I’m looking forward to reading Gavin Bowd’s book. He’s right that Scotland has been reluctant to acknowledge the dalliance of fringe elements with fascism, before, during and after World War Two. And knowing and understanding more of our social and political history is always a good thing: it explains who we are, how we got to being who we are, and where we might end up if we’re not careful.
As Bowd points out in his article for Scotland on Sunday, we’re overly fond of revelling in our left-leaning credentials, of a kailyard revisionism in establishing our reputation for open, inclusive internationalism and of working very hard to hide stains on our social psyche by effectively moving our political furniture to keep them hidden from view. It doesn’t do us any good. For nations, read families. Everyone has embarrassing relatives, the sort that everyone rolls their eyes about, but when it comes to it, even they get invited to the family gatherings. Everyone might hope they’ll be a no-show but not only do they always show up, they insist on behaving in a way which cements their reputation.
Every nation has episodes and elements in its history they’d rather not own up to and it takes a certain level of maturity to acknowledge all aspects of past and present political culture. Interestingly, Bowd alludes to the fact that Scotland had – has – far greater home-grown demons in the form of sectarianism, with only some of its sects embracing the opportunity fascism afforded. That bit of the book will make for particularly fascinating reading, given that sectarianism is endemic still in our culture and in many communities.
And while the publication of this book might trouble the SNP in terms of being reminded of the less than fragrant opinions and actions of those associated with the nascent nationalist movement in Scotland, I for one, am more perturbed at the role played by our aristocracy. We conveniently forget that Scotland has an indigent aristocracy, which is largely unreconstructed and still has huge control and sway over land ownership and the creation and holding of wealth in this country. The SNP might have found a way to move beyond the narrow confines of ethnic nationalism (which dogged it as late as the 1980s) to become outstanding proponents of an expansive and internationalist form of civic nationalism, but there is little evidence of a similar transformation among them what continue to rule our roost. The aristocracy’s continuing influence on everyday life – and the belief systems which inform how they conduct themselves – are definitely worthy of more poking with a sharp academic stick.
But interesting, timely and useful as this study might be, that does not excuse how it has been presented for our delectation by Scotland on Sunday’s editors. The front page of its “The Week” supplement has created a social media storm; there is a petition against it designed to generate multiple complaints to the press commission; remarkably, when there’s lots of interesting news this weekend on referendum-related matters, it has managed to push the quality journalism on offer from the paper down the agenda. All anyone wants to talk about is the image and the headline. And rightly so.
This front page is a travesty and a disgrace. It appropriates an aspirational image [update: apparently, it is the Scotsman’s own image so it can photoshop it as much as it likes though you have got to question why it would want to diminish its genuine association with Tom Devine’s work] from a quite different historical book for nefarious purposes, suggesting that the Saltire – the cross of St Andrew which for many has legitimate faith-based connotations as much as patriotic ones – could well be replaced by the Nazi symbol. The image created gives the impression that what is discussed in its pages is a modern-day phenomenon threatening our current political culture, rather than the content of a book which is largely historical in content. The words on the front page mislead further. They’re not even very good.
This is poor and shoddy editing designed to create shock and awe. Those responsible might well consider it a job well done – everyone, after all, is talking about it, but those in the newspaper industry, after everything Leveson-related in recent times, should know better. There is such a thing as bad publicity, with the potential to damage both reputation and circulation. They should take heed, at the very least, that not all those complaining loudly on social media networks or signing the petition can be considered to be usual cybernat suspects.
It’s worth noting that the usual editor of the Scotland on Sunday was on holiday this week. He might appear to have the creation and publication of weekly headlines designed simply to wind the Yes camp up in his job description these days, but this front page smacks more of stand-in editing at the last minute. It is a bad idea poorly executed, cobbled together without thinking of the consequences.
It’s also worth noting the irony of such an offensive cover appearing in the week when Johnston Press announced significant editorial job losses at its Scottish titles. In future, we will have fewer editors, which means fewer in conference making decisions on what and how to run with in key sections of the papers and fewer creating coherence across sections and supplements. Fewer is likely to result in more appalling editorial decisions like this.
The Scotsman and Scotland on Sunday are already practically running on empty – if this is how editorial decisions are shaped under the threat of job losses, think how much worse it is going to be when those jobs have gone. Such misguided decisions on how to generate operational efficiencies are not the way to create the press Scotland needs or deserves.