Brian Wilson: Scots tradition of dissent in peril

People in Scotland must be able to speak freely in the coming months without fear of retribution, writes Brian Wilson

Prof Chris Whatley's participation in the Better Together campaign was questioned by the SNP. Picture: Andrew O'Brien
Prof Chris Whatley's participation in the Better Together campaign was questioned by the SNP. Picture: Andrew O'Brien

THE Chris Whatley affair is, at one level, just another spat along the long road to the referendum. At another, it tells us a great deal that is disturbing about how public life in Scotland is now being orchestrated.

The full e-mail sent by Shona Robison MSP to the principal of Dundee University, expressing “dismay” over Professor Whatley’s participation in the city’s Better Together launch, makes unpleasant reading. It leaves little doubt about the intentions of its author – to silence the individual and put the frighteners on his employers.

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This reflects a familiar and distasteful pattern in Nationalist behaviour. Rather than an honest expression of disagreement with the recalcitrant individual who might be considered beyond redemption, the approach is to employers deemed more likely to recognise which side their bannocks are buttered on.

Ostensibly, Ms Robison’s concern was that Prof Whatley leads a project called Five Million Questions which seeks to apply academic rigour to issues relevant to the constitutional debate. She claimed that his appearance at the Better Together event “was clearly going to raise questions about his impartiality and therefore the impartiality of the organisation he represents”.

The emphasis on the last phrase is mine, for it is truly sinister. The “organisation that he represents” – ie Dundee University – was having “questions about (its) impartiality” raised by a Scottish Government minister due to the presence of one of its academics, in his personal capacity, on a pro-Union platform. On that basis, she sought “a call to discuss this further” with the university’s principal.

Indeed, the matter was so urgent, she advised Principal Downes, that it could not await his return from university business. Prof Whatley’s “involvement in the Better Together campaign has the potential to damage the reputation of Five Million Questions and” – take note of this phrase – “leaves serious concerns about its governance”.

This missive was written on 5 November. By this week, Ms Robison had undergone a remarkable intellectual metamorphis. No longer were there were “questions about his impartiality” or that of his employers which demanded urgent responses from the highest level. Ms Robison had instead decided that governance of the project was beyond reproach.

Indeed, she was “very happy to endorse the First Minister’s support for Prof Whatley’s chairmanship of the Five Million Questions project and his right to participate in the launch of Better Together in Dundee”. Well, hallelujah. But what had happened in the intervening 13 days to produce such a Damascene conversion on the part of Ms Shona Robison, MSP and minister for sport?

One would like to imagine that, during her visit to Sri Lanka in connection with the Commonwealth heads of government conference, it had dawned on her that trying to silence dissident academics is the stuff of tin-pot dictatorships rather than mature, self-confident democracies with a tradition (as Scotland has) of free and dissenting expression. But I fear the answer was more prosaic.

Quite simply, they had been caught red-handed and the Nationalist high command decided that it was time for a strategic retreat in the face of damaging headlines, academic indignation and a direct challenge from the principal of St Andrews University. Their fall-back position had been signaled in Ms Robison’s absence at First Minister’s Questions.

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“I absolutely endorse Prof Whatley’s objective and neutral chairing of the Five Million Questions campaign,” effused Mr Salmond. Furthermore, the historian was “absolutely entitled” to participate in the Better Together campaign “and I encourage him to do so”. Such magnanimity was indeed a far cry from the “dismay” evinced by Ms Robison’s e-mail nine days earlier.

But then we come to the interesting question – was it really Ms Robison’s e-mail? As the First Minister intoned: “The words ‘intimidation’ and ‘Shona Robison’ do not sit easily together.” On this point at least, it is tempting to agree with him. I know little of Ms Robison but she does not seem like a person who, on her own initiative, would fire off the tawdry text that has now emerged.

The truth is that this episode was part of a much wider pattern; the rarity being that it became public. It is the worst-kept secret in Scotland that anyone who puts their head above the parapet to disagree with the Nationalists can expect some variation of the same treatment. Universities and colleges are prime targets because of their dependence on Scottish Government funding but are by no means alone.

Scotland is a small country with an exceptionally high public sector dependency. There are very few areas of commercial, civic or academic life which the Scottish Government and its myriad quangos do not extend into with purse-strings to match. All the time, control over these organisations – through appointments and organisational restructuring – are being pulled towards the centre, under direct political control.

No matter who was in power, it would be a worrying trend. But when it happens under a political party which has a bad habit of identifying itself with the nation itself, as if this vested some higher authority, then the warning lights should be flashing. People in all walks of Scottish life must be able to speak their minds and express their interests freely in the months ahead, without fear of retribution. That is not currently the case.

Chris Whatley was a particular bête noir of the Nationalists long before this latest, blundering challenge to his academic integrity. In his book, Scotland and The Union, published in 2006, he dismantled one of the precious myths on which Nationalism depends – that Scotland was “bought and sold for English gold” (while pointing out along the way that Burns wrote these words in an entirely different context from the Treaty of Union).

I doubt if we can look forward to Chris Whatley’s scholarship being imparted any time soon to the children in Scotland’s schools. But history is important to the current debate. We are fed a narrative which casts Scotland as a victim rather than a participant; the Union as a misery-engendering failure rather than the context within which more than 300 years of progress has been struggled for and, generally, won.

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One of the great successes of the United Kingdom has been to establish and defend the freedom of expression on which democracy depends. The Scottish Government’s eager enforcers of assent through silence should relax. The more messengers they succeed in shooting, the greater the certainty of the message ultimately getting through.