As campaign strategies go, it’s certainly a novel one.
In Edinburgh South, which voted No in September’s referendum by 65% to 35%, SNP candidate Neil Hay has hit trouble.
Under a pseudonymous account, “Paco McSheepie”, which he ran in 2012, he tweeted the term “quisling” with reference to unionists and lamented that “umpteen poor souls in the elderly bracket can vote but barely know their own name”.
No doubt these bon mots will go some way to winning sceptical voters round in the next referendum. “Vote for us, you doddery old traitors” has a certain ring to it.
Hay has apologised for his remarks, telling the Edinburgh Evening News: “The words in these old tweets were poorly chosen, and I apologise for any offence caused. They are not in keeping with the way I would express myself now. To make it clear that I and the way I express myself have moved on – I hope and believe for the better – I deleted this Twitter account, and only use my own campaign account.”
His sympathisers point out that Hay merely posted a headline and link from a nationalist satirical site, BBC Scotlandshire. That is true but no fair reading of the article could conclude that what is being ironised is the traitor-baiting tendency within Scottish nationalism. It’s the “quislings” being scorned, not their accusers.
Scottish Labour seized on his remarks, demanding that Nicola Sturgeon sack him as a candidate. Sturgeon has refused and warned Labour that people in glass Tweetdecks shouldn’t throw hashtags, an eminently fair point given that party’s tolerance of its member Ian Smart, a one-man case for Godwin’s Law to have a three-strikes rule.
Smart has called Mhairi Black, a talented young SNP candidate, a “wee Nazi” and claimed Alex Salmond would be “crying into his soup” at the sight of “two black English lassies cheered all the way round Hampden” during the Commonwealth Games. “Better 100 years of the Tories,” he ventured in a tweet from 2013, “than the turn on the Poles and the P***s that would follow independence failing to deliver.”
Scottish Labour has to decide if it wants to be associated with verbal sewage like this.
But, unlike Hay, Smart is not standing as a candidate for Parliament and that is a meaningful difference. The online abuse angle is important but there is a larger consideration. Serving as a Member of Parliament requires a certain temperament and comportment. Not all politicians live up to this but it is the standard to which all should aspire. Fundamental to that is the principle that an MP represents all of his constituents, not just the ones who voted for him. If this is how Hay views Scots who opposed independence, how will he deal as an MP with those who backed another candidate?
We hear a lot about cybernats and it is true that some independence enthusiasts post outrageous comments online. But some of the most thought-provoking and stimulating conversations I’ve had on Twitter have been with people with 15 Yes badges in their profile. They did not have to resort to debasing their opponents; they had arguments. I also know plenty of SNP activists. None of them spent the referendum running fake Twitter accounts. They were too busy leafleting tower blocks, registering voters, and phone-banking undecideds.
“Celtic jerseys are not for second best,” Jock Stein aphorised. “They don’t shrink to fit inferior players.” The same is true of party rosettes. That yellow flourish and crossed black ribbon mean something. They represent a proud political party underpinned by deeply-held values and committed to the betterment of Scotland and her people. When your name appears on a ballot paper alongside that party, you have a responsibility to the leader, your activists, your fellow members and, most importantly, the voters.
Neil Hay has put Nicola Sturgeon in an impossible situation. If she boots him out, she is left without an SNP candidate in a winnable seat. Yet this approach would not be without precedent. During the 2010 general election, the Conservative candidate for North Ayrshire and Arran referred to homosexuality as “not normal” and when the comments came to light, the Tories suspended him and withdrew support for his campaign. It sent a clear message that his remarks were not acceptable to the party.
The same path is open to Sturgeon but it would mean sacrificing a seat to Labour. Some things, though, are above politics.
Perhaps she’ll get lucky and Hay will make the decision for her. But people look to the First Minister for leadership and, perhaps for the first time since she took office, she didn’t show it on Thursday.
What I find more objectionable than the above comments is a tweet (from his official account) about the composition of the audience for STV’s Scotland Debates programme.
Replace “Scots” with “British” or “English” and that tweet could easily have come from a Ukip candidate. Every time you read it, you come away with another sinister layer of meaning.
As a free-speech fundamentalist, I will defend Hay’s right to tweet almost anything but people who put themselves forward for public office submit to a higher scrutiny.
Once again, however, this is not simply a question of optics or political face-saving. It is about what the SNP is and what it stands for.
I spent yesterday in Edinburgh and heard broad Scots, Morningside politesse, and level seven Weegie.
In Starbucks, there was a Geordie woman arguing with her partner about a burnt saucepan and he was giving as good as he got in a French brogue thick as curdled béchamel. As I waited to cross Princes Street heading for the Mound and a Ruth Davidson photo op, I caught a beguiling Scots German lilt that couldn’t possibly be the work of one man but when I turned round it was.
There were the Home Counties ladies in front of me in WH Smith and the American woman ahead of me on the escalator at Waverley Station who, upon ascending to street level, declared: “So this is Edin-BOWE-ROWE!”
Some of these people will have been visiting for the day but others will live here. Those who do are Scots by my reckoning, insofar as they want to be.
I would never presume to exclude them as “non-Scots” based on their accent or national origin. Even if they were, they would be welcome in my country as guests, neighbours and, with luck, friends.
Like all people from the west, I enjoy getting a dig in at Edinburgh but the truth is I’m taken by its charms. One of them is its unselfconscious cosmopolitanism. Shoulders seem not to stiffen as sharply here at the sound of strange tongues or the sight of new faces. It is not the great melting pot that London offers but it is the closest thing we have in Scotland.
That sense of open identity need not be in tension with Scottish nationality or political nationalism.
The late Bashir Ahmad, the first Scots Asian and first Muslim elected to the Scottish Parliament, is an icon of Scottish nationalism. He launched his Scots Asians for Independence group in 1995 with these words: “It doesn’t matter where you come from. What matters is where we’re going together as a nation.”
That is civic nationalism and, though I’ve never asked her, I imagine it captures Nicola Sturgeon’s philosophy quite handily.
The quislings and the foreigners and the old folk who can’t remember what day it is are all part of that journey Scotland is going on. Neil Hay should get on board or get out of the way.