It isn't often that I am surprised by anything in the Guardian. It exists to confirm the opinions of its readers, not to challenge them. The predictable nature of the content probably explains why its circulation continues to fall like a stone – recently down to a dismal 154,000. Easier to read it online, which is what most now do, especially as the philanthropists who own the paper haven't yet erected a paywall.
I was surprised, then, to be surprised by something in the Guardian the other day. It was a piece by my old friend, Ian Jack, informing us that he is thinking of returning to Scotland to live and is looking at Glasgow or the Tweed valley. He is an exceptionally fine writer. But I do worry about his reasons for wanting to come back.
One paragraph in particular concerned me:
The Scottish press is generally kinder and less savagely partisan than the English press: the Scottish Sun's front page on election day carried the headline 'Nic Can Do It' above a picture of Nicola Sturgeon; the London edition mocked up an image of Jeremy Corbyn in a dustbin (Cor-Bin, you see) and labelled him a Marxist extremist, a puppet of the unions and the terrorists' friend. In a word, Scotland seems the gentler place.
As Ian knows, the Sun has long been a split personality. North of the border, since January 1992 when it sensationally declared its overnight conversion from Thatcherism to Scottish nationalism, it has presented itself as Dr Jekyll. As the SNP's press officer, Chris McLean, said at the time: 'It makes obvious commercial sense.' South of the border, it is Dr Jekyll's alter-ego, Mr Hyde, who runs the show, a sadist who puts socialists out with the rubbish. That too makes obvious commercial sense. But let us not delude ourselves: both are motivated only by ruthless calculation and self-interest. There is nothing gentle about it.
I'd like to imagine that, in general, we do indeed have a kinder, less savagely partisan press. But then I recall the many days when anti-SNP bile spews across the front page of the Scottish Daily Mail, and others when the SNP's propaganda sheet, the National, viciously caricatures opponents. Unless I'm missing something, there is nothing very gentle about any of that; nor about the Daily Record's plastering of a photograph of an alleged paedophile across its front page without a shred of evidence to support its use; nor about the BBC's disgraceful decision to give wider circulation to the photograph. (And so on...and on.)
As with the press, so with society as a whole: the idea of Scottish exceptionalism is an illusion. When I wrote years ago that what we needed was a gentle and civilised nationalism, Alex Salmond replied that that was exactly what we had. We didn't have it then. We don't have it now. Still, I hope to see Ian Jack back in Scotland. We could do with such civilising influences.
Not for the first time, I'm compelled to ask: what exactly is the point of political journalists? As reporters they are hopeless. None of them got a whiff that Theresa May was about to call an election. The announcement shocked the Westminster army of correspondents as much as it did everybody else. But the frantic re-grouping didn't take long. Within hours of comprehensively failing to anticipate the political story of the year, they were explaining how an election was always inevitable. So inevitable that none of them saw it coming.
When it comes to punditry, which they prefer because it doesn't involve any excavation of facts, they are equally dire. I have lost count of the number of columns in the last few days offering sincere apologies to Jeremy Corbyn for under-rating him or writing him off. It has been a particular pleasure to witness the Observer's Andrew Rawnsley forcing down his throat a therapeutic slice of humble pie without it actually choking him to death. But apologies don't really cut it. We are entitled to know why all of them so grotesquely misread the popular appeal of the Labour leader. Presumably they are paid to be perceptive, if not wise.
I have a theory. It might be as good as any. Even more than politicians, who are obliged to meet the great unwashed at their weekly surgeries, political correspondents are insulated from the world. They exist in a hothouse of rumour and salacious gossip. The only people they talk to – apart from their nearest and dearest, and one cannot even be sure of that – are each other. They are as remote from the feelings of their readers as any Amazonian tribe. They watch Corbyn with crowds of young people, yet fail to spot the significance. Too late do they arrive at the realisation, obvious to the most casual onlooker, that Jezza is connecting.
In Scotland, we have had a particular problem with the lazy acceptance of the SNP and the assumption that its hegemony would continue unchallenged. It seems no time at all – it is no time at all – since the Herald's Macwhirter was so sunk in complacency that he publicly suggested that it was no longer necessary for the SNP to make a case for independence; a simple declaration of a few hundred words would be sufficient. Yet Macwhirter maintains his position as the paper's resident sage. Just as well that sages are not required to submit themselves for re-election.
It was the late Ian Bell who, on the occasion of a previous unanticipated setback for the nationalist cause, remarked that he and his mates in the column-writing fraternity didn't get out enough. The message of June 2017 is that nothing has changed.
Michael Gove, the sort of Scot who gives the race a bad name, is routinely credited with the saying: 'People have had enough of experts.' (Nick Cohen repeats it in a Spectator piece only this morning.) This is an interesting example of how quotes enter the language incomplete or out of context.
In a television interview during the EU referendum campaign, Faisal Islam challenged Gove over his statement that Britain would be 'freer, fairer and better off' if it left the EU and suggested that there was no expert opinion to support Gove's claim. Gove replied that 'the people of this country have had enough of experts from organisations with acronyms saying they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong'.
Not, then, a general condemnation of all experts. There is an important exemption for experts who don't work for organisations with acronyms and, by implication, for experts who get it consistently right; in other words, experts like Michael Gove. But I doubt that this qualification will be taken into account when the quote, 'People have had enough of experts', is credited to Gove. He is landed with it for posterity.
But at least Gove said something of the kind. The most famous political quote of all time – we heard it every five minutes in the aftermath of the election – is commonly attributed to Harold Wilson. Yet, when Wilson was asked to confirm his authorship of the saying, 'A week is a long time in politics', he replied frankly that he couldn't remember uttering it; and no one has ever been able to prove that he did.