Brian Taylor: New Herald columnist on how the national question shapes Scotland

Brian Taylor, BBC Scotland’s long-serving political editor, has always had an ambition to write for The Herald. He first started reading the paper when he moved to Glasgow as a teenager and has been a reader and subscriber ever since. Now he’s keen to use his new weekly column, which starts in The Herald today, to carry on doing what he’s always aimed to do as a journalist: find stuff out and tell folk about it.

Brian, who retired from the BBC this week, has been finding stuff out for more than 40 years, although his first attempt at writing was actually poetry (his girlfriend, now wife, thankfully talked him out of it, he says). He then joined the student newspaper at St Andrews, soon becoming editor, and also worked on the St Andrews Citizen. “It was the hot summer of 1976 and I was blown away by it,” he says, “The first person I interviewed was Milton Friedman and the second was the Crown Prince of Japan. It got me hooked.”

In the wake of graduating, he found his first regular occupation at the P&J in Aberdeen and expounded on legislative issues nearly from the beginning – and what an opportunity to do it: Callaghan was PM, the public authority was in emergency, the Tories had another pioneer in Margaret Thatcher, and there was a choice on Scottish devolution in 1979 (there would be a couple of more submissions for Brian to cover later). Brian says those early, energizing days showed him a portion of the standards, and standards, that have guided him since.

“I was always keen on politics,” he says. “I was aware some people thought politics was just for the politicians themselves, but I’ve never believed that – my experience is there are some politicians who are excellent, some who are experts and could hold down a serious job in the professions but choose to follow a public career, and there are some you wouldn’t send for a message. That’s the result of the electoral roulette wheel we spin. But mostly, they’re well inclined, they’re trying to do their best. What I believed I was doing, from those early days at the P&J, was trying to hold them to account.”

After almost ten years in papers, Brian moved to the BBC as a journalist and immediately detected that telecom may be appropriate for him, regardless of whether a portion of the innovation and the language took a touch of becoming acclimated to. “I was given a screen test,” he says, “and a few group would’ve been apprehensive, yet I was the inverse. I thought that it was empowering and invigorating. I cherished it. It felt normal to be addressing the camera instead of recording highlights and deciphering them. It actually completes 35 years on. I in a real sense felt in that first screen test, ‘alright, it’s each of the somewhat odd yet I believe I will have the option to do this’.”

Brian’s time at BBC Scotland coincided with momentous change and political events, including the fall of Thatcher, but for Brian there’s always been one underlying theme. “I covered a lot of Thatcher,” he says, “but throughout my whole time in journalism – which is now 42 years – there’s been this underlying question: the Scottish question. I covered the establishment of the parliament, I covered its first 20 years, but I covered as well the underlying argument about independence, the offer of independence, the attempts by other parties to counter that offer, and that has been the bulwark of my endeavours.”

Brian believes it’s right that the Scottish question has dominated much of his work. “It’s the underbelly of Scottish politics,” he says. “It’s always been there. The demand for self-government was not created by the SNP – the sense of a wish that Scotland’s interests should be taken more evidently into account – that wish created the SNP, brought them into being in 1934, brought the suggestion of self-government to the fore with Labour and the Liberal Democrats, and that same sense that Scotland required distinctive treatment all but obliterated the Scottish Conservatives.”

Brian says ironicly two things helped save the Scottish Conservatives from close to insensibility after 1997: right off the bat, the formation of a Scottish Parliament which they totally restricted and, besides, holding decisions to that parliament under corresponding portrayal, which they likewise completely contradicted. “Keep in mind,” he says, “that the starting point of the Scots Tories lies at any rate mostly in the Jacobites and contrary to the association in 1707. Things come around, and have an extremely, long history. Somebody once said that devolution resembles development, it simply takes longer.”

It is this kind of perspective, that sense of political, social and cultural history and context, that Brian wants to bring to his column in The Herald. “I want to write about the things that concern people and the things that intrigue and interest people. So it will be the topics of the day, the issues of the day, but I will try always to place them in context: why these announcements are being made. I will be aware at all times of that underbelly of Scottish political life; people’s views on how Scotland should be governed.”

“It’s a big topic,” he says, “and it has consequences – all the parties now recognise that. There’s a fundamental fault-line in Scottish public life, and therefore in political life, and it’s whether Scotland should be independent or part of the UK. You don’t resolve that by sitting down and having a group hug, you have to work at that one and that political fault-line has now created in Scotland a partisan fault-line between the largest party advocating independence, which is the SNP, and the largest party most vigorously advocating the union, which is the Conservatives. It’s also led to the partial – I stress, partial – eclipse of the Labour party. People say the Scottish question is a secondary issue, and in a way it is, in that it’s not like employment and the criminal justice system and healthcare and education, but it influences, and can determine, all of these things.”

Brian says he will also be applying the principles of objectivity that he always sought to apply at the BBC. “I give an analytical opinion which is very different from a tendentious opinion,” he says. “I will say that the point that the minister is making today is all very well but it’s a mile apart from what she said seven and a half months ago – let me remind you of what she said. And then I will try to analyse why that has happened. What I never do is say, ‘she said this seven and a half months ago, she’s saying a different thing today and what she’s saying today is tosh’. I will never do that. It’s not in me. You’ve got to explain the context. It becomes intuitive.”

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