I have had to suspend my ‘No Thanks’ independence referendum tour of Scotland.
It was back in June that I announced my plan to tour the country. A hundred events. All outdoors in Scotland’s summer. Me, my makeshift stage of two upturned Irn-bru crates, a microphone, one of those small speaker-amps, a one or two-strong road crew, take it to the streets.
‘From Barrhead to Barra’ was my catchline. Barrhead is in my constituency and is synonymous with an industrial Scotland, a half hour’s drive from Glasgow. Barra is another Scotland, twelve hundred largely Gaelic-speaking fishers and crofters at the southern end of the Western Isles archipelago. The tour is old school politics, reconnecting.
Thousands of people have taken part. Most of them have never been to a political meeting in their lives but this is aimed as politics coming to them on their high streets. Some meetings start small but Scottish people have very British attitudes to queues – once they see one they join in. So the crowds grow sometimes to a few hundred standing on street corners. It has been real people from all sides of the debate having passionate discussions. It works best when there is genuine disagreement and heated questioning.
But recently something else has happened. Things have become much more sinister. Groups of Yes voters are being organised to turn up to intimidate the No campaigners and silence undecided voters at these street corner meetings. This isn’t about the odd impossible to control idiot that every political campaign has. This is concerted and coordinated. It has caught the media attention because one man in these crowds threw eggs at me. I don’t care that someone throws eggs at me – that’s just the sometimes messy pantomime of politics.
The tone of the meetings took a turn for the worse after the first TV debate. Alex Salmond had done badly, and there seemed to be some panic amongst many of the local Yes campaigners.
I had a few great sessions after that, but when I got to Motherwell, there they were.
Shouting. Howling. Screaming. Covered in saltires, the St Andrew’s flag – our flag. You don’t have to take my word for it. They’re all there on YouTube. And our Better Together website, for all the digital world to see.
Since then it has got worse. In town after town it’s no longer undecided voters going about their shopping that I’m meeting but instead there are Yes crowds occupying the street corners I’m due to speak at. The language of treason is a favourite with them. They’re big on Quisling, although I doubt if they know much Norwegian history. Regularly I get called a terrorist and often a paedophile too.
Ugly. But is it spontaneous ugliness? No, it’s not. The organisational tools are the various Yes sites on Facebook, affiliated to the official Yes Scotland campaign. It’s coordinated, determined and increasingly aggressive. I don’t know how high up it goes in the Yes campaign but I do know how widespread it is.
If people out there think this is some ‘normal cut-and-thrust’ of politics, then they’re wrong. I have never seen anything like this in my political life. If people think ‘both sides do it’, then they’re wrong. There is nothing remotely like this coming out of the No camp or any political cause I’ve ever been involved in. Why would there be?
We’ve put the tour on hold for 72 hours, while we talk through safety issues with the police, train our staff on personal safety. We are rotating some of our staff out of the tour who are being targeted for abuse. I very much want to get back on the streets.
The first seventy meetings were a mix of passionate politics and occasional enjoyable street theatre. But recently the Yes campaign allowed the taps of a mob mentality to be turned on. It is time they turned them off.