Brian Wilson: Politicians should grin and bear it

Scotland is unique as a society in which any attempt to satirise politics is met with vitriolic hostility, writes Brian Wilson

All smiles now, but comedian Susan Calman was targeted after making fun of Scottish politics. Picture: Ian Georgeson

There is so much to satirise in Scottish politics at present that what we need are a few good comedians. But, you might reasonably point out, we have lots of good comedians. So why aren’t they mining this rich seam?

Maybe some would like to, but where are the outlets? Certainly not in Scottish broadcasting which, when it comes to the serious matter of ridicule, treats politicians entirely in accordance with their own self-importance, which is considerable. Play safe and have a laugh about football – but politics and humour don’t mix. And that’s official.

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

It’s a year since I drew attention to this laughter deficit following a pompous outburst by Alex Salmond in response to a mild lampoon on the cover of the Economist magazine. With the sense of proportion to which we have become accustomed, he declared it “insulting to every single community North of the Border”.

As far as I am aware, his fulminations did not lead to street protests against the Economist or mass cancellation of subscriptions, which would be difficult. Every single community in Scotland, except possibly the Holyrood one, had better things to worry about than a map which showed Grampian as Grumpian and the Outer Hebrides as Outer Cash.

But neither was there any response to my hopelessly over-optimistic plea for thin-skinned posturers of all persuasions to be given a harder time. I suggested a programme, similar to Radio Four’s News Quiz, “made in Scotland, for broadcasting in Scotland, every week from now to referendum day, in which the edict is: “Take No Prisoners”.” I might as well have asked for Robbie Shepherd to be taken off the air.

Elsewhere in the UK, politicians expect to be laughed at. It has come with the territory for 50 years since That Was the Week That Was broke the taboo. Currently, no programme maintains that tradition more honourably than the aforementioned News Quiz. It is based loosely on the big news stories of the week, allows five witty people to kick them around and spares no politician. In other words, it couldn’t happen in Scotland.

Last week’s edition devoted ten minutes to the Scottish currency debate and Susan Calman was deployed to explain. She was funny, engaged in some more general Scottish banter, declined to say whether she was for or against independence – her reluctance to express an opinion became the running gag – and then they moved on to having a kick at George Osborne, Ed Milliband et al.

The idea of anyone taking offence at this is almost beyond belief – anywhere but in Scotland. And that is the reason why Susan Calman’s subsequent blog on the subject deserves the widest possible audience of thinking people in Scotland. For she explains how she was inundated with the kind of abuse which has become the norm for anyone who offends the sensibilities of a certain constituency, and a deeply unpleasant one.

“Nothing, and I mean nothing,” she wrote, “has ever created such a shit storm of aggression than when I’ve talked about Scottish politics.” Ms Calman relates how she was “accused of betraying my country” and of “being racist towards my own people”. She was told of on-line obscenities against her and an “abusive blog” – all because of ten minutes on Radio Four, when she wouldn’t even say how she would vote because, as she explains, she wants to be able to satirise both sides.

What kind of madhouse do we live in when this both happens and is tolerated because so many people shrug and say: “That’s what anyone who puts their head above the parapet in Scotland can expect”? That is, I would suggest, no longer good enough as a response.

Susan Calman writes: “I feel slightly alone just now in speaking out about the negativity that is coming my way. The personal nature of some of the abuse isn’t pleasant. But I suppose it means I’m doing something right”. Indeed it does – but the real question is whether she is indeed “alone” in taking a stand for the right of every distinctive voice to be heard, without being bullied into silence.

There was a similar episode in a different context recently which led another non-politician to write about the bile he was subjected to for treading on the sensitive toes of Scotland’s extensive green ink brigade. Hugh Andrew, the driving force behind Birlinn, who have done so much to enhance the range of Scottish publishing without political fear or favour, found himself in the same firing line.

His offence was to publish a book called Fascist Scotland, a serious piece of academic research into the history of that movement in Scotland by Gavin Bowd. I guess there has been a similar study in every western European society since the harsh fact is that there were collaborators everywhere who would have been ready and willing to emerge from the wings if the cookie had crumbled differently. The idea that there were no such people in Scotland is absurd.

As Hugh wrote: “Perhaps we might have got away with it if he (Bowd) had not committed the cardinal sin of pointing out that there were fascist sympathisers within the nationalist movement of the time… in today’s Scotland, one might as well stand back and light the fuse”. Once again, the response was torrents of abuse, the vast majority of it anonymous, some of it menacing.

The spotlight then switched to Lynn Abrams, a first-rate historian and academic, whose crime was to suggest that the Enlightenment tamed “The Wild Men of the Highlands”. Hugh Andrew wrote: “She was accused of being English; she was once again seen as a unionist stalking-horse. By this time, having trawled my way through blogs, strange nationalist web-sites, twitter etc, I began to feel I was living in some strange Kafkaesque nightmare.”

Does any of this make any difference to the mainstream of Scottish debate? I increasingly fear that it does.

Politicians may be expected to have thick skins but academics, publishers, comedians, business people even journalists are not paid to be subjected to the kind of abuse which is now absolutely guaranteed in response to anything that can be interpreted, however wildly, as being “anti-Scottish” according to a certain orthodoxy. So maybe they just keep their heads below the parapet.

It is a pernicious phenomenon that cannot be addressed unless it is discussed. Where better to discuss it than in the Scottish Parliament so that, presumably, all could unite around the principle that anonymous abuse and intimidation have no part to play in the democratic process. In the meantime, Susan Calman asserts: “I will keep talking about Scottish politics. I’ll keep laughing about Scottish politics”. I hope that she does. The last laugh should be for freedom of speech.