If you want civility and decency in politics First Minister, it’s time to lead by example

If you want civility and decency in politics First Minister, it’s time to lead by example

by Murdo Fraser
article from Friday 11, January, 2019

WITH HOLYROOD this week entranced by the latest developments in the remarkable case of former First Minister Alex Salmond against the Scottish Government that he used to lead, in Westminster the focus was still very much on Brexit. And an interesting element of the Brexit discussions has been just how heated the arguments have become.

The Conservative MP Anna Soubry found herself in the firing line, with chants of “Nazi” directed at her whilst she was live on television. She was then pursued on her way in to Parliament by a group of angry men, vigorously disagreeing with her views on Britain’s future relationship with the EU.

The hounding in such a public fashion of a senior, female, Member of Parliament, only a few years after the horrific murder of Labour MP Jo Cox just before the Brexit referendum vote, has rightly caused alarm, and has reignited the discussion about the manner in which we conduct our political discussions. 

The First Minister Nicola Sturgeon tweeted: “This is appalling, as is footage today of Owen Jones facing a similar experience. 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”.

I think that there would be few people in politics who could possibly disagree with the First Minister’s words. But, sadly, for those of us who lived through the 2014 independence referendum in Scotland, there will nothing novel about the behaviour we are now witnessing. Individuals being harassed, shouted down in the street, eggs being thrown at Labour MP Jim Murphy, property being vandalised, and campaigners intimidated, were all the hallmarks of the referendum campaign.

When the UKIP Leader Nigel Farage was hounded by an angry mob in the Royal Mile in Edinburgh in May 2013, the then First Minister Alex Salmond failed to condemn those involved, stating: “People have the right to protest, to protest in a proper democratic fashion”, going on to say: “a student protest is a student protest – it’s been going on for generations”.

Many Nationalists react angrily to the suggestion that there was anything unpleasant about the 2014 independence referendum. That response perhaps tell its own story, in that they were not on the receiving end of what many on the Unionist side of the debate experienced. And these experiences were real, and occurred up and down the country. It was nasty, it was unpleasant, and it went well beyond any definition of “robust debate”.

And it didn’t end in 2014. When the Labour politician Margaret Curran was harrassed in a Glasgow street, the then SNP MP Natalie McGarry described her experience as “community justice”. In the 2015 General Election, Liberal Democrat campaigners in the Ross, Cromarty and Skye constituency complained of the mistreatment of the sitting MP Charles Kennedy by supporters of the now SNP Westminster Leader, Ian Blackford.

Just last month, an SNP activist from Stonehaven, Callum Purdie, was hit with a fine of £550 after being convicted in Aberdeen Sherriff Court of harassing female staff of the Conservative MP Ross Thomson.  That is on top of the daily nastiness from cybernats on social media, which is now so commonplace that it seems unremarkable.

On the very day that Nicola Sturgeon made her comments about decency, civility and respect in politics, the senior SNP MSP James Dornan, appointed by her as Convenor of the Scottish Parliament’s Local Government and Communities Committee, tweeted the words “heartless scum” in relation to a press report that HMS Mercy had been deployed in the Channel to help UK Border Force and French authorities aiming to stop refugees risking their lives to make the crossing.

Whether the intended target of this was Royal Navy sailors, or the politicians who made the decision to deploy them, is still unclear. But it is perfectly clear that using the word “scum” to describe either public servants, or those who hold a different political viewpoint, is far from meeting the standard of “decency, civility and respect for those holding different opinions” set out by the First Minister.

So while I agree with Nicola Sturgeon in her sentiments about the treatment of Anna Soubry, she really does have to start addressing the issue with those in her own Party who are debasing politics in Scotland. She needs to take action against James Dornan and his like. By making an example of a few prominent figures, perhaps the message will get down to those further down the ranks that behaviour like this simply cannot be tolerated. And Scottish politics will be a much more pleasant place as a result.

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