If I’m being completely honest (and much to my mother’s dismay), having been somewhat trapped in the St Andrews bubble for the past four years, I haven’t taken as much interest in the upcoming Scottish independence referendum as I should have done – until lately.
I was prompted to undertake some reading and research although I must confess to not having read every word of Scotland’s Future, the Scottish government’s white paper. It’s a weighty tome and, though I have skimmed it online, I chose to pursue some more accessible avenues.
Recently, I had the privilege of interviewing one of Scotland’s foremost political commentators and ex-St Andreans, Brian Taylor, who is now BBC Scotland’s chief political editor. As we draw nearer to the independence referendum in Scotland, I asked Mr Taylor a few questions to elicit his assessment of the political situation. I also took advantage of the opportunity to find out a little more about him and his time at university.
The Saint: When were you a student in St Andrews and what did you study?
Brian Taylor: I studied at St Andrews in the mid-1970s. My honours subject was English but I also pursued philosophy. Indeed, I had hoped to take a joint honours degree only to be thwarted by my professor, who said that English already encompassed two subjects: ‘English language and English literature.’
In addition, I was obliged to study a language other than English. My choice was French, which won out narrowly over Latin.
Beyond these, I took a course in theology at St Mary’s while still an arts student. I found it fascinating: excellent lectures.
TS: You, like many others, met your wife in St Andrews. How did that come about?
BT: I actually met my wife Pam while we were both at school in Dundee. At a noisy school hop, I sidled up to her and asked her shyly for a dance. She replied, romantically: “What?” The noise of the Rolling Stones or some such had defeated us. Despite this, I persisted and we have now been married for umpteen years.
However, we became engaged while at St Andrews together (she studied modern languages together with medieval history and fine art). After we graduated, we were married in St Salvator’s Chapel. A glorious occasion, full of wonderful memories.
TS: What are your fondest memories of student life in St Andrews?
BT: The friends, the atmosphere, the old Golf Hotel, the Atholl, football, table football, the intellectual challenge, the social opportunities, residence balls, pier walks, Raisin Weekend, the history all around us, the late night debates over coffee, the early morning swim off the West Sands.
In particular, I enjoyed editing the student newspaper, which was then called Aien. We were entirely independent and had a constant battle to find money. I recall running a disco in the Union – with a rare late bar! – which raised what seemed to us to be a fortune.
TS: There was a referendum 35 years ago. What’s the difference this time round?
BT: I have been a journalist specialising in Scottish politics since Braveheart was a boy. Consequently, while embroiled in covering the current independence referendum, I can cast an eye back to not just the devolution referendum in 1997 but the earlier version in 1979.
I covered that 1979 referendum as a young journalist on The Press and Journal in Aberdeen, a fine newspaper which was rash enough to hire me from university.
If I may digress a little, I recall the interview which got me the job. The editor asked the classic trick question: “What will you do if you don’t become a journalist?” Rather cheekily, I said I would be in touch with the Harbour Board in my native Dundee. He looked understandably puzzled. I continued: “If I can’t be a journalist, I’ll jump in the docks!” Corny, undoubtedly, but I got the job!
In the 1979 ballot, Scotland said yes, just. But the majority was not sufficient to surmount the 40 per cent rule introduced in the Commons – which required 40 per cent of the entire electorate to say yes, not just those casting a vote.
In 1979, the Labour government of James Callaghan was at the end of its parliamentary life. The “winter of discontent”, featuring industrial strife, had wearied Britain, including Scotland.
By contrast, the 1997 ballot was held by a fresh, incoming Labour government. There was palpable support for both the devolution proposition and the tax-varying power.
As ever, this time around, the people of Scotland will again determine their own future.
TS: What do you think independence would mean for education in Scotland?
BT: I am afraid I must leave that to the people of Scotland to decide. Advocates of independence say Scotland’s universities would continue to thrive, with the principle of free higher education protected.
They say further that early years education and childcare would benefit. More generally, they argue that Scotland would be able to choose education policies in keeping with Scottish needs.
Critics of independence argue that Scotland’s universities are better protected within the wider polity and tax base of the UK. They say that argument also applies to school education.
TS: What are your thoughts on allowing under 18s to vote?
BT: Supporters of the change say it is reasonable to extend the vote to those who are already able to join the armed forces. Critics say 16 is too young to take key electoral decisions.
TS: The usual campaigning period is six weeks prior to the vote; this campaign period has lasted over two years. Do you think people are now tired of hearing the same things and therefore have lost interest in the campaign?
BT: I appreciate that there is a hazard in over-familiarity breeding contempt. However, I discern a real appetite for information and debate among the people of Scotland. They are hungry for facts and competing information. I believe the interest will be sustained.
TS: Why is becoming independent important to those who wish it?
BT: Again, not really for me to answer. I analyse such matters – rather than evangelising them. However, put most simply, those who advocate independence say that decisions affecting Scotland are best taken by those who live here.
TS: What are the biggest challenges for you in your role in covering and reporting on the referendum?
BT: To stress, I do not regard the following list as necessarily being “challenges” in the sense of difficult to surmount. Rather they are core points. However, herewith the list.
To maintain neutrality and impartiality. To report the referendum issues fully, fairly and accurately. To report them in an accessible but informative way. To ensure that the questions genuinely being asked by the public are asked of the political campaigns, on both sides. To ensure that all relevant topics are aired.
TS: Did you always want to be a journalist and how did you pave the way to your career?
BT: Once it became fairly evident that I was not going to play for Dundee United, I turned to my other love: literature. While at school and university, I committed verse which, thankfully, has since been suppressed.
Again while at St Andrews, the young woman who was then my girlfriend and is now my wife gently suggested that, while poetry was all fine and dandy, there might be more prospect of a career in journalism. I joined the student newspaper and, within short order, became editor. If I recall right, I succeeded the previous editor’s dog who was temporarily in charge (and a fine editor too).
There followed a wonderful summer working for the St Andrews Citizen before graduation and a career in the media. After working in Aberdeen, I spent around six years as a lobby correspondent in Westminster for the newspaper group which then included the P&J. I returned to Scotland to join the BBC at the very end of 1985.
So from those early days, I have been a confirmed and self-confessed journalist. I reckon probation is now unlikely.
The referendum will be held on 18 September this year.