Emblazoned with the Scottish thistle, bordered by saltires, and conspicuous by the absence of any vestige of the Union, the Sunday Herald’s front page leaves little doubt as to their political affiliation. However, if that wasn’t enough, the jet black “Sunday Herald says YES” that adorned the 4 May edition makes clear the paper’s pro-independence stance. “It seemed to be honest to tell our readers where we are,” Richard Walker, the Sunday Herald’s editor tells me. “Quite a few other papers have written editorials on the referendum and the general stance has been against independence. We feel otherwise.”
Walker’s weekly is the only paper to have come out in support of independence and is certainly plugging a gap in the market. To the chagrin of Alex Salmond, the Scottish national press has been almost entirely hostile to independence. While not overtly endorsing the No position, The Times and The Daily Telegraph’s Scotland editions have shown clear unionist inclinations. Others have been less equivocal: “We’d all be losers in a divided kingdom”, opined a Scottish Daily Mail editorial in 2012. The Daily Record, a strong Scottish Labour supporter, has been critical of independence while The Scottish Sun, which initially flirted with endorsing independence, had a change of heart in April of last year. Rupert Murdoch’s decision to draw a line under a four-year charm offensive towards the Scottish first minister ended a key alliance for Mr Salmond and the Yes camp.
So the decision by the Sunday Herald to plough a lone furrow was gleefully pounced upon by the SNP, the party the paper has endorsed in the last two Holyrood elections. A statement released by the party said it was a “very welcome decision” to publish an “eloquent” pro-independence editorial.
And eloquent it is. Replete with emotive language, the Sunday Herald goes a long way to make Bonnie Scotland sound a whole lot bonnier free from the grip of Westminster. Alasdair Gray’s thistle illustration and a disarmingly compelling editorial are redolent of a newspaper that has been seduced by the vision presented by the nationalists, what the paper poetically calls “the chance to alter course, to travel roads less taken, to define a destiny”.
But if the decision to beat the drum for independence shored up the nationalist readership the paper enjoys, was it, as some commentators suggest, a canny appeal to the readers of other papers who believe passionately in independence to switch over to the Sunday Herald?
Mr Walker certainly believes there’s a large constituency of Scots who support independence and feel disenchanted by the lack of mainstream papers that gives voice to their beliefs. “Scots have been bombarded with negative scare stories by pro-unionists and they don’t get a proper balance and that balance is something we provide,” he tells me. “It’s been gratifying to see the response amongst our readers. It’s been three weeks since we published the editorial and our sales figures are ahead of where they were last year”.
Yet the editor is quick to point out that the paper’s decision was not fuelled by what he calls a “cynical exercise in getting new readers”; “newspapers have progressed from a time where they say ‘We believe this and we expect you to follow our beliefs’,” he tells me. “We explain what we believe and what values the paper adheres to and readers can make up their own minds. We should know what the newspaper stands for.”
As complimentary of the Yes campaign as he is, Mr Walker is equally frank in his condemnation of the Better Together team. “The No team are throwing up an aimless number of scare stories, most without any merit whatsoever, some of them plainly ridiculous,” he says. “We were waiting for a positive picture of why Scotland should stay in the Union and what we’ve got is a picture of the doom that will await us in the event of a Yes vote. There’s been no sign of that positivity”. He is particularly critical of David Cameron’s role in the referendum, or lack thereof. “He’s got one foot in and one foot out in that he comes up [to Scotland], expresses his view and does a few interviews. But he’s also got one foot out by refusing to debate publicly with Alex Salmond”.
Should the prime minister resign then, if the stars align for Salmond and the nationalists on 18 September? Mr Walker is less forthcoming on this subject. “That would be up to him. It’s not really for me to say.” For that matter, should Mr Salmond fall on his sword if his long held ambition comes to nothing? Mr Walker is quick to distinguish between a vote for independence and support for the SNP, but admits that that independence is a key plank in their manifesto. “If Scots say no to independence on 18 September, Salmond will have failed in his political mission,” he acknowledges. “But that doesn’t mean Salmond should resign,” he hastens to add.
Mr Walker and the paper’s decision to back independence seems founded on a feeling of two political ideologies at loggerheads. He tells me that Scots who want independence are not driven by the casuistry of jingoism, haggises and an inherent repulsion to the Westminster elite. Rather, what Westminster offers is not in tune with Scotland’s political culture. “We’ve got the opportunity to reshape the country in a way that’s more in line with Scotland’s attitude to politics. It’s not a two fingers to Westminster, it’s not a case of ‘we hate the English’. It’s about taking responsibility to decide how to spend our money and how we go forward as a country. I don’t think that’s too much to ask for.”
Mr Walker won’t be drawn into speculating whether any other Scottish (or British for that matter) papers will latch onto the Sunday Herald’s coattails. “It’s up to them to decide what line they take,” he says. The Scottish mainstream media has been a hostile battlefield for the Yes campaign: the Sunday Herald’s decision to join their cause will be heartening, but whether it will win them the war remains to be seen.