Alison Rowat: Cursing idiots do not speak for Scotland. All agreed?

A protestor points at the BBC's Scotland correspondent James Cook
A protestor points at the BBC's Scotland correspondent James Cook

AS an idea for a comedy sketch it would have been dismissed as laughably implausible. Some BBC reporter doing his polite best to engage a protester in conversation, while others in the mob scream “scumbag”, “rat”, and “traitor” at him. Don’t forget the nasty little inquiry sneaked towards at the end, “How long have you been in Scotland?”

This was Ealing comedy meets Jerry Sadowitz, though one would imagine a professional comic would have been slightly more original in his cursing.

But come on, get a grip. This sort of scene just would not happen in the Scotland of today. Right?

Yet we all had a ringside seat courtesy of a video posted on social media (then deleted, but too late). Saw and heard it with our very own eyes and ears. No fake news this.

We recognised the pattern, too, in what happened next. Three of the four horsemen of the stushie arrived: shock, outrage, and condemnation. Social media lit up with praise for James Cook, the BBC’s Scotland Correspondent, for his coolness under verbal fire, the quality of his reporting, his impartiality, his all round good eggness. All of it true, and then some.

From the First Minister to the last person to see the video there was an outpouring of solidarity.

This was followed by pleas to keep such incidents, dreadful though they were, in perspective. It was a minority of extremists who were in no way representative of the rest of us. An isolated incident bearing zero relation to day to day politics as conducted in Scotland. A few more days of this and look who is coming over the hill? The fourth horseman of the stushie: amnesia.

How many times do we have to go through this drill before we realise there is a real and worrying problem here? The circumstances on Tuesday were distinct in as much as this was the scene of the latest debate in the contest to find a new Conservative Party leader and Prime Minister.

But we could have been at any number of occasions within memory, starting with the Yes protests outside the BBC in Glasgow during the referendum campaign of 2014.

More recently there was Sarah Smith, Cook’s predecessor, stating her relief at heading to America and condemning the “bile, hatred and misogyny” in Scottish politics as she went. That was only in February this year. Now here we go again, in Perth.

It is not just the BBC that bears the brunt (though it gets more than its share), or journalists in general. How many people have personally been on the receiving end of abuse because they are deemed to hold the “wrong” attitude towards independence?

Who would dare raise the topic now with strangers? So we push the subject to one side, even as we complain that this is all anyone ever talks about. We tell ourselves there is no problem, not really, and if someone does cross the line we spot it quickly and react accordingly. Wha’s like us, playing endlessly on a loop.

Some progress has been made in as much as we now have fights about the fight. Here’s Ruth Davidson, former leader of the Scottish Conservatives, on Twitter yesterday protesting at the mob’s treatment of some delegates: “Heartened to see condemnations of the abuse aimed at James Cook. Confused why that condemnation seems reserved only for him. If ‘scum, traitor, not Scottish’ is wrong for him, surely it is wrong for everyone receiving it? Or are we at ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ targets now?”

It seems easy enough to draw a line between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour and language. If you wouldn’t like it directed at you, don’t direct it at anyone else. Yet in recent years it has become so complicated, or we have made it so. Hard to know when, exactly, political discourse became so violent. Maybe it was always so, but it was covered in flowery phrases to disguise the stink. Was it the 1960s and the death of deference, the wild west days of the 1970s, the general crassness of the 1980s, that made it seem okay to let rip?

Perhaps it would be quicker to cut to the chase and blame Trump. He’s always good for it. It was at his rallies, remember, that the media were penned in like cattle, abuse being hurled at them just as it was James Cook. Or how about Johnson, who flat out lied? That was some rewriting of the rules.

We should remember, too, that politics can be a serious business. Much at stake, passions riding high. No wonder if, in their desire to be heard or their anger acknowledged, some people might occasionally lose the plot and think it is okay to scream “scumbag rat” at a journalist. It’s not.

Politicians don’t help, attacking each other, questioning their opponents’ fitness for office. They set the tone and the rest follows. How easily we pass the blame.

I was talking to someone recently about the 2019 television drama Years and Years. Russell T Davies’ dystopian satire set in a future Britain, where some toxic blonde populist becomes Prime Minister and everything goes to pot, looks more like a documentary by the day.

In one episode there is a brilliant speech by the matriarch of the family, played by Anne Reid, in which she tears a strip off everyone round the table for the state we are in. No matter how small our role, we all played a part. “So yes, it’s all our fault,” she declares. “This is the world we built. Congratulations! Cheers all!”

The whole of Scotland is not to blame for the bad behaviour of a few idiots in Perth. But it happened, and if we are not careful it will happen again. Before you know it we have “A Problem”. Some reckon we already do.

I am reminded of that other embarrassing problem Scotland used to have: football hooliganism. A cynic might say that only stopped because Scotland fans wanted to take the moral high ground and plant a Saltire on it. The better Scotland fans behaved, the worse England fans looked. Whatever the reason, it worked, or it least it did no harm, and now Scottish fans are welcomed wherever they go.

Scotland could now set the same example in politics. If there is to be another referendum the country had better be ready. No-one in their right mind wants a repeat of some of the incidents that happened in 2014, or on a summer’s night in Perth 2022.