A bad man came to my office. *sniffle* He's a politician. We have different views on the burning constitutional issue of the day. He is a true believer, I have my doubts. He remonstrated with me, tried to persuade me that my fears are misplaced and my anxieties mistaken. He underscored the importance of our industry for the country - emphasised what he saw as the opportunities of independence as well as the risks - lobbied, canvassed my concerns, tried to answer my questions. I remained unpersuaded. I found myself gripped by new anxieties. The bad man's party remains in political office, and will do so until at least 2016. Their rule may go on and on for some time beyond that.
If I make my view public, wont I be biffing the ruling party's fundamental political aspirations squarely in the snotterbox? Oh dear. But once the present constitutional debate is passed, we might need the help and good will of the bad man and his fellow travellers to harry the chancellor on tax hikes for our business, or to press our case in parliament about the inefficiencies of the regulatory set up. Won't I have made an enemy and find my cries for help falling on deaf ears? If I had the chance, wouldn't I wreak vengeance against those who had spurned and embattled me? The bad man trundled out of my office, a threatening vision in heavy gauge tweed, his bright Yes badge cutting through me like a shard of ice. I sat in the darkness and thought about the great oppressive fastness of St Andrew's House. I trembled.
There is a ridiculous jury rigged story in today's papers, suggesting that business are coming under "direct pressure" from the Scottish Government to keep their gobs shut about independence. Unionist hacks have for months been pushing the - fantastical and disturbing - innuendo that the tyrannical Scottish Government, incipient totalitarians to a man, have been "silencing" critics and stoking a culture of fear and recrimination against those with doubts about independence. Today's reports have a carnival atmosphere. The Telegraph and the Express can barely contain their glee as they brandish what they clearly conceive of as the "smoking gun", substantiating their long-standing fantasies of victimhood.
Because business anxieties about the implications of "separation" is the one thing we never hear in this debate. Anyone promoting a pro-union message has to claw and tear their way into the media to be heard. The airwar is characterised by the brutal domination of independence-inclined messaging and news agendas. Thuggee separatist columnists have annexed comment pages, marginalising douce no-voting writers. The chief censor in Bute House ensured that the interventions of President Obama, and the voiceless J K Rowling, were muted and went unreported in the media. All reporting in this country is reduced to an echo-chamber of bland SNP press releases and proto-fascist imagery of wholesome, apple-cheeked children, shoogling saltires. Or. Um. Precisely not that.
Your nostrils can't help twitching at the scent of burning martyr diffusing through this. All of today's reports draw on comments made by Gavin Hewitt, a former chief executive of the Scotch Whisky Association, who told Channel 4 Despatches that "he or senior members of his staff had met Angus Robertson, the SNP’s Westminster leader and campaign director for the referendum, on at least six occasions over the past two years." Given the importance of the whisky industry for Scotland, and the extent to which its interests fall within reserved areas which concern the SNP Westminster leader, six meetings in twenty four months hardly seems extravagant. And what canny pro-independence politician would not try to persuade pivotal figures in pivotal national industries of their view?
You might as well argue that the activists out chapping doors are applying illegitimate "direct pressure" on voters to support their cause. Lobbying is not "intimidation" and it is a cheap spinner's trick to pretend otherwise. But what about the meat of the story - the allegation that Angus Robertson and the other SNP commercial travellers made "retribution threats" to businesses making negative comments about independence in public? What precisely were the contents of these "threats"? This is the critical question, but if today's coverage is anything to go by, the fretful businesses can't recall and do not allege any specific menaces they were subjected to. All they've got is anxiety, innuendo, and a hostile interpretation of entirely reasonable behaviour by Nationalist politicians. At its highest, the former head of the Scottish Whisky Association claims that:
“There was a genuine fear that in fact if we were seen to scupper, by coming out publicly against independence, there would be retribution down the track.”
So that's it? No specific threats, but just a sincerely held concern that you might imperil your business's future interests by irritating the SNP government of the day? Just as, for example, a company might worry about the implications of denting the UK government's political aspirations by coming out strongly against one of their policies? As smoking guns go, the unionist press must have hoped for something sootier. Do we endorse the principle of guilt by projection now? If I sincerely entertain a fear that you're going to pinch my car, however baselessly, are you somehow responsible for my bad nerves?
There is a world of difference between (1) the allegation that politicians have made specific threats of retribution to business down the line is you dissent from their views, and (2) general industry anxieties about the potential implications of pissing off the powers that be. The first would - rightly - be regarded as an outrageous exercise in political pressure, the latter is just good, cautious business sense. In their coverage, the Telegraph and others shamelessly conflate the one with the other, chopping up Hewitt's comments to smear the bad man of the piece - Angus Robertson - as the SNP's bullying factotum in chief.
On the basis of today's reports, there is no evidence whatever that Angus Robertson, or any of the SNP ministerial team fingered here, have made any "retribution threats" . And why would they? What media-savvy political operator, lobbying for their position with a potentially hostile industry, would resort to threats and menaces, knowing that all the corporate heid neep need do is pick up the phone to the Scotsman to tell the world? To suggest that this amounts to "implicit threats" is to convict the Scottish Government of being in office while holding a view some businesses disagree with. Elements of the No campaign seem disturbingly determined to see themselves as victims of oppression in this campaign. Today's hysterical story, and its manipulative reporting, shows just how far this ridiculous fantasy now extends.