The national media today have been bringing to light a matter of real concern where an SNP government minister attempted to put the frighteners on a distinguished academic in relation to an address of his to a pro-UK event in Dundee.
The gagging attempt could be honestly construed as a distasteful form of blackmail through the improper exercise of power.
Sports Minister, Shona Robison, constituency MSP for Dundee City East, took it upon herself to email Dundee University authorities and, in her own words, questioned whether his appearance was ‘compatible’ with his academic work on the independence referendum.
Why was it any of her business?
This sort of action is familiar in the world where covert and coded pressure is brought to bear and to the shame of humanity, it is too often successful.
The hint of worse to come if the individual does not watch her or his step is usually enough to induce self-editing. If the, ironically, independent minded individual carries on regardless, the macchiavell in the shadows may give up and wait for a later moment of retribution – or may ratchet up the pressure. Universities need their funding and, as the truism says, there is no such thing as a free lunch. Academics difficult to sack may still be destroyed by the deliberate sabotage of their career.
The academic in question, historian, Professor Chris Whatley, who is personally in favour of Scotland remaining in the Union, is heading an objective academic initiative targeted on cranking up debate on independence and on analysing the core issues concerned.
The supportive open letter from three eminent academics
Professor Wharley has been supported in this incident by a trinity of eminent Scottish academics, Hugh Pennington, Emeritus Professor of Bacteriology at Aberdeen University; Susan Shaw, Emeritus Professor at Strathclyde University, with a specialism in the international food industry; and Ronald J Roberts, Emeritus Professor at the Institute of Aquaculture at Stirling University.
It may be no coincidence that all three are retired and are therefore beyond retribution for their action in writing an open letter in support of the intellectual freedoms of thought and expression.
They say: ‘It is unacceptable for a minister to question the integrity of a academic on the basis of his or her political views.
‘It would be a very dangerous road to go down if the views of academics were required to be in conformity with the government of the day.
‘Regardless of a person’s views on whether we should remain in the UK or go our separate ways, nobody should fear speaking out. This is especially true of academics. Professor Whatley is a respected academic of many years’ standing who also happens to support Scotland remaining in the UK.’
Professor Whatley’s intellectual independence
Professor Whatley is also author of The Scots and the Union, a controversial research indicating that Scotland may not have been sold out in the 1707 Treaty of Union after all but that the treaty was negotiated in good faith by parliamentarians who believed it to be the best course of action for Scotland.
Not unexpectedly this is seen as heresy by the nationalists, loath to lose the recruiting sergeant of the ‘parcel of rogues’ bought by ‘English gold’.
However, apart from Professor Whatley’s evidence – and he stresses that his book is intended to give rise to an evidenced debate on Scotland’s future and is not a political manifesto – there are other historical precedents to indicate the perils of reading into history the preferred positions of the current moment – whenever that moment may be.
The English were emotively blamed for years and without question for killing off the Irish gaelic; and for doing so deliberately as an an act of cultural imperialism designed to prevent recurring rebellion by dispossessing a people of the language that was the carrier of their heritage.
Late 20th century research by objective historians told a very different story.
The teaching and learning of gaelic was not forbidden in school in favour of English by the English political hegemony.
Teachers were pressured by gaelic speaking peasant parents to teach their children English – as the passport to work and potential prosperity.
Later generations might mourn the resulting broken heritage but peasants looking to the best economic support for their children’s future could not be said to have made the wrong decision in their moment.
History becomes fiction when events are not considered in their own context.
The measure of a confident Scotland will be its ability – or not – to look anew at a historical event and not to feel that they have lost anything if the interpretation they had previously accepted proves misleading.
A nation shaped on the basis of imagined past wrongs will be misdirected and malformed.
The measure of a confident government of Scotland will be one trusting its citizens to think, speak and debate as they will.
A nation micro-managed by monomania can only be made fearful by the whimsicality of such paranoia.
Hungry children once had their hands cut off for daring to steal apples to eat. The mindset that would see an academic losing his job for daring to think is no different – nor the need any the less.