Mhairi Black fair riles them, doesn’t she?
The SNP MP for Paisley and Renfrewshire South was termed a “slut” by the prominent Unionist academic Dr Jill Stephenson during a Twitter exchange, the Sunday Herald has reported.
In the comments made before the general election, Dr Stephenson described the Nationalist politician as an “appalling harridan” and a “foul mouthed little slut” in one of a series of hostile tweets.
The apologism in response to the Sunday Herald article was wearingly familiar. Just as Nationalists rationalise and justify the cybernat sludge flung at JK Rowling and others, a power of Unionists were syllogising themselves into a right old lather to excuse the remarks. Only Nationalists are abusive online. Jill Stephenson is not a Nationalist. Jill Stephenson was not abusive.
Others pointed to the abuse Dr Stephenson has received from cybernats, some of which is revolting and deeply derogatory to women. Yet I can find no evidence that Mhairi Black has ever so much as tweeted the academic a “hello” let alone a four-letter tirade.
What, then, inspired her jeremiad against Black?
Dr Stephenson is no 12-follower cyber-nobody. She is professor emerita of modern German history at Edinburgh University. I am told she is renowned for her research on the role of women in Nazism. She was a member of Academics Together, the No campaign’s higher education branch.
The professor is not alone in her irrational contempt for someone barely five minutes in political life. Solicitor Ian Smart has branded Black a “wee Nazi”. Also no anonymous Twitter egg, he is a past president of the Law Society of Scotland.
Professor Tom Gallagher charged her with embodying “the culture of negation that is assailing Western civilization”, quite an achievement for a 20-year-old from Paisley, and posited that she would heckle José Ortega y Gasset if he gave a lecture at her alma mater Glasgow University, an even greater feat since the Spanish philosopher has been dead for 60 years.
The Daily Mail guffawed at her gauche fondness for McDonald’s and buying rounds of drinks for her friends. Even the eminently sensible Daily Record briefly became obsessed with her and her Twitter profile.
Perhaps we can chalk this up as the sort of juvenile taunts that fly back and forth in contemporary online debate.
Wings over Scotland’s Stuart Campbell recently set about retweeting posts describing Nicola Sturgeon as a “bitch”. This was in response to Scottish Labour releasing a dossier of SNP members who had called Unionists “traitors” and other unpleasant epithets on Twitter. (All Scottish politics now takes places at the level of the playground. Please Miss, Willie Rennie pulled my pigtails and called me an ethnic nationalist!)
Or perhaps an explanation lay in the misogynist flavour of Dr Stephenson’s word choice. “Slut” carries a particular contempt for liberated young women.
Of course, the Nationalists’ smelling salts routine would carry more credibility if they hadn’t lustily defended Alex Salmond’s own sexist braying against Tory minister Anna Soubry. That, a party spokesperson said, was a “boisterous but good-natured exchange”. No one sees the hump on his own back, runs an old Yiddish proverb.
No, I don’t think this was about sexism. It was about iconography. Mhairi Black has a long career ahead of her in which to flourish as an MP but for now she is a symbol. A marker of how Scotland has changed and by how much it has changed.
It was said of Margaret Thatcher that she roused such antipathy in the Scots because she was “a woman, an English woman, and a bossy English woman”. Black is an emblem of the new Scotland that confuses and offends the old Scotland. She is a woman, a young woman, and a working-class young woman. She’s not supposed to be an SNP MP, she’s supposed to be a Labour voter.
Women have often been at the helm of the SNP’s advances but Black differs from her foremothers. Winnie Ewing was a middle-class solicitor who spoke like Miss Jean Brodie on a day trip to Glasgow. Nicola Sturgeon hailed from Labour’s West of Scotland heartlands but was too obviously a nationalist, joining the SNP rather than Labour at the height of the struggle against Thatcherism. Margo MacDonald, to whom Black merits comparison, was a trailblazer, not one of 56.
That Mhairi Black stirs such choler in Unionists underscores the trauma inflicted on May 7. It feels like it’s not their country anymore, that they no longer understand Scotland. They do not see themselves in her and what they do see, or what they think they see, scares them.
These fears are misplaced. Scotland has changed and while it will surely change again it will never be what it was. But the transformation is political, not essential; no one has lost their country, just the old assumptions and crumbling certainties. The more irredentist Unionists will have to come to terms with that and they could start by trying to understand rather than revile Mhairi Black.