The SNP has created an “atmosphere of fear” which discourages people from criticising the party in case they are publicly attacked, one of Labour’s top candidates in Scotland has claimed.
Ian Murray, the former shadow Scotland secretary, said the tactic was encouraged at the top of the party and has spread to grassroots supporters, and called on Nicola Sturgeon to “reflect very carefully” on how it was affecting democracy.
In an interview before last week’s terrorist attack in Manchester, the Labour candidate for Edinburgh South said the treatment of a nurse who confronted Ms Sturgeon during a BBC TV debate about low morale in the NHS was an example of the issue.
Claire Austin was vilified online after Joanna Cherry, the SNP candidate for Edinburgh South West, tweeted that she was married to a Conservative councillor.
“The SNP have been doing this for a long time,” Mr Murray said. “It starts at the top and goes right the way through their entire organisation, right down to their membership and their supporters: if you lose the argument, smear.
“They want to try to create an atmosphere of fear where people don’t speak out. When you meet businesses in private, or you meet nurses or teachers, they will rip the government to shreds about what they’re doing, but they’ll never ever say it publicly, because of that fear factor. That’s the ideology of Nationalism: it’s ruled by fear; get rid of the opposition by fear. The businesses during the independence referendum who spoke out were absolutely pilloried – to the extent that it stopped other people from speaking out.”
Mr Murray gave the example of Barrhead Travel, one of the UK’s largest independent travel agents. Its founder, Bill Munro, sent a memo to staff warning of the dangers of independence ahead of 2014’s vote.
After the message was published, pro-independence supporters called for a widespread boycott of the company and SNP MSP John Mason said he had decided not to buy foreign currency from the firm as a result of its stance.
Mr Murray also spoke out against online independence supporters known as “cybernats”, who gang up on those who criticise their cause. He added that Ms Sturgeon should take responsibility for the climate created by the SNP.
He said: “Nationalism as an ideology thrives on hating something else. If an ideology thrives on having something to hate, that underpins the whole of the ideology.
“Scottish politics is completely corroded by Nationalism, and I hate it. I didn’t come into politics to fight Nationalism or talk about the constitution, and I think we need to find a way of getting off it. That starts at the very, very top. Nicola Sturgeon needs to reflect very seriously about what she’s doing to this country.”
Responding, the SNP’s candidate for Edinburgh South, Jim Eadie, said: “This is a ridiculous outburst and voters will not recognise the frankly bizarre picture of political debate in Scotland that Ian Murray tries to paint. Mr Murray should really consider whether this sort of inflammatory and divisive rhetoric serves our democracy well.”
Mr Murray also revealed that a pro-independence supporter secretly stuck a “Yes2” sticker to his back despite knowing that he was on his way to an electoral truce event in memory of his friend Jo Cox, the MP who was murdered by a right-wing terrorist last year.
“It’s that kind of stuff that’s just horrible,” Mr Murray said. “You just think: let’s grow up a bit. We can disagree on independence but as Jo would say, we probably agree on an awful lot more.”
Mr Murray also said he had been a victim of a “fake news” story on Facebook, in which a man claimed he had “laughed” and “winked” after being told about the plight of a local family being evicted.
“That didn’t happen. But it went viral, and I was getting people writing to me, emailing me, phoning my office to tell me I was disgusting,” he said. “I had homeless charities getting in touch with me asking what my comments were – and all because someone had decided to make it up.” Since the incident, he has had a member of staff sit in on his private meetings with constituents and others, to ensure there is a witness to what is being said.
Labour is desperately hoping that Mr Murray can hang on to his seat in Edinburgh, where he has a majority of 2,637. Since 2015, he has been the party’s only MP in Scotland.
An outspoken critic of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Mr Murray resigned from the shadow cabinet last June, predicting that the public would reject Mr Corbyn as prime minister. As recently as March he accused Mr Corbyn of “destroying” the party.
Although he insists that he stands by his previous remarks, Mr Murray now refuses to openly condemn his party’s UK leader, claiming that “one bad day at the office for a Labour government is much, much better than 1,000 good days with the Tories”.
He added: “He’s the leader of the Labour Party and we need to work as a team to get a Labour government. It’s not a presidential election.”
Mr Murray is hoping that his constituents’ opposition to a second independence referendum will help him win on 8 June, saying this is “by far” the dominant issue on doorsteps. More than 65 per cent of voters in Edinburgh South backed staying part of the UK in 2014.
Dismissing the chances of a Conservative being returned in the constituency, he said voters realise that if they back the Tories then the most likely outcome is an SNP MP.