• Text size      
  • Send this article to a friend
  • Print this article

Cyberloons have no part in the show set to run and run

WONDER where the hearings will be held?

Unlike the original sessions, the new ones will not be in scratchy black and white and filmed on cameras the size of garden sheds. In keeping with modernity, proceedings will be available live on YouTube, with transcripts available for download later. What will remain is some form of the killer question, the inquiry that made men quake and women weep, that dashed careers and trashed reputations. All together now: Have you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Yes or No camp?

In case you missed it, Scotland is in the grip of a new McCarthyism and enveloped in its very own Tartan Scare. That, at any rate, is the conclusion some are leaning towards after a fractious time on the referendum front. Not in the official campaign, mind you.

There, nice, polite, sorts such as the Governor of the Bank of England and Scotland's First Minister doff their caps to each other and exchange polite observations. Queensberry rules are strictly applied.

Outwith the official debate, though, the behaviour is harder to read. Signs may not be as they first appear. Is it too quiet out there, or not noisy enough? Is the debate heating up nicely, or about to boil over? Are we entering a new phase of the campaign where people are feart to speak out for fear of falling out?

Suspicions that the former might be happening were prompted by, of all things, the Celtic Connections music festival. A world-class event that grows stronger every year, Celtic Connections could have been seen as above the political fray. No chance. While Holyrood has not passed an actual law to the effect, everything that happens from now until September 18 must be linked to the referendum. The sole exception is this year's Edinburgh International Festival, an event so far removed from the lives of ordinary Scots it is unlikely anyone will notice the omission.

Back to Celtic Connections. The event's director, Donald Shaw, thought it would be a grand idea to start a "big book" for artists to comment on the independence debate. It would have been a sort of cultural visitors book, a chance to see how others saw us as we approach this moment in history. Alas, the idea has proved about as winning a concept as Simon Cowell taking over the event and renaming it Jockland's Got Talent. Many performers did not want to pick up the pen. Those who did were not keen for their comments to be published.

So a venture meant to strike a lighter note has instead ended on a sour one. What we don't yet know is why performers should have taken a vow of silence. It could simply be that they don't give a toot about Scottish politics. Alternatively, they might have wanted to stay below the parapet for fear of what could fly their way. Kezia Dugdale, the Labour MSP for Lothian, found herself at the sharper end of modern political discourse following an appearance on the BBC's Question Time.

She thought her anti-independence stance might prompt a reaction on Twitter, but what followed was something straight out of The Birds. The word bayonet was mentioned. As was "blackshirt". Ms Dugdale, as you can imagine, had about as much fun reading all of this as the comedian Susan Calman did the responses that followed her comments about independence on BBC Radio 4's News Quiz last year. The fractiousness prompted one commentator to mourn the "bitter atmosphere" of the debate and ask: "Is Scotland now at war with itself?"

Perhaps the best response to that is the Lance-Corporal Jones one. Those who would have us believe that Scotland has turned into a country where calumnies fall like rain and slander stalks the land might want to stop panicking and get out more (Celtic Connections, maybe?). Walk into any pub, sports ground or supermarket and the talk will likely be of anything but independence. The most shocking thing about this campaign is not how much it is making Scots hot and bothered, but the extent to which it is leaving most folk stone-cold bored.

Yet we should not be complacent and assume this will not change as the months before polling day tick down to days and the days become hours. Momentum, the big mo, could change things for the worse. Nor should the distress of those who feel under attack for their views be casually dismissed. One person's harmless exchange of opinions can be another's bitter personal slight.

If the debate is becoming increasingly crabbit it is not difficult to see why. There is the sheer duration of the campaign for a start. Compared to this, the US presidential race looks like a hop, skip and jump. Even before the official announcement, independence had been part of the landscape for generations, as enduring a fixture as the hills. Some political scientist somewhere might like to look at the effects on a population of such an extended war of philosophical attrition. In the meantime, we muddle on, part of an experiment with which few other peoples, outside Spain and Canada, can identify.

We muddle on, moreover, in the presence of the internet, that modern gladiatorial arena where the cowardly hide behind the shield of anonymity, the better to launch their vicious attacks. Even the mildest of lambs can think themselves lionhearted on Twitter. While the internet has been a force for democratic good it has also ushered in the age of the cyberloon. The independence debate is one of the first democratic undertakings to feature their malign presence, but it will not be the last. Once identified, it should be easy to deal with the moon howlers on the internet.

Direct physical threats should always be taken seriously, by the sites which feature them as much as the police. Most internet abuse should be regarded as the political equivalent of dog muck: a disgusting substance to be brushed off as quickly as possible before moving on. Those who cannot bring themselves to do so need to ask if the internet is really for them. Only death and taxes are inevitable: you can take or leave Twitter.

What of the more subtle pressures that might be brought to bear among family, friends and colleagues? The kind of pressures, unspoken or not, that cause folk to think twice about speaking out? These are not the Scots and that is not the Scotland I recognise, and it will be a sorry day if we cannot move on as one after the vote.

But before the campaign silly season starts proper, now is a good time to draw breath. There are many reasons why we should do so, but one will do for now. If not sitting down already, you might want to take a pew. Perhaps have the smelling salts handy.

Regardless of the outcome this September, the chances are that the matter will not end there. The Yes or No debate is not a speed-reading performance of The Crucible, Arthur Miller's take on McCarthyism and its evils; it is more like the Mousetrap, a show set to run and run. Brace yourself and pace yourself, Scotland.

Contextual targeting label: 
Block list

Commenting & Moderation

We moderate all comments on HeraldScotland on either a pre-moderated or post-moderated basis.
If you're a relatively new user then your comments will be reviewed before publication and if we know you well and trust you then your comments will be subject to moderation only if other users or the moderators believe you've broken the rules

Moderation is undertaken full-time 9am-6pm on weekdays, and on a part-time basis outwith those hours. Please be patient if your posts are not approved instantly.

209380