Bayoneting the wounded
These haven’t been a great few months for Jim Murphy. Having taken on the crown of thorns that is leadership of the Scottish Labour Party, he immediately found himself standing in the path of an electoral tsunami. When the wave hit it took everything and everyone with it bar poor Ian Murray, the last remaining Labour MP in Scotland, who must often wish he had been swept away with his former colleagues.
Throughout the election campaign, Murphy was heckled, abused and jostled by the more aggressive wing of the Scottish National Party. No public meeting seemed to pass undisturbed. I presume this enthusiastic hatred stemmed from his tour of Scotland’s towns and villages in the run-up to the referendum, where he would stand on a couple of Irn-Bru crates and robustly make the case for the Union. Again, these events rarely passed without incident.
On a purely human level, it can’t have been easy, losing your seat, your livelihood, arguably your reputation and, on top of all that, having to resign the leadership only 6 months after taking the gig. Humiliating, even. If there was one crumb of comfort, I suspect, to paraphrase Richard Nixon, it was this: you won’t have Jim Murphy to kick around any more.
Well, perhaps. Last week, as the newly resigned Murphy was putting petrol in his car, a man crossed the road, walked up to him and said: ‘Fuck you, you fucking red Tory.’
Now, whether or not you have any regard for the soon-to-depart Labour leader, who walks up to a stranger while he’s chucking unleaded in the family Vauxhall and starts swearing at him? When, how and why, in our famously friendly, welcoming Scotland, did this public confrontation and malevolence become acceptable? What do these people, and their political masters, want?
On any rational analysis, the separatist movement is all-powerful — as powerful as it can ever hope to be, really. It has 56 of our 59 MPs — many of them impressive — an overall majority in Edinburgh, a superstar of a leader, and every likelihood of consolidating this extraordinary state of affairs at next year’s Holyrood election. The main opposition is in tatters and their centre-left standard captured.
If you’re a Nationalist politician or supporter, what a time to be alive! The horizon is bright with possibility, the future yours to shape, a generation of dominance guaranteed. Think back to 1997, when Tony Blair entered Downing Street, and recall the feeling of optimism that swept much of the country. This positivity was forward-facing. The Tories were so completely vanquished that they were the subject of humour rather than bile. The focus was on what wonders might now be achieved.
Why isn’t this the case in Scotland in 2015? Why do so many members of the Nationalist gang remain so completely fixated on the ‘enemy’? Why the continued malice? Why waste your breath on Jim Murphy?
And it’s not just Murphy. Alistair Carmichael, the former Scottish Secretary and only remaining Liberal Democrat MP north of the border, has undergone weeks of pressure and demands that he resign over the leaking of a memo suggesting Nicola Sturgeon hoped David Cameron would win the election — indeed, his destruction seems to be the priority of the SNP group at Westminster. David Mundell, the Scottish Secretary and the only Scottish Tory MP, has been dragged in, with Alex Salmond insisting he must have known about the memo. Salmond shows the temperament of a modern-day Duke of Cumberland. He gives no quarter: the wounded must be bayoneted; the corpses smirked over until they stop twitching. He is the political equivalent of the man at the petrol station.
What does this say about the psychology of the movement Salmond and his people have created over the past few decades? It’s not natural to be a bad winner, to be ungracious in victory, for your blood lust to be unsated and indeed insatiable. And yet the neddish aggression that characterised aspects of last year’s Yes campaign continued without pause into the general election and continues still. In all my years covering politics I have never experienced anything like it. As Ms Sturgeon seeks to put her more considered stamp on the SNP, to begin the long process of reunifying our divided little scrap of land, she risks being drowned out by her predecessor and his pals, who have descended on Westminster with the apparent intent of causing as much mayhem as possible.
At the point of Murphy’s resignation, Ms Sturgeon tweeted that she wished him ‘all the very best for the future. Leadership is not easy and he deserves credit for standing up for what he believes in.’ In contrast, Salmond wrote a newspaper article that began: ‘Fine qualities, often hitherto undiscovered, are focused upon as people try not to appear ungenerous in response to a fallen figure. I am not at all sure that Jim Murphy will attract such a reaction.’ Murphy, he went on to say, was part of the ‘problem not any sort of solution’.
This striking lack of class has been replicated in too much of the SNP’s behaviour so far in London. As well as its war on Carmichael, the party has mounted a sustained attempt to force the left-wing Commons stalwart and 83-year-old ex-miner Dennis Skinner from the spot he has occupied on the green benches since the early 1980s. Skinner’s one-line quip before the Queen’s Speech has become an informal part of the event — this year, too preoccupied with keeping the Nats at bay, he was silent.
The separatist MPs applauded three times during the response by Angus Robertson to the Queen’s Speech, like student union Citizen Smiths, despite having been informed that clapping is not welcome in the Commons chamber. According to one of the new MPs, Natalie McGarry, ‘it is archaic to shout “Hear Hear” which comes from “hear him”. It is boorish, entitlement, exclusionary nonsense.’ I believe she was serious. This is the same ‘feminist’ who, during the election campaign, excused the frightening street pursuit of the then Labour MP Margaret Curran by Nationalist hoodlums, saying she was a ‘fair target for community justice”.
And it’s not just the elected members. The infamous cybernats continue to stalk the internet, hunting down any opinion that does not fit the party- and state-approved viewpoint. Last week, someone called Derek Bateman, who appears to sit in his bedroom in his underpants writing furious, misspelt, ungrammatical blogs, turned his pea-shooter on me. In a series of rants about my writing, he described me as ‘intolerant, unreasonable, incorrigible, one-eyed, zealous, doctrinaire… and Scotophobic.’ (Scotophobia is a morbid fear of the dark — Master Bateman should invest in a dictionary). Not only that, I was ‘an unrepentant Unionist bigot. And every sane company with Scotland at heart should reject him’.
Now, rambling obsessives are ten a penny on the internet and easily dismissed, but what happened next was a bit more sinister. Mike Russell, the MSP and former education minister who was sacked by Nicola Sturgeon when she took over as First Minister, tweeted that he agreed I was ‘an unrepentant Unionist bigot’ who should be rejected by ‘every sane company with Scotland at heart’. Russell is no rambling obsessive. He is a powerful man who has been at the top of the SNP for decades. He has just been appointed professor of culture and governance at Glasgow University (the token house Nat, so to speak). It should concern us all that we live in a society where such a figure judges it acceptable to say publicly that a journalist with whom he disagrees is a bigot who should be boycotted by employers.
I suppose Russell, a long-term Salmond henchman, views me as one of the wounded who must be bayoneted and finished off. I have been uncomplimentary about his record as education secretary — not hard; he was a disaster — and I am opposed to independence and a consistent critic of his party’s policy weaknesses. But it is surely one thing to challenge my opinions and quite another to suggest I should be unemployable. This can only be viewed as a disturbing attack on freedom of speech and thought, which are bedrocks of our liberties. It plays to every dark stereotype associated with nationalism — opposing views must not just be debated, but shut down.
You see it in the pressure placed upon business leaders and academics not to speak out against the SNP and Scottish independence. It was announced yesterday that Louise Richardson, principal of St Andrews University, has been appointed as vice principal of Oxford, the first woman to hold the post in that venerable institution’s 800-year history. It emerged last year that this superb academic had been telephoned by Salmond and treated to a ‘loud and heated’ conversation demanding she clarify remarks she had made about the consequences of leaving the UK. It is little surprise that Ms Richardson chose to use the opportunity of the Oxford announcement to criticise the Scottish Government’s policy on higher education.
Last year, Gavin Hewitt, a former British ambassador who was chief executive of the Scotch Whisky Association from 2003 to 2013, attempted to organise a group of business people to speak in opposition to independence. ‘We found around 150 people prepared to sign up,’ he said. ‘But almost as many refused — not because of any disagreement with our opposition to Scotland leaving the UK, but because they feared they would be punished in terms of receiving grants, winning contracts or getting access to ministers.’ Mr Hewitt says that business people were told by ministers that if they caused problems existing contracts would not be renewed. ‘The SNP is, frankly, a party that is vindictive. It doesn’t forget people who disagree.’
The SNP’s overall majority at Holyrood has allowed it to dominate the parliament’s committee system, which is supposed to act as a check on the executive in the absence of a second chamber. Instead, those committees have become mere echo chambers in support of government policy, regardless of its merits. Nationalist MPs have been forced to sign up to a rule prohibiting them from criticising, in public or in parliament, a colleague, a party decision, or a policy.
If even its MPs are barred from thinking for themselves, where does this leave those of us who don’t vote SNP, have no intention of ever doing so, and believe they should be held to account like any other party and government? What kind of society do Salmond, Russell and the like want to create? One in which only those who agree with the official state position should be allowed to speak freely? One in which journalists can have their right to employment called into question by elected politicians? In which opposition leaders can be abused as they put petrol in their car? In which academics and business leaders are intimidated if they dare go against the grain?
Any principle, no matter how precious or important, can be sacrificed to the ‘greater good’ of securing the end of the United Kingdom. In an astonishing confession this week, Kenny MacAskill, the former justice minister, revealed the Scottish government’s refusal to grant prisoners voting rights was ‘the wrong thing done, albeit for the right reasons’. And what were those right reasons? ‘It was to avoid any needless distractions in the run-up to the referendum, to deny the right-wing press lurid headlines that could tarnish the bigger picture.’ One might almost call this ‘one-eyed, zealous and doctrinaire’. What a way to run a country.
I hear a lot about the peacefulness and positivity of the Nationalist movement. This tends to come from those who have allied themselves to the SNP’s extraordinary and continued success. For those of us on the other side of the fence, however, things are less peaceful and less positive. We’re not making it up. Our own Scottish state seems to be quite deliberately creating an ‘us and them’ nation, in which if you are not with them not only are you against them, but must be taken out.
So, what do they want? Should the 50 per cent of voters in Scotland who didn’t support pro-independence parties at the general election leave altogether? Would they prefer a one-party state with no dissenting views, in which no one dares put their head above the parapet? Do they properly understand the ingredients of a civilised, liberal, pluralistic democracy? Do they grasp the danger of undermining such a society?
Watch Tommy Sheppard’s magnificent maiden speech in the Commons and see what Scottish nationalism could be in the hands of people like him. But far too often, it isn’t — and, regardless of political affiliation, this should worry every reasonable person in Scotland.
This article appeared in the Scottish Daily Mail on May 30, 2015