Accuracy seems to be the first casualty in the political battle over the shape of the referendum
I take no pleasure in the demise of Tom Harris MP, the Labour blogger and new media strategist who resigned yesterday after posting a video on You Tube depicting the First Minister as Hitler.
The row is the latest in a series of blows suffered by Mr Harris, who recently failed in his attempt to become the Scottish Labour leader when he polled fewest votes. But despite these setbacks, I doubt it is all bad for “the bomber” as he is known in internet circles, where he has build a sizeable fan base. We have surely not heard the last of him.
Mr Harris stepped down after a press exposé – not because of a complaint from the SNP, who had ignored his far from original spoof of the German film, Downfall. The SNP has better things to do than worry about Mr Harris’s antics in cyberspace. Almost 1,000 people joined the party since David Cameron’s clumsy attempt last week to dictate the terms of Scotland’s referendum. That is a better reflection of the country’s mood and a more worthwhile story to tell.
In the same vein, I’d much rather be writing today of the rise in independence support to 40 per cent, or Michael Moore’s confirmation that Scotland will be able to use sterling after independence or the new figures that show Scotland attracted the most inward investment in the UK outside London under the SNP government.
Since Mr Harris’s spoof was entitled Joan’s Downfall, however, I should perhaps touch upon the tale, silly as it is. The readers may expect it, and so does the editor.
First, though, we need to go back to the beginning – last Sunday morning’s Andrew Marr Show when the Prime Minister announced his intention to breenge into the referendum process – demanding London pull the strings on timing, franchise and the question. He clearly hadn’t listened to the lady from the Times who had just reviewed the Sunday papers on Marr’s show. She spotted a story about Mr Cameron’s intentions to dictate terms to Scotland in the Telegraph. “Don’t go there!” she pleaded, “Just don’t.” Oh, but he did.
The reaction was immediate and explosive – catapulting Scotland to the top of the world’s news bulletins – no complaints there – and resulting in disbelief and disgruntlement across the land – particularly when it was compounded on Tuesday with footage of the coalition Cabinet planning Scotland’s future from the Olympic games site in East London.
This just wasn’t on, and it looked like bullying and arrogance. A poll at the weekend showed more than 62 per cent of Scots thought the referendum should be run from Scotland. This is almost double the rest of the UK. They did not appreciate the Tories who – we’ll say it again – have fewer MPs than there are pandas in Scotland – trying to lay down the law.
By midweek the papers were reporting that this was a cross-party defence of the Union and Labour supported the Conservative-Liberal coalition move. This was confirmed when Michael Moore made his statement to parliament on Tuesday and at Prime Minister’s Questions the following day. Labour MPs lined up with the Tories and Lib Dems to congratulate the government on its initiative.
While it has been widely reported that Labour were in talks with the Tories to devise synchronised attacks on the Scottish Government since the SNP won a majority last year, the coverage from Westminster last week was still shocking. The Labour supporting Daily Record called it an “own goal” by the party, Henry McLeish, the former Labour First Minister of Scotland, warned against: “a Conservative-inspired Westminster debate not just against independence but against Scotland”.
Mr McLeish was right to say this was about opposing more than just independence and the SNP. As a member of Holyrood’s Scotland Bill committee, I have watched with dismay as Labour and the Liberal Democrats came together with the Tories to argue against any extension of any powers for the parliament beyond the damaging and disappointing offer currently on the table.
It was against this background that I stood up in parliament during the debate on the referendum last Thursday. What I said that day was clipped on some television bulletins in a way which cut me off mid-sentence so that I seem to be saying that Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Tories were anti-Scottish, full stop.
But there was no full stop. The sentence goes on to say “in coming together to defy the will of the Scottish people and the democratic mandate that they gave us to hold a referendum at a time of our choosing.”
I went on to criticise them for opposing more powers when that was the preferred option of so much of civic society and the finding of all opinion polls. People are perfectly entitled to oppose independence, that doesn’t make them any less Scottish. They can oppose the SNP as well and still be patriotic Scots. But politicians ganging up together to deny the democratic rights of Scotland is wrong. It’s not so very different from Labour’s Cathy Jamieson’s calling the Tories “anti-Scottish” last year when they slashed the country’s budget.
But it was the chopped up, misleading quote that was used selectively by opposition politicians, including Tom Harris and Douglas Alexander, while he spoke over Nicola Sturgeon on Question Time. Increasingly extreme, false and damaging interpretations of my words were churned out by the other parties – claiming, wrongly, that I was criticising ordinary party members, non SNP voters and non independence supporters. So let me be clear. I criticised the leadership of political parties for a particular policy position that both myself, Henry McLeish, the Daily Record and countless ordinary supporters of all parties consider against our country’s best interests. I was not criticising individuals.
One really contorted piece of reasoning was advanced by Anas Sarwar, the deputy leader of Labour in Scotland, who tried to suggest that my comments were directed at him personally. They were not.
So for the last time let me repeat, for the record, that individuals can hold any views they like on the constitution and still be proud Scots – including Mr Sarwar. Let’s now all move on.
• Joan McAlpine is an SNP MSP for the south of Scotland