'Northern Ireland without the killings'? Scotland can do without Cybernats' sinister threats, abuse and cries of treason – Murdo Fraser MSP

The business Clootie McToot was founded in 2017 in Abernethy in Perthshire by Michelle Maddox.

Hotelier Stephen Montgomery has faced calls for a boycott of his businesses after speaking out about the hospitality industry's concerns

It produces a range of products based on that old Scottish favourite, the clootie dumpling, available in a variety of exotic flavours, dressed in tartan, and one even comes as a character from Star Wars. The business now employs nine people, and is a real success story for the Scottish food and drink industry.

In recognition on Clootie McToot’s growth, Michelle Maddox was invited to a St Andrews Day event in November at 10 Downing Street, to showcase Scottish produce. There she met the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, and a clip of the encounter was put on social media by the business.

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It was at that point that all hell broke loose. A number of customers cancelled orders. Even more worryingly, there was a barrage of abuse on social media. Maddox was called a traitor, and warned that she should not walk down a dark alleyway. She was even threatened with a brick through her window. It was disgusting, and devastating for the woman behind this Scottish business success.

Sadly, this behaviour by the so-called “Cybernats” does not come as a surprise to anyone involved in Scottish public life. At the time of the 2014 referendum, anyone in business who dared to put their head above the parapet in support of the Union faced not just abuse, but calls for boycotts. Companies as diverse as Highland Spring and Barrhead Travel were targeted online by supporters of independence following pro-Union comments made by senior figures.

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Who can forget the comical sight of the so-called “Scottish Resistance”, outside the Tunnock’s factory in Uddingston, taking a hammer to a box of teacakes following a media story (which turned out to be incorrect) that the company had removed the Lion Rampant from its packaging in an attempt to rebrand the snack as “British”?

More recently, Stephen Montgomery of the Scottish Hospitality Group, who has been outspoken in the media about the concerns of his sector, has been targeted, with calls for a boycott of his hotels. This led him to say: “Scotland has started to feel as though it is the same as Northern Ireland without the killings.”

There is certain poetic justice in the fact that all these boycotts have turned out to be entirely counterproductive, with every company involved actually going on to greater things as a consequence.

Clootie McToot reported a surge in orders in the run-up to Christmas following the publicity that was generated, and Maddox has thanked all those who spoke out in support of the company. And yet, no one should have to face the appalling abuse that we have seen directed to her and her workforce, not even for expressing a political opinion, but simply being photographed with the country’s Prime Minister.

To his credit, the Deputy First Minister and Perthshire MSP, John Swinney, spoke out in support of Clootie McToot. It may have had even more impact had the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon been prepared to do the same. For it is her supporters who are the ones behind these attacks, and leadership needs to be demonstrated to call out this appalling behaviour.

Some will try and argue that “both sides are as bad as each other” when it comes to discourse on social media, but in the case of the Scottish constitutional debate in this context it is certainly not true.

It is hard now to find many senior business figures prepared to articulate support either for the SNP or for Scottish independence, but the few that do have not faced the level of online attack directed at those who are pro-Union.

Brian Souter may have given money to the SNP in the past, but I have not seen any pro-Union campaign arguing for a boycott of Stagecoach Buses as a consequence; nor, as far as I aware, has Springfield Properties been targeted because their chairman Sandy Adam is pro-independence.

This behaviour just demeans the political debate in Scotland. If we are ever to have a serious debate about Scotland’s constitutional future, we need to hear voices from across Scottish society expressing their views. They need to be able and free to do that without being open to threats and abuse online, and if they are in business not face negative consequences.

It is sometimes suggested that the Covid pandemic, and the various restrictions on our lives that followed, have had the effect of making people angrier and more entrenched in their views. There may well be some truth in that claim, but it is neither an excuse for the sort of behaviour that we are seeing (which in any event was there before Covid was ever identified), nor is it something that any of us should wish to see continue. We need to do better.

The start of a new year is always a time to take stock and resolve to do better in the 12 months ahead than in the past. On social media, and elsewhere, we need to clean up the discourse around Scottish politics, end the hurling of offensive labels like “traitor” and “quisling”, and start treating one another with courtesy.

We need healthy debate, yes, but conducted in an environment with respect for each other’s points of view. And all political leaders need to call out those on their own side falling below the standard that we should expect.

There was a happy ending for Clootie McToot, as customers rallied round to support a valuable business which had been unfairly targeted. But let us hope that in 2022 no other Scottish company has to go through what Michelle Maddox and her team suffered. Let us all be better than this.

Murdo Fraser is a Scottish Conservative MSP for Mid-Scotland and Fife

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