Quick! Before it’s too late…


By Derek Bateman
I was enjoying my Times of London this morning when I came across a story that made me frown. It was a mother from England complaining that her daughter had been bullied at school in Fife by someone telling her to go back to her own country. Gordon Brown was involved and it was linked to the referendum.

I groaned. Here we go again, some idiot with an attitude is stirring up feelings of anti-English hatred. There is no question that some ignorant Scots will use any difference to insult and abuse others, be it colour, religion or origin. But in my personal experience this is the antithesis of the approach taken by anyone directly involved in the Yes campaign where there is a total lack of tolerance of anti-English sentiment.

This is I think representative of a kind of journalism which contains just enough truth to make it editorially viable – if you add a few bells and whistles – and brings into the public gaze the idea that there is something nasty and sinister about a political campaign. So I read it again. Something puzzled me.

First of all the headline described it as “bullying” which is intimidating through violence or threat thereof, usually habitual or repeated.

Yet what the 13-year-old’s mother describes is a single incident in class when a another 13-year-old becomes angry and sweary and tells her to “fuck off back to your own country”. Disgusting and aggressive…but bullying? The incident was sparked it seems by the diametrically opposite approach from another boy who “told her he was glad to have her in his team because she had won several Burns poetry competitions…she had achieved this without even being Scottish…” One classmate commends her, the other insults her.

Isn’t this is the type of scene repeated in schools across Britain every day, I wondered? An adolescent row breaks out and children call each other names – specky, ginger, skinny and, yes, no doubt paki, chinky, bluenose and tim as well. Is a 13-year-old of an age that makes him capable of an adult intention to racially abuse?

I don’t blame any parent for defending their child if he or she is upset by unacceptable behaviour at school and the nature of this boy’s attitude is unacceptable.

Then I stopped reading as a journalist and read as a parent. What would I do in the same circumstances?

I would start by naming the offender to the school and asking them to confront him. I would suggest they contact the family. This is a matter for the school authorities as it happened on their premises in school hours and is a breach of the behaviour code laid down by teaching staff. Only if it was a repeat offence that the school had failed to deal with would I consider taking it further.

Why would I as a parent contact my MP? I might, in despair at lack of action by school and education authority if they had ignored me, which they didn’t, want to raise it with an elected representative but since it is an education matter which is devolved, I would in any case approach the MSP (David Torrance SNP Kirkcaldy) rather than the MP (Gordon Brown Labour).

The mother contacted Brown’s office to complain and he called her back. The quotes attributed to him are exactly what you’d expect from a constituency MP doing his job. He offered apologies and sympathy and said he would call the education authorities.

I wondered at first if his office was the conduit for getting this into the newspapers but there is nothing there to indicate that Gordon’s people did anything other deal appropriately with a constituent’s issue. No MP or MSP would in any case go to the media with an individual’s story without their permission. The story makes an issue of and puts in the headline the fact that Brown is part of the story which is puzzling since he is just acting as constituency MP, not drawing conclusions or judgments about any political implications. 

We read – in a story about a row between teenagers in a classroom – that Gordon has “kept a low profile” so far in the referendum campaign. The referendum campaign! What has this to do with the referendum? Were the kids arguing in class about the Barnet Formula, did they get mad about Governor Carney’s loss of sovereignty remarks on the currency?

This phone call to the mum and to Fife Council is described as Brown’s “latest intervention”, although done by him totally without publicity, and we are told, comes “amid increasing fears that internet abuse of pro-Union supporters which has become commonplace in the run-up to this year’s referendum on Scotland’s future, is starting to become more mainstream.”

This wasn’t internet abuse, it was a classroom stushie…and how does that tie into increasing fears of abuse(?) becoming mainstream. The only way it is becoming mainstream is by the publication of hyperbolic fear stories like this.

The mother contacted the school and she confirms they dealt with it. “They were extremely apologetic and they have been really good at sorting this out”, she says. So why is a classroom incident dealt with professionally by school and by MP in the news and how is it linked to the referendum and by implication the Yes campaign?

Inside the story it describes the mum as a pro-Union supporter…fair enough and good luck to her. Her Facebook site has a like link to a page entitled “Alex Salmond is a deluded wanker.” Well, we all use the net to have a laugh and scoff and make fun and who wants to censor anyway – not me.

But as a dad I did wonder how a parent can be so upset by a child using revolting language to my daughter when I publicly declare my approval of terms like Wanker. The girl was so upset by events, she stayed off school a day. Maybe she’d stay off again if she saw mum’s Facebook entries. And when you think about it, if there is internet abuse, isn’t it the mum who is engaging in it, not the daft laddie who berated her daughter?

This woman is right to complain about her daughter’s treatment and in a way it seems unkind to imply criticism of her. But hold on. She is quoted as saying she is afraid to put a pro Union sticker in her window…in case of what? Are there mobs of nationalist loonies prowling Kirkcaldy checking for windows to cave in?

Is she serious? Yes. She is. “My concern is that the situation could possibly get totally out of control if nothing is done now before the referendum…” What events? Children fighting in class? “The authorities and even the politicians must do something immediately to try to defuse the whole situation before it gets out of hand”. Round up SNP voters? Jail the MSPs? Censor the media? Put Jackie Baillie in the classroom? This stuff is quoted without any reference to perspective. What evidence does she have of widespread, violent anti-English abuse?

Here’s my other concern. This lady is photographed with her lassie both looking suitably victimised. What do you think, as a parent, is likely to be the result of this upfront publicity with a picture of the girl? Am I wrong or will it just encourage other kids to make an issue out of something only one or two would have known anything about? Every pupil at Balwearie High will now know of her celebrity and is that likely to lead to respect or is it more likely other kids will ridicule and jeer?

And what about the parents of other children at Balwearie? I would understand why a parent was upset but I would be dismayed that my school was brought into disrepute this way. If I had a son I’d know that some parents would wonder if it was my boy who did it. If I was on the teaching staff, I’d be furious that my school had been dragged into the public domain and somehow smeared with this taint. And make no mistake, this story is now out there on the internet.

The next time a Daily Mail reporter wants to vilify the Yes campaign he can sit in London and Google “anti-English abuse” and there it is. He wont read all the detail, just write: “Gordon Brown had to step in when an English schoolgirl was told to F**k off to her own country in a Scottish classroom”.

And so another grisly ingredient is dropped into the bubbling soup of bile and grievance artificially associated with the independence cause. Yet where and from which side of the debate did it come? Not from Yes. But guess to where the stink will be traced.

This mum is quite right to stand up for her girl but I think she has done the school, Kirkcaldy and her adoptive country a disservice by promoting a crude and disappointing incident of childhood into a political smear.

The really revolting intervention  this week came from Ian Lang telling us that if we voted for our country’s independence we defiled the memory of the British war dead. It doesn’t get any lower than that and I suspect a lot of Scots, Unionist or not, bridled at that presumptuous display of bigotry. There are almost daily signs of hysteria from No sources and still eight months to go…still time for them to find some dignity even if they can’t find the truth.

Courtesy of Derek Bateman