Holyrood and the Search for Scotland’s Soul
BBC One Scotland, Sunday 10.20-11.20pm
Reviewed in The Scotsman, June 30th 2009
‘Holyrood and the Search for Scotland’s Soul’ was a BBC Scotland special to mark ten years of Scottish devolution and attempt to understand what happened, what it means and reflect on who the Scots are.
It certainly had an A-list cast supporting Brian Taylor including Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Alex Salmond, and a chorus line of Henry McLeish, Jack McConnell, Wendy Alexander, George Reid, Michael Forsyth and many more.
The opening scenes had Brian Taylor declare ‘Scotland, ancient, modern, a nation’ and that ‘its about history, geography, a choice as to how we are governed’.
This was an enjoyable programme. It gave you a sense of the ten years just lived. And it gave you a sense that we had lived through and created a bit of history. It invited you to feel part of this and connected, and mostly succeeded.
It danced along aided by Brian’s jovial style as he crossed first Scotland, then the globe. The punters of Stirling town centre were confronted by a Brian with his table, tartan, Tunnocks teacakes and shorties, and asked whether they felt Scottish, which they all replied to in the affirmative.
It offered a big picture which allowed for reflection on deeper questions. On how Scotland and the UK have changed in the decade past. On how things have happened we once thought would never happen. And on how Tony Blair and Alex Salmond have star quality and Gordon Brown does not.
Blair was fascinating, ‘an instinctual Unionist’ as he put it, who dared to call the Scottish political class to account by announcing a devolution referendum. He talked away with that earnest friendliness and zip he has which sometimes gives the impression that he is mentally deranged. He certainly looked like a man oblivious to the disasters he has taken the UK into in war, its politics and economy, and bequeathed to his successor.
Salmond was even more a potent figure, given he is talking about events while at the height of his powers. He showed a degree of insight and maturity talking about the painful experience of how the SNP was treated by the media in the 1999 elections, and then the demoralisation of the Holyrood Building project, commenting that he left in 2000 for Westminster thinking ‘maybe the problem is me’.
In a revealing section, he looked back over the last decade observing that ‘sometimes it is difficult to stop and say how far we have travelled’. Many things we thought impossible or absurd: the Scottish Parliament, the SNP in office, Labour losing its first election in 50 years, have happened. Some still think of an independent Scotland that it is ‘absurd or unlikely’, but I think it ‘inevitable’ he intoned.
The contrast between the two main Westminster leaders did not make for comfortable viewing. David Cameron sat gleaming, the young Blair-lite successor awaiting the call from ‘the hand of history’. He said the Conservatives had got it wrong not understanding Scotland in the 1980s, but apart from his comments on Trident, where he asserted the right of the UK Government to stick its nukes where it liked and bugger the Scottish Parliament, he said little. However, he did say all of it, while gleaming in that Blair aura way and making it sound very statesmanlike and substantive.
On the other hand there was Gordon Brown droning on, living proof that it is not what you say that matters, but how you say it. Towards the end of the programme he lumbered towards one of his favourite mantras, ‘interdependent world; isolationism no real merit’, and it all sounded from another age and planet. Planet Brown orbiting in some distant galaxy.
Other stars supported the main cast. George Reid put the last decade in ‘a much older story’ of the Wars of Independence, the Union preserving Scottish autonomy, and more recently, the economic decline of the 1960s and the democratic deficit, as leading us to the present day.
Winnie Ewing popped up looking back at her moment in the sun when the Parliament was opened and then observed ‘We are not free’, oblivious that this sounds slightly nutty to most people, who feel as free and unfree as you can in the modern world.
Alongside all this some parts worked less well. I was a little unsure of Brian Taylor’s combination of entertainment and vaudeville with serious analysis. His costume drama, of wearing a kilt, Morris dancing and Texan Stetson, was overdone. The Norwegian journey to a nearby independent nation had some revelations, and in particular, a journalist, Marie Simonsen, who had worked in Scotland, and thought both had ‘chips on their shoulder and inferiority complexes’.
The Texan jaunt, supposedly to show you can maintain your identity in a bigger union did not work. Texas joined a then fledgling, flexible union and remains part of what is a federal republic: the latter point untouched upon in the whole film.
This programme had a wealth of material, and could have done with being longer, and having time for more consideration and a more diverse range of voices.
It posed interesting questions and challenges for all of us. Despite a decade of Scottish devolution, the role of Scotland’s media has failed to rise to the challenge of our new political environment. This really matters as the media are one of the main institutions in how a nation understands and reflects what it is and wants to be, and aid how we have a conversation with ourselves.
Twenty years ago BBC Scotland and STV made serious programmes about Scotland. George Rosie made the seminal ‘Scotching the Myth’ and ‘The Englishing of Scotland’ at the high point of Thatcherism, while Tom Nairn worked for STV.
‘Holyrood and the Search for Scotland’s Soul’ showed us the glimpse of what part of a serious conversation would look like. This is something we all need to be part of, and that will require different decisions and priorities in the media, government and elsewhere.