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A baleful lack of respect in debate

It has been an unedifying 48 hours in the referendum debate.

Some of the personal vilification aimed at Better Together supporter JK Rowling would have made Gordon Ramsay blink.

This, combined with the email the First Minister's special adviser Campbell Gunn sent in relation to Clare Lally, dominated proceedings at Holyrood yesterday, not just during First Minister's Questions but afterwards, when the Scottish Conservatives tabled a motion calling for an end to personal attacks against anyone in Scotland who expresses a view in the debate. The trouble is that, though the proposal is laudable, it is a little vague and therefore not entirely realistic.

How, for one thing, does one define a "personal attack"? It goes without saying that the sort of vitriol directed against Rowling, using the bluntest Anglo-Saxon terminology, has absolutely no place in the debate. It should also be recognised, however, that such remarks typically originate from only a few inadequate individuals.

In the past, these poisonous few, the green ink brigade, were a headache mainly for newspaper letters editors; now they have the internet, where their bile can flow freely, usually under a cowardly pseudonym. In spite of what happened to Rowling this week, these individuals are a small minority within the so-called cybernat (and indeed pro-UK) online community.

The cybernats -those who comment from a nationalist perspective and attack points of view as well as individuals - are more numerous and high-profile than their equivalents on the pro-UK side, and can be very strident, but the vast majority do not indulge in the sort of vile language of this small semi-literate and hate-filled minority. It ought also to be remembered that, in general, for the most serious of attacks made on individuals online, there are laws in place to deal with them.

How much further should the definition of a personal attack stretch? Alex Salmond called Mr Gunn's email a mistake and a misjudgment while other Holyrood party leaders termed it a personal attack. It appeared to be an attempt to undermine Ms Lally but it was nothing like the online monstering she suffered. And what of politicians impugning one another's integrity: should that be forbidden? That could silence every MSP in Holyrood; or, worse, turn the last weeks of the campaign into a back-and-forth exercise characterised by puerile accusations about who said what about whom, when.

There can surely be agreement that vile personal insults should be unequivocally condemned but, beyond that, what is missing most from the campaign is simple respect for the alternative point of view. A lack of respect, combined with the rabid outbursts of the embittered few, has had the damaging effect of dissuading reasonable people with valid things to say from putting their heads above the parapet, people such as Billy Connolly, Andy Murray or those business leaders who, Aggreko chief Rupert Soames warned, would not declare their views for fear of the backlash. Respect, from each side towards the other, is what is needed.

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