Over a week ago, the Tory leadership hustings took place in Perth. There was a pro-independence protest outside the venue, various altercations occurred and abuse was thrown at BBC Scotland's political editor, James Cook. All of which has caused an avalanche of comment and condemnation of the extent of abuse, hatred and venom in Scottish politics. So far so predictable, but does this one incident and its aftermath point to anything new?
We should be clear about the prevalence of intolerant, bigoted behaviour and attitudes in Scottish politics and their relationship to independence. It exists on both the independence and pro-union sides. Added to this is the culture of appeasing, tolerating or just ignoring the unacceptable behaviour of your own side while trying to taint opponents with the worst excesses of their true believers.
One way in which this is manifested is via the classic and disreputable tactic of whataboutery. This concedes that there might be some inappropriate acts on one's own side, but this is nothing compared to the actions by the other, and the complete silence of senior political figures, the media and those in authority on that side. Whataboutery defines political divisions and tribalism the world over, and is an avoidance of responsibility and diminution of political debate, in which ultimately we are all diminished.
There is a problem in part of independence opinion. Prominent banners such as 'Tory Scum Out', evident at Perth and many All Under One Banner (AUOB) marches across the country, do not do independence any favours. Anti-Tory sentiment and opposition to the UK Government and Westminster policies does not add up to any commentary being permissible in relation to Tories. Just because Tory policies demean our collective humanity does not mean it is appropriate to dehumanise Tories. This is a tough line for some to maintain – not just in Scotland but across the UK given the debased, amoral actions of this Tory Government – but it is still a line that has to be maintained.
Many on the independence side believe that such are the uphill struggles and forces to be overcome – in mainstream media, Westminster and the British state, and wider British establishment – that any kind of behaviour has to be at least partly excused and even tolerated. Thus calling people 'quislings' and 'traitors', harassing journalists and public figures including pro-union politicians, and engaging in protests outside of institutions such as the BBC, are all seen as fair game.
Take last week's incident as one example. There has been an industry of comment on what actually happened and then extrapolating from it. Many pro-union voices have seen the episode as representative of, and tainting, the entire independence cause, SNP and Nicola Sturgeon. Pro-independence voices have sought not just to resist this take, but to make the point that noisy protests outside a gathering of the UK governing party when it meets in Scotland is nothing extraordinary.
There is a toxic culture on the fringes of the independence movement and a wider element of tolerating it which spreads into senior levels of the SNP. This has different degrees. No-one senior in the SNP would be stupid enough to endorse the counter-productive acts of the self-titled, tiny and often comical 'Scottish Resistance'. But for years senior figures have been happy to promote activities of the pro-independence blogger Stuart Campbell and his 'Wings over Scotland' site when he was in full throw.
There is, in places, a public debate about the boundaries of what can and should be said openly on the independence side. Many baulk at the prevalence of banners such as 'Tory Scum Out'. 'In terms of achieving independence, I would further suggest that it is entirely counter-productive and will alienate a good number of those undecided
voters who we are seeking to persuade to join us – including those who (albeit mistakenly from my point of view) have a history of voting Tory,' wrote James Dippie from Dalry in The National
. These principled sentiments are ones we could do with hearing more from senior SNP and independence figures.
There are significant problematic voices on the pro-union side. There are numerous public interventions who regularly regale Nicola Sturgeon as the equivalent of the devil incarnate, produce all sorts of paranoid and lurid fantasies, and equate the SNP and independence cause to the Nazis and fascists.
The Labour Party has in recent days faced an assault of racist abuse directed at Anas Sarwar which should concern all of us in the aftermath of the 75th anniversary of Pakistani independence. Yet, at the same time, Scottish Labour is prepared to tolerate as a high-profile member the lawyer Ian Smart, who regularly disrupts public discourse with misguided comments; most recently he called the Scots language 'an overtly racist project hiding in plain view'. Many people have called on Labour to discipline or expel Smart, but as I write the Labour Party is choosing to remain silent and in effect condone such comments.
Part of this intemperate, intolerant, abusive discourse is the way of politics in many democracies the world over. We in Scotland can take some solace that things are much worse elsewhere in the world – in the Trumpian world of the American right; in the march of authoritarianism in Hungary, Poland and Turkey; and closer to home, in the poisonous xenophobic attitudes associated with the Brexit debate which resulted in the Labour MP Jo Cox being murdered and headlines such as 'Enemies of the People' about out of touch High Court judges.
But that is not nearly a good enough approach towards the challenges here in our own backyard. A major influence on the haters and bigots in Scotland is the nature of the big question of independence and how it clouds out and overshadows other subjects. It is seen by true believers and fundamentalists on either side as being an all or nothing choice; at its core an existential question touching the core of our beliefs and identity.
This is then reinforced by mutual claims and counter-claims of Scottish and British nationalisms – one claiming it is a civic, inclusive nationalism; the other in near complete denial that it is a nationalism.
Yet what matters here is the dynamism and interplay between the two and how they influence each other. And how the overall effect of these two nationalisms is to close down and deny potential space for more substantive debate, not just about independence and self-government but all the different political choices which society faces.
Scotland's future has to be and is about more than the merits of one nationalism versus another. That case and argument has to be made and remade and the space argued and advocated for. For there are some, too many, on either side, who are happy with a debate which is only about abstracts and absolutes which is conservative, uninspiring and unchallenging to those in power, whether it be Scotland or the wider UK.
There has to be no collusion with abusers, haters and bigots, but instead a zero tolerance policy which names and shames such people, and if they are a member of a mainstream political party, instantly expels them for such activity. That goes for every major party: SNP, Tories, Labour, Lib Dems and Greens, and other political organisations and platforms.
Scotland faces many challenges about our democracy, society and collective future. We are going through incredibly difficult, stressful times which will increasingly test the contours of society and underline how little some in authority care about the mass of the UK population.
We have to come together and collectively agree that, whatever our differences on independence and other fundamentals, there can be no truck, tolerance or collusion with those who hate, abuse and foster bigotry.
Such behaviour does not aid independence or the quality of that debate. Nor does it help address the deep structural issues evident in Scottish and British society which will become even more exposed, with those most vulnerable left without the support and solidarity they should expect from the British state and its assorted agencies.
Instead, we have to advocate for a consensus which challenges and isolates those who want to bring hatred, bigotry and the language of violence into public life, while demanding that politicians and mainstream politics does a more effective job of dealing with the big questions and fundamentals.