The silenced saltire

Tom Gallagher searches in vain for independent thought in the complacent academy and media of devolved Scotland

March 25, 2010

When Ireland's Celtic Tiger turned into a Cold Turkey, academics and journalists quickly produced books on the country's economic woes. Contrast the position in Scotland, where silence has largely reigned over the discovery, in 2008, that the two main financial drivers of the Scottish economy, RBS and HBOS, were near-insolvent banks. Are the social sciences in Scotland's universities too absorbed with hunting for research grants from state funders to emulate their Irish counterparts?

In late 2009, I produced the first single-authored book examining the path to power of the Scottish National Party and its first two years in office. Awkward questions were asked about the SNP playing identity politics at the cost of reinforcing Anglophobic attitudes among young people. This earned me the sobriquet of "the nutty professor" from a political columnist, but otherwise the book was ignored by the Scottish media.

In fact, the "nutty professor" term was coined by First Minister Alex Salmond and propagated by his chief spin-doctor. Managing the media has been a priority of this government. It has enjoyed success just as print titles have become absorbed with balance sheets and celebrity journalism. The desire to provide the public-service role shown by the main Scottish broadsheets, The Scotsman in the 1970s and The Herald in the 1980s and beyond, has faded.

Scotland remains a patronage state, thanks not only to the size of the public sector but also to the proliferation of ancillary bodies from local government to the professions and the large para-state dominated by quangos. Since 2005, the Freedom of Information Act has shed light on the secrecy and cronyism that disfigures official Scotland. But the media have little appetite for investigative reporting on the fate of public money.

It took the Scottish Review, a small online publication, to investigate the earnings of those in charge of public-sector bodies with an independent structure. On 24 November last year, Salmond faced a grilling in the Scottish Parliament over this matter. The next day, Kenneth Roy, the ex-BBC journalist who has edited the publication for 15 years, found that details of the earnings of health bosses and other heads of non-departmental bodies had been wiped from the government website.

Politicians and civil servants are mounting resistance to greater transparency in public policy. The SNP government has taken advantage of a capricious court decision last year enabling authorities to withhold information without any right to appeal. Resistance to Thatcherism's imposed centralism paved the way for devolved government 11 years ago. But perhaps it was naive to assume that the level of transparency and quality of debate about the exercise of power would grow along with the numbers participating.

Power has been exercised by small networks based on private or state wealth and professional status for a long time. The Reformation and the Industrial Revolution have been the two most important events in Scottish history and, in both cases, firm authority needed to be imposed and dissent stamped out. Ever since, there has been an aversion to freewheeling debate and a preference for assembling behind fixed positions.

Scotland still has few think-tanks, which is surprising given the scale of the social problems that have consistently defeated bureaucrats. It may be a reflection on the unadventurous character of much of Scottish academia, or else the absence of sponsors, that they are so thin on the ground. Ireland's tradition of summer schools debating numerous public issues has failed to take root in Scotland. Next week, Edinburgh will play host to the Political Science Association's annual conference. But while the body has specialist groups on Greece and even on British national identity, there isn't one on Scotland itself, even though further big changes in its constitutional status cannot be ruled out.

Sanctions rather than rewards often greet critical thinking and creativity in Scotland. Unless there is greater room for constructive dissent, the quality of decision-making will suffer and those who are pluralist in instinct are likely to move away - including many scholars.

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