Rising above the provincial
Picture from The Scotsman
A friend once described me as “The man who is always somewhere else.”
I grew up in Edinburgh for my first six years, then lived in the north of England for over a decade, and returned to Scotland for good, as an eighteen year old. My family is largely Irish, and, as a result, in England I felt Scots, and in Scotland I feel Irish.
Such are the effects of a mobile upbringing and a mixed heritage.
I loved my time in England, am delighted to be from Edinburgh, and am hugely proud of my Irish passport. So, when people suggest my support for Independence is in some way parochial or based on anti-English feeling, they could not be further from the truth – actually it stems from the perspective of having viewed the country from inside and out.
Living in a country, particularly in your childhood, gives you a deep seated, almost intuitive, understanding of its culture – an understanding which is fuelled as much by the small things as the obvious benchmarks.
Though, as a child, I visited Scotland regularly and kept in touch with family, when I returned to the country in 1970, I quickly became aware of many threads in Scottish life which were unknown to me – even though I had been living less than two hundred miles from the Border.
Burns had never been mentioned in my education, I didn’t even know about January 25th. My university pals with the same taste in music as I had were raving about The Humblebums. Billy Connolly and Gerry Rafferty? Never heard of them. The same for carry outs, haggis suppers, tenement life (a distant memory for me), Fergusson, Sunset Song, the General Assembly of the Kirk, Hamish Imlach, Sportscene, climbing Munros, clootie dumplings and cullen skink, any amount of Scots words, going the messages, even “Oor Wullie” and “The Broons” – though sent down to England each Christmas, occupied a different place in the psyche in Scotland – for this displaced eighteen year old with a Lancashire accent.
I learned quickly – my new pals were welcoming, and only faintly mocking, though I was glad to note my Irish heritage as another reason for being slightly “different”.
Formally, university study of Scottish History and Literature filled in many of the gaps caused by my totally Anglocentric education, and my social life helped with the every day moments – the difference between a steak pie and a mince pie, square sausage and links, heavy and seventy shilling, a pan loaf and a half loaf, the back green and the New Town “area”.
So I found it amusing during the independence Referendum when unionist commentators tried to make the case for a “British” culture, and accused those who pointed out any differences between us and our southern neighbour as “Scottish Exceptionalism”.
Of course there are shared elements of culture – as there would be in Scandinavia, northern Europe, or the Americas – but it is the small everyday differences that give us a sense of where we are and who is around us; celebrating our distinctive culture helps us join the international community rather than isolating us, tells us who we are, gives us that vital sense of perspective, for which we need to be part of the world, not separated from it.
And so, during the seventies, my decade of return to Scotland, I had great cause to thank “The Scotsman”.
During those years it was a superb reflection of many areas of Scottish life. It combined some excellent writing with a wide and deep coverage of the political and cultural scene and a commitment to report international news – from England and far beyond – at a standard one would expect from a national newspaper.
The writing was frequently inspirational – in that decade and for many years later – Neal Ascherson, Tom Nairn, Ian Bell, John Rafferty, Joyce McMillan, Ian Wood, Lesley Riddoch, Ludo Kennedy, Fred Bridgland, Neil McCormack, Magnus Magnusson, and many more. However, its strongest point – and what made it invaluable to me as a “returnee” seeking to grasp what was “going on” in Scotland – was, and here’s that word again – its perspective.
The “old” Scotsman is often described as having had a “Liberal”, slightly left of centre, approach to its coverage of Scottish life. That’s probably a fair comment, from a political angle, but I think it was about far more than that.
I am minded of the words Muriel Spark gave to Jean Brodie:
“You must always remember, you are citizens of Edinburgh, city of Hume and Boswell. You are Europeans, not dowdy provincials.”
The “old” Scotsman, as I suspect it had done for over a century, had the measure of Scotland. Especially in the post war years, there existed a kind of “non-progressive pride” in the country. The “North Britain” days were long gone, but the “British war effort” still echoed loud and clear. As the polls showed, there was little popular demand for political independence, but there was a burgeoning pride in what it meant to be Scottish – and distinctive – within the UK – and beyond. The foundation of the Edinburgh Festival was attached to that kind of sentiment, I suppose.
It was a “safe” political environment – the Tories had a majority of votes in the 1959 election – and so promoting Scotland was a non-threatening position; it was kind of like being a fervent nationalist for eighty minutes at Murrayfield and then going out to vote against independence the next day – a position many still find tenable.
In this atmosphere, The Scotsman steered a course which reflected the mood of the time but also was brave enough to push rather more progressive ideas about the country and the views of different classes rather than just the elite or the political.
Pre internet and Scottish Parliament, along with the Kirk, newspapers provided one of the main opportunities for a national discourse, a mirror showing who we were, a chance to reflect, perhaps, on who we wanted to be, where we wanted to go.
For many years, The Scotsman, performed this role with aplomb, style and not a little edginess. If you were interested in Scotland, you would want to read The Scotsman; if you were interested in a bellweather of opinion in certain strata of society, again, the paper was your informant.
Its position in the late 70s supported a Scottish Parliament. It was an invaluable outlet for discussion, disputation and, on occasions, dissonance. Great thinkers wrote for the paper and put their points of view; their articles promoted conversation rather than abusive disagreement, and, crucially, there was a measured editorial line based on an equable view of the situation, rather than a rigid political angle. It was a voice for progress.
It was, in short, an education: leading out the national spirit, giving pause for thought, at the centre of a certain kind of Scottishness and nationality, informing and elucidating.
But education is tricky – it relies upon, and exists within, its context, the society it serves, the expectations of its providers and users. It has to reflect and lead, mirror and inspire. Its resources will affect its impact, its practitioners its efficacy. Matching the expectations of its consumers is always difficult.
So it has proved to be with The Scotsman. It has had the misfortune to find itself broadly out of step with general Scottish opinion at the same time as print newspapers have been losing their role. Editorial decisions in the nineties did not help the paper’s case and it is now a sad shadow of its former self.
Ironically, Scottish opinion currently is probably as much in line with the “old” Scotsman position as it has ever been – a minority considering Independence. with an easy majority looking to a kind of DevoMax – perhaps leaving foreign affairs and defence to the UK. This is not my position – but it is a thoughtful staging post on the way to full independence, and one which the “old” Scotsman would have had little difficulty in supporting, I suspect.
Instead, the paper is nowadays perceived by many as being irredeemably unionist in outlook with a particular mission to attack the SNP. Lack of resources from its parent company, and a position in the portfolio marked ‘regional press’ has inevitably led to a deterioration of reporting standards and a narrowing of news coverage. In this, of course, they are not alone amongst daily papers, but perhaps its decline is met with more disappointment than most when its former glories are recalled.
One of the unfortunate by products of referendum politics has been the emergence of paint brush opinions amongst a minority. In much the same way as Scottish Labour are often painted as “SNP Bad”, so elements of the press are frequently portrayed as “anti-Scottish”.
Whether accurate or not, it is an approach which serves no useful purpose, and hardly convinces those who read, or write, the pieces concerned, to change their views.
I should confess a bias. As someone who studied English, inevitably, I count many journalists amongst friends, and a fair few have worked at The Scotsman. There is also a family connection. I don’t think any of this has blinded me to the paper’s faults, but it has also given me an understanding, over three or four decades, of how newspapers and journalism work. As I have said, many things dictate what appears in a newspaper apart from an editorial line: resources, market share, targeted audience, and the circumstances of the day – politically, economically, geographically, and intellectually.
It is strange to me that a nation’s leading newspaper would decide to divorce itself from its established audience, and seek to promote an alternative view, but any proprietor has the right to take that direction, whether for economic, political or journalistic reasons.
Like many others, I no longer buy a print version of The Scotsman. Where once the pages were news filled, international with a Scottish content, and produced to a high standard, they now seem very thin on all counts. Where once informed reportage was backed by opinion pieces, now we are served a diet which is largely political opinion dressed up as news.
For all that, there are still some fine writers and journalists involved with the paper, whose work I avidly read online. I am not prepared to boycott any paper because it disagrees with my political views, I would rather make a decision based on individual pieces and journalists. The paper as a whole I find hard to take because many of the columnists it employs, by and large, write about a Scotland I neither know nor recognise, a Scotland in which I would be horrified to live. I find their refusal to countenance progressive change for Scotland deeply depressing.
I am, then, sorry to see the state of The Scotsman today, but that won’t prevent me from wishing it a very happy 200th Birthday. In many ways, the jobs with which its journalists are tasked are harder than they have ever been before, in conditions that are insecure and under threat. Like most folk in most jobs, they do what they have to do and do it to the best of their abilities, in the manner in which they are allowed to do it. The remarkable thing is that they still manage to produce a paper and occasionally hit the journalistic heights.
It is no longer my paper of choice but it would be crass to deny the place it has played in Scottish life over most of its two hundred years. It has made a huge contribution to civic Scotland and most would agree that the present state of political affairs – with an ever more confident country bidding to take its place on the world stage, sooner or later, would not have come about without the inspired writing, the encouragement to discourse, the canny observation of Scottish life, and the exhortation to rise above “dowdy provincialism” which was its keynote approach in its best years.
To ignore its bicentennial birthday would be like refusing to admit your grandfather into the house because you don’t like the shoes he is wearing. There’s a lot more to him than that!
Mark Twain said: “If you don’t read the newspaper your uninformed, if you read the newspaper, you’re misinformed,” and H.L. Mencken opined that “A newspaper is a device for making the ignorant more ignorant, and the crazy crazier.”
However, I would prefer to take Alain de Botton’s line: “To look at the paper is to raise a seashell to one’s ear and to be overwhelmed by the roar of humanity.”
I wish a happy birthday to The Scotsman on this two hundredth anniversary of its first appearance. I wish success and happiness to those who work there, plying their craft in the most difficult of circumstances, and I thank all those who, for most of its two centuries, informed Scottish life, gave us a clear idea of who we were, and, most importantly, encouraged all in Scotland to have vision, and to plan for a better future.
I hope somehow we can enjoy such brilliance again, I hope The Scotsman can find its way back to echoing the roar of humanity from a Scottish and international perspective.