16 November 2013

A Stooge Writes

I'm a sort of academic. I'm completing a doctorate, teach public law in a couple of universities, and with any luck will be able to continue doing so in the future.

A year or so ago, I had the good fortune to be invited to appear on BBC Newsnicht to speak to the legality of Holyrood's independence referendum. This was in the heady days before the section 30 order had been agreed and passed by Westminster. In public, the SNP was holding unflinchingly to its line that there was no question that calling a referendum was within Holyrood's legal powers, will or nil the UK government.  

South of the Border, the London government took the diametrically opposed line: the independence referendum was clearly ultra vires and could expect to be struck down in court.  Not to be outdone, the Labour MP Ian Davidson and his colleagues on the Scottish Affairs Committee composed their own report to the same effect. Unless Westminster gave the nod, he argued, the referendum couldn't happen.

As long-term readers of the blog will recall, along with others, I dissented from both extremes. The independence referendum was neither clearly within or clearly outwith Holyrood's powers under the Scotland Act. It was, I suggested, arguable either way and it was difficult to predict what the courts might do if it popped up on their docket.  In their blithe confidence about the outcome, both the Scottish Government and the Scottish Affairs Committee were being disingenuous, doubtless for political reasons.  In public at least, both embraced the legal reading of the case most congenial to their own constitutional preferences.

On the night, Ian Davidson made waves with his brash handling of Isabel Fraser. The next day, I found myself in the headlines "after it emerged an apparently neutral constitutional lawyer interviewed by the programme was an SNP blogger", to quote Magnus Gardham's article in the Herald. Ian Davidson and Alan Cochrane more or less explicitly suggested that I lacked any academic integrity, and had been acting as a Nationalist stooge, taking the leadership line on the referendum's legality, and in cahoots with a partisan BBC Scotland, tried to hoodwink the Scottish people. Or at least that small segment of the Scottish people who watch Newsnicht.  

Neither of these weighty sages paused for a moment to consider whether what I had actually said mirrored the SNP line-to-take on the legality of the referendum.  If they had done so, they'd have quickly discovered that it wasn't. If I was put up to play the stooge, I played the role but poorly.  But a Nationalist stooge served their purposes, so they measured me up for the costume and the pointy hat. 

At the time, I thought all this was rather droll, and par for the course given the pepperiness of the constitutional debate, but I suppose I ought to have been angrier about the gratuitous way the  politician and journalist felt free to slate my intellectual credibility, by cynically conflating political sensibilities with the outright lack of independence of mind or honesty of character.  

It is with these experiences in mind, that I approach the latest referendum hoo-ha, around Shona Robison's reported questioning of whether Professor Chris Whatley chairing of a Better Together meeting in Dundee was compatible with his role chairing the University's Five Million Questions project, whose platform notes that:  

"...in what is an impassioned and partisan debate the objective neutrality of academia is ideally placed as a forum for illuminating discussion."

Better Together have, predictably, blown a gasket, throwing around super-heated allegations of gagging, and peddling ludicrous victim-fantasies of an oppressive Nationalist state. I'd take this humbug rather more seriously, if there was the slightest chance of the No campaign keeping its peace, had Professor Whatley been detected chairing a pro-independence meeting instead.

But you can bet your bottom groat that such an affiliation would have seen the Professor flayed across a guncarriage, as Cochers gleefully recounted "grave concerns about the fair-mindedness and balance" of Dundee's Five Million Questions referendum project. Perhaps with a little soupçon of SNP totalitarianism and political fixing, for larks. To my considerable amusement, the People's Black-Hearted Unionist now keenly feels the need to uphold the integrity of those in the academic field against their political detractors.  

"Threatening the integrity of academics, especially over their right to freedom of speech, is not the way of civilised societies. Those charged with the responsibility of educating a nation’s future should have the untrammelled entitlement to say what they like when they like and about whatever subject they choose."

We have a right to expect honesty and rigorous treatment of the evidence from our academics, whatever their discipline, but we have no right and no reason to expect them to be without political and constitutional convictions. The "neutral academic" Davidson and Cochrane demanded a year ago, and used to duff me up, is an unhealthy fantasy. Certainly, not every academic will be a party political partisan.  I expect most wont be.  But each of us carries our political and theoretical freight.  

I have no idea how Professor John Curtice intends to vote in 2014, but I do know that he approaches political analysis in psephological terms, seeing politics primarily through the medium of opinion polling. Some - many of us - do not share this theoretical lens. An economist will be disposed to analyse constitutional politics in economic terms, a sociologist or a lawyer could be expected to take a different tack, appealing to radically different views and understandings of the world.  

We needn't resort to the crude ad hominem language of political bias or stoogery to make the case that academic contributions to the constitutional debate should be welcomed, but should also be treated gingerly, assessed on their merits, their assumptions probed.  We aren't a priest-caste, bestowing knowledge from on high on a credulous people. We're in with the bricks of the political and constitutional and social debate like everyone else.  


  1. But you looked so GOOD on TV!

    Also, what about Elliott Bulmer? Wrote an article published in the Herald which the Herald refused to pay him for. The Herald knew Yes Scotland had asked him to write it but didn't make that clear. When it emerged that Yes Scotland had covered his fee, he was monstered even more viciously than you were.

    The implication there was that Elliott was for sale, and could be bought for £150. That a supposedly "neutral academic" had been nobbled. The fact that Elliott Bulmer has been a card-carrying member of the SNP for years seemed to be neither here nor there.

    Apparently an academic who identifies with the No side must be allowed full academic freedom to take any role he chooses and must be assumed to be neutral, but one who identifies with the Yes side is a shill and must be excluded from the debate.

    Oh yes, and the real scandal was that Yes Scotland's email account had been hacked, but instead of reporting that all the press went mad with "nationalist academic expresses opinion in pubic" shock horror.

    1. And it's not just academics - remember Willie Rennie questioning the appointment of Martin Compston as a Glasgow 2014 ambassador because of his support for independence, yet nary a murmur over Billy Connolly having a similar role, despite him being the only Scottish comedian known not to support independence (until Susan Calman came to the fore, of course...) And what about Martin Sime being chastised by that self-same Liberal Democrat for having the temerity to not be openly hostile to the Scottish Government?

      The idea that unionists are being silenced is nothing short of preposterous. It's that old tactic of accusing your opponents of that which you are guilty - something Better Together seem to do an awful lot of...

    2. Thanks Rolfe,

      As you say, ridiculous of me to overlook Elliot in this context. Monstered much, much more vigorously, poor chap.

    3. As you say, Doug, this kind of nonsense isn't limited to pointy-heids in the academy. (And I'd encourage folk on the Yes side not to embrace the logic of the witch hunt either.)

  2. 'But each of us carries our political and theoretical freight.'

    Well played LPW!

    The problem of how to conduct our civil debate was pondered by Adam Ferguson a couple of hundred years ago -

    'Our attachment to one division, or to one sect, seems often to derive much of its force from an animosity conceived to an opposite one: and this animosity in its turn, as often arises from a zeal in behalf of the side we espouse, and from a desire to vindicate the rights of our party.'

    I found that quote just the other week in a TLS review of Iain McDaniel's book on Ferguson. The thing is that even if one is actually giving what one sees as one's authentic balanced opinion, in the fevered atmosphere of the indy debate, commentators are rarely seen as impartial, and there is no agreed objectivity - only partial comments from prejudiced players. Unless you agree with the comment, and then of course it is objective truth.

    What makes your good self and the Burd and some others stand out is that one can read and be engaged with an argument rooted in reality, rather than what Sir Tom Hunter rightly calls a 'playground fight' which is of little interest to most Scots.

    1. Thanks Edwin. In Ferguson's day, I'm sure that Dundas would have stamped out any suggestion of a political debate on secession (had such an argument raised its bewigged head). Once Braxfield was finished with him, Alex Salmond would be joining Thomas Muir, on the boat to Botany Bay...

  3. I am pro Independence and becoming more and more involved/invested in securing a YES. My partner is YES but not involved/invested in achieving this result. This issue has a spectrum of conviction on which the decision to vote, either way, is balanced. What the issue needs is balance in the material spewing forth from which people can base their decision. My hope is that people will see through the MSM bias, the fear and un-truths told and be able to vote with a clear direction in their mind (Yes or No). If this vote is stolen because of a media bias, that must surely rank as the most appalling abuse of democracy in the history of our time and in that case; we can give no more, we will fail.