Hugo Rifkind

The ‘no’ campaign’s problem was that it sounded like me

Were all Scotland’s credible populist figures in favour of independence? Or were the rest just scared to speak out?

20 September 2014

9:00 AM

20 September 2014

9:00 AM

Journalistically speaking, it’s been a good year to be Scottish and Jewish. Had I been a Welsh Zoroastrian, say, I doubt I’d have had nearly so much to say.

In recent months, obviously, it’s been the Scottish thing that has really taken off. I used to be marginally Scottish, irrelevantly Scottish; never realising that a period of being helpfully Scottish was just around the corner. I suppose it’s a bit like the presumptions that some bilingual people have, that other people must, must be able to speak other languages really. I think I just assumed that the rest of London’s media knew plenty about Scotland, but tended not to talk about it. But no. They didn’t. At all. Imagine you’d been wearing the same jacket for a decade, and then saw it in Vogue. It’s been like that.

Various worthy types have asked me to sign various open letters, and I gladly have. Rory Stewart asked me to donate a stone to his beautiful Hands Across The Border cairn project, and I gladly did that, too. I’ve been asked to do far more radio and television than is the (frankly lacklustre) norm, and have usually said yes. And then I started to feel uneasy, and began to say no.

It was a documentary that tipped me over the edge. Somebody from a production company phoned me up, you see, and said they’d been asked to make two; full-length, primetime, and for Channel 4. One was to be a ‘yes’ and the other a ‘no’, and they wanted me to do the ‘no’ one. ‘Interesting,’ I yawned, keen to give the impression that people call me up and ask me to present primetime Channel 4 documentaries all the time. Which they don’t, as it happens, even though I’m so very clever and interesting, and also funny on the News Quiz on Radio 4, which TV producers should definitely check out if they’re on the hunt. ‘But out of interest,’ I added, after that, ‘who do you want to do the other one?’ And they said, ‘Irvine Welsh’.

Irvine Welsh. Me and Irvine Welsh. Christ. Do you feel there could be some subtext detected there? Beyond the relative merits of unionism and independence, I mean? Something else that might linger in people’s minds? When one side of the argument is represented by the most lyrical poet of Scotland’s dispossessed 1980s working class, and the other by the privately educated, London-dwelling son of the Conservative former secretary of state for Scotland who implemented the poll tax? Anything? Anyone? No?

It’s a hell of a thing when you know that your own side of an argument is tarnished by your mere presence on it. And yet, as the referendum drew closer, that’s a sensation I’d have more and more. A majority of public voices for ‘no’, I couldn’t help but realise, were a bit like me. Living in the South, or maybe even from it. Or Tory, or at least perceived as such. Or establishment. Or posh and barely accented. Or all four. And thus I started to quite often say no to saying ‘no’. For fear that the likes of me saying yes to saying ‘no’ might make others say ‘yes’.

Why was this happening? One possibility is that this was just how it was; that ‘no’ was an essentially reactionary, southern-led defence of privilege. This doesn’t seem very probable though, much as many nationalists would believe it. I write this shortly before the vote itself, it’s true, but polls have consistently shown ‘no’ at somewhere near 50 per cent. And I can’t have been at school with all of them. So where the hell have they all been?

Reel off a list of even moderately visible Scots who were for ‘no’, and the only genuinely populist figures I can think of who actually live in the country are J.K. Rowling (who was born in England), Billy Connolly (who lives in a castle) and Susan Boyle. So what was happening here? Were Scottish public figures somehow more likely to be pro-independence than the public itself? Or, were those against simply inclined to keep their heads down?

I can only conclude the latter. Partly I conclude this from the sheer, staggering spinelessness of Scotland’s Labour party. Where have they been? Last week, the leadership or deputies of Scotland’s SNP, Conservatives and Greens appeared on a televised panel in front of an auditorium full of Scottish schoolchildren. Who did Labour send? George Galloway, that’s who. An MP from another party who represents an English constituency and is a lunatic. What the hell is wrong with them? This is a party with 40 Scottish MPs and 37 MSPs. And which nonetheless needed a coachload of Londoners to come up and canvass in Glasgow.

Maybe it’s not even about Scots, though, all this. Maybe it’s just the left in general. There was something depressing — and for me, enlightening — about the sneering from bits of even the English left at Dan Snow and Tom Holland’s (admittedly well-heeled) Let’s Stay Together campaign. Either way, on the assumption that the polls were even remotely right, it strikes me that this is one lingering problem that the referendum will have left us with, whoever wins it. And I shall now, for reasons already discussed, stop talking about it. If I can.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Hugo Rifkind is a writer for the Times.

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Show comments
  • Cymrugel

    I’ve had a good go at you about speaking from a position of privilege in the past Hugo, but I wouldn’t take on so in this instance.

    It should give you pause to reflect though that the media bods in London that you assumed knew plenty about Scotland were so clueless, yet continued to write strongly worded articles and just mined you for information rather than getting off their backsides and heading north to do some research.

    I came across one US journalist who arrived here to report the referendum and he had spent a stack of time on the internet, talked to everyone he could and then spent a couple of weeks travelling around the country to talk to anyone who would speak to him. Not our southern cousins though; they don’t want reality to get in the way of their story.

    They just know things you see. They have taken a position before putting pen to paper and will not move even if the evidence does not support their conclusions.

    As for the documentary – does it not make you wonder that they asked you rather than some sort of high profile figure north of the border?

    • Hugo Rifkind

      Re you’re last para, well, sure. Though the answer to that seemed to be that they were genuinely struggling to find such a figure prepared to take the No side. Which is pretty much what I’m writing about.

      • Cymrugel


        I was in the thick of it up here and there seemed to be no shortage of people talking on both sides; and very stimulating it was too.

        I suspect your contacts simply couldn’t be bothered either coming up here, or getting on the phone and ringing round.

        The logic would be “Hugo’s Scotch isn’t he – and his Dads a former Tory cabinet Minister- ask him”.

        It’s the typical reaction of people in London who can’t be bothered ; you are a Scot so you must be a mine of data – even though you left home a long time ago.

        irritating isn’t it? We’ll make a nationalist of you yet!

        Never underestimate the laziness of the London hack.

  • Terence Wilkinson

    Irving Welsh the poet of the dispossessed. That made me laugh. Welsh basically writes the same sentimental tosh in every novel. The subtitle for all should be: “how Mrs Thatcher and her oppression of the poor miners turned me into a junkie eventhough I lived no where near a mine and have no idea who Mrs Thatcher”. Last I read Welsh was trying to crack America. Funny how many right-on socialists end up trying to make some green in the land of the free.

    • Lynn Grace Corbin-Lohmanns

      Yes. Funny how the land of hyper capitalism always seems to be a magnet for British Socialists. Laurie Penny, Billy Bragg, Will Self….the list goes on. Rarely do you see these people in Rotherham, Burnley or Scotland.

      • justejudexultionis

        Good point.

  • Ken

    Indeed, you are a prat – well placed alongside G Brown, Mick Jagger, Bruce Forsyth, Bob Geldof etc. You are a member of the establishment, with possessions in Scotland but you spend most of your time in London.

    • ChezzyHi

      Unlike Irvine Welsh, who spends all his time anywhere but Scotland.
      You sound bitter Ken. Maybe think twice before taking it out on well-intentioned Scots who write and act with integrity. Maybe have a third think, and realise who the real bad guys are.

  • little islander

    I read this again after this week’s contributions to Ms Vickery. It’s very rhythmic.