Why the Scottish independence debate can be a fiery place, even for sympathetic unionists

Scotsman cartoon on Cameron Speech

Scotsman cartoon on Prime Minister’s ‘love-bomb’

Yesterday, comedian Marcus Brigstocke caused something of a stir on Twitter by involving himself in the Scottish Independence debate. As a Yes supporter it would be the easiest thing for yours truly to condemn this intervention as ignorant, which I did, but also unwanted, which I didn’t. Pro-independence supporters like myself are more than happy to quote the American Wall Street Journal, the Australian Canberra Times and the German Speigal when they support our views. On the rarest of occasions there is even an article from the London press which we consider to be fair. So why not him?

‘Fair’ is of course a matter of opinion. Something’s equitable value is not objectively judged on whether or not it agrees with us and this may well be part of the backlash to Mr Brigstocke’s comments yesterday. The Yes Campaign has been winning the twitter ‘war’ since its inception, a reflection of its comparatively young, modern membership. As a result, practically any comment tagged #indyref will be seen by more Yes supporters than No. The responses will reflect this, particularly if the original comment comes from a celebrity unionist like Mr Brigstocke. If I were a Better Together spokesman I’d speak of ‘Cybernats’ but since this deliberately offensive term is every bit as unhelpful to the debate as the very few immature, ignorant and bigoted commentators deserving of the derision it’s delivered with, I won’t.

The problem with Mr Brigstocke’s intervention isn’t that he’s unable to vote in the referendum. As a Scot living in Derby for over half his life, neither can I and yet my frequent comments on the matter aren’t nearly so badly received. Nor is it his nationality; the mere misfortune of being born English* shouldn’t discount him from involving himself in the discussion and anyone who suggests otherwise isn’t someone I wish to be associated with. Lest we forget there are plenty of self-defining English people living north of the border who can vote and the idea that their voices count less than someone of Scottish descent is risible.

The only problem with yesterday’s intervention was the lack of education on the subject, but here I’m happy to say I have some sympathy with the uninformed. Barely a day goes by when I don’t read up on and debate independence and so at the risk of sounding arrogant I know considerably more than most who don’t. Mr Brigstocke lives in London though; at a guess I’d say he reads The Guardian but even if he reads all the major City papers, all the time, it will be rare that he actually sees an article on Scotland, let alone one that it isn’t immediately easy to find fault with. Let me explain.

Getting into this debate myself last year, I did my best to become as informed as I could but as a part of this quest, I did my best to avoid publications from groups like @WingsScotland, @WeAreNational, @NewsnetScotland & @BizforScotland because they had a clear (and unashamed) bias. Bias I was prepared to go along with, but any first year law student realises you don’t prepare for court only by reading case judgments that agree with your premise. So I looked to the regular players. BBC News, all the broadsheets and most often in Scotland because I like the rugby pages, The Scotsman. I did so with the understanding that whilst every journalist in the world has some form of bias, a wide range of the media would give me a balanced view.

To my surprise, it did not. Even the BBC which when we think of bias, is usually accused of being anti-Tory doesn’t live up to expectations. A recent study found it actually favoured the current government more than the last. Another said both BBC Scotland and STV (the North Britain version of ITV) News favoured the No campaign more than the Yes. No one is shocked at the suggestion the Daily Mail has a right-wing bias which includes hating skirt-wearing, gingers who’ve never seen a blue sky, but to begin to see the same articles in The Guardian? I had to question the concept.

Moaning about the mainstream media is an idea I loathe as much as the argument that all politicians are corrupt. Re the latter it’s not true and it doesn’t help anyone, and with the former? Well it makes you sound like you watch Fox News and think Anderson Cooper and President Obama have secret meetings on how to deceive the American public. You’re one step away from claiming you were abducted by aliens as a child. Or at least that’s how it seems.

But then there’s the evidence cited above. There’s the response to the Governor of the Bank of England’s speech three weeks ago. The BBC, which showed it live on 24hr news, trailed it all morning as a ‘warning.’ In actual fact, Mark Carney went to Scotland, met with the First Minister and spoke about how the BoE would implement a currency union. The phrase I most often saw quoted was that a currency union would require ‘some ceding of national sovereignty.’ First of all, I don’t know anyone who seriously disagrees with this. The question is (or rather was, before the Chancellor came to play) how much sovereignty would be ceded. Scotland would have a say at the misleadingly-named Bank of England (it of course, being the Bank of the United Kingdom & Northern Ireland in practice), whereas currently it has none. Is this true independence? Is it enough? Step in the right direction? There’s a real debate there. Overwhelmingly though, the English press (and by that, I mean the TV news I watch in the Midlands and the papers I can have delivered to my door) focused on the narrative Alistair Darling wanted them to push, which is that Mark Carney had shot the idea of a currency union to shreds. The Scotsman and I think the Herald did the same.

All of this of course ignored the fact that the entire point of Mr Carney’s speech was to say HOW such a union would work, not that it couldn’t. That simple fact appeared to be lost on London. Even Channel 4 News which some of us like to think of as a bit different from the norm, eager to push past the headline to the meat, completely missed it.

Nor is this the first or only time such a widespread misrepresentation has occurred. I’d forgive anyone who hasn’t paid a lot of attention to the matter outside of Scotland for believing first that the entire referendum is the result of one man’s grasp for power, and that the only people who support voting Yes are Scottish National Party members. This is, as anyone involved will tell you, so far removed from truth as to be offensive to those others who work tirelessly for the cause. The Scottish Greens are pro-independence, and they could hardly be called Alex Salmond’s lackeys. So are socialists, communists, some Conservatives, Labour, Lib Dems, independents. The polls have all shown (anomalous results discounted) that two things are true. No is consistently the most favoured option of those eligible to vote, but both options are favoured by people from all walks of life, rather than two previously distinct voting blocs. How many times have you seen ‘Yes Scotland’ characterised as ‘Alex Salmond’ or ‘the SNP’ before, though? It’s a deliberate ploy to play upon one politician’s polarising effect. The analogy isn’t perfect, but Mr Salmond is similar to Boris Johnson in that even the most politically unengaged know exactly who he is, and know roughly what he stands for. Such is the nature of celebrity politics, some hate him and others love him. Wee ‘Eck is both a callous insult and a heartfelt nickname. John Swinney, by contrast? Well most people don’t even know who he is. So despite the fact that as Scottish Finance Minister he may author a paper on the economy, it will not be his, but Mr Salmond’s because that way the immediate guttural reaction is there from some.

I mention these examples of misreporting to evidence to those who may not be aware that an accusation of bias in the media is not a crazed concoction of paranoid Scottish nationalists, but something that quite clearly exists; also to provide an excuse for people such as Marcus Brigstocke. I don’t know Mr Brigstocke personally but my impression is that he likes to think himself as reasonably well informed on the issues that interest him, which indeed is the impression his comedy over the years has given me. The trouble is if you read every ‘main’ newssource and they all tell you the same thing, the likelihood is, given that you’ll probably have the same assumption I did last year, you’ll believe that thing is true. If a debate is characterised as heart against head enough, the message will sink in. This is between Mel Gibson fans and economists. Flag-wavers and realists. Cybernats and adults.

It behoves one then to look beyond on this issue, to sites such as the ones I listed above, but also bearing in mind the caveats I discussed. If anything, I’d advise reading them with more scorn than say, an article in The Independent, because I’m confident they can stand up to it. Put another way, last I checked the BBC had a two-source rule for investigative journalists. In short, if you don’t have two independent sources confirming the story, you don’t run it. I can’t say if this is still policy, but I sincerely hope so. The result is, despite recent examples, we generally consider BBC news to be truthful, if not always editorially sound. When you read an article on the website, it won’t often have links heading elsewhere, because you don’t need to look at them to know you’re not being bamboozled.

Pro-independence sites are all too aware that they don’t have this same level of trust and so do share their sources. Don’t believe them when they say it’s obvious Scotland could flourish? Look at just one of a number of independent reports. Unsure about their claims on NATO welcoming Scotland? Well check the credentials of the man they asked. Not ready to take their word for it that Scotland has no legal duty to pay a penny of UK debt? Here’s an economist.

I don’t speak just for myself or a small group of Yes supporters when I say the more the merrier in the debate. I’m a lawyer who specialises in international law and I don’t know what the situation with the EU will result in. I can take an educated guess, but no one knows. It’s an unprecendeted situation. The discussion can only be helped by more experts weighing in and having a civilised discussion about it. It’s the same with NATO. It’s the same with how much oil is left (though NOT, I hasten to embolden, who it belongs to. The law is clear on that). If you’re really into the details, read the The Continental Shelf Act 1964, the Continental Shelf (Jurisdiction) Order 1968, The Scotland Act 1998 and Scottish Adjacent Waters Boundary Order 1999. That’s before you even get into the UN Convention on Laws of the Sea. In the meantime look at this picture, evidentially shipped out to the lowest bidder by the Government. There are small disputes, but the lowest possible legal interpretation gives Scotland 90%+ of UK’s North Sea oil reserves.

Scottish Waters

Scottish waters as interpreted via the Scottish Adjacent Waters Boundary Order 1999

Marcus Brigstocke acted in ignorance yesterday by making on or two comments that were unhelpful at best, but it must also be acknowledged that the reactions of some were wholly inappropriate. As I said, I don’t know him and so it may very well be the case that he is a cunt, as one poster suggested.** He’s not a cunt however, because he has an opinion on Scottish Independence and every Yes supporter I’ve ever engaged with would condemn such an allegation and behaviour. I won’t defend it.

The overall reaction being one that seemed to be bitter and angry however, I can understand. Those on the Yes side have fought a David and Goliath-like fight over the nature of the discussion for the future of their country. Not just the future itself, but the discussion. We were told Scotland couldn’t afford it and slowly they convinced enough people so that even David Cameron, George Osborne, Ed Miliband and… that guy from the yellow party, have conceded that’s not true so they moved on. We were told in the 70s that the oil would only last five more minutes and through nationalist action we now know that wasn’t just untrue, but a lie. We’re told Alex Salmond is Robert Mugabe (and less savoury others) we’re cybernats, Australia won’t be allies with us anymore, it’s England’s pound, independence will cost jobs (with no explanation of why), the Americans won’t protect us when the Russians invade, we’ll be pariahs at the UN, we couldn’t bail out RBS, RBS would move to England (despite RBS having said no such thing), the Spanish will block us joining Europe (despite Spain saying no such thing), People in the rest of the UK have never been asked about a currency union (despite a Better Together comissioned poll showing two-thirds support), and most recently, that the UK government may ignore the UN charter and deny us independence even if we vote for it. The Daily Mash parodied all of this nicely by suggesting Scotland may not be able to use English oxygen.

We’re told unfortunate mistruths and deliberate lies. We’ve been belittled and insulted. With the best will in the world we try and counter this with information and reasoned, friendly debate knowing full well there are people all around the world and particularly in England who may not agree with us, but wish us well if we go. Those on the outside looking in however, must remember that for some this discussion started decades ago, and sometimes when someone jumps in who seems not to have heard a word we’ve said, it can grate. Rudeness is rarely excusable, but sometimes it is understandable.


* – Yes, that was a joke.

** – I considered linking to the poster for evidence, but decided since attention was clearly what they were after, best not to.



  1. Aileen McGibbon

    Don’t forgot Marcus was also incredibly rude. And rude not in response to insults or crude language, but rude in response to being backed into an intellectual corner. To which HE then responded with crude language and insults.

    But anyway, enough of this! I’m off to ride my ‘preposterous tartan horse’ (no Marcus, I have no intention of getting off it. Ever) …..

    • Chris Murray

      That’s fair, but I’d argue that with the cybernat label, despicable narrative that the referendum is about anti-English sentiment and publications such as the Mail eager to condemn us all, Yes campaigners owe it to themselves to rise above it, despite some easy bait.

      Imagine if Mr Brigstocke’s comments had been the only ones containing obscenities yesterday; every objective reader would have instinctively taken the opposite side, regardless of the subject of discussion. We don’t want to encourage such behaviour.

      Unfortunately, of course, his weren’t and a number of people brought the discussion down. Like I said, I get it, but it’s not helping us.

      • Aileen McGibbon

        Hi Chris. Were you responding to my comment? Sorry, I’m honestly not sure.

        Anyway, if you were. I totally agree with that, of course.

        However I wasn’t rude to Mr Brigstocke. In the slightest. In fact I defended the man (if he’d bothered to ‘read back’)…………..And he was VERY abusive to me (And he wasn’t exactly a darling to you either).

        Of course the correct response is never abuse.

        It’s screen grabs.

  2. alharron

    A very good appraisal. I myself think that the Brigstocke response was not just about Yes’ “David and Goliath,” but because Brigstocke wasn’t doing himself any favours. When you state, in all seriousness, that the date for the referendum was chosen to coincide with “Banoch Burn” – given his failure to actually spell the name of the country’s most famous engagement properly, it’s perhaps natural that he’d get the date wrong too – your opinion is open to pretty scathing scrutiny.

    It’s as Harlan Ellison wrote: “Everybody has opinions: I have them, you have them. And we are all told from the moment we open our eyes, that everyone is entitled to his or her opinion. Well, that’s horsepuckey, of course. We are not entitled to our opinions; we are entitled to our informed opinions. Without research, without background, without understanding, it’s nothing.” Marcus Brigstocke’s opinion was not informed.

    • Chris Murray

      I used to have an evangelical friend… Well, that’s a a lie; I fucking hated him, but the point is we used to debate religion constantly and once I said something markedly similar to your point above when he accused me of not respecting his right to an opinion.

      “I respect your right to believe whatever you want. In this case I don’t respect your belief.”

      Opinions are like arseholes, and all that.

  3. Rab Dickson

    Excellent piece.

    My own response to Mr Brigstocke’s stream of conciousness went from a reasoned reply and degenerated into name-calling in response to this:

    “Those who are now responding as if I’ve just killed all of Glasgow’s first born & shat in a Saltire you’s can get ta fuck – ken?”

    My response (of which I am not overly proud) “As can you, you classless, unfunny prick…..ken?”

    At first I was irritated by his London chattering class ignorance but then as he decided to get on his high horse and talk down to posters I got more and more annoyed.
    I know I shouldn’t have been either surprised or annoyed by his lack knowledge of the subject he had chosen to pontificate on, but neither should I have called him what I did.
    It didn’t help either of us. But as the piece so rightly points out, we have been doing this for decades and when someone pops up, blabs off guff and then gets humpty when he is disagreed with….well there are limits.

    I hope he takes the time to find out what he is going to comment on in future and that when he is opposed in his thinking he doesn’t resort to the “fuck off” tactic.
    You get what you give….it’s childish…yes….but inevitable at times.

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