Brian Monteith: Cybernat poison will infect Salmond

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Today is Friday 13th – will it be yet another unlucky day for the SNP? It has certainly been a week of bad days for the Nationalists, bad enough to have cost them some votes and damaged the name of the First Minister.

There are some politicians that have said quietly in private that if Alex Salmond is given enough rope he will hang himself. Well, they were wrong in 2007 and 2011 when he was the victor in the Holyrood elections, hardly putting a step wrong. So sure- footed was he that he would have won Strictly Come Dancing if he could have been bothered to enter.

But not recently. Not this week. As the clock ticks down until the nation’s fate is decided – it was 100 days until the referendum on Monday past – Alex Salmond has become decidedly more tetchy. His performances at First Minister’s Questions have been short-tempered and less impressive, while he has been willing to get into political scraps that he would be better just ignoring.

When you are First Minister you can afford to rise above the general melee and thereby take the moral high ground – but that’s not Salmond’s style. He’d rather mix it, or at least let his spokesmen mix it, and this week that backfired big style.

The back story is that what are known as the cybernats – nationalist supporters who roam social media, leaving often caustic and offensive remarks on websites, blogs, Twitter, Facebook and the rest – have been too often condoned by the nationalist leadership. Rather than attempt to keep the cybernats in check they have even been encouraged, with government ministers getting in on the act themselves – and some of their many unpalatable comments have been defended or condoned by inaction.

For an example of the language used I offer this discourse about the Labour MSP Jackie Baillie – a particular hate figure of Nationalists – between Stuart Campbell, the editor of the cybernat website Wings Over Scotland, and a follower.

Stuart Campbell: “It’s up against stiff competition, but Baillie’s permanent and gigantically unwarranted smirk is perhaps her least attractive feature as a human being.”

Ianbrotherhood: “and that begs the question – which is her most attractive feature?”

Stuart Campbell: “The fact that she’ll die one day.”

The abuse thrown at people like JK Rowling – who this week donated £1m to the No campaign and was very quickly on the receiving end of torrents of cursing and swearing telling her to leave Scotland – is not about letting off steam or trying to be funny, its intent is to intimidate others out of voicing their opinions or making even modest donations. Thus many business leaders have decided to say nothing about the referendum, even though they have genuine concerns that would effect their enterprise and the jobs of their employees. Others in the cultural and sporting sphere have taken a similar decision to try and say nothing – a problem that never seems to affect people willing to say they’re backing independence!

So back to what happened this week – to mark the 100 days to the referendum, the Better Together campaign used ordinary people to express their support, including Clare Lally, a mother of a disabled girl who is concerned about the NHS if there is independence. She very soon received all sorts of abuse on the internet from cybernats that left her in tears.

Most notable was one accusation, again from Stuart Campbell, that said: “The odds of her being the same Claire Lally [sic] who’s the daughter-in-law of former Labour Lord Provost of Glasgow Pat Lally and has a husband called Derek must be astronomically high.” The intent was to demean her status as an ordinary mother by suggesting she was a Labour grandee.

Approximately one hour after that comment was posted the First Minister’s press aide, Campbell Gunn, sent an e-mail to the Daily Telegraph stating that Ms Lally is “actually. . . the daughter-in-law of former Labour Lord Provost of Glasgow Pat Lally”, with the same punctuation and capitalisation – as if it had been copied and pasted from the website on to the e-mail. His purpose was also clearly to try and demean Clare Lally’s status as an ordinary mother of a disabled child.

Once the train of events were revealed Campbell Gunn was in the eye of a storm and issued an apology. But he’s an adviser paid for by the taxpayer, if he issues inappropriate comment he is expected to resign. When an advisor of Donald Dewar misled the media in 1999 Dewar sacked him. What had Alex Salmond to say at the time? Why, he called for a “change of personnel” and for the First Minister to “accept responsibility for allowing a culture to develop”.

A culture to develop? What, like the cybernats that his government has refused to rein in when it has had ample opportunity?

The code of conduct for government advisors has been breached, but Salmond refuses to act – just like he did a fortnight ago when a conflict of interest was revealed in his health secretary’s decision making.

The referendum is now becoming all about Salmond’s judgement rather than independence; and that way ­Salmond will lose.