Brian Monteith: Keep calm, don’t carry on with abuse

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I have said it for long enough, this referendum on independence is not only going to become bitter, it is going to turn nasty – and it has all the potential to lead to violence in the future.

I hope I am wrong, I really do, but there are already signs that a callous disregard for people having the right to disagree is leading to the abandonment of self-restraint and sound judgment.

The latest example is none other than the SNP government minister for community safety and legal affairs, Roseanna Cunningham, circulating to more than 5820 followers a photograph of a fundraising letter that included the personal address of an 83-year-old retired general who wrote to people asking them to support a No vote and make a donation. Within hours, he received abusive e-mails, some telling him to “shut the **** up”.

Lieutenant General Sir Norman Arthur, as General Officer Commanding in Scotland and governor of Edinburgh Castle in the late 1980s, was Scotland’s most senior soldier.

The general has said the “very least” he wanted was for the minister to apologise for her actions but initially she denied any wrongdoing and tried to explain it away.

It took her a full day to apologise and offer to write to the general. Her defence was that Sir Norman’s “round-robin” letter was being widely circulated on the social media 
network, Twitter, and that his address and phone number are available in Who’s Who.

This argument misses the point – by a country mile. Cunningham has not sent out 5820 copies of Who’s Who drawing to people’s attention that the general is supporting a political cause, ridiculing him for it through her own personal comments, telling everybody where he stays, what his phone number is and e-mail address – but that’s just what she might as well have done.

By circulating a photo of his letter with contact details clearly visible she drew attention to all that information for people that don’t have a Who’s Who to hand.

Now Cunningham is no fool. She’s no young student getting carried away with the moment, taking part in the sort ill-judged caper that many of us (myself included) would like to forget. Cunningham is a qualified lawyer and became an advocate in 1990, she’s now in her sixties, was in the House of Commons for six years and has served at Holyrood for the nearly 15 years since its inception. She nearly became leader of the SNP in 2004 until Alex Salmond threw his hat in the ring.

Put simply, Cunningham has been round the block, she should be mature and, as a minister, dignified.

Considering her responsibility for community safety and legal affairs, what did she think she was doing circulating the private address of an individual because he had taken a position on the referendum different to hers?

He wrote to people in a personal capacity with a handwritten greeting which is hardly the mark of a round-robin circular.

He clearly did not expect – or solicit – his address to be distributed. His letter acknowledged that the recipient might not agree with him, in which case he asked for it to be ignored. Politeness all round, but there was no good manners from Cunningham.

She needs to take a hard look at herself and ask is her behaviour fitting of a government minister, more so is it fitting of a minister responsible for community safety?

How she thinks she should stay in office is beyond me – but to resign would be to weaken the Yes campaign so she will be encouraged by others to hang on at all costs no matter the personal loss of face.

The general had to contact the police to alert them to the e-mail abuse he has already received and seek their advice about the safety of his family and home in the south of Scotland.

Readers may think this is an over-reaction on the general’s part but sadly it is not. Already there has been much personal abuse sent by either side of the debate over the internet, but it has not stopped there.

In January, a 13-year-old English-born Kirkcaldy schoolgirl was told to “****-*** back to your own country” and had to take time off from classes. In Islay, a local postie was subject
to repeated abuse over the internet and had dog faeces put on his front step.

He also had a half-naked Yes supporter trying to stage an alcoholic drinking game in his post office and a debate in Islay was cancelled because No supporters felt intimidated.

Readers will also probably be familiar with the abuse David Bowie was subjected to on his Facebook page by Yes campaign supporters after he issued a message “And Scotland, stay with us” at the Brit Awards. I’ve seen the abuse and I was ashamed to be a Scot and know that tens of thousands would be able to read such bile directed at Bowie.

Last May, Sir Chris Hoy received similar treatment, being called a traitor and his personal achievements rubbished in unprintable terms.

This all has to stop. Our political leaders have to calm the temperatures down, but when government ministers start taking part is there any hope?