We may have discovered something about ourselves this week. It is something valuable
Kenneth Roy, Scottish Review
Early yesterday morning, I received an agitated call at the office from a colleague who was still at home. ‘Have you heard the trailer for Radio Scotland?’ she asked. ‘They’re inviting ‘the silent majority’ to phone in and oppose Megrahi’s release. No mention of any other opinions. How’s that for balance?’ So we listened to the first few minutes of the programme. The trailer had been careless, even provocative, in its choice of words, but there was an interesting explanation for the appeal to the silent majority. Shereen Nanjiani, introducing the programme, acknowledged that the calls received by the BBC in Scotland to that point had been decisively in favour of the minister’s decision. Surprise, surprise.
In our smaller way we found the same ourselves yesterday. For our Megrahi forum, which we ran throughout the day, we commissioned 10 people, regular or occasional contributors to the magazine, of several ideological beliefs and none, to address the ethical and political issues of Kenny MacAskill’s decision. Not one opposed it. R D Kernohan, once the director of the Scottish Conservatives, was easily the most reluctant supporter, but in the end even Bob endorsed Megrahi’s release. We also invited readers to express a point of view, expecting some divergence from the commissioned pieces. The result was the same.
What is going on here? Appalled by the initial media coverage, I wrote a Monday editorial headed: ‘The weekend of unreason’. The response to this piece strongly suggested that others were equally appalled. Among the comments, a Church of Scotland minister emailed to say that, having read the newspapers, he felt he had lost his moorings. The tone in so many papers was disturbing, the attacks on Mr MacAskill descending into a personal viciousness beyond the familiar coarse knockabout of journalism. The Herald kept its nerve and its humanity, but many of the others lost theirs. We would expect no more of the Mails and Expresses of this world, but the bristling fury of Scotland on Sunday was shocking.
For reasons best described as atavistic, the flying of a few Saltires (not, however, ‘the sea of flags’ claimed by the more imaginative observers) at Tripoli airport seems to have unhinged both the political and media classes and convinced them that the world had turned against poor old Scotland. Brian Wilson, the former Labour minister, in a particularly bilious outburst, claimed that Scottish stomachs had turned at the spectacle. My own remained unchurned. The spectacle was mildly embarrassing, but worse things happen at sea; or, more often, in the air. By yesterday, the Prime Minister was still ‘repulsed’ by the thought of it. Perhaps the word he meant to use was offended. No matter. The shamed Saltire was enough to outrage the patriots among us and turn delicate stomachs. Well, Mr Wilson’s, to name one.
By the beginning of this week, it is possible that many people had had enough of self-righteous caricature and that the stomachs which were turning were doing so mainly in revulsion at the rhetorical violence of the newspapers. A deeper explanation is equally possible. The opinion polls may show that the ‘silent majority’ for which Shereen Nanjiani was touting are as implacably opposed to Mr MacAskill’s decision as they were before it was announced. Or they may simply be indifferent one way or the other until confronted by a person with a clipboard. Or they may not even be a majority. But there is a growing sense that the media and the political opposition may have misjudged the mood and spirit of a considerable number of thinking Scots. We may have discovered something about ourselves this week. It is something valuable.
When I was a boy in socialist working-class Scotland, humanitarian principles still counted for a great deal. The national allegiance to the Labour party was not simply tribal and unquestioning, as many now casually assume. The people were not fools. They saw in the ideals, if not always the policies, of that party the hope of a better society. They acknowledged for example that the prisoner must not only be visited but that he should be rehabilitated; there was a widely held acceptance that prison was the mark of our failure as a society and should be used as a last resort. These values, at least on the vital question of prison reform, appear to have been abandoned. When Mr MacAskill, long before he was left to wrestle with his conscience on Megrahi, began to introduce alternatives to custody for relatively minor offenders, in an attempt to reduce the intolerable pressures on the prison system, he was roundly abused not only by the Conservatives in the Scottish parliament, but by the new breed of tough guys on the Labour benches. It was left to Cherie Blair QC to champion Scottish enlightenment on this issue. I am glad she did, but the position of her party colleagues in Scotland has more in common with the punishment lust of the Murdoch press than with the traditional values of the Labour party.
Suddenly this week, it seems also to be oddly out of step with the public mood. If the BBC are having difficulty whipping up the silent, disapproving majority, we may soon have to conclude that, far from talking ‘sentimental drivel’ (the accusation levelled against him by one Gerald Warner in Scotland on Sunday), Kenny MacAskill in his clumsy way articulated some half-buried idealism in the Scots. Many years ago, the old actor Andrew Cruickshank told me what he longed for in his native land. He longed for a ‘gentle, civilised nationalism’. He was not talking about political nationalism, of course; he was referring to the national culture, our way of looking at ourselves and the world. I never thought I’d live to see it, or anything like it, but I dare to believe that this week we are moving, inch by inch, towards it.