When I was small and came back from school smarting from some insult, my father used to say to me “sticks and stones may break your bones, but names can never hurt you” and I used to think “well not always, words can have a real effect”.
I’ve been reminded of this by the coverage in the London-based media of the rise of the Scottish Natonal Party in the polls ahead of the UK general election in May.
This week for instance, former Scottish First Minister and SNP leader, Alex Salmond, caused quite a stir telling the New Statesman magazine he would prevent a Conservative minority government taking power if his party held the balance of MPs after the election and support a Labour minority administration instead.
The SNP has already been attracting more attention than usual in the run up to a UK general election because, if opinion polls are correct, the party is on course to be the third largest party at Westminster with as many as 40 to 50 seats.
Add to this that despite losing last September’s referendum on Scottish independence when 55 % voted to stay in the Union, the SNP has also attracted thousands of new members topping 100,000 in an a country with a population of 5 million and outstripping the Liberal Democrats to become the third largest party in the whole of the UK.
Mr Salmond’s comments were partly intended to tweak Labour’s tail and counter the argument it has been making in Scotland where it has been trying to stave off a nationalist landslide by telling voters it is the largest party which gets to form the government after an election – which may be what usually happens but is not constitutionally pre-ordained, as Labour itself demonstrated after the 2010 election when it initially sought to hang on to power in a coalition despite coming second to the Conservatives.
In the English-based media, Mr Salmond’s comments have been condemned as anti-democratic. If after the election the SNP is indeed the arbiter of who gets to form a government – the argument goes – this could result in Scottish voters imposing a government on the rest of the UK which it didn’t vote for.
The Conservative Party is also trying to play on this with a poster of a giant Mr Salmond with a tiny Ed Miliband in his pocket.
Putting aside these same commentators – and the Conservative Party – did not seem to object on the occasions since 1979 when Scottish voters got a government in London they didn’t vote for, the idea it is undemocratic for voters in one part of the UK to freely cast their ballots for the party of their choice risks suggesting those voters are somehow second class.
Scots, like the independence supporting Proclaimers, lamented in vain in the 1980s about “what to do you do when democracy fails you” .
The problem is the tone of much of this commentary has become increasingly hostile and insulting.
Even the liberal Guardian’s Steve Bell – well known for his hard-hitting cartoons – has portrayed Mr Salmond and SNP leader, Nicola Sturgeon, in ways many found hard to imagine him doing if they were Jewish or black, rather than white Scots.
Notably, one of the better pieces on Mr Salmond’s gambit by the former Times Editor, Simon Jenkins, couldn’t resist portraying Scotland as living off English “subventions and subsidies” which is a strongly contested argument that appeals to English prejudices and ignores that Scotland’s contribution to UK GDP is roughly equal to its contribution to taxes, not to mention the benefit the whole of the UK has derived from North Sea oil and gas revenues over the past few decades.
Towards the end of the Scottish referendum campaign when it appeared the opinion polls were closing, London-based commentators and politicians were telling Scottish voters how much they valued their contribution to the Union, but last September now feels a long time ago.
Whatever the outcome of May’s election, the SNP is clearly popular at the moment in Scotland and the increasingly vituperative tone of the campaign and commentary in England over the way Scots might vote could provoke a backlash fuelling support for the SNP – and independence – and risking the end of the Union these commentators and politicians say they hold dear.
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