Robust Scottish independence debate slipped occasionally into abuse

Analysis: Better Together has allowed itself to be intimidated off the pitch

Labour Party leader Ed Miliband: jostled and called a traitor, a liar at an Edinburgh shopping centre. Photograph: Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Labour Party leader Ed Miliband: jostled and called a traitor, a liar at an Edinburgh shopping centre. Photograph: Matt Cardy/Getty Images

 

Standing at the Haymarket railway station, surrounded by supporters holding “No Thanks” banners, Labour’s Kezia Dugdale canvassed for votes.

The mood was quiet, very quiet, compared with Tuesday’s unpleasant scenes in Edinburgh when Labour’s Ed Miliband faced a torrent of abuse.

“My own team has been ‘egged’,” Dugdale told The Irish Times. “I had one woman scream in my face that if I loved England so much I should go and live there.”

However, the abuse – and it is there, no doubt about that – has been in the minority: “The majority have been polite, whatever opinions they hold,” she went on.

For months, Yes voters have loudly declared their allegiance; those backing staying in the UK, meanwhile, have been cowed, keeping their thoughts to themselves.

The No supporters’ diffidence, however, has encouraged bullies among those voting Yes. They are there, even if they do not reflect the views of all.

Too often, abuse has been spread viciously by social media. Indeed, Scotland has hosted the first truly Twitter referendum.

Questionable value

Frankly, it has been of questionable value. Yes, it has spread news of events with unprecedented ease. Too often, however, it has merely given louts a louder voice. More seriously, it has ensured that many have been able to live in a cocoon where their beliefs and opinions have never been challenged.

Individuals have faced abuse on Twitter for declaring their allegiance – but again, the majority of abuse has come from those voting Yes, despite denials.

Equally, it can be switched on and off, which raises suspicions of orchestration. Singer Susan Boyle faced it after she spoke of voting No. The attacks stopped within hours.

There have been deeply questionable actions, notably Alex Salmond’s references last week to “Team Scotland” versus “Team Westminster”.

It is dog-whistle politics and Salmond is around long enough to know that it is: “Team Westminster” is code for English, one that plays into a sense of grievance.

Nor is it any accident that it has been English politicians, such as Miliband, who have suffered the worst barracking on the streets.

The shopping centre onslaught is one copied from the 2011 Holyrood election when the then Scottish Labour party leader, Ian Gray, was chased into a Subway sandwich bar in a railway station.

The event became a viral sensation and destroyed what was left of Gray’s political reputation, but it set the bar high for future street confrontations.

In the Scottish Review yesterday, Kenneth Roy spoke of a couple who had put up a No sticker in the window of their house in a small village.

“A neighbour – a woman they ‘knew’ – came over and said: ‘Oh, I didn’t realise you were moving home.’

‘We’re not,’ said the man, surprised.

‘Well, you will be after we win,’ she told him. ‘You won’t be welcome in this street.’ I hold the first minister personally responsible for this,” said Roy.

Too often, some Yes voters refuse to accept that No voters are as Scottish as they are. They may never have said it directly to a No voter, but, be in no doubt, some think it.

However, predictions of chaos have been rejected by the Scottish Police Federation, which represents 18,500 officers who will be on duty today.

‘Good natured’

The referendum has “been robust but overwhelmingly good natured”, though passions were always going to rise as September 18th approached.

Now that they have, the “exaggerated rhetoric that is being deployed” has wrongly implied that Scotland is on the verge of disintegration.

Politicians and journalists should consider their words and keep calm, it said, adding that “a minority of mindless idiots are [not] representative of anything”.

Equally, however, Better Together has allowed itself to be intimidated off the pitch. Miliband’s treatment – even if it was overplayed by some on the No side yesterday – was unacceptable, where he was jostled and called a traitor, a liar and much worse.

However, he should have stood his ground. Thuggish behaviour should be confronted, not fled from – even if police were the ones telling him to leave.