Susan Smith argues the fallout following the appointment of Neil Oliver as NTS president is a worrying sign for Scottish democratic debate
The appointment of Neil Oliver as president of the National Trust for Scotland (NTS) highlights a democratic deficit in Scottish society.
Archaeologist, conservationist and television presenter, Oliver is eminently qualified for the role of NTS president and his appointment is a complete coup. He’s a well-known face in Scottish society and beloved by the middle-aged, middle-class history lover that is a regular NTS visitor and member. Well done NTS.
Yet, his appointment immediately spurred a series of online petitions calling for his resignation. Why? Because of his political opinions. Charities are supposed to be apolitical, the petitioners cried.
To call for an outspoken critic of the government to be removed from a role that has absolutely nothing to do with his political opinions is simply frightening
Oliver, you see, is a very outspoken critic of Scottish independence and his choice of language on this issue can mostly politely be described as inopportune. The 2014 referendum campaign was a “hate fest”, he once said, and the prospect of a second referendum was a “cancerous presence”, and then there was the quite personal jibes against Alex Salmond.
That far worse has been said on social media, from both sides of the independence campaign, is beside the point for his critics. Nationalists are outraged that Oliver with his distinctly Scottish profile (who’s he, the chief executive of an English charity asked me recently) and link to Scottish history, the most populist of which centres on its fight for nationhood, should choose the wrong side of the political debate.
But to call for an outspoken critic of the government to be removed from a role that has absolutely nothing to do with his political opinions is simply frightening. The petitioners should be ashamed of themselves, and well done 38 Degrees for removing its version.
Yet, the furore over this appointment – which could be called a “hate fest” – has demonstrated a democratic deficit on both sides.
The response from pro-unionists (including politicians representing mainstream political parties) on Twitter was ridiculous. They suggest TFN is undemocratic, and in contravention of its apolitical position, to pose the poll.
Since when did asking a question become undemocratic? Since when did a binary question have only one possible answer? Since when did it become ok for politicians to attempt to silence the media?
This debate is a symbol of a much wider problem, one that questions the right for people, like Neil Oliver, to dissent.
This obviously isn't just a Scotland problem, we are seeing it globally in other so-called democracies like the United States, but that is all the more reason why, as a society, as politicians, as activists and as journalists, we need to be very careful not to naively follow what is actually a very threatening zeitgeist.
Scottish independence divides society – fairly neatly to be honest. If we let it create a political environment in which debate is stifled, in which we close our eyes and ears to people who think differently to ourselves, then the future for Scotland looks very bleak – in or out of the union.
For the record, TFN thoroughly supports NTS’s right to appoint Neil Oliver as its president. As an editorial team we believe Scotland has the best third sector in the world, and we will vigorously defend our role in maintaining this by promoting, questioning and challenging Scottish charities.
Susan Smith is editor of Third Force News.