Nicola Sturgeon's 'I detest the Tories' remark may set a bitter tone for independence push – Alastair Stewart

In an interview with the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg, the First Minister said: “I detest the Tories and everything they stand for.” She later qualified her remarks, saying: “I was talking about Tory party policy… I was not talking about individuals, I was not talking about people who vote for the Conservative Party.”

How would Nicola Sturgeon have reacted if Liz Truss had said she detests Scottish nationalists? (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
How would Nicola Sturgeon have reacted if Liz Truss had said she detests Scottish nationalists? (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

But this was a lazy defence by the First Minister and her comments highlight just how malicious politics has become.

"Tory", once a historical insult, was reclaimed by the Conservatives and came to be worn as a badge of honour.

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However, it is important not to indulge in some rose-tinted call-back to a supposed bygone age of decency. There has always been a repulsive side to politics.

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During an 1841 general election speech in Shrewsbury, hostile crowds would wave pieces of roast pork on sticks at future Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, shouting "bring a bit of pork for the Jew”.

Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have flowered in tandem with massive and unprecedented constitutional, social, economic and political events like the global financial crisis, Scottish independence, Brexit, Covid, a war in Ukraine and Scottish independence – again. Viral content, memes and the unfettered anonymity of hate posting have defined a generation.

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Political rhetoric needs to cultivate support online and speak a digital language that resonates. Securing a trending hashtag is as crucial as getting on the evening news – if not more so.

The SNP has been in power for what could constitute a generation. An entirely new way of doing politics has evolved in only 15 years. And while social media has made communicating party messages easier and more effective, its consequences are now clearly manifesting in those who govern us.

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Nicola Sturgeon: ‘I detest the Tories and everything they stand for’ and plans f...

It is both reassuring and damning that the Scottish Parliament will implement an opt-in social media-monitoring tool for threats against MSPs, supported by a dedicated security analyst. Threats will then be passed on to the police, where necessary.

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Nicola Sturgeon's comments are indicative of the digital no man's land of contemporary politics spilling out into real life. Every group huddled among themselves, appealing to their membership, marching the troops with occasional shock tactics to remind them why they pay their dues and vote a particular way.

Consider where the so-called battle occurs. It's not at First Minister's Questions. Anyone who has ever been can tell you that the Scottish Parliament’s Chamber is bigger than it looks on TV, but the desks are much closer together. Party leaders are literally shouting in each other's faces. The whole thing has become a pantomime point-scoring session rather than principled scrutiny of power.

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Donald Dewar's opening speech to the Scottish Parliament in 1999 makes clear that something is amiss today: "I look forward to the days ahead when this Chamber will sound with debate, argument and passion. When men and women from all over Scotland will meet to work together for a future built from the first principles of social justice."

Are today's methods really advancing social justice in Scotland? Stephen Kerr MSP asked Holyrood's presiding officer Alison Johnstone to intervene to stop the "hate" in Scottish politics.

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The Scottish Conservative education spokesman referred to several incidents, including egg-throwing, the vandalisation of the Scottish Conservative HQ, and the general collapse of decency and standards in public life.

An SNP spokesperson somewhat missed the point when they responded: “This absurd letter says far more about the Scottish Tories than it does about the SNP, and its tone is deeply irresponsible… A Tory MSP using parliamentary resources to chase cheap headlines while their constituents are pushed further into poverty by a Westminster government that has trashed the UK economy is contemptible.”

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The weeds of shouting into the virtual ether have made their way into common parlance in Scotland. If the First Minister deliberately chose her words, it was a revealing choice, not just of the person, but of a party too long in power.

If Liz Truss made a similar remark about detesting the SNP or Labour, it is hard to imagine her political opponents clamouring to excuse it.

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Anyone who has worked at the Scottish Parliament will tell you that the parliamentary bar and canteen are not re-enactments of West Side Story fights. Scottish parliamentary committees, like councils across the country, are much more cordial than you could ever believe if you only read and listened to the heated controversies.

The real divide is a digital one, and few call it out. Staff can also tell you about the horrendous abuse their MSPs receive online. The First Minister is far too gifted a political operator to have stumbled. "I detest the Tories" is just too good a political zinger not to have been made to marshal her troops, just as Sir Keir Starmer says he is putting Labour on an "election footing".

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Parties in power are tone-setters. Boris Johnson's administration was dealt a fatal blow when the public felt beyond a doubt that those making the lockdown rules were laughing at them. It was that idea that cemented the connection in the electorate's minds and doomed him, personally.

Sturgeon's comments teeter on the edge of transforming her drive for independence into a flustered and bitter last-ditch campaign.

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Perhaps, if nothing else, the First Minister should have indulged a degree of witty pithiness when conveying her remarks. When Winston Churchill was asked to send his old rival Stanley Baldwin, then aged 80, a birthday letter, Churchill declined, writing: "I wish Stanley Baldwin no ill, but it would have been much better had he never lived."

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