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The moral low ground

Nationalists have no claim on morality

Time was when people could disagree about politics and remain civil. Taking a different view was a matter of opinion, not of moral superiority. Certainly, there were some politicians who cast moral aspersions (in Scotland, Labour against Tories), but public personal insults were not the norm. The referendum of 2014 changed all that. 

The tone was set by Nicola Sturgeon, whose idea of debate was to shout down opponents such as Johann Lamont and Alistair Carmichael. This was done on TV, with the ‘moderator’, Rona from STV, doing nothing to restrain her. No wonder some of us called it ‘Salmond TV’ at the time. I mention this because I am in no doubt that the deterioration of public discourse has been the result of SNP politicians deliberately giving a nod and a wink to their followers. 

The prime recent example was when Sarah Smith, BBC Scotland correspondent, used the word ‘enjoy’ to describe Ms Sturgeon’s attitude to the access of powers that dealing with Covid has afforded her. Most of Ms Sturgeon’s followers are not sufficiently knowledgeable to know that ‘enjoy’ has more than one meaning: it can mean ‘accorded’, or ‘possess’, as in ‘I enjoy access to a private garden’. 

Ms Sturgeon took exception to Sarah Smith’s use of the word, and she tweeted her hurt at it – quite consciously giving the direction to her devotees that Ms Smith should feel (even ‘enjoy’) their wrath on social media. And so they piled on, leaving a distraught Ms Smith to apologise not once but four times. 

Ms Sturgeon knows how to whip up a mob, as she did in Glasgow in November 2019, during the general election campaign. She shouted through a microphone: ‘The Scotland we seek is open, welcoming, diverse, inclusive…’. It sounded more like a threat than a welcome. She continued ‘and no Tory is ever going to be allowed to change that’. 

Where did that come from? Which Tory has tried to change the purported nature of Scotland? None, but Ms Sturgeon has to establish the Tories as the bad guys, the morally bad guys: ‘And down that Boris Johnson path’ (unspecified) ‘lies a future where Boris Johnson has his strings pulled by Donald Trump’.

She claims this would threaten our NHS – which is entirely devolved and therefore entirely under the control of the SNP. I suspect Ms Sturgeon will be most disappointed if Trump loses the election in November. One less bogeyman to scare Scots with.

The purpose of this kind of rant has been to implant in Ms Sturgeon’s followers’ minds the belief that anyone who  opposes the SNP are ‘Tories’. On social media, any criticism of the SNP is invariably met with accusations of the critic being ‘a Tory’ or supporting Boris Johnson. The leader has given the direction, and the obedient followers oblige. This allows separatists to claim moral superiority as being ‘fair’, socialist, egalitarian. 

They point to all the ‘free’ things available to Scots, with which they credit the SNP, although bus travel for pensioners and personal care were introduced by the Labour/Lib Dem coalition pre-2007. Some of them even seem to think that the SNP created the NHS. That is a measure of prevailing separatist ignorance. 

Further, separatists have not worked out that ‘free’ university tuition benefits mainly the middle classes but is paid for at least to some extent by those who do not attend university, including those in manual work. The consequence of ‘free’ tuition, that there is a tight cap on the numbers of well-qualified Scottish students admitted, to leave places for high fee-paying non-Scots, is generally news to separatists. The absence of fees does not mean that Scottish students leave university without significant debt.

Nothing, however, will prevent separatists from claiming the moral high ground. They are ‘true Scots’, not treacherous ‘BritNats’, and that alone testifies to their moral superiority. They care more about the poor, they think, but at the same time they want to close food banks, which they regard as a blot on our conscience. 

They do not know, or care, that every prosperous country – including Germany and Norway – has food banks and that in poor countries there are no food banks. The inhabitants there depend on foreign aid or else they starve.

I fail to identify any moral superiority in the separatist camp. Following the SNP leadership’s lead, the faithful parrot standard SNP lies about Scotland being better off out of the UK (it wouldn’t) and of Scotland walking into the EU (it wouldn’t). They hurl abuse at those who disagree with them. They fail to identify the abuses that take place, like the bullying of businessmen and journalists. Or the case of an SNP MP who bullied a constituent (captured on film).

Recently, Dave Penman, General Secretary of the FDA, the civil servants’ union, spoke of a ‘cultural issue’ in the Scottish government where bad behaviour was not challenged. ‘The issues we talk about are not historical, they are current’. There was talk of ‘bullying behaviour’ in Alex Salmond’s office when he was First Minister, and in other Scottish ministers’ offices, and that some civil servants complained of ‘operating in a culture of fear [where they were] unable to speak truth unto power’. This, it is said, continues. 

Only today, it has been announced that Gillian Martin MSP, who was dropped as a Scottish government minister in 2018 because of ‘inappropriate and offensive’ blog posts which she had written before entering politics, has been appointed to Holyrood’s equalities committee.

SNP supporters are silent on the subject of the Salmond enquiry, which is chaired by a long-standing SNP MSP, when transparency demanded that it be chaired by a judge. This committee will transpire to be as much a waste of OUR money as was the original botched case against Salmond. The signs are there to read: after all, the convener refused to allow committee members to press the Permanent Secretary on a particular issue, ruling the subject out of court, and John Swinney has refused to release documents requested by the committee. And all this is within a regime that is ruled by a married couple, one of whom is entirely unelected. 

While Nationalists attempt to claim the moral high ground, Scotland is becoming a moral vacuum, and there can be no doubt about why that is so. The ruling party controls pretty much everything and ensures that the system works to its advantage.

This is anything but moral. 

Jill Stephenson is former professor of modern German history at the University of Edinburgh.

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Written by Jill Stephenson

Jill Stephenson is former professor of modern German history at the University of Edinburgh. She opposes breaking up the UK.

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