Brian Wilson: No political satire please, we’re Scottish

The Economist's Skintland cover: One of many polemical views given on independence
The Economist's Skintland cover: One of many polemical views given on independence
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ALEX SALMOND’S indignation over the Economist’s front page highlights a serious national deficiency

Try as I might, I just cannot bring myself to feel insulted by the Outer Hebrides being dubbed “Outer Cash” (a little too close to the truth for comfort) or Grampian becoming “Grumpian” (ditto).

I know that this exposes me to the jeopardy of being branded unpatriotic, heaven forfend, since our First Minister has decreed that the front cover of the Economist, which carried a spoof map of Scotland, was “insulting to every single community north of the Border”.

He also issued a dark warning to the magazine, that it would “rue the day they thought they’d have a joke at Scotland’s expense”. The message is clear – including the words “joke” and “Scotland” in the same sentence carries risks. I’m getting nervous, and so should the Economist. Hit squads of Cybernats with green-ink sprays may be just around the corner.

So let me hastily add that I am capable of taking offence when Scottish communities are actually insulted, as opposed to being the subject of mildly amusing satire. For example, if I lived in Wishaw, I would not appreciate it being called a “cowp” and when Motherwell – after all its post-industrial travails – is dismissed as a “s***hole”, then I am capable of seeing claret and amber.

Sadly, these epithets were not coined by the “Bullingdon Set” who, according to Alex Salmond’s perfervid imagination, are responsible for insulting all Scotland as well as making the Economist one of the most trusted publications in the world. Rather, they reportedly came from a former SNP candidate.

This is the danger with bogus indignation. Was Salmond so “insulted” because there was a genuine source of offence? Or is it simply off-limits for anyone outside Scotland to call into question his own version of reality? How long before Scots who challenge his bluster on home territory are also threatened with “rueing the day”? Or maybe it is happening already.

The idea behind the Economist map was unoriginal; indeed, the more legitimate charge against it is creative laziness since, only 14 months previously, the magazine had adorned its front page with a map of the United States under the heading “State of the Union”, in which President Obama surveyed his economic problems in the same satiric format.

However, it seems unlikely that even the most thin-skinned provincial politician in “New Messico”, “Horrida” or “Wymoaning” felt moved to issue a fatwah against the publication, or indeed take the slightest notice beyond a chuckle. Only in Scotland is “every community” called upon to feel “insulted” when a political elite has its self-importance pricked.

It is understandable that Salmond wanted to divert attention from the content of the Economist report, which was far from sneering or one-sided but constituted an authoritative critique of the Nationalist economic case. One way of avoiding the inconvenience of addressing such questions is to attack the questioner. Fortunately, that does not make the questions go away or grow less valid as the debate develops.

In charitable mode, one can only hope that our First Minister is not really as pompous and vengeful as his “rue the day” response suggested. But his assumption that all Scotland will feel “insulted” by gentle mockery of his own political doctrine does suggest delusions of grandeur. Most of us have no wish to be spoken for in this petty way.

The whole episode highlights a wider and regrettable truth that Scottish politics suffers from a humour by-pass. This long-standing condition has allowed politicians of all persuasions to feed on their own self-importance and present themselves on their own terms. Only when they step outside the Scottish cocoon are they exposed to more sceptical terms of engagement.

We have never had a publication remotely akin to Private Eye, or Phoenix in Ireland or Le Canard Enchaine in France. And it’s more than 50 years since That Was the Week That Was introduced satire and pomposity-pricking to television coverage of Britain’s political life, marking an end to the age of deference. Since then, we have had everything from Spitting Image to Have I Got News For You?, in which pretty much anything goes. Just ask Gordon Brown or Charlie Kennedy.

In all of that time – and please correct me if I am wrong – the Scottish broadcasters have not produced a single programme, far less a memorable must-watch institution, which deployed the same weapons of humour, satire and ridicule in order to stop politicians getting above themselves. The result is a Scottish political class which neither expects to be laughed at nor has a clue about how to handle it.

That is a serious deficiency which transcends party lines. The key to successful satire is that it is even-handed – in other words, nobody is immune. In Scotland, it is the sense of entitlement to immunity which breeds such indignant over-reaction when the taboo is breached.

I was listening to The News Quiz on Radio Four last week and noticed a brutal throw-away line about Nick Clegg and his principles. I laughed at it – but with the Economist fulminations fresh in mind, it also occurred to me that there is no such programme in Scotland and therefore no risk to our domestic politicians of any such exposure to lese-majesty. Why should they be so protected? It is surely not due to a shortage of material.

Neither does Scotland lack excellent writers, most of whom go elsewhere to ply their trade. Take the case of Armando Iannucci, a Glaswegian who started his career with BBC Scotland in the early 1990s before heading south. His spin-doctor send-up, The Thick of It, is a classic of the political satire genre with Scots in leading roles. What chance would there be of free rein to do the same with Holyrood before the outrage and indignation gene kicked in? Precisely none.

We have plenty of funny people, some of whom can be heard on the “London-based” – whisper it – comedy shows. So why not a programme, made in Scotland for broadcast in Scotland, every week from now to referendum day in which the remit is: “Take no prisoners. Politicians are fair game”? The thin skins would soon be exposed along with the vanities and deceits. It is not certainly not the absence of a potential audience that stops it happening.

The only encouraging aspect of the Economist spat was that so many thinking Scots distanced themselves from Salmond’s purported outrage. How ridiculous that a First Minister can take time out to broadcast to the nation about a magazine cover! How pathetic that we are told to feel “insulted” because a divisive political orthodoxy has been challenged with humour. Let’s insist on growing up and having a laugh at the same time.