‘Scottish genius created most of the modern world.’ Kevin McKenna meets Fraser Nelson
IT’S been almost two years since The Spectator stepped elegantly into the Alex Salmond legal imbroglio and proceeded to drive its hansom cab and horses through it. The Holyrood Inquiry into the Scottish Government’s handling of the Salmond affair had just prohibited publication of crucial submissions, including those of Mr Salmond.
The magazine, having published a redacted version of Mr Salmond’s evidence, sought clarification from the High Court in Edinburgh about the gagging order, arguing that the Inquiry Committee was being overly cautious in its interpretation of it and that reasonable public scrutiny of the affair was thus being obstructed. As a result of the magazine’s probing Lady Dorrian agreed to clarify the reporting conditions. It was a small victory, but an important one.
Fraser Nelson, editor of The Spectator, is recalling these events with a measure of pride. “We spent £30,000 on that undertaking, because we felt Salmond’s evidence shouldn’t have been redacted and we wanted to find out why. I like to think we helped in a small way to get more of what he was saying in the public debate.”
Yet, why would an English magazine go to such lengths? The answer, says Nelson, is that The Spectator is not, and never has been, “an English magazine”.
“Scots are more likely to buy the Spectator than anywhere else in the UK. We have a very significant number of Scottish readers,” he says. “The Spectator was created by a Scot; is now edited by a Scot and chaired by a Scot (Andrew Neil).
“Our readers care about Scotland. Nicola Sturgeon – like her immediate predecessor – is a very engaging character and people across Britain care about what she does. Scotland is genuinely fascinating, no matter where you are in Europe. This is an incredible country, engaged in some incredibly important debates.”
Born in Cornwall, Nelson was thereafter reared in Nairn and attended Glasgow University before cutting his journalistic teeth in the newsroom of The Herald in the mid-1990s. “I learnt from some legends of the trade.” He was appointed Editor of the Spectator in 2009 and under his direction the magazine has bucked the downward trend of print publications by steadily increasing its circulation.
“I regard myself as Scottish first and British second,” he says. “I feel very proudly Scottish and care deeply about what happens in Scotland.”
His dad is from the gritty Calton district in Glasgow’s east end and it’s perhaps this that prompted Fraser to become a director of the Centre for Social Justice.
“There are scandalous problems in Scotland. Look at the drugs figures, for example. Why is it that in our country we’ve managed to incubate the worst drug abuse figures in Europe. Why are we so much worse than the worst part of England?
“When I backed devolution I thought that we could address these problems that were being neglected. Scotland is an ingenious country and I thought that if we managed to apply our national genius to our problems in a more focused way then we’d be bound to embarrass England by just how much forward-thinking we would be in education; in health and in focusing on and overcome our social problems. I had this faith – and still do – in the Scottish genius; the Scottish mind. Our ideas and genius created most of the modern world.”
Nelson agrees with me that, until it gets resolved one way or the other, a political void will persist where no real politics happens and all outcomes are distorted by the lens of the independence question.
“The constitutional impasse is sucking the oxygen out of almost everything else. To me, this is an important issue and one that doesn’t get debated anywhere near enough in Scotland because they’re either engaged in distractions like this ridiculous gender legislation or talking about the constitution.
“Poor Scots are less likely to get to university than anywhere else in the UK. That’s the opposite of what Scotland should be about. And to fix that they rig the system to cover up social failure.”
That last point probably encapsulates the main difference between his approach and mine to addressing social inequality. I would argue that the system had always been rigged and that a bit of levelling up was long overdue. But we won’t fall out over it.
“The Spectator has always defined itself against partisanship. It promoted good writing. It promoted the idea that people who disagree with each other can get along. And promoted humour as a way of us all getting along together. It’s a great device with which to see the world: to laugh at ourselves; to laugh at life in general.
“The great Alexander Chancellor, who once edited The Spectator, told me: ‘The digital era means that humour is dying out of print. If you can keep The Spectator’s range and its voice and its humour you’ll be offering something that will soon become rare’.
“That element of humour means that every so often you must go into battle because people will accuse you of hate crime. But if you write every sentence worrying about how you’re going to be rated on Twitter you cease to become a writer or an editor.
“If you stop writing for your readers and start fearing the criticism of your non-readers then you’re giving up the project and that’s when journalism becomes something formulaic and uniform. If you bow down to the Twitter mobs then you’ll very quickly deprive your publication of its soul.
“People often think of The Spectator as a right-wing project, but we’re not. Our project is good writing above all else. Sure, if you want to gauge us politically, we’re centre-right, but we carry about 60 articles in every issue and only about six or seven will be about politics. The rest are about books, the arts, the world and life.”
His concern for his homeland has led him to the point where he agrees with me that a second referendum is required to break the logjam in ideas and action. This is reinforced by his belief that the unionists would win once more and that, like Quebec, it would be “game over” for independence.
Is it feasible, I ask him, that the UK Tories, facing an electoral apocalypse in 2025, would stake it all on a second referendum on independence? And that they might be tempted by the prospect of electoral glory on the back of saving the Union? He’s not convinced.
“It’s a beguiling thought, but the Scottish Tories all promised that they would stop a second referendum. That’s a pretty big pledge to tear up. Also, David Cameron and George Osborne thought the first one would be an easy win and then almost lost the Union. So, there’s a residual queasiness around that.
“And even if it suited the UK Tories, politically, to have a second one the prevailing mood down here is that subjecting Scots to a second referendum not even a decade after the first one is a harassment too far.
“The belief down here is that the Scottish Parliament was set up not to agitate for a referendum but to deal with schools, hospitals and all the bread and butter issues affecting people’s daily lives. Whereas I think a referendum would help us deal with these issues, the Tories’ current attitude is comparable to Spain’s in relation to Catalonia.”
He admires Nicola Sturgeon for keeping the fire stoked. “I wish her nothing but political failure but I regard her as one of the most successful politicians not just in Britain but in Europe. What she’s managed to achieve politically is remarkable. But if you take her away what are you left with?
“There’s a general belief down here that the SNP’s Westminster group is the cult of Nicola. Someone like Joanna Cherry – a woman of unusual courage – has been marginalised within the party for speaking up for women’s and lesbians’ rights, and we all saw what happened to her.
“I’d love to have seen how Kate Forbes would have voted in the GRR debate. She’s a hugely admirable woman and one of the most formidable politicians in Britain. But in the current atmosphere of the SNP, good luck to a decent, God-fearing woman like her leading this particular party. Her own personal values will be difficult to reconcile with the SNP movement as it’s become.”
I tell him to watch this space.