Brexit: We failed to learn from independence referendum’s poison – Donald Cameron

Anna Soubry is among Tory MPs who opposed Brexit. Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty
Anna Soubry is among Tory MPs who opposed Brexit. Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty
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The treatment of Anna Soubry MP by a group of protestors outside the Westminster Parliament was utterly appalling, and the subsequent reaction from all political sides has been rightly critical.

It wasn’t just the content of the abuse she received, but its almost effortless delivery – as if berating an individual in such a way was a routine part of modern life.

It’s not, never has been, and never should be.

This relatively recent trend may have come as a surprise to audiences elsewhere in the UK, but in Scotland it’s just a reminder of what was experienced during the lengthy independence referendum campaign.

The SNP like to look back fondly on that period, describing it as civic, joyous and some wonderful expression of nationwide political engagement.

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And while there were positives from such a high-profile political moment, you’d have to be deluded not to acknowledge the poison and toxicity that accompanied that time.

I’m not pretending it was all on the Yes campaign’s side, even if their voices seemed louder and more plentiful. Politicians and campaigners on both sides of the fence got it in the neck, often to quite unacceptable levels, and continue to do so.

The increase of social media fuelled this hate exponentially.

Perhaps the experiences of the independence campaign should have readied us for some of what we’ve seen with Brexit, but it clearly hasn’t.

We heard lots of positive messages over Christmas and New Year about the importance of being civil and respectful of each other’s views.

But 2019 could hardly have got off to a worse start, and it’s difficult to see – at such a tense time in the Brexit process – how the sting can be taken out of this.

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It has to start at the top, and as we get ready for more heated debates on the future of the UK’s relationship with the EU – and indeed Scotland’s role within that – parliamentarians have to lead by example.

They must remember that the worse they behave in parliament and the public eye, the more of a green light that gives to those on the ground tempted to engage in the sort of despicable conduct we’ve seen over the last few days.

Donald Cameron is a Scottish Conservative MSP for the Highlands and Islands