By Alastair Cameron, Scotland in Union Director.
Last week, a student newspaper at St Andrews, ‘The Saint’, published a satirical piece about the state of Scottish nationalism. Having read the article, I can see that it’s clearly designed to be humorous. While it’s deliberately provocative in places, it’s no more so than many other pieces which appear in various media on a regular basis.
Those familiar with the ‘cybernats’, and with Scottish nationalism in general, can probably guess what happened next: yes, an attempted pile-on by trolls and abusers. So far, so depressingly Scottish-nationalism-today. Awful, but sadly commonplace. What was more remarkable was that Tricia Marwick, a senior figure in the SNP and a former Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament, waded into the issue.
Ms Marwick labelled the students 'pathetic wee trolls' (yes, irony is lost on nationalists) and described undergraduates at Scotland’s oldest university as 'poor souls who failed to get into Oxbridge’. St Andrews may well be a second choice for many who don’t get into Oxford or Cambridge, but bashing a Scottish institution in this way can hardly be called a good look.
To have a doyenne of the SNP joining in the pile-on in response to the article was remarkable, and unedifying. The SNP leadership made no move to distance themselves from this attack and to stand up for free speech, which is a further shame in this case. I also suspect Ms Marwick missed the 2022 Times/ Sunday Times rankings, which placed St Andrews at the top of their respected UK league table, with Oxford in second and Cambridge coming third. Perhaps celebrating this achievement, rather than making derogatory remarks, would be a better way to be ‘Stronger for Scotland’.
Time for some disclosure: I spent four years at St Andrews, leaving with a degree in Modern History, some fantastic memories, many friends for life and an affection for a special place to which I have frequently returned. The university was highly international then, and is even more so now, an environment which helped to break down barriers and to challenge prejudices. No wonder the nationalists don’t like it. I should probably also note my failure to get into Oxbridge – guilty as charged, Ms Marwick, along with many thousands of others who attended, or attend, other great universities across the world.
I suspect the SNP harbour some grudges about St Andrews. Vice-Chancellor Louise Richardson, the Principal during the 2014 independence referendum campaign, refused to bow to pressure from (St Andrews graduate) Alex Salmond to tone down her warnings about the consequences of Scotland leaving the UK. Later, the university refused a request from the former First Minister to host the famous ‘Eck Stone’ with its inscription about tuition fees.
Ms Richardson has gone on to be the first female Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University, and to standing up to bigger bullies; the Salmond stone went to Heriot-Watt, but has since been quietly removed. Perhaps Ms Marwick, previously described as ‘a Salmond loyalist’, saw this episode as an opportunity to settle some scores in some way – though attacking a student newspaper seems a rather disproportionate way to do this.
Of course, anyone active in Scottish politics is well aware of the nationalists’ determination to be permanently outraged, and to fail to see the funny side of anything which might be construed as poking fun at SNP politicians. To put it bluntly: they like to dish it out, but they can’t take it.
Anyone who criticises the SNP is called anti-Scottish, or worse, and particularly if they are not what the nationalists think are pure Scots. In this regard, Ms Marwick has form as well, having implied that journalist Fraser Nelson was not properly Scottish. Picking on a student newspaper for their satire, rather than on others such as Private Eye, who might have given a very prompt and robust response, is typical bullying behaviour. The editors of ‘The Saint’ are right to resist it by retracting their previous rushed apology. We should support them in this stance.
On a more positive note: those of us who want to Scotland to remain part of the United Kingdom (including the majority of Scots, poll after poll shows) can take some comfort from this story. The very fact that this was front page news for the nationalist’s favourite publication, ‘The National’, shines a light on the state of the nationalist movement. If the separatists really thought they were on the verge of a new dawn, at the cusp of tearing Scotland out of the UK and standing ready to create a new state, would they be devoting so much time and effort to attacking an article in a student newspaper?
I believe it is precisely because their hopes of ‘indyref2’ are receding ever further into the distance that the nationalists are venting their frustration. The very pettiness of Scottish nationalism, evidenced during this unpleasant episode, is thus a source for hope as well as for sadness. All power to ‘The Saint’ for helping to expose this nationalist weakness, and may their editors and contributors continue to prosper in quieter times.