Michael Russell: Transparency is key as Andrew Neil wades into the indy debate

AS the saga of Brexit lurches towards an ever more disastrous conclusion most people in Scotland have rightly been focused on how we can mitigate the catastrophe and find a way through it.

But a Herald letter this week from leading Scottish publisher Hugh Andrew – and the reaction to it from furth of Scotland – gave an indication of other battles ahead.

I regard Hugh as a friend. He has been in my house often and when I was re-elected in 2007 he even leant me his spare room in Newington before I found a flat. I am therefore sorry that he now presumably sees me as part of what he floridly describes in his letter as the “malign intelligence of nationalism that has refracted its own emptiness and failure onto a UK Government”.

Spirited defence of UK Tories apart, Hugh’s position on independence is neither new nor news. He is a long standing Liberal Democrat and sits on the Advisory Council of Robert Kilgour’s fiercely anti-independence Scottish Business UK Group.

In 2013 he even claimed that nationalism “represents the worst of all worlds for our writers and culture” though paradoxically he sounded somewhat nationalist himself two years later when he accused the former First Minister of being “bought and sold for English gold” over his choice of memoir publisher.

Hugh is of course entirely entitled to voice all these critical opinions as loudly as he likes, including those related to how he believes his part of the publishing industry has been treated by the Scottish Government. Moreover, I pay tribute to the very significant long-term contribution he and his companies have made to Scottish publishing, Scottish culture and Scottish life.

READ MORE: FACT CHECK: Andrew Neil claim male longevity in Glasgow like sub-Saharan Africa

But no sooner had his letter appeared than it was being exploited by others. That constitutional ambulance chaser Brian Wilson was first on the scene (he also sits alongside Hugh on the SBUK Advisory Council ) and then Andrew Neil joined in.

Neil is firmly of the view that both the Scottish media and the Scottish political opposition have been unequal to the task of exposing the SNP for what he believes it is – a Potemkin government. However he thinks he is just the man to do so.

The Spectator magazine, of which he is chairman, last week published a piece entitled “The Sturgeon Paradox – the worse she does the more popular she becomes” and Neil robustly promotes the “worse” part of that message.

Though I often disagree with him I admire Neil as a formidable interviewer who was a very talented editor.

But he can never again claim to be impartial. He has become a political polemicist, and moreover one shortly to have his own digital channel which I have no doubt he will use vigorously to air his anti-independence views. A harbinger can be seen in his treatment of the Hugh Andrew letter.

Firstly Neil breathlessly announced that the letter was a “must read …from (a) Scottish businessman” and then demonstrated its importance by tweeting several separate lines from it.

Well, Hugh is indeed a businessman but he is also a long-term opponent of independence, is formally associated with an anti-independence campaign group and has a significant self-confessed policy difference with the SNP Scottish Government.

Entirely understandable – but also entirely germane and indeed essential information in terms of debate.

How that crucial current debate about Scotland is conducted is almost as important as its content. It must present affiliations and experiences transparently, it must recognise honest intention and achievement (and there have been many achievements by the SNP Government, though like all governments it has not succeed in everything), it must have equity of arms and it must above all respect the voters.

Neil is so far failing on all of these points and crucially on the last mentioned. His argument attacks not politicians but the people. It regards the Scottish electorate as supine, deluded and unable to make informed choices. It is arrogantly Trumpian in that it holds ordinary people’s involvement in the democratic process in contempt when they do not do as he wishes.

We know what is best for Scotland, say Neil’s Tory leaning Spectator set, and if you don’t you must be too wee, too poor and too stupid to understand.

Well the people of Scotland will themselves get to decide – on their future and their government – in just five months time. Bring it on.

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