The First Minister was in the Royal Box at Twickenham on Sunday, a place that - like Wimbledon’s equivalent - can often represent the heart of the British establishment. A few seats away sat the Princess Royal and her husband, enjoying the dramatic Scotland-Australia Rugby World Cup quarter-final. Nicola Sturgeon may have been forced to shrug off some mild jeers when her face was shown on the big screen inside the stadium, but this is only standard fare for politicians at major sporting events. Other than disappointment over the result, she should have been relatively happy with how the day went.
But the SNP leader was clearly angered by something she had seen on social media. The author JK Rowling had been tweeting in support of Scotland. This prompted an angry backlash from hardline nationalists who could neither forgive nor forget her support for the Better Together campaign during last year’s independence referendum campaign, and a predictable barrage of invective was forthcoming.
It was sad reminder of the feverish exchanges of the campaign when business leaders, celebrities and anyone who spoke out against independence found themselves quickly acquainted with the so-called cybernats. Among the more disturbing episodes was the abuse directed at the mother of a disabled child, Claire Lally, over her endorsement of the Union. Claims she was related to the ex-Labour Glasgow council leader Pat Lally turned out to be totally false. Of course it happens on both sides. Labour parliamentary candidate Kathy Wilkes was forced to quit the UK general election race after posting an image of Hitler Youth in response to the publication of a photograph of children at a pro-independence demonstration.
But just as the nationalists have been more successful in mobilising social media to their advantage in Scottish politics, so the problem of online abuse seem to be a particular one for them. Ms Sturgeon is only too aware that online abuse will do her cause no favours. Yesterday’s plea for tolerance was not the first time she has personally intervened. There cannot be any Scot who will warm to independence after reading abuse directed at unionists. But many will definitely be put off.
We are over a year on from the referendum, and the political landscape has changed. ‘Yes’ supporters have a legitimate voice, and have made themselves heard at the ballot box this year - very effectively. So, not only is online abuse completely unacceptable, it is self-defeating.
It was interesting to see that Ms Sturgeon’s tweets from Sunday’s game used the hashtag #AsOne which was introduced and promoted by the Scottish Rugby Union immediately after the referendum. It was a unifying call at a time of division which urged the whole country to get together when it came to backing the national rugby team. Again, the First Minister has done the right thing here, by embracing the inclusive initiative. She is sending out the right message.
The SNP leader might have to repeat her abuse warning many more times in the future. That does not have to be seen as a failing. She has accepted the responsibility of taking a lead, and it will only be time to move on when the vitriol has been eradicated at last.