Stuart Campbell, Wings Over Scotland And Divided Nationalism In Scotland

Readers of An Sionnach Fionn might be familiar with Wings Over Scotland (WOS), the influential Scottish politics blog founded in late 2011 by the former video game journalist and designer Stuart Campbell. Over the last six years the Bath-based campaigner and a small roster of guest writers have sought to publicise the previously disparaged arguments of the nationalist movement in Scotland, providing a valuable alternative to the majority pro-union news media in Edinburgh and London. This has garnered the website considerable praise, allowing it to attract a monthly online readership numbering in the hundreds of thousands. However this has also brought Campbell the personalised enmity of many anti-independence politicians, newspaper columnists and authors, making him something of a hate-figure on the conservative right. A situation not helped by his somewhat blunt and abrasive nature when dealing with perceived critics or opponents.

The animosity towards Wings Over Scotland has been matched on the Scottish nationalist side by a degree of envy at its undoubted popularity or frustration at its tendency to court controversy, intentionally or not. Though other pro-sovereignty blogs and sites existed before WOS, like the politics and culture magazine Bella Caledonia, few have been able to match its accomplishments, both before and after the failed 2014 referendum on independence. While the success of Campbell’s initially shoestring operation has encouraged other activists to set up their own publications, notably Newsnet Scotland, a few have continued to resent his fame, questioning his true motivations and aims. These tensions have come to the fore in recent weeks, splitting Scotland’s online pro-sovereignty community into several rival factions.

Like many other web-only publications, including An Sionnach Fionn, WOS has frequently adopted a somewhat satirical tone when posting to social networking sites, especially Twitter. This, of course, closely reflects the internet culture of the latter platform where humorous one-liners and clever put-downs are considered de rigueur. As I have said myself, if you are using Twitter for a serious debate about vital current affairs then you are doing it wrong. Conversations are not in the nature of the medium, nor do they attract the most “likes” and “retweets”; the advertising coin of non-corporate news media.

However this tongue-in-cheek attitude can be misinterpreted, wilfully or otherwise, by the more po-faced and earnest out there. Stuart Campbell fell into this trap with an admittedly crass tweet last March about the Conservative Party politician Oliver Mundell MSP, wishing that his formerly “closeted” father, David, the Secretary of State for Scotland, had embraced his now public homosexuality before his son had been conceived. Instead of apologising for the poorly received tweet and moving on, the WOS editor has made things considerably worse by seeking to sue Kezia Dugdale MSP, the leader of the Scottish Labour Party, for labelling him “homophobic”. This united not just unionist voices behind the two anti-independence MSPs but also several prominent figures from the progressive nationalist movement.

The controversy has subsequently spiralled out of control, encompassing other online pro-sovereignty publications, writers and campaigners. The venom and bitterness displayed by those attacking Campbell and those defending him has been extraordinary and reflects the deeply embedded personal, organisational and ideological rivalries within the Scottish independence movement. Something seen in an even starker light with the revelation that Cat Boyd, a prominent left-wing voice for young Scots, had compromised her previous demands for full autonomy for Edinburgh by voting for the unionist Labour Party during the June general election in the United Kingdom.

With the WOS controversy growing, not lessening, it is hard to see where progressive nationalism in Scotland can go. While the Scottish National Party (SNP) continues to dominate the political landscape north of the border, there seems to be no way forward for its ultimate goal of a Saor Alba. Hemmed in by Brexit, a minority Tory government fitted with a choke chain by the extremists of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), and a reduced showing in the polls, both ballot- and survey-based, the SNP has very few good options ahead it – and plenty of bad ones.

If the most ardent supporters of independence cannot suppress or curtail their natural political, socio-econmic or cultural differences for the greater good, there seems to be very little chance indeed of the northern Gaelic nation gaining its full sovereignty any time soon. Or perhaps ever wishing to do so. That is not to dismiss the objections of those criticising the actions or opinions of Stuart Campbell, which are worthy of discussion. However, as objectionable as some of his behaviour has been, from besmirching Scotland’s indigenous Gaelic language to mentioning discreditable theories about the Hillsborough Disaster, there is no doubt that Wings Over Scotland itself has grown into something well beyond its owner and founder. The atavistic animosity of its sternest unionist opponents gives proof of that.

If there is an existential crisis in Scottish nationalism then it is better to see WOS – and Campbell – as part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

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17 comments

  1. Wow! How did you come to miss this by so much. You’re way off the mark on this one, and on so many levels.

  2. I have to agree with M&B here.

    What should have been just another bad taste spat by a twittering twit, was blown out of all proportion when Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale publicly accused WOS of homophobia, whereupon he decided to take the matter to court, and to date has amassed a sizeable defence fund. To add to the irony, the loony lefties who became besotted by Corbyn (a unionist to the core!) fail to appreciate the plain fact that the SNP government are already administering social policies more equitable and generous than those in UK Labour’s manifesto. They just do it quietly and competently.

    If nothing else, the ensuing ‘show trial’ can only raise the profile of the Indy movement, apart from hopefully being good entertainment.

    1. All that may be true but does the controversy – and in-fighting – not reflect some of the existential angst gripping Scottish nationalism at the moment? Many thought that the Brexit vote would give the independence movement, at its broadest, the boost it required to carry a second referendum in the very near future. However recent polls have shown a majority of Scots ready to jump off the cliff with the rest Britain, despite the previous pro-EU majority. If the choice is EU or UK, Scots are picking the latter.

      I’ll admit to being removed from all this, and having my views filtered through various Scottish writers and activists, but they are ones I normally trust.

      Like I said, I think WOS for all its belligerence is a force for good in Scottish politics. And the Twitter spat is silly. But the anti-Rev Stu reaction from within nationalism or from allied progressive groupings and individuals has been pretty vitriolic. Why that enmity?

        1. I’d missed all this ASF, been on holiday. Very interesting, depressing to see what’s happening, and given WOS has done some service a pity all this has happened. I would say though that this is a lesson as to function. If the function is to point up aspects of the coverage of the nationalist cause then it’s probably best to keep the focus on the serious stuff and be very very careful in what is said more casually – particularly when there are no end of people waiting in the long grass for unforced errors or unwise or unnecessary comments.

          1. Yep, it’s the throwaway remark which will probably get you in the end. I’ve sailed close to the wind myself. Like I said, for me Twitter is all about the sneer (as Tommy Tiernan would say). A little bit of snark, some humorous remarks or commentary, nothing too serious or too biting. However you tend to forget, not everyone shares your sense of humour or appreciates the jokey intent behind a 140 characters.

        2. Apologies the late reply, flying in and out of the Czech Republic at the moment for work, so constantly playing catch-up. Yeah, I was an early convert to WGD 😉 he seems to be dismissing it as a silly season kerfuffle, a storm in an online teacup. I’m not so sure. Some of the back-and-forth biting seems pretty savage and with real intent to cause damage.

  3. This is the same group of people who have been criticicizing SNP for years for what amounts to not doing it their way. They were tiresome then and they are tiresome now.

    As for Dugdale – SLab has never had any policies other than SNPBaaaad and for a change SNPVeryBaaad. They got into bed with the Tories in the Referendum Campaign and again in the last General election. WoS has exposed many of their lies, they too are attacked in the same way.

  4. I happened to read the tweet at that time and personally found it to be crass at best. I don’t think/find it to be homophobic. That’s my take on the matter.
    However what I think is happening is symptomatic of a larger issue; the independence movement is effectively rudderless. in 2014, the indyref had unless a energetic yearning for a radical socialist and democratic refom in Scotland, unmatched probably since the Radical War/Scottish Insurrection of 1820. That yearning was coalesced and concentrated in the form of the election of the 56 SNP MPs.
    From that moment, the members of independence movement kept agitating for change. Some favoured a more radical approach. This is where I think the SNP did not foresee that they cannot contain the support of all the members of independence movement that backed them initially in 2015.
    Since then, a lot has happened and I think the Brexit result really did blindside the SNP. Its favoured approach of gradualism (in relation to gaining independence) would have guaranteed Nicola Sturgeon the independence she sought within 10 years at most. Brexit really did throw spanners in that plan. A much more radical approach is now sorely needed.
    I guess among the non-political anoraks that are your normal Scotsmen/women, there is a deep-seated fear that the SNP are not doing enough to alleviate/prevent austerity. It doesn’t matter/not known that the Scottish Government actually has the powers to do as such or not.
    In politics, perception is everything. The SNP must be seen as being rigorous AND aggressive in defending Scotland. I think they have done their very best in Westminster. There is little more they can do. They must now be laying foundation to cut ties with it and get on with holding the second indyref at the time of their choosing, with or without Westminster’s approval. Domestically is where they can win big. It is now the time for radical reforms, especially in land matters and local government.
    Timing is everything. Theresa May had said that free movement will end 2019. The second indyref MUST be held latest by autumn 2018. It is bad enough Scotland is haemorrhaging EU citizens and at this rate probably none will be left by 2019. If the second indyref is not held by 2018, it may be too late to reverse the damage in relation to skill and population loss.

    Apologies for the rambling nature of the comment and greetings from Malaysia,
    ABU

    1. All very well Nicola going for an independence referendum, but as Craig Murray points out, every other country in the world which has gained it’s independence, has done so by declaration.

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