Friday, 29 August 2014

Jim Murphy halts speaking tour - a calculated over-reaction?

It has been announced that Labour MP Jim Murphy has cancelled his pro-Union 100 Towns in 100 Days tour of Scotland due to "intimidation".

Murphy has been taking his message around Scottish towns for the last few weeks, in jingositic fashion replacing the traditional soapbox with a Irn Bru crate.

Yesterday, while addressing the public in Kirkcaldy, Murphy was hit by three eggs. A photographer was also threatened, on account of "being English".

This should not be welcome in Scottish politics. Throwing eggs and threatening is hardly the hallmark of a healthy democracy.

Murphy told The Guardian: "What is happening is that the yes campaign is now organising to create a mob atmosphere at our street meetings. It's co-ordinated, it's determined and it's increasingly aggressive. What started as individual passionate nationalists having their say has changed into angry mobs of nationalists coming along and making sure that no one else has their say... instead of undecided voters being encouraged to stop and take part in the debate, those who ask genuine questions are being interrogated by yes campaigners."

It is an inescapable fact that the campaigning has often been less respectful that it could be. One the the first influences in determining my own decision to vote yes was a cartoon from my own party blackening up the First Minister. And we've experienced much worse since then, from both sides - and from none.  it should be pointed out that individuals who feel strongly about issues do not necessarily belong formally to any of the rival campaign organisations.

The scenes yesterday were ugly, that much is true. But uglier still, from the viewpoint of furthering Scottish democracy, has been the attempt by Better Together to suggest that Yes Scotland have co-ordinated such attacks intentionally, and that such tactics demonstrate the undemocratic nature of what Scotland would look like if independent. The smears are no more civilised that the egg-hurling, but the difference is that those making accusations of Yes Scotland, and drawing unreasonable conclusions, are either officials of Better Together or people who I would normally credit with sufficient intelligence to appreciate that the actions of a tiny minority have little relation to the attitudes of the majority. It's disturbing to see some buying into the myth that the idiotic antics of a few are suggestive of the nature of an independent Scotland. (I'd probably point out that, in any case, cultures and societal attitudes are generally not determined by constitutional arrangements, and that the same intolerant persons would still be here regardless of the outcome of the vote.)

We could all look at a picture of the Westboro Baptist Church, with their hate-filled slogans written on poorly constructed banners, and think "stupid Americans" or "typical Christians". But in doing so we would, by resorting to such ridiculous simplicities, miss the bigger picture and the actions of the many in America and within the church who are working to facilitate a more inclusive society. The same is true in Scotland. There have been individuals supporting both Yes Scotland and Better Together who have behaved shamefully, but the respective campaigns (for all the shortcomings I've often documented on this blog) are not actively encouraging mob rule. 

It must be said that this kind of thing is not exactly new to British politics. In the 1992 General Election, John Major took to the streets. Hounded everywhere by Labour supporters (who behaved in much the same way as Murphy's detractors; hecking, shouting over him and generally making a nuisance of themselves) he too was hit by a well-aimed egg. His response, showing courage in the face of intimidation, ("I will not be shouted off the streets") helped win him the 1992 election. Stunts like this are usually counter-productive, and usually only succeed in gaining public sympathy for the target.

Murphy understands this fully, and has the political nous to use it fully to his advantage. For all the talk of police concern for Murphy's safety, the scenes in Kirkcaldy were no worse than previous attacks on politicians - and certainly not as concerning as the attack on John Prescott in Hull in 2001. Are the Yes supporters, for all their noise and bluster, really any worse than the Labour supporting mobs who followed the Tories around in the 1980s and 1990s?

Murphy thrives on conflict and the adversarial. He's a hugely provocative figure. His personal style and outspoken nature means he will always be the kind of politician targeted by mobs. But he's a man of tremendous strength, and the notion that he's the kind of person likely to be intimidated is laughable. He does understand, however, the value of playing the victim and painting his opposition as tolerant of underhand and intimidatory tactics.

It's important to maintain a sense of perspective and not to deduce too much significance from the fact that some people, irrespective of their political tribe, behave disrespectfully towards others. Hecklers have been a common feature of political discourse for centuries and actually are the sign of a healthy and thriving democracy. During the 2011 election campaign, as a candidate for Renfrewshire North and West, I attended a TUC hustings meeting at which there was both a healthy level of interjection and banter from the floor and a regrettable tendency by some to attempt to bully SNP candidate Derek Mackay. I'm not opposed to those who don't share Murphy's views challenging them in the most public of public forums, although there should never be a need for dissent to be expressed in uncivil ways. It appears that lines have been crossed, but to draw unfair conclusions about Yes Scotland and to overstate the security threat is an irresponsible over-reaction - albeit one that has undoubtedly been cynically calculated.

Willie Rennie claims that this shows the need to "stand up to the nationalist thugs". It does not. It shows the need to stand up for a better way of doing politics. He could, and should, have used more temperate language. I have only once experienced seriously thuggish behaviour - when I was my brother's agent in Blackburn in local elections that were essentially an straight BNP v Labour battle. The respective campaigns, and the inevitable animosity (culminating in brawls, allegations of voter intimidation and a ballot box somehow going on fire), were so poisonous as to make the worst cybernat appear positively tolerant by comparison. It does Willie little credit to resort to such loaded statements, when he could very easily have called for calm, reasonable and respectful conduct from all sides.

Hopefully Murphy's tour will continue in a few days' time, when the police accept he isn't being targeted by seasoned terrorists; I also trust that Yes Scotland will distance itself from the extreme behaviour of a few of its more vocal supporters. This action from the Yes camp is, in my view, vitally important to rebut the claims being made by Better Together and Murphy personally. Perhaps then we'll remember Jim Murphy in the same way as Brian Mawhinney, Ed Miliband, John Prescott and David Cameron - just another politician who's had an egg thrown at them.

It could have been worse. At least it wasn't blue paint...


Jacob Bones said...

This week's been one of the most active of the campaign and as the poll momentum lies with Yes, I'm becoming very cynical about everything I see as a reaction from BT.

I was very cynical about Jim Murphy's decision to campaign on the road in the way he has. I think that the audience is the Labour Party and not the public at large. In my view he's trying to position himself as a future leader of the SLP if the vote goes to Yes and JL gets the blame and has to resign. If it's No then he's still done himself no harm in being seen by the party faithful to have stood up to the Yes campaign.

I think he's a total campaigner and remember him from my time at university when he was active in student politics (and not too much else if Imrecall correctly). I tend also to believe that he's interested in the campaign for Jim Murphy.

Caron Lindsay said...

Actually, Andrew, I think you do need to take stand against this sort of stuff. Yes, there were horrible scenes during the Miners' Strike. When I was in Chesterfield in the 90s, intimidation from Labour thugs was commonplace. It was quite scary to be female and out delivering leaflets on your own in some parts of town. And when we had to get the Police to watch over one person's elderly mother's house in case it was attacked, it was clearly going too far.

You might admire some people for just getting on with it, but I don't think you can blame people for saying "enough".

This sort of stuff has been happily absent from our politics up here for a while and it's not fun to see it back.

I don't like Jim Murphy's politics. I don't like that he uses less than inclusive language at times. However, I will not stand by while mobs of thugs surround and jeer at him or anyone else.

Andrew said...

I suppose it depends on what "making a stand" means.

I feel the best way to do this would be by appealing to reason and ideally avoiding the kind of inflammatory language of conflict.

I agree enough is enough. But what is the most effective way of drawing a line under it? It certainly isn't by referring to "Nationalist thugs".

As for the egg conveniently hurled at Jim Murphy - at this stage we don't know if the perpetrator was a nationalist, a supporter of Better Together or, possibly, just a random idiot.

Language is all-important. Jim Murphy knows this. Attempting to paint the "nationalists" as unreasonable, uncontrollable and aggressive is clearly a political tactic. Why add fuel to this - it's a dangerous assumption, more still because there is a tiny grain of truth in there.

There should be no place in Scottish politics for intimidation (this is not the miner's strike, but I've been stunned to find how deep feelings run on this issue - even within our own party where reasonable disagreement often can't take place). The question, however, is how we can leave it behind. In that respect, I don't find either Murphy's calculated tarring of nationalists or Willie Rennie's reinforcement of the "thug" stereotype to be particular useful.

Anonymous said...

Andrew, can you recall whether Willie or Caron commented when an 80 year old yes campaigner was physically attacked by a no supporter last year?

Have they commented on reports that a pregnant yes supporter was kicked in the stomach by a unionist in Glasgow?

Or have they become so tribal and in their mindset have dehumanised yes supporters that they consider physical attacks on them to be worth less than a stain on a no supporter's clothes?