Battleground Three: Strength and Weakness
The SNP inspires resentment. Some of it is well founded. Some of it is not. If I was an SNP supporter, I’m sure I would feel annoyed, perhaps even aggrieved, at the amount of furious criticism the party receives. I’m sure I would feel like this is essentially because these forces are unionist and overwhelmingly motivated by opposing a party that advocates independence.
This overlooks the seemingly counter intuitive, but definite trend, that the more popular a Government becomes with its electorate, the more it will be criticised. Informal checks and balances multiply, because formal checks and balances become more ineffective. Scottish devolved politics is shaped around a Unicameral Parliament, and a system of scrutinising committees. This system begins to fail when a majority is in place, and an extraordinarily disciplined one at that. Now, to paraphrase Booker T, I don’t blame the player, I blame the game. This isn’t the SNP’s fault, they didn’t rig the system, they just flourished within it as their opponents floundered.
Still, power needs to be checked. SNP power needs to be checked, not because it is nefarious or corrosive in some exceptional way, but because as any political party grows stronger, so does the need for it to be challenged.
Most prominently, this means that if opposing political parties are doing an ineffective job in holding the Government to account, so the onus falls on the media to do this. SNP supporters must get understandably frustrated with the host of highly critical columnists in Scotland’s press. Yet, it is precisely because the SNP are strong and popular, and the opposition parties are not, that writers feel the need to take on the SNP. This isn’t a unique phenomenon in contemporary Scotland after all.
Read memoirs from the figures at the heart of the New Labour Government and they’ll describe how they felt they were perpetually under assault. There was a reason for this. The opposition was weak and out of favour and the Government was strong and popular. William Hague and IDS couldn’t hold the Prime Minister to account in the eyes of the public, so somebody had to do. So, the Daily Mail turned the amps to 11, and Polly Toynbee said progress wasn’t fast enough.
People get angry with what they see as the monolith that is the ‘Scottish MSM’ and as I acknowledge above, I can understand that up to a point. Yet, the dynamic of our political discourse is not just stimulated by Unionist journalists challenging a Scottish Nationalist Government. It is about the need for journalists to challenge a strong Government, regardless of its particular ideological agenda.
There are of course individuals who will bring their own personal biases to bear excessively on occasion and will write columns that are unfair. On these occasions, people should get energised and enthused, and push back. That’s part of a healthy democracy. However, shouldn’t attack individuals based on the idea that there sole motives are always contempt for the SNP and the idea of Scottish independence, and we shouldn’t interpret isolated instances as cogs in a conspiratorial machine.
Because the reality is that it is not just Scotland’s opposition political parties that are weak, so is our media, particularly the press. It would be better for Scottish public life, if our media had the relative stability and sustainability that the SNP does. (Since I first started drafting this blog, the wider challenges for print journalism more widely have only become more apparent.) Staff numbers are getting smaller, specialisms more diluted, and the editorial rigour of Scottish current affairs is being relegated to the dank neon lighting of business centres in Peterborough. There are more and more freelancers, seeking a diminishing number of commissions. Scotland’s press has been challenged by the disruptive influence of digital technology of course, but these difficulties have been compounded by a litany of disastrous business decisions taken by reckless executives. I’m not pretending that all of Scotland’s journalists are lions, but by god, have they been led by some donkeys.
So if I was a Yes activist or SNP supporter, I would get wound up with the media, but I hope I could see the bigger picture beyond the headlines. Because if an activist’s politics are concerned with standing up for the downtrodden against disrupting and disempowering economic forces, it is worth remembering that behind the stereotype of the hard bitten cynical Scottish hack, there is a human being with bills to pay, and fears about job security and working conditions. And it is worth remembering that a healthy media is a pre-requisite for a healthy democracy, and a healthy legion of detractors is actually a sign of a healthy political party.
If they’re shooting at you, you know you’re doing something right.