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Artillery Row

Don’t forget Nicola Sturgeon’s nodding dogs

The SNP have been enabled by uncritical British media

The cult of Nicola Sturgeon, now unravelling before our eyes in such a spectacular fashion, took a lot of building and had a lot of builders. The Scottish media played a substantial role; at one point, the then First Minister appeared on the cover of Holyrood magazine, decked out with wings and a halo, above the headline “Can she do no wrong?”

But even so, Scottish journalists generally did a much better job of trying to hold her to account than their colleagues south of the border. (Perhaps living in SNP-run Scotland had something to do with it.)

Partly, this was a political problem. Sturgeon’s taking over from Alex Salmond in 2014 was followed swiftly by the 2015 general election, and then by the EU referendum. Heads were turned. Commentators who just a few years before had been firmly against Scottish independence were suddenly sympathetic to it — an understandable bid to escape Brexit, and just desserts for those reckless Brexiteers.

(Understandable, that is, unless one is familiar with the actual economics of the Union and the relative importance of British and European trade to Scotland. But why should one be?)

the signs were already there about the real condition of Nationalist Scotland

Next, Sturgeon seemed to offer an attractive contrast with Boris Johnson. Whereas England was in the throes of Tory chaos, Scotland was blessed with sober, sensible, grown-up and progressive government. It was for a while not uncommon to see English people saying they wished they could vote SNP.

But although it wasn’t yet afflicting the Nationalists’ poll ratings the way it is now, the signs were already there about the real condition of Nationalist Scotland. The secretive, imperial style of government. The pressure on third-sector institutions to conform. Woeful school and health performance. The self-inflicted ferry fiasco. The sustained effort to undermine the autonomy of local government.

Yet with some honourable exceptions (I myself was memorably described merely as “outwardly respectable” by one Scottish commentator), the London press didn’t cover such stories often or in depth. Nor did they much scrutinise the similar tale unfolding in Labour-run Wales, save when the Conservatives made intermittent efforts to highlight it during elections.

“Devolve and forget” is a phrase normally used to describe the way Westminster has tended, over the past 25 years, to stop paying attention to something once it has palmed it off on a devolved government.

Whereas in other countries the central government might still be expected to be the ultimate guarantor of good government, in the United Kingdom the prerogatives of Edinburgh, Cardiff, and Belfast were until recently held sacrosanct, whatever the results — and despite each receiving substantial fiscal transfers from the British taxpayer, for which they ought to be accountable to the British Parliament.

Yet the same mindset afflicted much of the media too. It isn’t merely that Holyrood, Stormont, and the Senedd developed their own media ecosystems — that was a natural development and indeed a healthy one, given that there was more scrutiny to be done. It’s that this corresponded to a fracturing of the British news ecosystem.

Some national newspapers and magazines did a better job than others of ensuring that Scotland and Wales, if less often Northern Ireland, were properly covered (especially important in the case of Wales which, unlike Scotland, does not have a suite of its own newspapers). 

Broadcasting, however, was another story. There are today few public affairs shows which, even if national franchises, do not have localised versions in the different home nations. One staffer on Newsnight, which the BBC has announced is shortly to lose its investigative reporting, told me it’s the last flagship current affairs show on the Corporation’s roster with a genuinely pan-UK focus.

This obviously hurts scrutiny; national (which is to say, London-based) operations often have greater resources than those available elsewhere, and those spotlights ought to be turned on the devolved governments as well as Westminster.

But it also fragments our British sense of ourselves. If we stop hearing about Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, if they stop being reported on in the way that England is, they will inevitably start to feel more like foreign countries.

Consider how decades of political isolation have shaped popular views on Northern Ireland — and the counter-intuitive fact that, after years back in the spotlight since 2016, mainland support for its place in the Union is now higher than it was in 1998.

Contrast that with the situation a generation before that. Newton Emerson has written that Northern Ireland really did feel as British as Finchley in the age of analogue television. 

But the point is surely made even more powerfully by this footage of the rapturous reception Tom Baker received in 1978 when he visited Londonderry as Doctor Who. Certainly not all of those children will have felt British, of course, not in Derry. Yet they shared a powerful common cultural interest that was, and that’s something.

The nationalists know all this, of course. Not for nothing did they advocate for new, separate Scottish news shows from the BBC — despite there being little obvious demand and both suffering persistently low ratings. It’s entirely of a piece with their paused (but not abandoned) plan to scrap the British Transport Police, another thing that lends one a sense of living in Britain chipped away.

We can, and must, do better. Let the fall of the House of Sturgeon serve as a timely reminder that Britain needs a genuinely British media.

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