WE think we know what the British establishment looks like. In truth, though, it’s an amorphous and gaseous beast that defies easy description. When you think you have it pinned down it shifts shape and you find that your previous approximation of its boundaries are inadequate and out of date. It doesn’t sit above or below politics but beyond. Its primary role is to maintain the natural order and to extinguish those forces it perceives to be a threat.

The royal family, the Conservative Party and Britain’s scattered and desiccated aristocracy are its foundations, all of them reinforced by the judiciary; the BBC executive and the officer class of the British army. But it’s a nimble and flexible creation that deploys a formidable system of patronage to enlist grasping postulants from among those whom it would normally consider to be inferior.

These perform the function of useful idiots and are pressed into service when ripples of popular discontent threaten to become waves. Labour politicians seeking ermine are particularly susceptible to their blandishments as well as those who feel that an accumulation of wealth entitles them to preferment. Some in my own trade become so mesmerised by prolonged exposure to those they are meant to scrutinise that they too fall into line like some perverse version of The Manchurian Candidate.

In Scotland we fondly believe ourselves to be free of the ancient rituals of power. Yet there is an establishment here too that’s every bit as pernicious as the British one. Cabinet ministers are in it, (though by no means all); some civil servants; a few bankers and some rich entrepreneurs whose wealth alone accords them the privilege of influencing policy.

It also includes a number who mooch around its periphery working hard to seek ingress by soliciting invitations to its salons and lobbies. They form ‘think tanks’ with absurdly grand names as a way to touch the hems of the elite. They are purveyors of moonbeams and unicorns who get edgy when the masses threaten to take matters into their own hands.

Some host social gatherings which they hope will be favoured by a politician, perhaps even a cabinet minister. The political lobbying industry in Scotland has grown to become a small, virtual state residing in a few streets around Edinburgh’s Charlotte Square. Regrettably, they are joined by a coterie of journalists who have spent decades perfecting the art of the air kiss for the dubious privilege of gaining access to the inner circles of captains and kings. Some have even been known to form kitchen cabinets around their pet politicians, jostling to bring them food and to join them on family holidays. It’s pathetic.

Others who should be scrutinising the work of quangos and health boards, instead choose to sit on them. This is how the Scottish establishment works: it knows no political boundaries and strips otherwise sound people of their good judgment. Thus, nothing ever gets to change too dramatically and all rude dissent is quickly shut down.

In a moment of weakness some years ago I was persuaded to host "a cocktail party" that was attended by a handful of politicians and others who hitch a ride on this carousel. I’ve regretted it ever since. What in God’s name was I thinking? I’ve encountered several very decent politicians but my job isn’t to seek their friendship and attend their children’s weddings but to observe their political performance and be free to criticise them. You simply can’t do that with any degree of objectivity if you’re inviting them over for cocktails and spinach artichokes.

This week, we caught a glance of how the Scottish establishment works. It emerged in the aftermath of Sarah Smith’s injudicious report about Nicola Sturgeon on Monday night. Ms Smith, the BBC’s Scotland Editor and a fine broadcast journalist, said that the First Minister had “enjoyed the opportunity to set her own lockdown rules”. Defending herself the following day, Ms Sturgeon tweeted: “Never in my entire political career have I ‘enjoyed’ anything less than this.”

It wasn’t a hanging offence though; merely a rare error of judgment to which we are all prone in our jobs. Not unreasonably, though, a flood of independence supporters took to social media to condemn Ms Smith’s clumsy inclusion of personal opinion in the middle of a news report. Many nationalists have rightly perceived a pattern of incidents when the public sector broadcaster’s veil has slipped. Social media has given them a platform to express their frustration that was previously denied them.

The Scottish establishment soon got to work, though, portraying Ms Smith’s critics as an unruly gang of vagabonds who needed to watch their language. One of Ms Smith’s defenders was Kevin Pringle, formerly chief adviser to Alex Salmond and one of the most admired political communicators of his generation.

Mr Pringle is a chap of unimpeachable integrity and his defence was typically measured but it was quickly weaponised by the political classes to chide the untutored hordes. None of them pointed out that Mr Pringle’s day job is with Charlotte Street Partners, an influential lobbying firm founded by Andrew Wilson, the former SNP politician and Royal Bank of Scotland executive and Sir Angus Grossart, former chairman of RBS. Mr Wilson sits on the board of the John Smith Centre for Public Policy, named after Sarah Smith’s late father. One of the other trustees is her sister, Catherine. Two more are Ed Balls, former UK chancellor and Ruth Davidson, former leader of the Scottish Conservatives.

Thus, a little aperture had accidentally opened onto the Scottish establishment and how it operates. Here we had Labour, the SNP, the Conservatives; a major lobbying firm, the banking industry and the BBC – briefly glimpsed together in a two-day, political squall. And all able to call on journalists and commentators affecting outrage at Twitter’s delinquent ways. When the time comes, some of these will seek the sinecures and folderols with which the Scottish establishment rewards those who suppress the scrofulous sentiments of the masses. If you ever see me joining them you have my permission to stop me with extreme prejudice.

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