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Devolving the Scottish Press (February 2008)

This article was first published on The Guardian's Comment is Free

Andrew Neil is still attacking devolution: the Scottish press need to stop being so influenced and move the debate forward.



Some interesting and challenging discussion of my ‘Scottish History’ blog and then - phew! - a blast from the past in Media Guardian. The auld bourbon of Scottish journalism, Andrew Neil: learned nothing, forgotten nothing.

He may have a point about the perils of the Scottish press, but as usual gets it wrong. I still remember from 20 years ago, when I made the documentary, Grasping the Thistle, and Neil poured scorn on the whole devolution project, Margo MacDonald delivered a magisterial put-down: "You've been away too long, son."

Well, there she is, twisting John Swinney's arm on behalf of the booming economy of Edinburgh, and where's Neil?

Perched on a dyke like one of the Twa Corbies, contemplating the corpse of Gordon Brown, as in that bleak, bleak Border ballad:

"His hound is to the hunting gane/
His hawk to fetch the wild-fowl hame/
His lady's ta'en another mate/
So we may mak' our dinner sweet.
Mony a one for him makes mane/
But nane sall ken where he is gane.
Oer his white banes, when they are bare/
The wind sall blaw for evermair."

There is an element of real tragedy. In the 1970s Neil wrote a study of North Sea oil for the Economist which was a remarkable tour de force; well-researched, percipient and rational. This was the last chance saloon, and an astonishing picture card had been dealt to the UK. Neil was right in seeing the Scots' response - that this could gain independence "in a oner" - as premature, but wrong in underestimating the quality of that response. Had the Scots gone off with the stuff, their investment would have gone into England's manufacturing sector, in order to hold down the Scottish Petropound. Instead Thatcher as a trainee monetarist ravaged manufacturing with her own oil-inflated pound sterling.

The tragedy is that since then Neil's career has gone downhill all the way, transfixed by the wealth of the metropolis, but pitifully ignorant of the economic substructure needed to keep it going: Gollum to Rupert Murdoch's Sauron. He is right to flay the Scottish qualities, but the real indictment must be that they followed his lead as editor of the Sunday Times, mistaking the obesity of thinly-adapted PR handouts for editorial weight.

His attempt to turn round the Scotsman for the Barclay Brothers had good sides - the late, great Bobby Campbell created Britain's first grown-up online paper for him - but as a political animal (which he isn't) he misread the Scottish situation completely, while in a bizarre way inventing and almost controlling the speeding, crazy car which became the Ukranian economy.

"The Sunday Times is the Sunday papers is the housing-retail driver" would have summed matters up pithily enough. This seduced another dour west-coast Scot, Gordon Brown, who stripped off his social democracy to wallow in a combination of neocon posturing and the institutionalised, unprescient greed of the City: founded, as the Financial Times now tells us, on outright fraud.

Neil isn't to be attacked for his conservatism, but for being a poor conservative, all sounding brass and tinkling cymbal where Rudyard Kipling was measured and lethal:

"No king will hear our warnings/
No court will hear our claims.
Our king and court, for their disport/
Do sell the very Thames.
For now De Ruyter's topsails/
Off naked Chatham show.
We dare not meet him with our fleet/
And this the Dutchmen know!"

It's not dreadnoughts this time but TGVs and the wave-chambers of the renewables revolution. And in terms of press and media? We Holyrood Nats do think about this in some detail, so pay attention to us instead of London prattle. We need to junk the Sunday Times clones - the collapse of housing-retail will do that - and think in terms of a core of sensible regionals replacing both them and the dreck of the Scottish red-tops with practical discourse. Ross, Paxman, Clarkson, be off with you! Ditch the BBC and give us public service broadcasting on German lines.

And Berwick? Oh yes. The burghers of what was once Scotland's biggest town want a referendum and the polls seem to show them favouring a return to Scotland. If this is the case, so be it! But in 1851, staring up at the town's new Royal Border Bridge, another Scottish journalist, Samuel Smiles, saw the endless excursion trains steaming south to the Crystal Palace as the embodiments of the Union. As Norma Desmond said in Sunset Boulevard, "I am big. It's the pictures that got small." Accustom yourself to this.

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