Euan McColm: No-platforming of Cameron is puerile politics

DAVID Cameron should not come to Scotland during the EU referendum campaign. On this, the SNP has been quite clear.

Sturgeon should stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Cameron on the EU. Picture: PA
Sturgeon should stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Cameron on the EU. Picture: PA

The Prime Minister has such a negative influence, you see, that his presence north of the Border before the 23 June vote could seriously damage the prospect of a win for In. SNP MP Pete Wishart put it thus: “The best thing Cameron can do to ensure the Scots vote to stay by a clear margin is, for goodness sake, stay away.” That was the PM tellt.

But while the SNP is hugely keen on telling the Prime Minister that he is unwelcome in Scotland, the party reserves the right to complain when, in its view, he neglects the place by failing to come.

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And so, the day before Cameron arrived in Scotland to deliver a speech to Tory colleagues, the SNP issued a press release in which it sniped about his “day trips”.

So, the message is clear, then: the Prime Minister should not visit Scotland at all but he should also come more frequently.

You might think this is utterly incoherent – and I encourage you to do just that – but it’s what passes for politics in Scotland, these days.

All that matters from the SNP’s perspective, of course, is that its message that the Tories are monstrous gets through. This they achieve by suggesting that anything a Conservative does is intrinsically evil.

It’s a tactic that served the Labour party well in Scotland for a very long time. One can hardly blame the SNP for doing the same.

But there’s something troubling about the othering of politicians by opponents. It speaks of a pettiness that’s a world away from the talk of consensus and working together that we so often hear.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon – as pragmatic a politician as you will find – has declared that she will not share a platform with Cameron during the EU referendum campaign. The fact that both the First and Prime Ministers are united in their desire to see the UK vote to remain in Europe is neither here nor there; the SNP lambasted Labour for standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the Tories during the independence referendum campaign so it can hardly do so itself this time around.

This behaviour – this childish, “he smells” behaviour – does nothing for our national intellectual well­being. I wish the SNP could set a better example.

There is a growing tendency in universities across the UK – across the western world, in fact – for student groups to “no-platform” individuals with whom they disagree. Simple differences of opinion are magnified and distorted. Those who do not subscribe to one’s worldview are not to be debated with but to be denounced and silenced. Others are to be protected from dangerous ideas.

There are, without doubt, instances where “no-platforming” may be defensible. One could argue that to provide a platform for someone who supports paedophilia or Nazism is a step too far (though one could also argue that when it comes to ideas rather than actions, everything is up for discussion).

Student unions that no-platform speakers may talk about protecting the vulnerable and other such rot, but the truth is that they want to coerce others into thinking the right thoughts, to be the acceptable type of feminist, the trustworthy type of ­socialist.

I hold the increasingly unfashionable view that if a student is unable to deal with ideas with which he or she disagrees then university is not for them.

I’ve reached that stage in life where I’m given to drifting off into nostalgic reverie, dreaming of a past with which the present can never compete. I know this, by and large, is foolishness; it’s sadness over opportunity missed and youth wasted rather than a sincere belief that the past was a better place. But I do remember the early days of the Scottish Parliament when, after the final vote had been counted on a Thursday afternoon, MSPs of all parties would drift towards Deacon Brodie’s pub at the top of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile (these were the days before the completion of the Holyrood building, when MSPs used the home of the Church of Scotland’s General Assembly).

The screeching fury chimps of today’s never-more-tribal Scottish political discourse would have been appalled by what went on. Labour cabinet ministers and their SNP shadows would – trigger warning – buy each other drinks and discuss not just politics but everything and anything.

During those informal sessions, useful alliances were built, political differences weren’t necessarily forgotten but they were put into some kind of perspective.

How times have changed. I know current MSPs who’ve never spoken – outside of committee meetings or ­Holyrood debates – to political opponents.

This utterly dispiriting state of affairs can only have a negative impact on the quality of our politics. If there exists only tribal loathing then we should not be surprised when even relatively straightforward debates descend into pointless rancour.

Sturgeon is, of course, perfect entitled to choose who she debates with and campaigns alongside. Nobody can compel her to “stand shoulder-to shoulder” with Cameron.

But would it really be such a dreadful thing?

So far as I can see, both politicians hold sincere – and strikingly similar – views about the benefits of EU membership. This being so, SNP sniping at the PM in this instance seems awfully small-minded.

The demonising of those with whom we disagree is a dangerous business: it diminishes our debate; it diminishes all of us.

I’m not so naive as to think that there was a golden age of politics when everyone acted in good faith and accepted that their opponents might not have malign intentions, but the default position for many politicians, these days, is that their opponents are evil.

Perhaps politicians should shoulder the blame for the hysterical no-­platforming that has been going on in our universities. And, just maybe, they should think about providing a better example than they currently are.