Personal attacks and demonisation are sowing the seeds of a dangerous harvest


By Alex Robertson

Mr Salmond said it for many of us last week at First Minister’s Questions when he said to Johann Lamont, “so much for the quality debate.”

This was said in response to a highly personal and unprovoked attack on the First Minister by the Scottish Labour leader.

It is not the first time it has happened, and she is not alone in ad hominem tactics.  At the close of the Ryder Cup trophy awards in Chicago, Mr Salmond was booed by sections of the crowd, whether disgruntled Unionists or just alcohol fuelled golfing boors, we will never know.

Whatever, the moment was symptomatic of the dangers of conducting a debate which is characterised, not by the healthy exchanges of views or an honest plea for arguments to be heard, but the gutter-politic of petty name calling, personal insult and of demonisation.

It is something that is deeply corrosive and, I think, extremely dangerous.

In the back of my mind for a long time now has been the fear of what happens if you demonise a political proposition, or rather those who propose it.

Johann Lamont’s gloating of the booing that met the First Minister in Glasgow during the welcome afforded the Olympians and the same that was heard as he was introduced by his Chicago hosts, was unbecoming.

Mr Salmond attended both events in his capacity as First Minister of Scotland – he was representing all of us regardless of political stripe.  To boo him was to show disrespect, not just to the office of First Minister but to the nation of Scotland.

The apparent endorsement given by Lamont and others from within Scottish Labour to this behaviour sends entirely the wrong signal to those whose actions ought to have been condemned outright if commented upon.  Once we lose respect for our democratic offices then we lose respect for ourselves.

Rhetoric is a powerful weapon and care must be taken by our elected representatives not to be seen to be endorsing extreme language or actions.

The rhetoric employed by sections of the media and the Unionist parties in the ‘great debate’ is worrying.  History tells us that inflammatory or uncompromising words can sometimes lead to unintentional consequences.

A recent Northern Irish contributor to the referendum debate, speaking on Radio Scotland, remarked how the moves towards Irish self-determination found itself obstructed by an intransigent Unionist movement opposed to any kind of change to the constitution.

The wording of the 1912 Ulster Covenant, drafted by Unionists in response to the increasing support for a relaxing of the hold London held over the provinces, was such that it gave rise to a perceived threat of violent opposition should any such Home Rule move succeed.  The covenant signatories, all men, pledged to defend themselves “using all means which may be found necessary to defeat the present conspiracy to set up a Home Rule Parliament in Ireland.”

One of the signatories, Frederick Hugh Crawford, boasted that he had signed his name in blood, and the formation of a Unionist militia of 100,000 men was planned the year after.  The female equivalent of the Ulster Covenant, saw the “women of Ulster”, pledge: “desire to associate ourselves with the men of Ulster in their uncompromising opposition to the Home Rule Bill now before Parliament.”

According to this analyst, the result of the defiant and clearly threatening rhetoric led to the formation of a reactionary group we now know as the IRA.

Let me be clear: I am emphatically against violence as a political ploy, root and branch, and so are the SNP and their supporters.  No one would wish such a scenario to befall Scotland, and it is surely not the intention of those speaking out against the idea of independence.

But there is already a very real consequence to the increasingly inappropriate rhetoric adopted by the Unionist side – the booing of our First Minister is a manifestation of this rhetoric and the demonisation process.

We are already bombarded with rhetoric that places the SNP and Alex Salmond in the same category as dictators and extreme groups.  Unionist politicians and indeed journalists, frequently compare Mr Salmond to notorious dictators, alive and dead.

Less inflammatory terms are adopted by other media professionals who frequently describe Mr Salmond as “smug”, “shifty” or “cunning”.  Contrast this with the descriptions of Johann Lamont’s attack on Universal Benefits as “courageous” and Ms Lamont herself as “brave”, as she seeks a “mature” debate.

Sports journalist, and now BBC Scotland Radio presenter Graham Spiers last week launched an attack on Alex Salmond claiming the FM would hijack the Ryder Cup in 2014.

“Mr Salmond is going to muscle in on this big time, big style” he said on STV’s Scotland Tonight.  The journalist and broadcaster, speaking on Radio Scotland a day later, claimed that the First Minister was booed at the Ryder Cup closing ceremony because he was a politician.  Spiers implied that Mr Salmond should not have been there.

Mr Spiers is a Labour supporter and once caused Radio Clyde to be reprimanded after electoral rules were broken when he and show host Peter Martin promoted the Labour party on the day of the 2010 General Election vote during a live football phone-in show.   Thus, his attack on the First Minister sounds like another attempt by a Unionist commentator to demonise ‘shifty’ Salmond who is out to politicise everything.

The end result of all this might be to so alienate and disparage the independence movement that they create a victimised section of our society.   And the price of that is a deeply entrenched bitterness and resentment.

What is going to happen on Referendum-Day plus one?  Either a majority emerges in favour of independence, or in favour of staying in the union. And what then?

Either way, it is likely to be a narrow victory for whoever wins. But we have to take extreme care that whoever loses does not feel they were cheated, ambushed, or marginalised.

For that way lies disaster and years, perhaps decades of acrimony.  And that must be avoided at all costs.

So what can we do to stop that dive to disaster?

I think there are three things we need to do urgently.  First we somehow need to read the riot act to those taking part in the debate that we, the people, will not tolerate gutter tactics, manipulation of news and intolerant name calling.

Second, we must make it clear to the media that their conduct has not gone unnoticed and that those who would distort facts to satisfy a political agenda should be exposed.

And third, we need a referee.

We need an independent and objective body willing to monitor media behaviour, address complaints and report on the fairness and accuracy of news reporting.

I believe the problem is a real and present danger to our nation, and the means I have described are a strong defence against those whose motives are not the purest and whose scruples about a clean and fair debate are less than adequate.

But as the feelings of resentment rise each day, it is high time to impose some zero tolerance measures.