Euan McColm: SNP must stop crying into tea towels

Alex Salmond. Picture: Neil Hanna
Alex Salmond. Picture: Neil Hanna
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IT WAS a tea towel in name alone. Its workaday, wrung-out brothers were plain white or tight gingham, but this one told a story. It wasn’t for using. It was for reading – and shaping young minds.

Printed on the tea towel were the words to Tom Anderson Cairns’ poem Wha’s Like Us?. It was displayed in my Grandmother’s Lanarkshire kitchen as if it was a piece of art. I read it every day and absorbed its wisdom.

You’ll know the poem, perhaps – the tale of an Englishman so driven to despair by reminders of the brilliance of Scots inventors that he contemplates suicide. This being a family tea towel, he doesn’t do so, but only because he’s reminded that the “breech-loading rifle” was a Scots invention. It’s a horrible little poem. I’ve read it over and there’s no satire, no clever self-aware subtext, only chippiness.

It took me a while to realise that. There’s a reason they call them your formative years and a tea towel can have quite an impact if a child is exposed to it at just the right moment.

The verse fed into a broader mood I (first) experienced 30 and more years ago: that Scots were being hard done by. Whether it was newly elected Tories performing acts of oppression, many and varied, or broadcasters “saying England when they mean Britain”, there were all sorts of enemies. They didn’t take us seriously, they looked down on us, they were laughing at us. Thank goodness we had Wha’s Like Us?, eh?

But there comes a time when every man has to stop letting a tea towel shape his thoughts. There comes a time to lighten up, to stop feeling like a victim, to be confident enough not to need the reassurance of a tea towel. Or any other piece of linen.

I could see myself in my Gran’s kitchen, reading Cairns’ poorly disguised hymn to Scottish insecurity, as I witnessed outrage over a newspaper cartoon last week. Yes, in Scotland, in 2013, a newspaper cartoon is able to cause outrage.

Steve Bell had, in the Guardian, created a collision between words spoken by David Cameron in the Commons, and misheard by some to include an expletive, and the Electoral Commission’s decision to reject the SNP Government’s favoured independence referendum question.

Bell’s ballot paper read: “Do you agree that Scotland should go and [ ] itself? Yes/No.” A grotesque of Salmond’s head filled the space, but folk were quick to fill in the missing word. And then the outrage. Oh, the outrage.

Lawyer and commentator Aamer Anwar said it was “derogatory and offensive” and asked: “What if Scotland and Salmond was replaced with a Pakistani? Would the Guardian have had the guts to run it? I doubt it very much.”

I doubt they would either. For a start, the joke wouldn’t work. I’m not sure what Anwar’s point was. Any words can be made offensive by wilful manipulation, can’t they? If the Guardian had run a cartoon, with no news context, simply reading “should Pakistanis go and f*** themselves?” it would not have been satire. It would have been racism. There would have been a case for police involvement.

But the cartoon didn’t say this, and was instead, I think, a jab at Tory disdain for Scotland and Salmond’s Electoral Commission slap. The response to Bell’s ­cartoon – and you can find the furious in scores in the internet swamp if you dare Google this row – doesn’t bring a flush of optimism to those of us contemplating the possibility of Scottish independence. Not only was the cartoon “racist”, it was variously “a disgrace”, “an attack”, and “shameful”. Some, of course, identified it as part of a bigger anti-SNP media conspiracy. It was all a bit “did you spill my pint?”

How insecure this reaction seems. How personally so many were slighted by a joke about electoral procedures and how furiously, eye-poppingly angry they were willing to get about it all.

It didn’t matter what Bell’s cartoon was about, taken at face value it was an insult to Scots and to Salmond. And by extension it was an attack on those whose identities are tied up in their sense of nationality. This wasn’t a “civic nationalist” reaction, but a primitive, tribal response. The cartoon threatened to prick the ­Leader’s bubble, to ridicule his mission, and the foot soldiers went on the attack. That should be worrying for a pro-independence movement promising an open and fully democratic nation.

Those outraged by satirical swipes at – or, dare I say, critical commentary of – their political leaders can soon start to seem more like cultists than democrats. You hardly need me to remind you that satire is an essential – and sometimes even quite fun – part of a democracy. Those who lash out angrily against it don’t seem to grasp that

Would we really want to live in a country where satirists feared that their sharpest jabs would leave them open to censure? Worse, to prosecution? Of course we wouldn’t. That happens in other places where they don’t have freedom of speech. Surely to goodness we don’t have to ­remind ourselves of that?

Yes campaigners expressed anger that felt uncomfortably real, uncomfortably vicious, goaded by party officials raising weasel-worded questions about whether this cartoon might be offensive to all Scots, Nationalist and otherwise. No, no it’s not. And even if it was, thank democracy for this right to offend the political sensitivities and prick the pomposity of those in power.

The First Minister enjoys asking a modern “Wha’s like us?” and then answering with a description of a nation at ease with itself, a people of compassion and infinite wisdom. Hysterical reaction to a cartoon that dared do the job of a cartoon paints a different picture of some of Salmond’s most loyal supporters. Wha’s like us? ­Paranoid, angry men crying into their Grannies’ tea towels isn’t the answer the First Minister wants to hear, surely? «

Twitter: @euanmccolm