Ten years after my voluntary exit from the House of Commons, I’m still asked if I “miss politics”. The answer has always been the same. I have never regretted getting out but it was a great privilege to have had that experience, and I wouldn’t say a word against it.
That is now an answer in need of revision. For me, politics has always been a means to an end. The justification for involvement was to argue for and in some cases achieve outcomes which could not be reached by other routes and to contribute, however marginally, to the long march of progress.
It was possible to be robust in pursuit of one’s views without rancour or malice. Frustrations and successes were weighed in roughly equal measure. Opponents were not enemies. Indeed, one of the truest maxims in politics is that the opponents are in front you and the enemies behind!
I find it difficult to reconcile any of that with the kind of politics which now prevails in Scotland. The death of Charles Kennedy has provoked many reflections, none of them very optimistic. The lessons to be learned should certainly involve the treatment meted out to him in the months prior to his death for this is now integral to the nature of Scottish politics.
A truly shocking article appeared last week in the ‘Daily Mail’ describing the harassment and abuse which Charles suffered through his darkest hours. The author, Guy Adams, had done his homework and tracked down at least some of the sources of that behaviour. It is a pity the Scottish media has shown so little interest in performing the same task.
To pre-empt misrepresentation, let me be clear about what I am not saying. There is no evidence that the campaign of abuse to which he was subjected had any direct relationship with Charles Kennedy’s death. Nor, for that matter, did it contribute significantly to his defeat which would have happened anyway, though the perpetrators were not to know that at the time.
A few months ago, I wrote here about the launch of a Twitter account under the name Where’s Charlie? by Ian Blackford. It seemed to me then (and now) a clear attempt to personalise the contest on grounds which were undesirable and unnecessary. Mr Kennedy’s fragility was scarcely a state secret. On top that, he was coping with a string of tragedies and losses.
Mr Blackford protested that he was merely raising a legitimate political question. Yet within days, one of his closest associates, a Mr Brian Smith who is, I understand, a former police officer, was using Twitter for exactly the purpose I had predicted, to ask if Mr Kennedy had “a ‘Problem’ that stops you going to Westminster?”.
Mr Smith’s activities were not confined to any one site. Day after day, he bombarded Charles Kennedy’s Twitter and Facebook sites with allegations, abuse and innuendoes. On 27th January, replying to a tweet from Peter Wishart MP, he referred to Mr Kennedy as “our own arch-Quisling”.
Mr Smith sent at least 115 offensive tweets to Charles Kennedy between January and May as well as countless Facebook messages. He was not alone. A member of Charles’s constituency staff worked full-time on deleting abuse from his own social media sites. Any attempt to communicate on behalf of his own campaign met with another torrent of well-orchestrated poison.
When Charles asked for supporters to put posters in their windows, one Clare Robertson (if that is indeed his/her name) sneered: “Just put an empty whisky bottle in your window. It’s the same thing.” Ms Robertson is a particularly active supporter of the Nationalist cause, producing a steady stream of nastiness on Twitter. She has more than 21,000 followers for her activities. If this is a “lunatic fringe”, there are a lot of lunatics in our midst.
But back to Mr Smith. His efforts did not go unrewarded. On 8th February, Ian Blackford enthused about the Skye SNP Burns Supper “presided over by the inimitable Brian Smith”. As the two men follow each other on Facebook and Twitter, it seems inconceivable that Mr Blackford was unaware that his “inimitable” friend was calling Charles Kennedy a Quisling and spreading as much dirt as he could muster about the MP’s “problem”. As further reward for his efforts, Mr Smith was then made convener of the Skye and Lochalsh SNP branch.
I do not begin to comprehend the mentality of an individual who thinks it is legitimate political activity to sit at a keyboard day after day to hurl abuse at an opponent. But I find it even more troubling that, far from being treated as an outcast by the organisation to which he has attached himself, he should be promoted to high office, with other leading lights frequently endorsing and enhancing his efforts.
Following Mr Blackford’s victory, Convener Smith was in understandably ecstatic mood. So he posted on Facebook: “You drunken slob Kennedy. Lies, smears and deceit didn’t work. Bye!!!” Once again, Charles Kennedy’s own social media was inundated with abuse in the hours after the result was declared. Almost all of it was of a deeply personal nature. When he got home to Caol, it was to find that the contents of his bins had been scattered over the driveway.
It may be that Charles Kennedy was subjected to particularly vicious treatment, not just by the “on-line community” but also in the streets and even in his election office in Fort William. He contacted me a couple of times to ask for advice about whether he should “go public” about some aspects of what he was being subjected to. But by then, there was no point. Like any decent politician, he was bemused and upset by the tactics used against him.
Some of this has come to light only because of what happened subsequently. But variations on the same theme could be found in every constituency in Scotland. The irony is that none of it was necessary even for the SNP’s own purposes. The tide was so strong that it carried off just about everyone who opposed them, no matter how competent or useless they had been. It was equally indiscriminate in who it carried in.
The SNP are now in a position of great strength. They are a highly-disciplined organisation which does not tolerate internal dissent. Since I always predicted they would be the beneficiaries from the creation of a Scottish Parliament, their success does not come as any great surprise and I can live with it even if I don’t like it. What I find much more troubling is the way the well of Scottish politics is being poisoned by intolerance.
It may finally occur to Nicola Sturgeon and her high command that they no longer need the outriders whose appointed role is to threaten, denigrate and abuse anyone who stands in their way. It would be a fitting act of respect to Charles Kennedy and the civilised politics he represented if his chief tormentors were now called to account.