What’s Rupert’s Game in Scotland?


Alex Salmond, Scotland’s First Minister.
IT WAS a humble tweet, just 52 characters, one of around 300 million made on February 20 — initially little noticed in London but resonating across the bonny Caledonian highlands.

“Let Scotland go and compete. Everyone would win,” tweeted one Rupert Murdoch last month.

While that’s not how London sees the potential break-up of its United Kingdom, Murdoch’s intervention into Scotland’s independence debate raises a delicious prospect.

While the criminality of News International’s phone-hacking disgrace still unravels, could Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond, the populist leader of the Scottish National Party, who’s driving Edinburgh’s divorce from London after three centuries of unionism, be the world’s only leader who thinks it’s a good idea to engage the Murdoch empire?

The answer would appear to be a resounding “Yes!”

A day or so after Murdoch’s mischievous entry into the Scottish twittersphere, Salmond felt the need to telephone him. Salmond claimed he called Murdoch solely to discuss business. Murdoch would be soon launching The Sunday Sun in Scotland and, besides, he’s also one of Scotland’s leading employers, with 6,000 people on the payroll at call centre facilities for News’s satellite TV operation, BSkyB. It was entirely appropriate, Salmond said, for the Scottish First Minister to discuss the company’s “substantial economic footprint in Scotland” and Murdoch’s keenness to invest, as Scotland considers an independent future.

Salmond is nothing if not a pragmatist, for he was calling a man whose main newspaper in Scotland, The Scottish Sun, had once deployed its front page to portray Salmond’s centre-left SNP as Scotland’s executioner, on the very day in 2007 Salmond would be elected as Scotland’s most powerful politician.

That was yesteryear. Murdoch loves a winner, and today he and Alex are old mates on first-name terms, having enjoyed 26 encounters in some shape or form in recent years. Described by commentators as a Faustian pact, it’s a relationship that also discomforts many of Salmond’s purer colleagues in the SNP.

Salmond admitted they had discussed his independence tweets. ‘Sir Rupert,’ as he has called the media mogul with a proud Presbyterian Scottish ancestry, had offered “a very interesting eight words”.

Murdoch’s remark, Salmond said, was “a textbook example of how to deploy a tweet and cause a great stir. We are in a debate in Scotland and internationally about Scotland’s future and I welcome all contributions to that debate, including Mr Murdoch’s.”

A tweet hasn’t – yet – changed British governments, but as former Labour leaders Neil Kinnock and Tony Blair know, the powerful nod of Murdoch’s The Sun can. Murdoch’s The Scottish Sun is Scotland’s biggest-circulating newspaper. It hasn’t quite become a blind supporter of Scottish independence but isn’t an opponent of it, as per the tabloid’s notorious Election Day hangman’s noose in 2007, an image which revolted many Scots.

No sooner had Salmond put down the phone, Rupert’s new Sunday paper — replacing the pestilent News of the World — had a major launch-day scoop in Scotland, revealing the date of Scotland’s ‘Day of Destiny’ — October 18, 2014.

That’s Salmond’s preferred date for the crucial referendum asking Scots if they want independence from London.

Current opinion polls here suggest a majority of Scots are for maintaining the union, around 60/40 for the broader status quo. So London is urging Salmond to hold his referendum much sooner, to keep the UK intact.

But as nationalism gathers north of the border, particularly among younger voters, and as it flowers — often in Gaelic — across Scottish arts and culture too, Salmond believes the longer Scotland has to mull a breakaway the more it’s inevitable.

And after its landslide win in last May’s Scottish elections, the SNP has the advantage of incumbency, with a resounding mandate to frame the independence conversation. The 2014 referendum increasingly seems Salmond’s to lose, becoming less a question for Scots of whether to devolve from London rule, but how.

When British Prime Minister David Cameron came to Edinburgh in February to plead the unionist case, the body language was all with Salmond. His friend Murdoch had a view on that too, tweeting, albeit inarticulately, “Alex Salmond clearly most brilliant politician in U.K. Gave Cameron back of his hand this week. Loved by Scots.”

AS loathing toward News International’s corruption has gathered in Britain, Salmond has been pressured to reveal the extent of his own contacts with the Murdochs and their empire. Salmond strenuously resisted at first, but finally succumbed to release 17 pages of Murdoch correspondence

The dossier revealed that they are quite firm friends, exposing a relationship that had warmed in five years from frostiness all the way to News’s enthusiastic support for Salmond in those Scottish elections last year that were swept by the SNP; invitations to Ryder Cup golf, to various conferences, junkets and ribbon-cuttings; present-giving and some sycophantic backscratching. “Dear Rupert,” Salmond writes, after a 2007 meeting in New York, “…as ever, (I) found your views both insightful and stimulating.”

The Scotsman newspaper sniffily described the Murdoch-Salmond “bromance” as being of “gifts, trans-Atlantic trysts, billets-doux and an unprecedented display of loyalty under fire…. a vote of confidence from the media tycoon only slightly less damaging than a vote of confidence from President Assad.”

When the extent of his Murdoch engagement was revealed, Salmond spun that it was all entirely above board. It had nothing to do with politics, he claimed, but was selflessly all about putting Scotland first. Unsurprisingly, his opponents saw it another way. “Just how low did he have to stoop to secure News International’s support?” asked Willie Rennie, the Liberal Democrat leader in Scotland. Labour’s Iain Gray portrayed Salmond as “seducing” Murdoch, saying it was “highly questionable behaviour” from a politician who “has spent more of his media time in the last year with News International than any other party leader in Britain.”

In all their published communication, including with Murdoch’s son James when he was boss of News International, there is a revealing lack of discussion of the phone-hacking scandal.

Murdoch may be the most toxic brand in British media but to Alex Salmond, that’s no grounds not to maintain the relationship. On February 29, just days after police arrested more journalists and editors at Murdoch’s The Sun, the smiling media mogul stopped by Salmond’s official residence in Edinburgh for tea and biscuits. Only a day earlier, while entering News’s offices in Glasgow, he was confronted by the mother of a phone-hacking victim, who described him as “scum.”

The Murdoch-Salmond meetings have revolted Iain Macwhirter, the prominent commentator. A former rector of the storied Edinburgh University, Macwhirter is a significant intellectual authority in Scotland. Murdoch, he recently wrote in the Glasgow Herald, “was, is, a cancer in British public life. Truly, we live in the Murdoch State.”

“An entire generation of politicians has been corrupted… by association with this sinister oligarch,” Macwhirter wrote.

For an intensely political businessman, Murdoch has never been known to be much exercised by independence movements. In the China-Tibet debate, he delighted Beijing by dismissing the Dalai Lama as “a very political old monk shuffling around in Gucci shoes” and, infamously, removing the BBC from Star TV’s programming roster in Asia, in 1994. He’s not known for his views about East Timor, South Sudan, the Tamil issue in Sri Lanka or much anywhere outside his theatres of operation. As News International faced something of its own Arab Spring in the phone-hacking uprising last year, Murdoch was more seen as the Hosni Mubarak figure, a teetering autocrat no longer to be feared, an ageing emperor suddenly naked of power.

So what’s Rupert playing at in Scotland?

It might simply be his deep roots in Scotland. His paternal grandfather was a Presbyterian minister from Aberdeen, following on from his father, who was also a churchman. Murdoch’s second wife, Anna — mother of the presumptive News Corporation heirs Elisabeth, Lachlan and James — was born in Glasgow of Catholic stock. The Scottish connections are evident in the Murdoch estate on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula. Cruden Farm is named after the Aberdeenshire parish where his grandfather Patrick was a minister. The Murdoch yacht, and the Long Island estate he sold last year, were both called Rosehearty after the small Aberdeenshire town from where his great-grandfather hailed. Rupert’s father Keith’s wartime experiences at Gallipoli in 1915, and the family’s Scottish connections, have often been cited by biographers as helping fire the Oxford-schooled Rupert’s antipathy to the English, and his undaunted Calvinist work ethic too. And there’s also been talk of News moving BSkyB to Scotland, in return for massive tax cuts.

But there’s another theory doing the rounds of Scottish salons, one aired by prominent Scottish political commentator Gerry Hassan – revenge.

“The motivations are not hard to fathom,” Hassan told The Global Mail. “Murdoch, the arch anti-establishment figure in his own mind, wants to have revenge on the British political classes who courted and then spurned News International. What better way than to threaten the breakup of that very state, the United Kingdom?”

Murdoch, Hassan posits, sees himself as a victim of English perfidy and hypocrisy over the phone-hacking scandal. This tallies with the anti-establishment stance where he’s positioned his British businesses — Murdoch as ‘Dirty Digger’ as Private Eye famously describes him, a champion of the underdog — which happily also provides him a huge market. It also implies what many believe of News International, that its corporate culture has fostered an arrogance that it’s above the law, that its chairman is all-powerful.

In backing independence, Hassan says, Murdoch’s intent isn’t so much supporting Scotland as to weaken Britain, exacting “the ultimate revenge” on the “London elites” across the establishment now going after News in England. And in a Scotland where the media tends to be unionist, News can argue it provides diversity while also developing a market niche of independence-minded readers. “It’s payback time for the British political classes,” says Hassan, “and it’s smart business too.”

Scottish independence is a hugely significant issue that’s steadily creeping up on London. Domestically, it could cripple the UK, encouraging already devolved parliaments in Wales and Northern Ireland to go further, perhaps reducing Margaret Thatcher’s once “Great” Britain to merely England, while depriving its economy of an estimated $1 trillion in North Sea oil revenues Scots regard as theirs.

Internationally too, Scotland’s independence manoeuvres are significant. London’s influence in diplomatic architecture is largely a holdover of its post-World War II authority as a victor nation, and as a former imperial power. As the British intellectual and broadcaster Jeremy Paxman recently noted in his magisterial series Empire, Britain’s “heritage helped her believe she’s still entitled to a place at the top table in world affairs. How did such a small country get such a big head?”

Britain is a nuclear power, a founding member of the five-nation United Nations Security Council and of the G-8 group that frames world economic and fiscal policy. But as so-called BRIC economies like Brazil and India surge, Britain’s relevance in shaping the international debate is already under question. A Britain sans Scotland would be significantly reduced, and its shrinkage likely exploited diplomatically.

Without the Scots, Britain’s economy would be about 10 per cent smaller, its population five per cent reduced and its landmass by under a third. A Scotland-less Britain would rank just above South Africa as the world’s 23rd most populous state, between Italy and Mexico as its 10th biggest economy and alongside Uruguay and Suriname as its 92nd biggest nation by size.

But it is within the European Union, where London often appears to be a reluctant member, that Scotland’s separation might be most keenly felt internationally. A London without Edinburgh would slip a place to be the EU’s fourth biggest member after Germany, France and Italy. More importantly, a Salmond-led independent Scotland is seen as an enthusiastic European, an extra voice in Brussels to dilute the English one, and a voice that Paris and Berlin have warmed to, if only to isolate the recalcitrant London. Hassan says the interest in Scottish independence from the continental powers is almost palpable, and that Murdoch will likely have calculated all this.

Salmond has firmly stated that an independent Scotland would be non-nuclear. That means London’s massive Royal Navy bases north of Glasgow at Faslane and Coulport on Gare Loch and Loch Long, where Britain houses its nuclear-armed submarine fleet, would leave.

Nukes are the elephant in the Scottish independence debate so it’s perhaps unsurprising that Rupert Murdoch also had a view on this. On February 20, he tweeted “what’s this nonsense about British nuclear subs? Who are they going to nuke? Argentina, come off it. Dreams of empire should die.”

Alex Salmond couldn’t have tweeted it more eloquently himself.

In Part Two of his series on Scotland, Eric Ellis visits Garelochhead, where the UK stores its nuclear deterrent, and the arts centre of Ullapool, in the highland north, finding two very different perspectives on its push for independence.