Intolerance and abuse – is this the future of public discourse in an independent Scotland?

salmond and saltires

Andrew Marr: [In relation to ‘the darker, uglier side of the campaign’] have you heard or seen anything you’ve flinched at?

Alex Salmond: Well there have been incidents involving myself. They’ve been prosecutions about these incidents…

Andrew Marr Show 14 September, available on BBC iPlayer until 21 September

I’ve swithered about this one. Can there be anything left to say about the darker, uglier side of the independence campaign? In any case isn’t it too late?

A flurry of incidents and online abuse over the weekend had me waking up this morning and saying to myself, ‘No damn it, I don’t care if it’s been recorded elsewhere. I want to say what I think about it.’

I think it’s disgusting.

And for the avoidance of doubt I believe it has been far worse from the Yes side. Opponents are welcome to send me contrary examples and unless they’re abusive themselves, I’ll publish them unchanged as comments on this post. But since this is all about what’s happening now please make your contributions topical, not what some online idiot wrote about Nicola Sturgeon or Alex Salmond a year ago.

Let’s get those online idiots out of the way first.  These are the vicious fools at the extremes of abuse who indiscriminately use four- or five-letter words describing the human genitalia in response to reasoned argument. They are the racists who tell people from ethnic minorities and other areas of the UK to ‘go home’ and write sinisterly ‘we know where you live.’ Maybe because I am a ‘No’ I tend to see much more of this stuff from individuals supporting independence than from anyone else.

Beyond that lunatic fringe there’s much more to be concerned about.

Across the country there have been innumerable examples of No posters and banners being defaced or removed, even in peaceful Orkney. People have posted photos of their cars on the web, vandalised with ‘Yes’ scratched in the paintwork because they had the effrontery to display a ‘No’ sticker.

There were the baying Yes supporters trying to shout Jim Murphy down as his ‘100 towns in 100 days’ tour made its way across the country, culminating in his ‘egging’ in Kirkcaldy. Online videos showed that he was not alone in suffering that sort of abuse, from a clip of people clutching Yes posters chanting ‘P45, P45 …’ at No campaigners, to an online contact reporting that Yes campaigners had tried to attack a No stall in the quiet commuter town of Inverurie.

Accusations of BBC bias have gone beyond demonstrations to calls for the resignation of individual journalists, and even, by Alex Salmond, for an enquiry  into the behaviour of the corporation’s political editor Nick Robinson. Politicians calling for action against the media and journalists is sinister, full stop.

Incidentally, how telling was it that at Salmond’s ‘international’ press conference where he refused to answer a Robinson question, there were outbreaks of applause at his comments? Journalists applauding a politician’s answers? I think not. SNP placemen, and reminiscent of media events in totalitarian countries where a compliant people applaud the beloved leader.

SNP MSPs are not immune to online untruth either. An Orange Order march in Edinburgh at the weekend, described as ‘good natured’ by the media, was followed by a tweeted photo from Stuart Maxwell SNP MSP of someone in a ku klux klan robe and the caption ‘Is that the KKK marching in Edinburgh for a No vote?’ It wasn’t. It was variously described as from Northern Ireland, Germany, some time ago or photoshopped. The tweet was subsequently deleted, presumably after SNP central had a quiet word in his ear, but not before someone copied it to Storify.

Every expression of doubt by a company about the impact of independence on their business seems to be followed by calls from individuals for a boycott. That’s one thing, but it’s another when former deputy leader of the SNP Jim Sillars calls for a ‘day of reckoning’ against ‘scaremongering’ business leaders and for the nationalisation of the assets of BP in Scotland because it also expressed doubts.

Almost finally, there are plans for so-called ‘freedom marches’ on polling stations in Edinburgh and Glasgow. The best that might be said of these marches is that they are a naïve response of people who’ve never voted before at the prospect of achieving something they’ve come to want desperately. But that sort of triumphalism and potential intimidation at a place where the most fundamental expression of democracy happens – the casting of a secret ballot – is completely out of order. I would say the same whichever side proposed to do it. I hope Police Scotland are ready to stop any inappropriate demonstration like that.

The contrast of that raucous intention with the quiet dignity of the long lines of people waiting to vote in South Africa’s first democratic election in 1994 could not be greater.

And so, perhaps obviously, that thought brings me back to the man at the centre of it all, leader of the SNP Alex Salmond. I put a photo and a quote from him at the head of this post.

Andrew Marr didn’t go into any detail about the ‘darker, uglier side of the campaign’ I’ve described here. But note Salmond’s immediate response – ‘there have been incidents involving myself.’ There is of course no proven connection between him and all the intolerance and abuse but given the chance to condemn it his first response is to say he’s been subject to abuse and threats himself. And even when he turns to answer the question he can only manage

the idiots on both sides are a microcosm …

I don’t think he meant microcosm, at least I hope not (it means something ‘encapsulating in miniature the characteristics of something much larger’!). How feeble is that as a substantive response? It fits precisely with the advice he is said to have received to ‘Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative.’ But that sort of selective approach to truth won’t always wash.

Most of all it won’t wash when you make the comparison with South Africa that I touched on above. A few days ago Salmond was quoted as saying

A week ago I saw something that I did not think I would see in my political life. People queuing up, and it was a long queue, in Dundee to register to vote. It was almost reminiscent of the scenes in South Africa 20 years ago when people queued up to vote in the first free elections.

Moved as he might have been, the comparison is offensive. All Scots have always been equal with other Britons in their right to vote. Anyone who wasn’t white in South Africa was denied the most basic freedoms until apartheid fell. I’ve read Nelson Mandela’s autobiography and Alex Salmond is no Mandela.

And that photo at the top of this post? Alex Salmond at his would-be most presidential. To be fair to him, he was commenting on the dreadful murder of a British hostage by the so-called Islamic State. But flanked by two saltires (the appropriation of which by the Yes campaign is another story in itself) and wearing a campaign badge for Yes? Not necessary.

And given the chance that same day on the Andrew Marr show to condemn the intolerance and abuse coming from parts of the Yes campaign? Nothing of any substance. That’s why I fear intolerance and abuse may be the future of public discourse in an independent Scotland.

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