Last week, just before the AGM, The Celtic Underground writer Critical Bill published his article on the directors and why he was going to vote against every one of them being reappointed to the board. The only one he had a dilemma with was Dermot Desmond, and only then because he realises, as many of us do, that an absentee landlord is not the worst type of owner we could have. There are far worse out there than the Irish billionaire.
His comments on one of the directors genuinely took me by surprise, because the point he made was one on politics which it hadn’t even dawned on me to think about. I reckon this point is so important, and so symbolic of everything that is wrong in our boardroom, that it deserves a greater and more thorough examination.
It’s about Brian Wilson.
Now before I start, let me point a couple of things out.
First, Brian Wilson is a highly accomplished man, and undisputedly one of us.
He wrote the Century With Honour book on our first hundred years and the Official History of Celtic in 2017.
He has been an MP and served in the cabinet. He is a visiting lecturer at a Scottish university. He has had directorships and chairmanships galore. He was one of the first high profile figures in the media – whilst at The Guardian – to demand that the SFA and UEFA investigate and end the sectarian employment practices at Ibrox.
This is a guy we can trust as a true friend of the club.
For all that, Critical Bill opposed his directorship being re-affirmed at the AGM and I was in total agreement with him and with the reasons he stated for doing so.
Brian Wilson’s political career was spent in the Labour Party. My own political life, which I left behind a long time ago, was spent in the same. Wilson remains as fiercely, tribally, committed to Labour as he ever was. Which is fine, as far as that goes.
Yet, as Critical Bill pointed out, and as is all too apparent from even the most basic Google search, Brian Wilson continues to work as a journalist, writing regular columns in mainstream titles which are pretty much built around one central theme; attacking the SNP with full force.
In the past few months alone he has referred to the Scottish Government as “a cabal”, to its MSP and MP’s as “nodding donkeys”, called its leadership “tinpot dictators” and compared the party itself to the Trumpists.
He has accused the SNP administration of “manufacturing grievances”, he has slammed the BBC for allowing propaganda by continuing to broadcast the First Minister’s daily briefings and has accused the party of more cover-ups and lies than this site blames the SFA for.
None of this is surprising, or particularly new.
But Celtic is the club that has condemned its own fans for taking an overtly political stance and incurring fines from UEFA. Critical Bill’s point is that what Wilson does every time he writes one of those columns is far, far more damaging than anything a group of supporters has done in the stands.
Over the last decade or so, the Celtic boardroom has had a number of mainstream political figures in its ranks, like Wilson himself, John Reid and Ian Livingston. Most have several things in common; none of them would ever be regarded as friends of Scottish independence, all are free-marketers and we have more than a few peers of the realm.
Indeed, we’ve have more knighted figures on our board than they will ever see in the stands at Ibrox far less in the director’s box.
Wilson got his CBE this year. Reid is Baron Reid of Cardowan and of course Livingston himself is, incredibly, Baron Livingston of Parkhead.
During the 2014 referendum, a particular Celtic fan site, with a well-established direct line to the boardroom, published a series of stories about how a Yes vote would be catastrophic for our chances of ever joining the EPL. The same website lashes the SNP without mercy, to this day.
Celtic didn’t take an official political stance during that campaign … but if it had, and if our directors had thought they could get away with it as so many other companies in Scotland did, I know they would have called for a No vote.
Wilson and Reid both played central roles in the No campaign.
When Reid took out a full page ad in The Catholic Observer urging its readers to vote no, the Electoral Commission investigated it and found out that he’d breached their rules by not declaring that he hadn’t paid for the ad himself.
You know who did?
Former Celtic non-executive director, and another Labour peer, Willie Haughey.
It’s a fact, it’s there in black and white, and it is irrefutable; in terms of how our boardroom is made up, we’re a unionist run club.
The thing is, their political affiliations would be their own business if they kept them to themselves, but Wilson is so vehemently anti-SNP, as almost all his generation of Labour members are (it’s one of the smaller reasons I left) that you can’t help wonder if this causes us problems at times.
Celtic has had to reach out to the Scottish Government on numerous occasions over the past couple of years, and we keep on hearing how the reception our club gets is frosty at best; that might just have something to do with the way one of our directors constantly tears into them in public, and in language not dissimilar to the way myself and other bloggers write about the SFA.
Do you think anyone at Hampden would be inclined to give us an interview, or write a guest post?
I think not.
You can only call out people enough times before you get taken off their Christmas Card list.
For us, that’s cool. Because we don’t need the SFA to do this job.
But Celtic does need the co-operation and assistance of government at times … and this government in particular.
Wilson, by the way, in keeping with his Labour background, also vehmently attacks the government in Westminster.
What does Brian Wilson give us as a Celtic director?
Expertise in business? Is it anything we couldn’t get from someone else? Fresh thinking? I don’t believe that for one minute; there’s a distinct absence of it in our boardroom. The one thing that he used to provide, beyond all doubt, was political heft.
Because as Critical Bill pointed out, it has been useful, at times, to have people like this on the board; political people, connected people, and maybe it still is.
John Reid did our game one of the greatest services in its recent history when he spoke out against the Famine Song.
As a former Secretary of State for the North of Ireland it was like giving those of us who were angry about that dirge a megaphone plugged into a stadium speaker.
Friends in high places is nothing to be sneezed at.
But Wilson ceased being an MP in 2005.
Labour’s been out of government in the UK since 2010.
It’s been out of government in Scotland for even longer than that; since the Holyrood election of 2007.
Even the party in Scotland has changed since then, although not enough.
The guy running Scottish Labour right now is Richard Leonard, a trade unionist, a left winger … which is something else that none of these directors and former directors could claim to be.
Wilson represents a politics all of Scotland has abandoned and left behind.
His anti-SNP bile – for that is what much of it is – is so old-school that most of his attack lines should be out of copyright by now.
The union itself is a crumbling ruin; the political system our board believes in and clings to is the one that will eject us out of the EU in 15 day’s time, with calamitous consequences for Celtic which none of us has even begun to properly grapple with yet.
This, by the way, is another area where our board has told us absolutely nothing and done even less.
Brian Wilson is a decent enough man.
I like some of what he stands for politically, and he has taken a number of positions which are courageous even if I don’t particularly agree with them.
But his ideas are yesterday’s ideas and his political affiliation is tied up in the pathological hatred he has for the SNP and which he shares with others of his generation.
That is all well and good if it’s expressed in private but in public it doesn’t win us friends in places we need them.
I’m not going to blame Brian Wilson and the pro-union bent of our board for the short-shrift we get from some of Scotland’s political class, but it doesn’t help us.
It doesn’t make it easier to build bridges and forge alliances … and we do have natural allies in some of the people who have been running the Holyrood Parliament these last 13 years and who are odds-on certainties to be there for another five, and probably with another landslide to boot.
That’s reason enough for wondering if Brian Wilson does us more harm than good.
But another is to wonder what we get from this arrangement other than a famous face in the director’s box, albiet one this generation of Scots recognises only from his sneering at their political views on those handful of occasions he still gets on the telly.
I mean, I guess you could look at his being chairman of Harris Tweed Hebrides, but unless we’re releasing an away top in their getup I don’t think that’s going to be much good to us in a business sense.
Brian Wilson’s directorship of Celtic is a sterling sign of a board which does not do joined up thinking.
As Livingston cast a vote for austerity which disgraced our club and its charitable origins, and as John Reid was one of the loudest voices calling the country towards an illegal war, Wilson’s tirades against the Scottish Government fly in the face not only of much of our support, but of the common interests of Celtic itself.
This from the board that tells us to leave our politics at the door.
It really is time for some major changes at the top of our house.