Time for Sturgeon to show leadership on 'othering'

Time for Sturgeon to show leadership on 'othering'

by Murdo Fraser
article from Friday 15, March, 2019

I WROTE an article on this site back in January about the language that had crept into political discourse around the Brexit debate, with MPs like Anna Soubry facing regular abuse for their opinions. At that time, the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon stated: “We all have a duty to stand against this kind of behaviour. Robust debate is the hallmark of any democracy – but so too is decency, civility and respect for those holding different opinions”.

At that time, I contrasted the First Minister’s words with the lack of action taken by her against those in the SNP who failed to meet this standard, particularly referencing comments from the MSP James Dornan.

Sadly, in the few months since I wrote that piece, the situation has deteriorated yet further. On Tuesday, after the majority of Scottish Conservative MPs voted in support of Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement, the SNP Constitution Secretary Michael Russell took to Twitter to slam them for voting for an “awful deal which would cripple Scotland & their constituencies”, concluding with the hashtag #RagmanRoll. The term refers to those members of the Scottish nobility who pledged allegiance to King Edward I of England at the end of the 13th century, and therefore are viewed by history as traitors to Scotland.

Less there be any doubt as to what Michael Russell meant by this thinly-disguised dog whistle to his Twitter followers, the replies to his tweet soon made that perfectly clear, with a whole succession of responses using the word “traitor” in relation to the Tory MPs identified.

Others have speculated what might have motivated Russell’s language: perhaps he is positioning himself for a future leadership bid should Nicola Sturgeon fall from office, and wanted to ingratiate himself with extreme elements amongst his Party’s grassroots. But, whether intended or not, the impact of his comments was to give succour to the lunatic fringe of the Nationalist movement who were happy to throw around terms like “traitor” and “Quisling” to those of a different political persuasion.

The issue was raised by the Scottish Conservative interim leader Jackson Carlaw at First Minister’s Questions on Thursday, when he called on Nicola Sturgeon to disassociate herself from this “inflammatory smear”. To her shame, Sturgeon refused to do so, dismissing the comment as simply “a Twitter hashtag”.

Then, in the House of Commons later that afternoon, Luke Graham MP, the Conservative representative from Ochil & South Perthshire, raised an appalling incident which had occurred at his Crieff constituency office on Wednesday evening at around 6.30 pm. The female member of staff who was there in the office alone was shocked to see two individuals banging on the windows and shouting at her. When she spoke to them she was told that “In an independent Scotland all of you will be hanging and we will be there at the front cheering on”, and “I can’t wait to come and drag you from this office and get you to the noose”.

It goes without saying that such behaviour is outrageous and despicable, and has no place in our democracy. The police have been alerted to the incident, and they are making enquiries. But it would undoubtedly have been a hugely upsetting incident for the staff member involved. 

In December we saw an SNP activist from Stonehaven, Callum Purdie, fined £550 in Aberdeen Sheriff Court after being convicted of harassing female staff of the Conservative MP Ross Thomson. That actions such as this are becoming more commonplace is now a serious worry.

There is nothing, yet, to directly link Michael Russell’s social media comments with the actions of these individualsthat followed in Crieff. However, what is indisputable is that the use of language to “other” those who have different political opinions, to accuse them of treachery, will only encourage the extremist fringe to take matters into their own hands. And, as we saw with the tragic murder of MP Jo Cox in 2016, we know all too well what such conduct can end up leading to.

Having failed to take action back in January, it is now more vital than ever that Nicola Sturgeon reacts to these latest developments. She has to remember that she is not simply leader of the SNP, she is the holder of the office of First Minister of Scotland. And by refusing to condemn the disgraceful conduct of her Constitution Secretary, she demeans her office.

Scottish politics should be better than this.



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