The First Minister’s vow to lead by example to ensure that a respectful tone is struck as she prepares for another independence referendum made the right noises, but was undermined before it even reached its intended audience thanks to ill-judged remarks from one of the senior figures within her party.
Frank Ross, leader of the SNP group at Edinburgh City Council, sparked a political backlash when he appeared to question the Scottish identity of the pro-Union parties standing in the forthcoming council elections.
Willie Rennie, leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, said that the SNP leader in Edinburgh claiming “no party other than the SNP is properly Scottish … is an insult to the majority of people in Scotland. This abuse has to stop. And the First Minister needs to get it sorted.”
Mr Rennie’s remarks came shortly before Nicola Sturgeon pledged to act with “courtesy, empathy and respect” in a second independence campaign, as she addressed a conference in Glasgow.
It’s clear that the First Minister has much work to do to get her followers to toe the line. Accusing opponents of being somehow less Scottish than the SNP is a level of debate that demeans the political discourse over Scotland’s future. And although Councillor Ross last night said his remarks did not question the Scottishness of political opponents, that’s not how they have been interpreted, and the damage had already been done. Political opponents felt that questioning their Scottishness was exactly what he had done. As is so often the case in such situations, the effect of the remarks rendered futile any attempt to explain away their intended meaning.
The controversy also adds to the sense of grievance among pro-Union parties that the Nationalists have tried to hijack Scottish identity, through heavy use of the national flag and by confusing Scotland’s interests with the SNP’s interests on issues such as independence and Brexit.
For the purposes of determining Scotland’s future, everyone who was entitled to a vote in the 2014 referendum can be considered a Scot. We were all equals, and patriotism gives no-one a greater right to be heard or taken more seriously than the next person. A Scot is no less a patriot if he also believes in his country’s partnership with the rest of the UK.
Abuse in the street and online, from both sides, marred the 2014 referendum and made it an unpleasant experience for too many people. If she is to succeed where her party failed last time, and convince the public to back independence, Ms Sturgeon has to ensure that this kind of conduct is at least minimised from her supporters, and her call for “courtesy, empathy and respect” is the correct message to send out.
But if the First Minister wants to make her message as effective as possible, she should take this opportunity to make clear that the remarks made by Councillor Ross over Scottish identity – whether offence was intended or not – are not acceptable.