Euan McColm: The ugly truth about politics of sanctimony

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn receives applause following his first leadership speech. Picture: Getty
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn receives applause following his first leadership speech. Picture: Getty
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THE very suggestion will infuriate all concerned, I’m sure, but supporters of the SNP and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party have a great deal in common.

All, of course, take their politics seriously. This is fair enough. Politics is a serious business, after all.

But these energised supporters share another characteristic: they see politics in terms of good and evil; they question the morality of those who do not share their convictions.

To these true believers, opponents cannot be wrong or misguided. Instead, they must be bad. Refusal to adhere to the views espoused by whomsoever they choose to follow doesn’t indicate an honest difference of opinion but proves malign intent.

The very worst displays of this insistence on seeing debate as a battle between goodies and baddies are to be found online, but what might once have been dismissed as the behaviour of internet trolls has made its way into the real world.

During last year’s independence referendum campaign, the screeching fury chimps of the internet got up close to campaigners with whom they disagreed. Most often, this involved exceptionally angry Yes campaigners screaming abuse at Labour politicians during public events.

Of course, the right to free speech and all that applies, but these were often deeply unpleasant scenes.

The same righteous fury that drove many believers in independence now motivates a substantial number of those who voted for Jeremy Corbyn to become leader of the Labour Party.

These “Corbynistas” stand confidently on the moral high ground, denouncing anyone – even members of the Labour Party of many years’ standing – who disagrees with them as a “Tory” (Tory is, of course, just another word for evil in the lexicon shared by the angriest Yessers and Corbyn supporters).

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am all in favour of politicians being good rather than evil. This is very much the preferred state of affairs, as far as I am concerned. Give me the choice between a fundamentally decent sort and a monster and I’ll go for the former. I daresay you feel the same.

But it’s not always easy to tell the good guys from the bad guys, is it?

For one thing, bad guys quite often get away with being bad guys by pretending to be good guys. In many ­cases, they will go out of their way to tell you exactly how good a guy they are. Look at the now disgraced Tommy Sheridan, who made quite a career out of being a clean-living man of honour when all the time he was a liar who ended up doing time for perjury. He seemed a good guy once, didn’t he?

The modern, successful SNP built much of its success on the notion that it adhered to higher moral standards that its opponents. At its most vague, this translates as the suggestion from the leadership that Scots are a peculiarly compassionate people. At its most (ludicrously) specific, it becomes the furious Yesser insisting that anyone who voted No last year must support the “murder” of Iraqi children.

Let’s hope this cartoonish worldview begins to go out of fashion soon.

In the past few days, those on the Scottish Nationalist moral high ground have found themselves with some difficult truths to deal with. Having persuaded themselves that their chosen party did politics differently, more transparently than others, and that its representatives were more upstanding than those who stood for election under different banners, reality has come along to slap them around the chops.

First, there was the case of the Scottish Government’s £150,000 hand-out to the huge, profitable T in the Park music festival, agreed after a former adviser to ex-first minister Alex Salmond organised a meeting between future minister Fiona Hyslop and the event’s promoter.

Hyslop defended the grant before a Holyrood committee this week, insisting that it was necessary because the organisers of the festival were considering pulling out of Scotland. We must take that interesting claim as fact, of course, but the whole affair smacked of the sort of cronyism that the SNP so loudly deplores in other parties.

More troubling were revelations about the dealings of the former head of the SNP-front group Business for Scotland, which had a high-profile role in the independence referendum.

Michelle Thomson went on to be elected as an SNP MP in May and, until Tuesday, was the party’s front-bench spokesperson on business at Westminster.

Thomson withdrew from the party whip after it emerged that the solicitor she engaged to handle a number of property deals had been struck-off. Specifically, he was struck-off over his handling of these particular deals.

Police are now investigating and Thomson insists she has done no wrong. She is, of course, entitled to the presumption that that is the case.

But Thomson’s business model – buying up houses on the cheap from those desperate to sell and then punting them on immediately at a large profit – doesn’t seem the sort of thing to brag about.

Is it too much to hope that those who see politics as a morality contest might look at these cases and accept that in politics, as in life, little is black and white.

Neither the SNP nor Corbyn’s Labour has a monopoly on decency. The piety of those who believe otherwise is a pillow pressed down on the face of honest debate.

The scandals that have made life difficult in recent days don’t mark the beginning of the end for the SNP; the party continues to soar in the polls.

But they do – or at least, they should – stand as a reminder that politicians are flawed and that those who believe their party of choice is morally unimpeachable will, at some point, be disappointed.

Scottish politics was, not so very long ago, a battle of ideas, a lusty debate from which compromise might emerge.

But, along the way, it became a simplistic war between good and evil and we’re all the poorer for that. «