There is something faintly ridiculous about a politician complaining about not been invited on to television to talk about rugby, but the First Minister’s hysterical outburst after not being given the slot is embarrassing. The BBC is not a state broadcaster – it is our national broadcaster. A national broadcaster does not exist to give government ministers a platform, and no politician, short of a national emergency, has the right to demand the BBC broadcasts what he or she wants.
Personally, I didn’t see why the first minister was invited to be a commentator in the first place. He has not been previously distinguished for his rugby skills, either as player or observer. I do not detect that he has vast quantities of original thoughts on the state of the Scottish game, but if he does, he has ample opportunity to talk in the Scottish Parliament, or he could write an article like this one.
In fact, I am prepared to place a large bet that most rugby fans would rather he got behind the team than tried to get on television.
But for the first minister to accuse BBC journalists as acting like ‘tinpot dictators’ and accuse them of being Gauleiters – a deeply offensive term given to regional leaders of the Nazi party – crosses the line of acceptability and demeans the office to which he was elected. A chief characteristic of a tinpot dictator is surely that he thinks that he can pick up the phone to the state broadcaster and decide what is shown that evening.
It is not the Scottish way, it is not the democratic way and – thankfully – it is not the BBC’s way. Alex Salmond had the chance last week to apologise for this disgraceful slur at FMQs – and he failed to do so, insteading trying to justify his unreasonable position.
The BBC Charter, the baseline of probity in national broadcasting, is clear and simple: “The BBC exists to serve the public interest”. The output is decided by journalists and policed by an independent trust. Politicians and ministers, with all their vested interests, must stand back. The fact that the BBC has withstood political pressure, by and large, for the best part of the last century is a testament to the professionalism of the organisation. Don’t get me wrong: there are some things I think the BBC does wrong, particularly the way Scottish politics is reported north of the border in a number of instances, but my overriding view is that if the BBC is not displeasing politicians from all parties at least some of the time, then it isn’t doing its job.
But behind his shrill and ugly over-reaction, this episode speaks to two much deeper traits in how Alex Salmond’s political operations work. His natural suspicion of the BBC as a UK-wide institution amplifies his automatic response to anyone who disagrees with him, which is to denigrate their character in the most unpleasant way he can muster.
This is, of course, not the first sortie Mr Salmond has dispatched against the BBC, and nor is the BBC the only target. Shortly after being elected five years ago, he established the Jenkins Commission with the explicit intention of it recommending the break up of the BBC and the creation of a separate broadcaster just for Scotland. Much to his chagrin, it recommended no such thing, reflecting the trust and love for the BBC shared by experts and audiences alike. During the most recent UK general election, Alex Salmond used £50,000 of his party members’ money to fight an action at the court of session because he was not invited onto the prime ministerial television debates. The court, recognising that Alex Salmond was not a candidate to be the prime minister and not even standing in the election, dismissed his case in terms as scathing as a court of session judge is generally permitted to be. So there is no love lost between the SNP leader and the UK’s national broadcaster.
I would be the first to acknowledge politics is a tough business – personal criticism is an occupational hazard. But recently the SNP have taken this to a new and disturbing level with increasingly personal, negative attacks on individuals who disagree with Scotland separating from the UK. Scottish MPs are told they have no right to speak on the constitution. Joan McAlpine MSP says it is for “others to judge” whether Anas Sarwar, the deputy leader of my party, is “anti-Scottish” or not. Michelle Mone expresses her view on separation and she is branded a traitor. Professor Arthur Midwinter, one of Scotland’s leading experts on public finances, is vilified for speaking out about how the SNP misuse statistics. A Labour activist from Aberdeenshire, born in England, is told he is a “white settler” by SNP canvassers. The cybernats are alive and well online, either tacitly or openly encouraged. Only last week, the Education Minister again branded fellow Scottish MSPs as “anti-Scottish” for disagreeing with his education policies. If it were not so serious, it would be a case of telling some people to grow up.
But this is deadly serious. This is not an episode of The Thick Of It. This is about our country, our future, our civic life. It is an organised and calculated attempt by the SNP to, first, impugn the integrity of anyone who disagrees with them. Playing the man rather than the ball – in the circumstances an apt cliché – is now the default option in Scottish politics. Second, the SNP seeks to monopolise people’s love of Scotland by equating support for the SNP with support for Scotland. This is a cold attempt to delegitimise and question the patriotism of everyone in Scotland who does not share’s the SNPs plan for separation.
And that is partly why I am convinced it will fail. Despite the rhetoric, behind the mask, nationalism is a political philosophy based on difference. At heart, Scotland is far more pluralistic, far more open, far more tolerant. Our Scotland, the home of the enlightenment, the land of learning, is a country that thrives on debate and reasoned argument. Reasoned argument requires the arguers to be reasonable. Donald Dewar, in his magnificent opening speech of the Scottish Parliament, warned that it is about more than the laws we pass. It was, he said, about who we are and how we carry ourselves. Never has his warning been more urgent or more profound. The debate about our future must be an adult one.
Richard Baker is an MSP for the North East of Scotland Region and Labour’s Shadow Cabinet Secretary for Infrastructure and Capital Investment.