Darren McGarvey: Make a point about Salmond and the SNP at your peril

Yesterday I went on LBC radio to talk about my book Poverty Safari. In a far-reaching conversation, covering the interplay between early years, chronic stress, political exclusion, austerity and the strain on public services, I was asked about the long-term consequences of inaction on social inequality.

Alex Salmonds decision to host a show on Russia Today could be a problem for the SNP

I responded by saying it has given rise to various constitutional crises both in the UK and Europe, which are beginning to undermine social cohesion. Zooming in on the UK, I referred to the Scottish independence referendum and Brexit, careful to state clearly that I was not drawing an equivalence between the two. You don’t need to be a nationalist to see the key difference between Sturgeon and Farage: one blames Westminster, the other blames immigrants.

Yet, somehow, an intrepid troupe of social media-based nationalists, decided that what I really said was that Sturgeon and Farage were the same thing. Did you catch that there? I said one thing, for the avoidance of doubt, but a bunch of people decided to interpret that as the exact opposite of what I meant.

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As you can imagine, it brought me back down to Earth, with a bang, after news that my book was the number one biography on Amazon had sent me into a state of catatonic shock.

It seems, not even in London, can you escape the gravity of this obscure corner of Scottish Twitter. Whatever your opinion on the ever-looming constitutional question in Scotland, I’m sure you’ll agree that public discourse is tremendously strained. This is exacerbated by the limitations of social media, which isn’t a great forum for expressing nuance and complexity.

But this week has been especially trying, thanks to one tweet about Alex Salmond’s decision to present a show for Russian state broadcaster, Russia Today: “The issue around Salmond’s show is not the controversy stoked by initial announcement. It’s the fact he is setting up a new permanent residence in the debate by creating a previously unthinkable association between the Kremlin and the drive for Scottish independence.”

The tweet was not a value judgement, simply an attempt at analysis. My take was simple: Salmond’s show could create a headache for Sturgeon that won’t be as easy to move past as his usual interventions. This may be exacerbated by the Russia issue and the fact the show is weekly, therefore, any blow-back will be regularly reinforced.

Obviously, there is a good chance I am wrong. That I am stupid. That I don’t know what I am talking about. That possibility is not hard for me to grasp.

What I find more difficult, is when hundreds of people jump on my timeline to react angrily to something I did not actually say. Sadly, the tweet was reframed by some prominent opinion formers, and my timeline hasn’t stopped since.

I still don’t understand what I said that was so wrong, or why I am now regarded by this section of the Yes movement as the enemy.

The funny thing is, I like Alex Salmond. I think his heart is in the right place. And while I understand why others feel the opposite, he will always have my deep respect. He’s been rubbing people up the wrong way since his early days in the SNP, and despite his evident character flaws, one suspects the true source of irritation many people feel towards him – other than the obvious – lies in the fact he is such a clever politician.

Salmond’s success was the result of a careful braiding of three pertinent ideas: Scottish nationalism and the merciless agitation of the UK state, modulated by the nose for centrism required should you wish to ascend to a meaningful position of power.

The strategy afforded him a political elasticity few others enjoy, which allowed him to pull the SNP to the centre ground while giving the appearance of a radical insurgency.

I’ve always admired Salmond, even when he made a joke at my expense at a passing of the quaich ceremony I took part in at Edinburgh Castle in 2012, having been invited to share a platform with him and Sir Tom Hunter to launch the STV child poverty appeal. He sent me the quaich afterwards.

The question is, do I have to slavishly outline all the nice things I have to say about him before I can make a comment on one aspect of his recent career?

Is it not possible for me to simultaneously respect him while also casting a critical eye on things he’s said and done? Isn’t that my right as a free-thinking Scot?

I didn’t say it was fair that Salmond was being held to a higher standard than every other UK politician who has appeared on Russia Today. I didn’t say it was fair that many now lining up to call him a traitor to Western values had very little to say about the Spanish government’s recent foray into neo-fascism in Catalonia. I didn’t say it was fair that only three years ago, then Prime Minister David Cameron sent Mr Putin a begging letter, pleading with him to interfere in our political affairs but that somehow, back then, Andrew Neil et al never batted an eyelid.

And I didn’t say it was fair that many in the SNP now fear Sturgeon may be exposed to new line of attack on alleged Russian interference, from a morally inconsistent UK press which picks and chooses its moments to shine a light on hypocrisy.

All I did, was state what seemed, to my mind, to be pretty blooming obvious: Salmond’s re-emergence on a Russian news channel may create as many problems for the Yes campaign as it’s attempting to solve.

Good thing it doesn’t really matter what people do and don’t say anymore, only what we think they said.