The SNP handles criticism as well as the Incredible Hulk handles irritation. It’s why the party’s own parliamentarians are banned from making critical comments. The Nationalists are an independence-first organisation and rely on two important psychological tools. The first is projecting Nicola Sturgeon as the ‘Chief Mammy’ (her own term; ‘mammy’ being Scottish slang for ‘mother’), a national figure more akin to the Queen than the Prime Minister. The second is framing any institutional or organisational dissent not as standard, democratic debate (in the way that businesses, unions and charities routinely take the UK Government to task) but as something more controversial, political — even unpatriotic.
As such, it is entirely unremarkable to Scottish eyes to read that charities funded by the SNP government in Edinburgh are being made subject to a ‘gagging clause’. Readers living in normal countries, however, might think the situation revealed in the Scottish edition of the Times not wholly ideal. The paper relays that charities, including Shelter Scotland and Victim Support Scotland, ‘are being silenced by 'gagging orders' that prevent them from criticising SNP policies or backing rival campaigns as part of contracts to receive state funding’. The letter received by Victim Support reportedly includes the line:
‘No part of the grant shall be used to fund any activity or material which is party political in intention, use, or presentation or appears to be designed to affect support for a political party.’
The opposition believes the non-political clause will prevent or discourage charities from supporting draft legislation put forward by the Tories, Labour, or any backbencher who doesn’t belong to the SNP or the Greens, the two parties who rule Scotland in a nationalist coalition. Scottish Tory chief whip Stephen Kerr said it appeared the administration was ‘handcuffing charities and third-sector groups on the sly by preventing them from backing bills or campaigns by anyone other than the government’.
Far from surprising, this is the SNP’s standard operating procedure. Professor Louise Richardson, the vice chancellor of Oxford University, was previously principal of St Andrews. During the 2014 independence referendum, the future of higher education funding was a major area of concern, but the Scottish Government insisted, contrary to the position of the UK Government, that a go-it-alone Scotland could just buy into the British research funding pot.
Professor Richardson warned that being ‘cut off from national research councils’ would be ‘catastrophic for this institution’, before outlining the conflicting statements about the matter from the SNP and the Tories, but never expressing a political view about independence.
In response, then first minister Alex Salmond’s office privately ‘demanded Prof Richardson issue a clarification’. One of Salmond’s special advisers drafted a statement to be issued in professor Richardson’s name essentially negating her concerns about the future of funding, praising the Scottish Government and criticising the Tories at Westminster. When she refused, the Scottish Government demanded again — until the academic eventually received a ten-minute call from Salmond himself.
Although Salmond's spokesperson said the contact with Richardson was 'routine' and 'cordial', a source told the Telegraph the phone conversation was a ‘loud and heated’ attempt to ‘try and put words in her mouth’. In the end, a watered-down version of the press release was circulated, with the university principal describing the SNP government as ‘working hard to resolve this issue’.
This isn’t the only example from higher education. In 2013, respected Scottish historian Christopher Whatley addressed a Better Together gathering. He was an ideal choice as the author of the critically acclaimed study, The Scots and the Union, and founder of Dundee university’s Five Million Questions project on the 2014 referendum.
Then SNP sports minister Shona Robison didn’t see it that way and contacted Whatley’s employer, the principal of Dundee University, to say she was ‘very disappointed with this development’. She added:
‘I think Prof Whatley’s involvement in the Better Together campaign has the potential to damage the reputation of Five Million Questions and leaves serious concerns about its governance’.
Not even the private sector is immune. In 2017, amid business frustration over Nicola Sturgeon’s relentless focus on independence, Highland Spring chief executive Les Montgomery told journalists the Scottish Government ‘should be getting on with the job they are there to do’, which was ‘focusing on employment, investment, those kinds of things’, rather than independence.
Keith Brown, at that time the Scottish economy minister and today the justice secretary, instructed his officials to contact the bottled water company to enquire if they wished to ‘discuss’ their chief executive’s views. Lo and behold, Highland Spring then issues an apology in which it claims Montgomery’s statement about independence wasn’t about independence and it was just that ‘people have taken this the wrong way’. (Read the full retraction here: it’s joyously Orwellian.)
The one curious aspect of the Times story is that the Scottish Government felt the need to ‘gag’ any charity. Generally speaking, the Scottish establishment, from publishing to the arts, the commentariat to the third sector, displays all the intellectual diversity of a university campus. It is uniformly soft-left, anti-Tory, pro-EU and doctrinally devolutionist where it’s not openly nationalist. The real challenge when it comes to the fearless free-thinkers of Civic Scotland is not getting them to bite their tongue about the SNP, but to give their pom poms a rest.