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.