Scottish independence: Jim Murphy’s intimidation can be traced to Nigel Farage’s mobbing, insufficiently condemned from the top, writes Brian Monteith
It has been brewing for a long time, since last May in fact, but finally we are seeing the threat of violence and intimidation sour the independence referendum – and the First Minister must take a large share of the responsibility for this. The failure of nationalist politicians to take a grip of their more militant supporters is worrying enough – that a respected political commentator such as Iain McWhirter thinks it is nothing out of the ordinary leaves this writer appalled.
At the weekend, the Labour MP for East Renfrewshire, Jim Murphy, felt the need to suspend his 100 Days 100 Streets tour of Scottish towns due to the levels of intimidation that his opponents were orchestrating. I looked at video evidence and have seen many of the comments on Twitter and there can be no doubt that Murphy was both right to draw attention to the abuse that was being hurled by Yes campaigners and give nationalists time to get their house in order before he picks up his microphone and stands on his Irn-Bru crates again.
Now I have played football with and against Murphy and the famed teetotaller is no pushover, he can look after himself. So let’s drop all of the nonsense from the start that he halted his speaking tour for 72 hours because someone threw an egg at him in Kirkcaldy; it would take more than a dozen eggs to intimidate Jim. What has made him take a pause is the abuse and threatening behaviour being directed at ordinary punters who are interested enough to stop and listen to what he has to say – and the systematic organisation that is ensuring he is welcomed by people who are intent on shouting him down to ensure he cannot be heard.
For anyone who doubts this I suggest they watch the videos themselves, where they will find people calling him a “terrorist” (Motherwell), “traitor” (Ayr) and “quisling” (Wishaw) and one saying he should go back to his “paedophile nest” (Shawlands). Murphy can handle this heckling, disgusting though it is, but the sinister aspect is that its intent is to put fear into those standing around him wishing to ask questions and being filmed by nationalists if they dare do so.
It is not hard to see the tweets and Facebook entries – such as the page on Yes Kirkcaldy – calling on nationalists to “make his [Murphy’s] visit one to remember” – and it would therefore be easy for the Yes campaign – to which they are affiliated – to remove such posts and tell its followers to spend their time canvassing or leafleting instead. The vile nature of Murphy’s taunting has even gone so far as to cast doubt on his role in helping people at the Clutha tragedy, including one tweet saying: “I’m now wishing he was IN the Clutha”.
The blame for this bitter and ugly mood goes right to the top, beyond the Yes campaign staff, to the First Minister – not because he is organising it or knows any of the people behind it – but because, when this mobbing and threatening behaviour first began in May last year with the visit of Nigel Farage to Edinburgh, he failed to condemn it in the strongest possible terms.
Ever since that day the dark side of nationalism has believed it has free rein and will be tolerated by the Yes campaign leadership when it tips over street stalls, defaces posters, screams insults and menacingly huddles round No supporters or innocent bystanders. Making light of the Farage incident gave carte blanche for more visceral insults and behaviour to be let loose, and we are now seeing the result. It is not only Jim Murphy who has seen these developments. Holyrood MSP Murdo Fraser has written about it too, describing a public meeting in Cupar where obscenities were hurled at Murphy despite children being present.
I have no reason to disbelieve the stories that are proffered of death threats against Alex Salmond and Jim Sillars, or that damage to Yes campaign material is anything but true. But what is absent is any identifiable co-ordination of No campaigners to provide ugly reception committees, while any behaviour by rogue individuals is condemned by the No campaign if and when it arises.
Similarly, the online abuse of JK Rowling and now Sir Paul McCartney is all part of a trend for more than a year that has been brought to public attention but which the Yes campaign has been far too slow to deal with. What we are now seeing on the streets of Scotland is the physical manifestation of these previously virtual threats.
Surprisingly, the writer Iain McWhirter tweeted to Murphy: “I’ve seen FAR worse than this at every election since 1979.” Now that was the first election I voted in and I have witnessed all of them since then, organising campaigns and being a Conservative candidate myself and I have never seen anything like what is happening now at any election, never mind every one.
That so much of the abuse is directed against people for being English – saying they should go back to England – is not civic nationalism but ethnic nationalism and should come as no surprise. In Montrose one of Murphy’s protagonists was Bruce Ogilvie, a founder member of Settler Watch, an organisation that gained a reputation for intimidating families who moved to Scotland through verbal attacks, anti-English leaflets and graffiti.
That a supposedly liberal-minded pundit such as McWhirter finds himself on the same side defending hecklers such as Ogilvie suggests to me a win-at-all-costs appeasement towards political intimidation by such Yes campaigners. More appropriate for those of us who have the good fortune to have our opinions regularly published is to defend – like Voltaire – the right of everyone to express their views no matter how much we might disagree with them. I rarely agree with anything the Yes campaign leadership say but I would defend their speakers’ rights to be heard and not be intimidated in the process.
That Alex Salmond, Blair Jenkins and so many of their cheerleaders have failed to address the behaviour of their militant wing is creating a Scotland that is turning on itself – and that is no way to build a fairer and more egalitarian country – be it inside or outside the UK.