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Then and Now: A View From the Fourth Estate – Scottish Review of Books
by Alan Taylor

Then and Now: A View From the Fourth Estate

September 15, 2014 | by Alan Taylor

THE old Scotsman headquarters, which occupied the entire west side of Edinburgh’s North Bridge, managed simultaneously to exude squalor and splendour. At the time I first became acquainted with it, in the late 1980s, it was home to three newspapers, the Scotsman, the Edinburgh Evening News and Scotland on Sunday, the most recent addition to the portfolio, which was launched in August 1988. Editorial staff entered not by the grand, mahogany-panelled public entrance but furtively, as men in dirty macs used to slip into sex shops, through an unmarked, litter-clogged door near the top of Fleshmarket Close.  Once inside, you found yourself in a long, white-tiled corridor, down which exposed pipes ran like those in the bowels of a ship. There seemed to be doors everywhere, some glassed, others not; all were closed, adding to the sense of intrigue and clandestine activity. 

Before you came to the Scotsman’s newsroom, there was a grand marble staircase up which few had licence to ascend. You could have been forgiven for thinking you had stumbled into a mausoleum. This led to a hall floored in yet more marble off  which were several offices. The largest of these was the lair of the managing director, a mystical figure who came and went usually without exchanging a grunt with the ants and beavers who produced the papers and the profits. Once, I was summoned to his presence and I feared the worst, for he had a formidable – and justified – reputation as a cheeseparer. As his brogue suggested, he was from the north of England and declaimed rather than spoke. The conversation was short and, from my point of view, inconclusive. ‘I just wanted to see the whites of your eyes,’ he said, at which point he broke a few bones in my hand and enquired of his secretary the nature of his next appointment. We never exchanged a word again.

In those days the Scotsman and its sister titles were owned by Thomson Regional Newspapers, based in Newcastle. In common with the city of its birth, the Scotsman had an innate sense of its own superiority. Though it was part of a stable full of nags and also-rans, it regarded itself as a thoroughbred. It was not parochial; nor did it dumb down. It was too sophisticated to follow that route. Though its circulation – then around 80,000 – was insignificant by the standards of the behemoths of Fleet Street, it felt as if it were the market leader. But however few its sales, it made up for them in intellectual heft. Its thistle-bedecked masthead evoked gravitas and authority and a prickly sense of place. It was Scotland’s voice in the world and endeavoured where possible to ‘put a kilt’ on stories, i.e. introduce a Scottish element. Moreover, it was read from front page to back by what were known as ‘opinion formers’: politicians, bankers, industry leaders, lawyers, and, a little further down the income chain, lecturers, teachers and arts administrators.

No one who then worked for it felt that it was other than a national newspaper. As the preferred reading matter of the Edinburgh bourgeoisie, it spoke for a class that expected to run things and take important decisions. In general, these were people who, by nature, were inherently cautious and wary of change and did all in their power to delay it if not thwart it. This was seen at its most raw in 1993 when it was proposed to close the National Portrait Gallery in Queen Street and remove much of its collection to a new gallery of Scottish art in Glasgow. As one, Edinburghers rose in revolt and, at a stormy, standing-room only meeting at the College of Art, let it be known that the very idea was unconscionable and clearly the ravings of unstable minds. Then, when the paper went from one section to two, and in so doing separated news and features from sport and business, readers vented their ire on the editor. The crossword, it transpired, had been placed with sport and business, which the breadwinner stuck in his briefcase when he departed for his office. This left his wife without the crossword to do, which by force of habit had become the main focus of her morning’s activities. How now was she to spend the livelong hours? By twiddling her thumbs? Or by initiating an affair? Under considerable pressure, the hapless editor buckled, his brow beaten out of shape, and restored the crossword to news and features.

Despite its desire to keep such a constituency sweet, the Scotsman had since the 1960s been an advocate of devolution. In this regard it had some strange allies. One such was Malcolm Rifkind who, wrote Andrew Marr in The Battle for Scotland, ‘has always been too clever for a real Tory’, because he was rumoured to read books, and made speeches without notes in the House of Commons. By 1969, Rifkind had become chairman of the Thistle Group, ‘a ginger group for federalism’, which envisaged that a future Scottish parliament could raise its own taxes and look after its own monetary policy. This was appealing to the Scotsman and its then editor, Alastair MacTavish Dunnett, husband of historical novelist, Dorothy Dunnett. Under Dunnett, arguably the paper’s greatest editor and surely its most dynamic,  it published a series of articles collected in a pamphlet titled How Scotland Should Be Governed and drip-fed editorials advocating constitutional change. ‘Government of the people by and for the people,’ ran one, ‘should to the largest possible extent be where the people are, so that they can keep an eye on it and take an interest in it.’

Dunnett’s successors maintained the Scotsman’s position and throughout the 1970s it was a staunch – if occasionally myopic – advocate of a devolved parliament. Eric Beattie Mackay was the first and most influential. Hailing from the north-east – he was educated at Aberdeen Grammar School and Aberdeen University before cutting his journalistic teeth on the Aberdeen Bon-Accord and Elgin Courant – he viewed the re-establishment of Edinburgh as a legislative centre as beneficial both to Scotland and the Scotsman. Under his editorship, more so even than Dunnett’s, the paper became a forum for those whose first thought on waking was to pen a letter to a newspaper on the relative merits of independence, devolution and the status quo. When in 1979 the chance of re-establishing a parliament was rejected – albeit after the cynical intervention of an Islington-based Scottish Labour MP – the Scotsman, doubtless reflecting Mackay’s personal dismay, referred to ‘the doubting cries of the faithless’.  Two years later, when Andrew Marr joined the paper it was still, it seemed, suffering from a humungous hangover. Mackay, he recollected, was ‘not unlike Corporal Fraser from Dad’s Army’, like whom he was ‘unrelentingly pessimistic’. Why, asked Mackay, did Marr want to join the Scotsman? When the rookie muttered something about ‘quality journalism’, the editor leapt from his chair and looked out of his window and across Waverley Station to a crowded Princes Street and waved an arm. ‘Quality journalism! Quality journalism! Laddie, no one out there is interested in quality journalism. D’you not understand? It’s over. It’s all over…’

And so it must have seemed. In 1985, Mackay retired with the prospect of devolution as far distant as it had been when he became editor. Ironically, it would fall to another Scotsman editor, Magnus Linklater, to revive hope of it. The son of novelist Eric Linklater, he was not a natural devolutionist, let alone sympathetic to independence. Educated at Eton, he had spent much of his early career in London, including stints at the Sunday Times, Rupert Murdoch’s milch cow, and the short-lived London Daily News, which was owned by the rapacious bully, Robert Maxwell. Always eager for publicity which might in turn boost sales, Linklater decided – following a suggestion by Alex Salmond, recently elected leader of the Scottish National Party – in 1992 to hold ‘a great debate’ at the Usher Hall on the country’s constitutional future. Fatefully, the date chosen for this was 19 January, just days after British Steel announced the closure of its steel works in Lanarkshire with job losses of 770 and an estimated further 10,000 jobs affected as a consequence. The speakers were Ian Lang, Secretary of State for Scotland, Scottish Democrat leader, Malcolm Bruce, Donald Dewar for Labour, and Salmond.

It was to prove a cathartic few hours. In the days running up to the debate, Dewar was sceptical about how many people were likely to turn out on a Saturday night to a venue with a capacity of 2,500. In the event, it was packed and two times that number and more were turned away. They need not have worried for Radio Scotland broadcast it live. For those of us used to having our eardrums shattered by the likes of Jethro Tull and Fleetwood Mac in the venerable hall, it felt distinctly odd to be looking down from the gods at four besuited men, none of whom seemed particularly at his ease in front of a microphone. Ultimately, it was Salmond who was deemed to have performed best and whose voice was dominant. But the most remarkable thing of all was that a debate long thought to be as moribund as Arthur’s Seat had been reignited. If nothing else, it certainly energised the Scotsman’s indefatigable army of letter writers.

At the time I was at Scotland on Sunday which, after a promising start, was struggling. Circulation was in freefall and morale was low. Some industry pundits, high on schadenfreude, gave it no more than a few months, after which it would most likely go the way of the Sunday Standard, which despite having a cadre of stellar journalists, lasted just two years from 1981 to 1983. In the hope of avoiding a repeat of this, the management had recruited Andrew Jaspan, who had previously been on the Sunday Times. Jaspan was rare among editors, being as obsessed with how a paper looked as well as how it read. Though an incomer – his roots were English – he was more informed – and in many cases more interested – about Scotland than many people who had lived here all their lives.  He wanted every section to sing, and he was especially keen to introduce writers who wrote not only for newspapers. Thus he agreed to the suggestion that we ask James Kelman to visit Ravenscraig immediately after its closure was announced and record his impressions.

‘And what will happen if the steel workers’ struggle for survival fails and this last bastion of industrial Scotland collapses?’, Kelman wrote presciently. ‘Perhaps it is simply time to move into another industry, culture for example, or waste disposal. This is 1990 and it is difficult to avoid cynicism if you live in Glasgow which might be described as the cultural capital of Strathclyde Regional Council as well as European City of Culture. Last Wednesday, in common with many thousands of other people involved in the campaign against the Poll Tax, I received my warrant notice at last: fortunately for myself, being a writer, the sheriff officers acting on behalf of Strathclyde Regional Council won’t poind the word-processor on which this is being composed, it is a tool of my trade.’

Kelman was not alone. Scotland at the outset of the 1990s felt embattled, under-valued, put upon, second-rate, patronised, victimised, deprived. Underlying all of this, too, was a sense of frustration and impotence, and anger. Labour, then in opposition, felt comfortable in espousing a cause which has dominated this past quarter of a century. ‘The status quo is, I believe, untenable,’ said Donald Dewar. ‘No matter what the Tories say, the great problem for the Scottish political system is why someone like Ian Lang is Secretary of State, calling the shots…when almost no one votes for him.’ At the time, however, did one really feel that fundamental change was in the wind, that come a Labour government in Westminster Dewar and his colleagues would alchemically transform the rhetoric into action? My memory suggests otherwise. Many were those in the Labour Party, such as Robin Cook, Brian Wilson and Tam Dalyell, who viewed devolution sourly, as the slippery slope to independence. But, by 1995, and with the prospect of a Labour government led by John Smith looking ever more of a possibility, George Robertson, as Shadow Secretary of State, felt confident in predicting that ‘Devolution will kill Nationalism stone dead.’ Well, whatever it has done it has not – yet – achieved that.

Inside the portals of the Scotsman, the struggle was less to do with the state of the nation than to build and retain readership. At Scotland on Sunday, which had begun to thrive, we were painfully aware of the strictures under which we were working. Strategic decisions were taken elsewhere by who knows whom. Planning was like throwing darts at a board in the pitch dark. Were there any profits, we never saw their fruits. Reinvestment in the ‘product’ was minimal. Our London rivals, moreover, were infinitely better resourced with seemingly bottomless marketing budgets. But Andrew Jaspan, as mercurial as he was entrepreneurial, was adept at finding the wherewithal to resource projects or ‘up-page’ or send journalists to far-flung places. With his blessing, I went back and forth regularly to New York where I had carte blanche to interview writers such as Philip Roth and John Updike, Joseph Heller and Toni Morrison. From the Macallan whisky company, we got £50,000 to underwrite a short story competition, among whose early winners were Dilys Rose, Ali Smith and Michel Faber.

In hindsight, the sudden death of John Smith in May 1994 proved a watershed. Who knows what manner of a prime minister he would have been. One used occasionally to bump into him in the bar of the sleeper as he returned north on a Thursday night after Westminster shut up shop for the week. Owlish, gregarious, with a devilish wit, his tie undone and a glass of whisky at his side, he never struck me – as he did so many – as a bank manager, for those I knew made undertakers look like hippies. While attempting to make Labour electable by persuading the denizens of the City of London that they had nothing to fear from him and his colleagues – and how right they were in that respect – he was happy to pour ordure on the SNP and independence. Come a separate Scotland, insisted Smith, there would be a £7 billion black hole in the national budget in the first year. Even then scare stories were the common currency of those who regarded independence as an impertinence. Were it ever to come to pass, Scotland, it was intimated, would be worse off, an economic basket case, better to stay in the United Kingdom for good or ill.

That, certainly, was the view taken by many men and women of influence as the 1990s slid by. In his book, The Hollow Drum, Arnold Kemp, a former deputy editor of the Scotsman and editor of the Glasgow Herald from 1981 to 1994, wrote: ‘For myself I remain a Scottish nationalist of the John Buchan or the Lord Cooper variety. I believe Scotland is a nation with its inalienable rights vested in the Treaty of Union. It is neither a region nor a province. But I value also the Union and our new connections with Europe. When I look at resurgent nationalism in Eastern Europe, the Balkans and elsewhere I am reminded of the value to be placed on order and good government, and the ability of different races and peoples to live together in a complex modern state. . .

‘Like most Scots I am confused about the political consequences of our national identity. For almost 300 years we have lived in a Union with a bigger partner which has often had the irritating fancy that it has absorbed us. We resist this fate. Indeed our very resistance and his very presence sustain our sense of nationhood. But where does our resistance lead us?’

Kemp, who died in 2002 aged 63, wrote that some twenty years ago. It is, if nothing else, a reminder of how fast things have changed in the intervening period. As far as the road to the referendum is concerned there were several significant factors in the 1990s. The first was the resurgence under Salmond’s leadership of the Scottish National Party and the rise in support generally of parties in favour of some form of Home Rule. Another was the collapse of the Tory vote which hovered around 25 per cent. In 1992, a poll in the Daily Record suggested that at least 50 per cent of Scots were in favour of independence, which may have prompted the SNP to adopt one of those slogans – ‘Free by 1993’ – which was not only fatuous but also fantastical. But in defiance of expectations John Major was returned to Downing Street and yet again the march towards independence had reached another impasse. In his autobiography, in a chapter entitled ‘The Union At Risk’, Thatcher’s less hated successor recalled: ‘I felt that the case for the Union needed to be put in a way that would be relevant to the future as well as the past, and would present it as the natural choice for those who were proud to call themselves Scottish. I determined to do this in three ways. First, by bringing the Union to Scotland, giving more practical demonstrations of its value in the modern world by staging national and international events there. Second, by listening to Scottish concerns and ensuring that where possible decisions about Scotland were taken in Scotland – “bringing the Union alive”, we called it. And third, by going to Scotland as often as I could to put the case myself to the Scottish people.’

Major neglected to mention a fourth way he could thwart those determined to dissolve UK Inc, by remaining prime minister. But, as he acknowledged, it was not the constitution that did for him in 1997, ‘but the Conservative Party’s problems generally’. As ever, it was bedevilled by Eurosceptics within its own ranks and other destabilizing events, such as BSE, which have a habit of arising when least expected. Then there was what used to be known as ‘sleaze’, which accounted for Tory grandees such as Allan Stewart and Micky Hirst.  In April 1995, the Tories failed to take a single council in local elections in Scotland. A month later, at a by-election in Perth and Kinross, prompted by the death of Nicholas Fairbairn, a peacock among politicians, the Tories came a distant third, behind Roseanna Cunningham and an ambitious whippersnapper called Douglas Alexander. On one of those visits which Major hoped would cool nationalist ardour, he realised the game was a-bogey. He was not wrong. ‘Defeat duly came, and every Tory seat north of the border fell, though [said he, determined to find some comfort where there was none] the swing against us was not as large as in Britain as a whole. We won just 17.3 per cent of the vote in Scotland.’

Thus commenced the reign of Tony Blair, the people’s prime minister, and the age of spin. Should independence become a reality Blair’s role in its passage cannot be underestimated. Whether it was the outcome he desired in allowing a referendum on devolution is another matter. Like many in his party he assumed that it would cork the desire for the dissolution of the UK. He was not an enthusiast for it but allowed  himself to be persuaded of its efficacy. ‘Devolution,’ noted his biographer, John Rentoul, ‘has rightly been described as Blair’s inheritance rather than his passion.’

Three years before that I joined the Scotsman at the invitation of Andrew Jaspan who had been wooed from Scotland on Sunday. Jaspan was in favour of a Scottish parliament, and saw it as the first step towards independence. But after just six frenetic months, he was offered the editorship of the Observer and left Edinburgh for London.  His replacement was James Seaton who lived and breathed the Scotsman but his tenure, too, was short lived. In 1995, the paper had been bought by David and Frederick Barclay, identical twins born in London to Scottish parents. From humble beginnings – in their youth they had been painters and decorators – they had accrued vast wealth and had recently bought the Ritz Hotel. It was either there on in another of their hotels, the Howard, that I had one of my only two meetings with them. Over a frugal, alcohol-free lunch, neither said much of substance and gave no indication why they had bought the newspaper or what they intended to do with it. They enlisted Bert Hardy, a Fleet Street veteran through whose veins ink oozed but who was then in the autumn of his career, to oversee the Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday, and the Evening News. He, in turn, appointed Andrew Neil as editor-in-chief of the three titles in 1996. At this point, James Seaton decided to spend more time with his family and add a few more Munros to his collection. To his obvious displeasure, he was piped from the building by a busker who was normally to be seen regaling tourists in Princes Street Gardens with his excruciating interpretation of ‘Campbeltown Loch’.

Neil arrived with the reputation of  a bruiser with a volcanic temper. Born in Paisley, he had attended Glasgow University, whereupon he hastened south. His great achievement was as editor of the Sunday Times where circulation soared and sections multiplied. In concert with Rupert Murdoch, he had confronted the print unions at Wapping and championed the use of new technology. For many people in Scotland, however, he personified Thatcherite values – or the lack thereof – and was therefore deemed to be unsympathetic towards the Scotsman’s traditional stance on the constitution.

For those pro devolutionists, his arrival on the North Bridge could not have come at a more inopportune moment. Blair’s election in 1997 guaranteed a two-question referendum the same year. Neil appointed Martin Clarke, formerly in charge of the Scottish edition of the Daily Mail, as Scotsman editor, and the paper’s tone changed markedly, alienating many readers. New columnists were introduced, several of whom seemed more keen on psoriasis than a Scottish parliament. Then as now the naysayers did what they could to scare the horses. Businesses threatened to leave, oil was running out, individuals would be impoverished, a reconvened parliament would be Strathclyde Regional Council writ large. Sundry ‘experts’ added their tuppenceworth. Allan Massie predicted that a Yes, Yes vote would consign Scotland to ‘a granny flat within the UK’. Peter Jones insisted that there must be an answer to the West Lothian question. Neither came to pass. The overall implication was that, left to their own devices, Scots were incapable of running their own affairs, that within a few years we would be begging to be allowed to return to the way things had been, and that we should stick with what we had.

However, there were as many commentators in favour of devolution as there were against, notably Ian Bell, Iain Macwhirter and Joyce McMillan.  The No-camp were a visionary lot, opined Bell, irony dripping on to the page like wax from a candle. ‘They know, as for a fact, and in every detail, what a devolved Scotland will be like. They have seen the taxes go up and the inward investment fall, the Nationalists rampant and the socialists (as they still call Scotland’s centre right) with their hands in the till. They understand the nature and ambitions of the new parliament even before its members are elected.’ There was more, much more, in a similar vein, much of which can be read in What a State!: Is Devolution for Scotland the End of Britain?, edited by myself. But perhaps because Andrew Neil was the most prominent anti-devolutionist, the notion took hold that the Scotsman had lost its enthusiasm for change. ‘An Edinburgh parliament,’ Neil thundered, ‘will be run by the outdated collectivist consensus that still dominates Scottish politics. It will want to spend, spend, spend. But instead of having to go to the Scottish people to raise the money, it will rattle the begging bowl loudly in London; and when Westminster refuses to stump up any more cash, the Nationalists will have a field day. Imagine the rumpus when a Scottish parliament has to preside over the closure of some school or hospital or bankrupt company because London was too mean to come up with the cash to save it. A system more designed to exacerbate tensions between London and Edinburgh would be hard to conceive.’

It was a strange and rather listless campaign, interrupted less than a fortnight before polling day by the death of Princess Diana in a Paris underpass. For a few frustrating and suffocating days, canvassing came to a halt. Tam Dalyell, ever the opportunist, was not alone in calling for the referendum to be postponed if not abandoned. Donald Dewar, described by one pundit as looking like ‘a dyspeptic heron’, treated that with the contempt it deserved. It would not be long before he received his ‘Father of the Nation’ certificate. Prompted by Peter Mandelson, Alex Salmond, realising that a sprinkling of stardust might not go amiss, called Sean Connery in to the fray and had him recite the Declaration of Arbroath for the cameras. Notwithstanding the hamming, it was curiously moving.

Inside the Scotsman, the runes were almost indecipherable. The editor, Martin Clarke, felt he knew which way the wind was blowing but deceived himself into believing that he had enough puff to alter its direction. ‘We,’ he said, ‘can still turn things round.’ Who the ‘we’ were he did not specify. On the day before the vote Clarke, Neil and I discussed what the leading article should say. Should it be Yes to a devolved parliament but No to one with tax-varying powers? Neil was initially inclined to that view but conceded eventually that it would look weaselly.

Thus, on 11 September, 1997, the Scotsman carried the following leader which I wrote: ‘No is a small and bitter word. It contains no optimism, implies no change. In this debate it has been a word used to refuse the future and all its manifold possibilities. We have preferred “Yes” from the beginning and prefer it still. Yes to the future: yes to risk; yes to renewal, yes to democracy, yes to pride, yes to Scotland. Yes twice, indeed, if that is what it takes to prove we understand what a real parliament must be late in this 20th century.

‘We arrive at this day because Scotland has endured down the centuries against all the odds and with its sense of itself, that kernel of nationhood, intact. Today we make a claim, as of right, to our own future. If we have lied to ourselves we will deserve no more of the world’s respect. Children and grandchildren to come will wonder what we thought, and why we failed. “The name of my native land,” wrote Robert Louis Stevenson once to a compatriot, “is not North Britain, whatever may be the name of yours”. It is a truth we must prove again.’

Does what a newspaper says pull any weight when individuals make their mark on polling day? No one truly knows. By then, as I have often been assured, those in favour of devolution had abandoned the Scotsman, scunnered by its constant carping at ‘the cause’. One erstwhile reader told me he had taken to calling it the Midge, in honour of our ineradicable pest. What is indisputable is that come the hour Scots voted overwhelming for the re-establishment of a parliament which had lain dormant for nigh on three hundred years. ‘This is about who we are, how we carry ourselves,’ said Donald Dewar at its opening on 1 July 1999, catching perfectly the mood of the moment. ‘There is a new voice in the land, the voice of the democratic Parliament.’ But even as he spoke he surely knew, as we knew, that we were not on the story’s last page. There would yet be a few twists and turns in the plot before the denouement could be revealed.

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