It was in 2011, at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester, that I first encountered the modern mob. They were gathered outside the entrance in their thousands, puce, spittle-flecked, screaming abuse at anyone who attempted to get in, to protest against austerity.
As I bearded the frankly terrifying gauntlet, with not a little sympathy for their cause, I was booed and jeered along with the rest. I was confronted by an elderly woman in a wheelchair who started shouting at me about the benefits system and the damage I was wreaking upon it. “I’m just a journalist,” I told her, gently. “No,” she bellowed, “you’re a cunt!”
Fair enough. She wasn’t the first to think that of me and people like me, and she won’t be the last. It is now standard practice to spit venom at and wish death upon politicians, activists, journalists and others for the crime of holding different views to your own, or simply for trying to do their job. We are all, apparently, cunts.
This rather direct style of accountability was in evidence again this week when the two candidates for Tory leader and prime minister arrived in Perth to debate one another. In a video posted to Twitter, James Cook, the BBC’s mild-mannered Scotland editor, coolly withstands a wave of hatred directed towards him by the pro-independence fanatics who parked themselves outside. He attempts to reason with people who have no interest in being reasoned with, and who chunter on about the 1689 Claim of Right (advisory note: when someone Scottish mentions the Claim of Right, immediately exit the conversation). You can’t see Cook’s interlocutors, who filmed and posted the clash, but you can bet they are kitted out in the usual mystical radgewear, doing more damage to the reputation of Celtic design and fashion than decades of Runrig merch stalls.
Cook is evidently smart and robust enough to defend himself. Others had a tougher time. Holly Moscrop, the chair of the Scottish Young Conservatives, tweeted that her jacket had been grabbed by the crowd and that she had been called a “Tory whore”. Attendees had eggs thrown at them, were spat at and were called “traitor”, “scumbag rat” and “liar”, among other epithets.
It was, unfortunately, unmissable that Nicola Sturgeon explicitly defended Cook but not Moscrop. In fact, I’m afraid I found her response contemptible. The abuse was “not in my name” she said, which is fine, if boilerplate. And then, of course, came the whataboutery: she hoped that leaders of other parties would be “equally quick to call out abuse when it is directed at people like me or my colleagues in the SNP or the independence movement”.
Worst of all: “I want to live in a democracy where we have these debates and settle them democratically, rather than be denied the opportunity to settle them democratically.”
The dog whistle of this latter comment is loud and clear. The reason these bampots are screaming at journalists and young women, Sturgeon is suggesting, is because the UK government is refusing to grant a second independence referendum. What she means is: can anyone blame them for being so wound up, in the circumstances? Well, really? Because I rather clearly remember the same abuse being screamed at the same type of people by the same type of people during the 2014 referendum campaign, when, you’ll note, Westminster had actually licensed a referendum. This is what the mob does and how it is – the democratic circumstances are secondary and even largely irrelevant. Tying their mania to your latest political wheeze is just shabby.
There is a great deal of anger out there, much of it understandable as people struggle to meet their bills and look to politicians for help and solutions that are not currently forthcoming – either from Westminster or Holyrood. It is going to get much worse before it gets better. The cesspit of social media, where the boorish cybernats and other activists dish out daily hatred and abuse, needs to be managed responsibly by our leaders. No ifs, buts, whatabouts or casual tolerance. No cheap game-playing for a few inches of political advantage.
The truth – and we all know it – is that people are going to get hurt unless we find ways to isolate and disenfranchise the obsessive, intolerant fringe. It doesn’t always take a decades-long fatwa to bring about violence – two British MPs have been murdered in recent years. Women live under the threat of sexual violence. Most of the time it seems like their tormentors sail blithely on, unimpeded in their hatreds.
There may not, in the end, be all that much that politicians can do to quell this tide of anger. The policy solutions to our problems are fiendishly complex and will take a long time to implement, and eras of change, such as the one we’re living through, are often accompanied by uprisings of one sort or another.
But our leaders could at least stop making it worse by deliberately and daily dehumanising the other side, by seeking to deny them any claim to empathy or legitimacy. They could make the case for difference, debate and decency, whether your opponent is SNP, Labour or Conservative. They could, in truth, all conduct themselves better, and defang the rhetoric they use about one another. This doesn’t preclude healthy argument, but too often politicians only feed the mob’s growing rage.