I had originally written this piece, upon request, for Total Politics but I understand there is publishing issues that, as far as I know, may not be resolved. So, rather than my efforts go to waste, I thought I’d post the submission up here for some Sunday evening reading. Indeed, I wrote this so long ago that I can’t remember what it even says so I’m going to go through it now too. I do hope that it’s a fair reflection of reality and assessment of the effort exerted by political blogs across the nation and, of course, with a tight word count allocation (which I blew anyway), not everyone can get a mention if the book does ever come out!

State of the Scottish Blogosphere

There was a time when the Scottish blogosphere was an uncomplicated place. Gaudy websites with unashamedly partisan standpoints would roar with righteous anger and link furiously to grab the casual browser’s attention, furtively checking ‘hit’ stats every hour or so, hoping above hope to get past those milestones of 10, 100 or (omg wtf lol #win!) 1,000 unique viewers in a day.

Those innocent, some would say halcyon days, are seemingly now behind us.

Through evolution, natural selection, intelligent design or a mixture of all of these, a long distance has been travelled by Scotland’s political bloggers in a relatively short space of time. The pursuit is nowadays cleaner, leaner, calmer, more substantial and, crucially, more professional. So much so that it can be difficult to ascertain in some instances which websites are blogs and which are mature, bona fide media outlets in their own right.

The crossover between journalist and blogger is becoming more blurred with media events regularly booking online scribes as often as print journalists. There may not be the same infiltration (some would uncharitably say infestation) of bloggers on Newsnight Scotland or BBC Scotland as there are on equivalent programmes down south, but the gulf in quality between the analysis of the supposed experts and sullied amateurs is certainly closing.

Indeed, there is no greater celebration of how far the Scottish blog scene has come than 2011 being the year that several former bloggers were elected to the Scottish Parliament, taking their early passion and promise right to the heart of the politics that they are dedicating their careers to. MSPs Kezia Dugdale, Marco Biagi, Mark McDonald and Joan MacAlpine have moved from being online poachers to parliamentary gamekeepers.

So, in order to make sense of the past year of Scottish political blogging, it seems necessary to split the population into three distinct groups – the solo blogs, the group blogs and the media blogs.

Solo Bloggers

The noisier any scene is, the harder it is for a lone voice to pierce through and so it has proved in the past twelve months for the independent individuals seeking to cultivate their online presence.

The past year was dominated by the May Holyrood elections and, as Scotland waited for the campaign to get going (it never really did in the end), the frustration was palpable in certain quarters. Poll after poll was not backed up with policy after policy which led Stuart Winton at Planet Politics, eerily prescient even as far out as February, to remark the following:

This blogger tends not to salivate over the latest opinion poll results, thus the finer details of the figures are generally completely ignored.

However, it’s a bit more difficult to avoid the nuances behind the headline figures this morning because Scotland on Sunday is prominently featuring an article about the SNP proudly proclaiming that they have a mandate for a second Holyrood term which “crosses parties”, this based on polling results which indicate that a significant number of those who intend voting for other parties think that the Nationalists should be re-elected.

Come again? Some people who intend voting Tory (say) think the SNP deserve a second term?

For this blogger the impression conveyed by the whole thing is that of a slightly desperate and contrived attempt to impress from the SNP and questionable news values from SoS: standard polling results are of little interest outside the political bubble without engineering self-serving figures like this.

The final result of the Scottish Parliamentary elections, an SNP landslide, masked the long held belief that Labour were going to win back power without breaking a sweat.

This does not mean that the Nationalist Scottish Government will not be held to account. Green blogger Suitably Despairing has relentlessly challenged the SNP’s regular boast of being world-leading reducers of emissions, as this excerpt from March testifies:

The Scottish Government seems to have fallen head over heels in love with a new report showing that it would be possible to “store” up to 100 years of Scotland’s CO2 output under the North Sea.

Woo hoo! We can pollute as much as we want with no consequences! Back of the net!

Except… the report comes from a whole load of fossil-fuel industry bodies that are competing for a huge public subsidy to study Carbon Capture and Storage. They’re what are known as vested interests.

A significant storm that spilled out of the Scottish teacup and across the UK during the summer centred on the less-than-polite remarks that First Minister Alex Salmond made about the judges sitting on the Supreme Court and the question of what jurisdiction said court should have over Scotland, given the primacy of Scots Law. SNP member and lawyer Lallands Peat Worrier provided judicious commentary on the ongoing furore in his own unique way:

There are a number of more toothsome morsels on this mixter-maxter platter. When the issue last burst onto the political scene in March of this year, I composed a couple of posts, trying to outline the legal position, on the jurisdiction of the UK Supreme Court over Scots criminal matters. In the course of the first, I was highly critical of Fiona Hyslop’s basically misleading presentation of these issues on BBC Newsnicht. In a lower key way, her mad March is/ought muddle has only been enlarged in the subsequent arguments this week. In the second, I offered a critique of a piece by John McTernan in the Hootsmon, which argued that the SNP were engaged in “trumped up posturing” on the jurisdiction of the Court. He needed reminding, I submitted, about the extent to which his own position was politicised by a Unionist politics, rather than the value neutral, humble, technocratic and commonsensical conclusion of dulldog legal reason. That point too, I think, obtains today. Both posts may be a helpful starting point for folk trying to tease out the various elements so hurriedly and untidily knotted together in today’s debates on the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court.

Tireless Lib Dem blogger Caron’s Musings has written a stupefying 491 blog posts in 2011 alone so far. Back in February, the AV referendum was capturing her full attention as she vented her frustrations at the No to AV camp’s tactics:

Disarming with humour is usually quite an effective tactic and a genius has come up with the perfect antidote to the No2AV Campaign’s latest advertising campaign. The No2AV ad features a series of heart rending images of babies or soldiers, for example, with a caption saying “he needs a maternity unit/bulletproof vest/ etc”, not an alternative voting system. You can see an example of the ad on the brand spanking new Total Politics website. It seems a little less overwhelming seeing it today on my laptop than it did yesterday when I saw it on my iPhone.

If you’ve been on another planet for the last 24 hours, or aren’t on Twitter or Facebook, you may not have noticed a serious of messages saying such things as “Margaret Beckett needs a pony not an alternative voting system” or my favourite “The EU needs fluffy handcuffs not an alternative voting system.”

With just over two months to go before polling day, I can’t imagine that the bottom of the No2AV barrel has yet been scraped. Heaven knows what they’ll come up with next.

The rich seam of content that Scottish solo bloggers provide continued undiluted throughout 2011 but the time constraints placed on operating an independent blog are many and, so, it was not entirely surprising to see so much merger activity across Scotland during the year.

Group Blogs

Several new group blogs sprang up in the past year with established bloggers deciding that they could still contribute to a free-flowing political website and enjoy the economies of scale that a team of editors provides.

Labour Hame was formed by Tom Harris MP (well known for his blogging exploits and current candidate for the yet-to-be-created leader of Scottish Labour role). The new website, not avoiding the gaudy graphics that have largely been consigned to the past, was created in June with the following objective:

“That’s what Labour Hame needs to be. We need to understand why Labour lost our former “Scottish heartlands”. And we desperately need to exploit the experience and knowledge of all parts of our party – and beyond it – if we’re ever to be seen again as a serious alternative government at Holyrood.

We want Scottish Labour’s voice to be heard again. But first we need to know what we’re for and what we want to say.”

Labour Hame quickly filled the void created by the aforementioned dearth of Labour-supporting blogs north of the border. The collectivist-style website has attracted contributions from a wide array of Labour and non-Labour politicos, though it does, at the time of writing, seem to be distracted by an SNP majority Government and the looming independence referendum rather than focussing on the future of its own currently leaderless party. Of the first 10 posts, only one did not focus on independence or the SNP . (I would know, I wrote it).

The opening post from Jamie Glackin, a member of Labour’s Scottish Executive Committee, set a marker for the imagination and solution-focussed nature of the majority of posts that followed:

How about this? Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland all have their own parliaments, responsible for all devolved powers, including taxation. The UK government exists as a federal government with power devolved to it from the national parliaments. MPs become members of their own parliaments and assemblies and an agreed number are sent to the UK Parliament from their own jurisdiction. Seems fair to me and also negotiates the tricky West Lothian Question. The UK parliament can be balanced by the Council of Ministers. I accept that this won’t be the whole story but surely its worth considering?

Another group blog that sprang to life in the past year is Better Nation, a website pretty much solely focussed on Scottish Politics and intent on remaining positive that pools the writing talent of former solo bloggers Jeff Breslin, James Mackenzie, Malc Harvey, Aidan Skinner and current solo blogger Kate Higgins Kirsty Connell.

A wide range of topics have been discussed at Better Nation though the post that arguably drew the most comment was infact a Guest Post from SNP MP Pete Wishart who argued that Scottish independence would enhance a sense of Britishness:

“Britishness will exist in Scotland long after we become independent. In fact I think that it could well be enhanced with independence. With independence we will get the opportunity to define a new Britishness, one based on equality and mutual respect. Britishness will still be all about our shared history and culture but it can also be about the new positive relationship we will seek to build.

I would also be happy to see any number of shared institutions being called British and it could and should be the brand name of our new enhanced and equal 21st century partnership. Who knows maybe independence can give Britishness a new lease of life.

So there you go, that’s me, British and proud of it in an independent Britain.

Opposition press releases, print articles and television discussions followed in what proved to be a fine example of how blogs occassionally serve to feed the news agenda.

In Scotland, independence is rarely far from the political agenda and no truer is this the case than at the well established group blog Bella Caledonia. Indeed, to call Bella Caledonia a ‘group blog’ is to cheapen the impressive array of events and endeavours that the team involves itself in, from TED to local debates. More than most, this website is really pushing the boundaries of the direction and distance that a Scottish blog can travel, so much so that it won’t be long before it outgrows the moniker ‘blog’ and becomes something altogether more substantial.

Finding a Tory blog in Scotland is no easy task these days but with the leadership contest just getting going at the time of writing, there is scope for new online debate to take shape and fresh faces to come to the fore. Indeed, a fledgling new blog called ‘Tory Hoose’ was registered at the tail end of August 2011 with the following objective:

Tory Hoose is a new chapter in progressive thinking and conservatism within Scotland, a grassroots and independent alternative to the party machines. What sets Toryhoose apart from other centre right Scottish blogs is that this is not the musings of an individual, but a home for the whole broad church of conservative thinking.

For too long the dreaded Cyber-Nats have dominated the Scottish online political scene, and driven the Scottish political news agenda through online publicity, blogging and social networking. Labour (in an attempt to seem less London centric) has attempted a fight back with the advent of Labourhame, their Scottish labour take on the legendary Conservative: Home. So now it only seems fair that the centre right take its turn. Toryhoose has taken on this challenge, and hopes to bring a balanced cross section of thought and a good deal of witty banter.

We will have to wait and see whether that objective is realised but with an SNP majority in the Parliament, it is important for individual parties to find their voice and this has also been the case for other parties with Scottish women Liberal Democrats creating the blog WiLD and Bright Green Scotland continuing to champion environmental issues.

Media blogs

The traditional media in Scotland is experiencing difficult times with the News of the World now finished, the Daily Record cutting jobs and the Scotsman and Herald suffering from a chronic reduction in circulation and advertising revenues. Through such volatility comes opportunity and although blogging pages at the Scotsman and Herald (The Steamie and Parcel of Rogues) has gotten off to stuttering starts, the increase in blogging from Scottish journalists in a bid to increase circulation and boost profiles has been palpable, whether its resurrecting old blogs or starting up new ones.

Torcuil Crichton, Westminster Editor for the Daily Record, has been running his Whitehall 1212 blog since 2008 (named after the old telephone number for Scotland Yard, in case you’re wondering). Torcuil covered a wide range of topics in the past year from celebrities to Megrahi, though whether they are at the same or opposite ends of one spectrum these days is unclear.

A post that is typical of the type of article from Torcuil that gets under the skin of the headlines of the day is an entry from December when the Wikileaks revelations touched on the Lockerbie bomber, Abdelbasset al-Megrahi:

The Wikileaks revelations have lapped up onto Scottish shores again tonight with the claim that Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi threatened the UK with “thuggish” reprisals if the Lockerbie bomber was not released from Greenock jail.

The leaked cables from the US Ambassador in the UK in 2009, show that Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond was privately “shocked” by the fierce American reaction to the release of the Abdul Basset al-Megrahi, leaked US documents reveal.

Radio broadcaster and journalist Lesley Riddoch shares her thoughts on politics, Scotland and life in general on her ‘Another side to Lesley Riddoch’ blog and in April considered the “wee parties Holyrood dilemma”, considering in some detail the difficulties that the smaller political parties in Scotland faced at election time:

The bonus side of the Greens getting no coverage is that unpopular Green policies get no coverage either and the party can remain fluffy and positive in the public’s mind. The danger is they’re fluffy, positive and also forgotten when that important ballot box moment occurs. A small note of consolation is that the same thing happened to the SNP.

Alan Cochrane has continued to blog from within the Daily Telegraph’s website, mostly focussing on the Scottish Parliament and unmistakably focussing on chipping away at the SNP. In a post from soon after the SNP’s election victory in May, Alan urged readers to not believe First Minister Alex Salmond’s “diet-nationalism”:

What they (the SNP) say they want now is a new relationship with the rest of the United Kingdom, which would see them sharing things like defence, foreign affairs and macro-economic policy. Or rather, that’s what they want us to think is what they want.

It is, as ever with this party, baloney. The stuff they’re advocating is the same old warmed over nonsense that they continually fall back on whenever they’re faced with the certainty that, their stupendous Holyrood election result notwithstanding, hardly anyone in Scotland supports their core objective of separation.

Freelance journalist David Torrance started a new Scottish Politics blog called ‘Mugwump’ showcasing considered, intelligent posts covering devolved and reserved politics north of the border. David looks very well placed to provide objective insight into the positioning and politicking of the various stakeholders in the coming independence referendum, as the passage from a recent post shows:

It has now been more than 100 days since the “Scottish Spring” of 5 May, time enough, one might have thought, for both Nationalists and Unionists to regroup, rethink and respond to the election result. Some chance. While the Scottish Secretary Michael Moore (above) was certainly correct when he said on Wednesday night that the SNP had been “uncharacteristically shy” in setting out exactly what independence means, equally the UK Government has been characteristically vague in making its case for what Scottish Tory leadership contender Murdo Fraser calls the “New Unionism”.

I flatter myself that Murdo pinched the phrase from an article I wrote for the Scotsman a few months back. Alas, at first sight both he and Moore appear to be stuck in black-and-white “separatism-versus-the Union” territory, although on closer examination the Deputy Tory Leader might just be hinting at shades of grey. Anyone expecting some flesh on the bones of the “New Unionism” in the Scottish Secretary’s speech to the David Hume Institute, however, would have been sorely disappointed.

The last website to gain a mention in this chapter is Newsnet Scotland and it has been saved for last because it is not clear if it is a group blog, a media blog, a solo blog or even a blog at all. It proved to be essential reading during the election campaign, with a pro-SNP focus that arguably balanced out the more unionist mainstream media. This website has had a meteoric rise in support over the past twelve months and truly symbolises the ongoing bottom-up realignment of political discussion across the nation.

All in all, Scotland’s blogosphere is complicated, nuanced and professional. The cohesion with the Parliament and the media is fluid and relevant and the debate is open, honest, full-blooded and respected on all sides.

Scotland’s democracy, online and offline, is in a very healthy state indeed so here’s to yet another year of progress.