteristic outlooks” and “deeply held values”, and thus that particular criminal act is defined slightly differently to the crime of manslaughter under English law.
(Careful readers will to that extent have noticed that I slightly misrepresented the number of murders in my locale earlier in that at least one of the killings I was thinking of was in fact technically a culpable homicide. Thus that would probably make me a “transparent lying wee shite” or suchlike in Wings discourse, to repeat a phrase used recently by Mr Campbell. On the other hand, I’m “flat-out lying” again, because what he actually said about a politician was that “Because we’re classy we try to avoid the phrase ‘transparent lying wee shite’, so we haven’t used it here.” So of course he didn’t actually call someone a “transparent lying wee shite” at all, you see!)
Anyway, the real purpose of this post was neither to examine the substantive political issues nor to critique the modus and pathology of the Wings phenomenon. Instead it was to highlight the slightly bizarre spectacle of the normally civilised Lesley Riddoch throwing David Aaronovitch to the wolves and attack dogs in the Wings over Scotland bear pit; following Lesley’s request Stuart Campbell soon tweeted: “Goodness me, 90 seconds in and already *I* want to punch the condescending twat.”
Indeed, on the previous day an article by Lesley on the vehemently pro-independence Newsnet Scotland website had lamented the “recent hostility dished out towards [journalist] Sarah Smith”, and that: “I’d guess many Undecided women have been quite appalled at the tiny number of belligerent comments posted on social media.” And the day after David Aaronovitch’s monstering on social media she wrote in the Sunday Post about “the unsavoury spectacle of cybernats attacking Sarah Smith.”
(Yet more irony in that there’s surely nothing more representative than the Sunday Post of the Establishment Scotland that Lesley compellingly critiques, while Newsnet Scotland is not averse to allowing comments such as the following recent contribution, which deserves to be quoted fully in all its paranoid, delusional and antagonistic glory: “In all seriousness I ask, why SHOULDN’T the Scots who support independence feel animosity toward England? That nation is fundamentally responsible for the unacceptable situation that Scotland finds itself in! We can put a gloss on it all we like, but the facts speak for themselves… the representatives of English politics have taken advantage of the Scots’ generous and egalitarian attitude. To hell with them! They can bitch and whine all they like, I really don’t care. if you think the world owes you a living, hell mend you if the world turns around and cuts you off. It’s not about xenophobia, racism or arrogance, it’s about self-preservation!”)
And this was all perhaps worryingly symptomatic of another worrying trend, that being the increasing evidence of the supposed ‘nice Nats’ morphing into ‘nasty Nats’, or at least demonstrating a level of support for the like of the Wings phenomenon that was not before apparent. This is perhaps more in terms of previous criticism of the nasty Nats from nice Nats disappearing, as if browbeaten into submission. But a few more seem to have crossed the cybernat Rubicon and jumped onto the Wings bandwagon, and have become less obviously critical of de facto cybernat-in-chief Stuart Campbell.
Lesley calls her personal website “Another side of Lesley Riddoch”. Unfortunately ‘another side’ of many Yes supporters is becoming increasingly apparent. But let’s hope that Lesley’s other side was born of a lack of understanding of the darker underbelly of cybernat discourse than anything more unsavoury.
(The author’s sequel ‘Why I fear the cybernats’ will be published once he wins the national lottery.)