Photo by Andy Buchanan / AFP)
Artillery Row

In praise of incivility

Je suis Nicola

As somebody who has the (mis)fortune of having a Scottish significant other, whose family all happen to be staunch Unionists, my life won’t be made any easier by what I’m about to do. I’m going to do it anyway, because an important point of principle is at stake here. May I please defend Nicola Sturgeon from the absurd attacks against her for saying she “detests the Tories?”

For those of you lucky enough to avoid the latest media-manufactured outrage, last Sunday the Scottish First Minister appeared on Laura Kuenssberg’s political show. She was asked whether she would rather see a Tory or Labour administration after the next general election. Having noted that Liz Truss was a “political opponent” rather than personal enemy, she went on to say that she “detests the Tories and everything they stand for” and would therefore rather have a Starmer-led government — should Scotland not be independent by then, of course.

Faux-outrage betrays a deep misunderstanding of British politics

Whilst watching the show live, I didn’t even blink, nor did Kuennsberg, nor presumably did anybody else in the studio. It wasn’t long before politicians and commentators, many of whom claim to be “anti-woke” or against “snowflakery,” were falling over themselves to condemn this very tame bit of rhetoric. Nadhim Zahawi was first out the block by branding the language “dangerous”. Annie Wells, a Conservative Member of the Scottish Parliament (no, me neither), believes this “irresponsible language” reveals “a nastier side” to the First Minister. Russell Findlay, the Shadow Community Safety officer in Holyrood (yes that is an actual position), said he “fears the day” when such language “incites nationalist violence”.

Needless to say, this is utterly pathetic — but it’s also more than that. In some ways, the faux-outrage we’ve seen in the last week betrays a deep misunderstanding of British politics, which has always meant to be adversarial even to the point of intense personal dislike. This point is explicitly made in the very design of the House of Commons. For one, the chamber consists of rows of seats that directly oppose each other, rather than the horseshoe style characteristic of assemblies where no major disagreements tend to take place if it can possibly be helped, such as the European Parliament.

Then, of course, there’s the distance across the floor between the government and opposition benches, said to be two swords and one inch apart — a symbolic attempt to prevent violent confrontation. The assumption was always that the government and opposition would profoundly “detest” each other to this extent, making it all the more important to channel this feeling into a democratic, peaceful and orderly system. Commentators these days use the word “divisive” as if it’s a bad thing. But the system works — quite literally — by dividing. Does a country where everybody is united in only saying nice things about each other, let alone the ruling party, sound like a democracy to you?

Indeed, British political history is full of great figures who openly despised their opponents on a deeply personal level. The hatred between Gladstone and Disraeli is the most famous example. Having exchanged insults throughout their political careers, Gladstone, who was still Prime Minister when Disraeli died, could barely bring himself to deliver the required eulogy, eventually managing only to utter a few meagre words about his foe’s “strength of will”. He later said writing and delivering the speech was the hardest task he ever had to do. I’m sure Scotland’s Shadow Community Safety Officer would’ve found it all very problematic, had he been around at the time.

Attacks on Sturgeon are a cop-out from mediocre politicians

Even many past politicians who ultimately liked each other still didn’t hesitate to use strong rhetoric to further their point. Just weeks after Clement Attlee had finished playing a major role in the wartime government of national unity, Winston Churchill compared his old colleague to the Gestapo. Whilst this jibe unsurprisingly backfired, it was a sign that normal politics had resumed. Temporarily bound by a shared ambition to fight off an existential threat, the two major parties had gone back to loathing each other. This is a good thing. Democracy and liberty depend on having two starkly contrasted parties, in a parliament where the opposition does everything it can to stop the government doing whatever it likes. It’s only the Blairite consensus which afflicts modern politics — where the only disagreement is about how far the accepted principles should be applied — that means politicians all apparently have to love each other now.

The attacks on Sturgeon are also absurd for another critical reason. Various critics of the First Minister, wrongly and very cynically, have sought to draw a connection between such language and appalling crimes, like the murder of Jo Cox and Sir David Amess. This is a huge distraction from the actual issue and therefore a terrible mistake.

Put bluntly, I sincerely doubt any would-be jihadist is spending their weekends watching “Sunday with Laura Kuennsberg”, or if they are, that it’s some supposedly “inflammatory” language from Sturgeon that’s going to tip them over the edge into murderous frenzy. The truth is that these attacks on Sturgeon are just a cop-out from mediocre politicians, who would rather play-act as Gandhi by calling for peace and goodwill, whilst doing nothing to combat the real issues: the proliferation of terrorism, extremism and violent crime. The idea that political rhetoric or metaphors are somehow linked to these crimes is ludicrous. More importantly, it is a danger to free speech and political freedom.

The vast majority of people in this country are, quite rightly, fed up with the Blairite PR-guff that constantly emanates from our politicians’ mouths. They want a return to proper politics, one that involves actual disagreements over fundamental issues, and a political climate in which people can speak freely without being attacked just for doing so. Perhaps more importantly still, they simply want their elected representatives to do the job they are paid for, rather than spend all their time rambling on about pathetic non-issues.

I do too. That’s why I’m proud to say: je suis Nicola.

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