During the referendum campaign, Better Together was adept at exploiting the intemperate language used by some supporters of independence on the internet.
The outpourings of the so called “cybernats” against JK Rowling, Jim Murphy and the Queen were handed to a willing press who hung them around the neck of the Yes campaign.
This was often unfair – hate mail and death threats received by nationalist politicians and supporters were largely ignored – but it was always inexcusable and counter productive. The vehemence of the language used by some independence supporters may even have cost the Yes campaign the ultimate prize as switherers reared back in the closing days and hours.
But the independence ranters just don’t seem to understand this. They were back in strength at the weekend, venting their fury against Jim Murphy. “Red Tory … Blairite scum … Iraq murderer … rat … liar … creep … thief…” On and on it went, playing into the Scottish Labour leader’s hands. Don’t they realise that he loves this stuff because he can say it shows what the SNP are really like?
I am no stranger to political knockabout and don’t think politicians should be treated with undue respect. Satire and ridicule have a place in politics. But this isn’t funny, sharp or illuminating. It is just ugly, boorish and illiterate. Worse than that, intemperate personal attacks are an expression of weakness. You shouldn’t give your opponent the honour of showing that he has wound you up. Insults generally damage the people who make them.
Independence supporters should have taken the lead from their leader, Nicola Sturgeon. She congratulated Jim Murphy on his election and said she would work with him on any common policies. There will be plenty of time to challenge him on his policies in future, though he is a moving target.
Many nationalists are so blinded by animus that they don’t seem to realise that Jim Murphy is stealing their clothes, just as Alex Salmond stole Labour’s when Tony Blair was prime minister. With his promises of a new “clause 4” and a “patriotic” Scottish Labour and with his support for devolution, taxes on the rich and an end to inequality, Mr Murphy is repositioning Labour as the party of social democratic home rule.
And there’s no law that says he won’t succeed. If the pro-independence ranters don’t calm down he will start attracting back a lot of non-nationalist Yes supporters, who may not particularly like where Mr Murphy has come from but have no problems about where he is taking the Labour party. It is the direction that they have long been calling for: to the left.
Mr Murphy saw the opportunity presented by the “45” brand of extreme nationalism that has become increasingly prominent since the referendum. The broader Yes movement attracted a lot of non nationalists to the cause of independence. They have become very silent of late.
It was artists and writers around organisations like National Collective who made the referendum campaign such a transformative event. But you won’t see people like the playwright David Greig raging about Red Tory scum. The reasonable tones of Blair Jenkins, who chaired Yes Scotland, are sadly missed, as are those of campaign guru and apostle of positive campaigning, Stephen Noon.
In their absence, it really is down to the SNP to try to recreate the inclusive and non-sectarian politics that the Yes campaign promoted. But the signs aren’t good. Yes was simply folded into the SNP as party membership exploded. The broader home rule movement that many called for has been pre-empted by the hard nuts of the “45” who seem to think they own the internet.
There is something else at work here: a kind of inverse gender effect. If Jim Murphy had been a woman much of what was hurled at him over the weekend would have been unacceptable. The personal attacks on his looks, his attitudes and his politics would have been regarded by many feminists as sexist and threatening.
But it is a turn-off, regardless of gender. SNP politicians need to get a grip and quieten the herd if they don’t want to throw away their lead in the opinion polls and let Labour back in in May. It happened before and it can happen again.