The fire starter

Written by Mandy Rhodes on 8 December 2014 in Editor's note

The four hapless arsonists were hardly guided by any higher ideology than just being a bit annoyed that the Smith Commission didn’t go far enough for them 

What a lot of pompous hyperbole has been ignited by a group of misguided SNP councillors who set fire to the 28-pages of the Smith Commission Report in an act of so-called protest that was frankly more absurd than anarchic. And I don’t mean the fine words penned by Lord Smith of Kelvin but in the faux fury that has erupted opportunistically since.

Jim Murphy, Anas Sarwar, former Blair adviser John McTernan, and all the usual suspects who are not averse to trotting out their own froth and fury, have spun themselves into such a frenzy of condemnation that you would imagine libricide was something encouraged by the SNP leadership, keen to see its citizens living in some nationalist dystopia where the privation of reading material, other than the official tome of the White Paper, was the norm.

Come on. Cotton Street in Paisley is hardly Scotland’s answer to the Bebelplatz. And the four hapless arsonists were hardly guided by any higher ideology than just being a bit annoyed that the Smith Commission didn’t go far enough for them. And why not, they are Nationalists. In the world of book burning, it was a fairly lukewarm affair.

So while the composer James McMillan could channel Heinrich Heine tweeting: “Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings”, the Daily Mail could bluster that the blaze may not constitute a hanging offence… but… and Jim McGovern, Labour MP for Dundee West, could ask Lord Smith, in all seriousness, whether he could see similarities in the Renfrewshire fire-raising with the Nazis burning books, the good Lord himself simply stifled a smile and said, in effect, that as the chairman of the Green Investment Bank, he would have preferred them to have recycled than rekindled. 

His was the grown-up response. The generous and the gracious response. But it seems in Scotland right now there is little room for forgiveness or levity. There is a wider issue. The Nats, they have been unleashed. They didn’t get the answer they wanted from the referendum so now they’re taking it out on books. And unionists, Labour in particular, are finding the apparent insubordination, the inability to just lie down and die, hard to take. The Yessers refuse to go away and lick their wounds. Instead they continue to act like the vote was theirs. It’s just not cricket. And it’s that almost heathen-like approach - that people could still be so enthused by a political campaign that even when they lose, the fight continues - that is causing such discomfort. They gather in droves around the Parliament, go on marches, attend conferences and turn up in their thousands to celebrate the SNP.

It seems in Scotland right now there is little room for forgiveness or levity

Ever since the referendum, Scotland has been in a state of unease. Who could have predicted that in the event of a ‘No’ the momentum would somehow remain with the losing side? So while the party may have cooperated in the Smith Commission it was never going to be enough and why should it? This is a party that believes in independence, should it really suspend that desire for the sake of a consensus? What is there not to understand? Especially when there is another campaign in the offing.

But Nicola Sturgeon faced a dilemma last Tuesday. She has celebrated the swollen ranks of the SNP as much as the next man and woman and she knows that that energy holds the party in fine fettle for the general election fight ahead, but she has said she would be an accessible First Minister, a First Minister for all the people, a consensual and listening leader who has respect for all – presumably even those that voted ‘No’ - and here were four of her elected councillors acting in a way that could offend.

I suspect the previous FM would have simply turned the other cheek, laughed off the brazier burning as a bit of high jinks and steamrollered his way through a barrage of protest, inviting anyone who asked to test him against the ministerial code. But for Sturgeon this was a test. And she passed.

Within 24 hours, the incriminating video was removed from YouTube, the councillors were suspended from the party pending inquiry and Sturgeon herself was publically unequivocal, she would not tolerate this kind of behaviour. Job done. But the new FM’s decisive action in stamping her authority didn’t stop the critics. Anas Sarwar, the interim leader of a party that has no leadership, demanded she show some. Even when she just had.

Iain Gray, a former Labour leader, said if he was still in charge of Labour then any of his party’s councillors would’ve been out that night on their ear, forgetting of course that when he was leader, he didn’t have the authority over anyone other than his own MSPs and that he himself knows a thing or two about paper protests.

What Sturgeon did last week was act decisively. It is not her gift to take disciplinary measures; that was done, rightly, by the party HQ but it was a test of her leadership and direction as FM. And she did not fail.

She said: “Levels of engagement in politics have never been higher and the passionate argument and debate which characterised the referendum has been inspiring.
“Many people are disappointed with the result of the referendum and the level of devolution recommended by the Smith Commission, however, Scotland will only make progress if we debate our views openly and with respect.

“It is essential that in that debate, conduct does not fall short of the high standard that is rightly expected by the public. My clear view is that setting fire to something because you don’t agree with it is not acceptable behaviour.”

Some have questioned the enthusiastic embrace that the SNP has thrown around the shoulder of its swollen membership. They have asked if it is wise to rush through approval for new members to stand as candidates or to extend the possibility of selection to ‘celebratory entrants’ and even non-members and they have subsequently asked whether nothing has been learned from the Bill Walker debacle. All of this is true but given the action of the Renfrewshire four, the discipline required might be necessary more to rein in the fury of longstanding members rather than the impatient new. 

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