The SNP's leaders' failure to take on her more rabid members is a conscious choice.
As someone who is happiest in Scotland’s great outdoors, I love Cameron McNeish’s TV programmes and books.
I remarked last week on Twitter that few people have left me more disappointed in recent years than him as I’ve watched him label people as traitors and quislings; or when he has suggested that those opposed to leaving the UK should move to England.
McNeish’s response was indignant. He threatened me with his lawyers and demanded an apology. Despite me dropping him a friendly email to make sure he had the right address, I’ve yet to hear from his legal team.
I suppose his silence might have something to do with Twitter responding to him with examples of him labelling Gordon Brown a “quisling”; saying that Scottish Tories were “worse than traitors”; stating his hope that some opposed to independence would be “shown the road south”; and asking why Scottish Tories don’t “just go and live in England if they loathe Scotland so much?” Others shared examples of his misogynistic abuse of female politicians.
McNeish’s reaction after being pulled up for his own ugly views is microcosmic of the wider refusal of nationalism to deal with the abuse and othering that infects their movement.
This issue was brought into focus in the last few days by BBC journalist Sarah Smith recounting the abuse she faced in Scotland while working here. This wasn’t just online abuse that she could mute and ignore. She recounted someone rolling down their car window to ask her “what f****** lies are you going to be telling on TV tonight you f****** lying b****?”
The response to this from nationalists from depressingly predictable. Countless SNP members decided that the way to prove her wrong was to take to social media to abuse her all over again. Meanwhile, SNP MSP James Doran, who made defending a hateful Somerset-based blogger his parliamentary priority, tweeted that she was imagining the abuse. Another SNP MP liked a post suggesting she had brought the abuse on herself. A former SNP MP tweeted that she was a “traitor”.
Eventually, the First Minister was forced to comment on the issue. Her words are telling. They confirm that her failure to take responsibility for the abuse in her party is a conscious choice.
“I have no truck with anybody and actually don't consider myself to have much, if anything, in common with anybody who would hurl abuse at Sarah Smith or any other journalist.”
“Some of it comes from people who profess to be on my side of the political debate and I condemn that unreservedly.”
“I’ve seen comments today – and I’m not going to name any names – from other elected politicians, I don’t know whether they’re meaning to suggest this, but almost suggesting that the unacceptable abuses that Sarah Smith has had is somehow my fault and my responsibility.”
“I’ve got a responsibility to call it out, of course I have, but actually, instead of politicians on the other side of the debate saying it’s my fault when it is coming from people professing to be on my side or vice-versa, we should all come together to marginalise it and force it out of politics completely.”
She’s right that none of us is responsible for the behaviour of everyone. She’s right that she has a responsibility to call out abuse, as we all do. Read the previous edition where I call out the idiots on my side of the debate. Where Sturgeon is wrong that she believes that’s where her responsibility ends.
Because so much of the abuse comes not just from those who ‘profess to be on her side’ it comes from members of her party. She absolutely does ‘have truck with them’ because she chooses not to discipline them for their behaviour. As the leader of the SNP, she isn’t responsible for the behaviour of every crackpot online, but she unquestionably is responsible for who is and isn’t a member of her party.
That is why her remarks are aimed at explaining why she cannot accept responsibility for the abuse. She knows that the othering of opponents is endemic in her party and that seriously challenging it would mean using political capital to remove serial offenders from her party. She does not want to take responsibility.
If I thought the SNP leadership genuinely objected to the culture of abuse they have created I could send them hundreds of examples of members who should be expelled. I’d start with the SNP office holder, who proudly tweeted his personalised birthday card from Nicola Sturgeon, boasting about how he has my home under surveillance. Or the guy, who gushes about meeting Nicola Sturgeon at an SNP campaign launch, who shares his fantasies about executing me and admits to keeping lists of English neighbours. Or the *hundreds* of SNP members who message me to tell me I’m a traitor, a quisling, that I’m not really Scottish, that I should be removed from Scotland after independence…
About once a year someone in the SNP does something so offensive that it penetrates the hide of the commentariat that has been thickened by years of never-ending abuse. Nicola Sturgeon will reluctantly condemn the specific behaviour, refuse responsibility for the general problem, and then continue to ignore the serious problem within the governing party of our Scottish Parliament.
Whenever the SNP are held to account for a specific incident its leading social media figures will reassure us that such behaviour is not the norm within their party. They have been denying the problem for a decade, but when dozens of the worst offenders left to join Alba they suddenly found religion and started criticising the abuse - now that it was also turned on them. Those who claimed never to notice the abuse then are poor judges of the abuse happening now.
Leading activists in the SNP either see the abuse and are embarrassed enough by it to feel they have to deny it or nationalism is so intoxicating that they don’t recognise abuse even when it is obvious to those on the receiving end. For their part, the SNP leadership see the abuse but judge that the motivating anger of nationalism, and the cooling effect on Scotland’s debate, is worth it, even if the aggressiveness of their activists loses votes on the other end. They don’t leave abuse unchallenged because they don’t have the ability to deal with it, they choose not to challenge it. They make a choice to ride the wave of anger rather than face it.
The tone is set at the top. The current head of the independence campaign dog-whistles, comparing political opponents to nobles who succumbed to Edward Longshanks. Her ministers and spokespeople reach back to the 14th century for treacherous figures to whom opposition politicians can be compared. They think that basing their othering in a clever historical example makes it less ugly - but all that separates them from the more rabid SNP tweeters is a library card.
In recent years my own party has gone through agonising internal struggles as the decent majority have fought to expel racists from within our ranks. I’ve reported dozens of people who thankfully no longer in my party. Almost every CLP activist will tell stories of bitter fights against people who made them ashamed to be Labour.
That is the type of painful reckoning the SNP should be having.
Until they are willing to confront their problem, those of us abused by SNP members should do the only thing we can do to encourage the accountability Nicola Sturgeon avoids: share their abuse, highlight that they are members of her party, and challenge the SNP to do something about it.
The Union forever!
Meanwhile, the Scottish Government’s pensions mess gets ever-messier. It was amazing this week to watch Ross Greer MSP join the debate on behalf of the junior coalition partners. He told a podcast that his preference was that the UK would meet the costs. My preference is that the person reading this pays my mortgage off but I don’t think it is likely. He reached back into history for a precedent that would justify his optimistic position:
“The Confederacy, the losing side of the Civil War lost and were destroyed in 1865. The last widowers' pension for a Confederate service personnel was paid out in 2012 so the Union government, the United States’ government, who won the US Civil War paid the pensions of Confederate soldiers, who’d been on the losing side of that war, whose state, the Confederate States of America, had been destroyed.”
One can only assume that Ross Greer does not understand that the American Civil War ended in Union, not succession. You have to assume that because the alternative is that he believes that the North would have paid the pensions of confederate soldiers if the South had won the war. That seems only slightly less likely than taxpayers in the rest of the UK paying for our pensions for decades to come.
With every attempt to defend their ludicrous new pensions policy the Scottish Government give up a little more economic credibility.
The influence the fake-Greens have gained makes a mockery of the electoral & parliamentary system. Is there a case to be made for removing the second ballot paper so that a single vote covers both constituency and list choices? It would stop this tactical use of second votes for a party that is SNP in all but name, which the system was not designed to cope with (and other parties could in theory exploit it).
Voters shouldn't be able to second guess themselves. Voting for two parties makes no sense, unless we're going to move to a properly proportional system.
You are absolutely right that Nicola's comment on Sarah Smith's revelations is inadequate.
The truth is that, for a variety of reasons, the SNP get away with highly dubious conduct which needs to be more effectively challenged. Until that happens Nicola will feel little pressure to tackle the worst aspects of Scottish nationalism.
I think that the abuse of Sarah Smith needs to be seen in the context of Alex Salmond's deliberate use of BBC journalists as a punch bag in 2014. At the time few of us understood the Trumpian tactics of distract, deceive and divide and Salmond's approach almost worked. Although his politics were odious they did succeed in making the SNP our dominant party and Nicola Sturgeon owes a lot to them and him. She thus bears a responsibility to try to undo the damage that has been done and this should start with acknowledgement of the quality of the journalism that Sarah and others at the BBC have produced over the years and the removal of the stigma of the accusation of systematic bias.
She will need to feel under pressure to do this and that can only come from the one party the SNP really fear and hate - Labour. I understand Anas Sarwar's reluctance to campaign on issues like this and his desire to push issues like health, education and the economy to the fore. Experience has shown however that the lies of nationalism have to be confronted head on.