‘It is better to ride the tiger’s back than let it rip your throat out’ is reputedly how Tony Blair rationalised his close relationship with the Sun. The quote is thrown back at him by critics who imagine their preferred mode of politics untainted by tiger-riding. In fact, Blair is not alone: Bill Clinton rode the tiger of white male independents then spent much of his presidency pandering to them on crime, welfare and ‘values’.
For the Liberal Democrats, it was post-Iraq Labour discontents and students, who brought them two million votes across two elections and who turned on them when they teamed up with the Tories and put up tuition fees. Labour MPs are currently tiger-riding Jeremy Corbyn and left-wing anti-Semitism in the hopes it will return them to power. Everyone does it, and everyone ends up with a bloody neck in the end.
The SNP’s tiger began baring its teeth after the 2014 independence referendum. The cybernats — supporters who abuse and intimidate Unionists online — had long been tolerated by the party, with occasional reproachful swats followed by fresh indulgence. Now the beast’s teeth are nipping harder and prominent Nationalists are trying to attach a collar.
Former SNP deputy leader Angus Robertson, Glasgow South MP Stewart McDonald and MEP Alyn Smith have urged their movement to clean up its act, while taking care to frame it as a problem for ‘both sides’.
Robertson said ‘the most important thing’ for the separatist movement was ‘to adopt a new open and welcoming tone’. He admitted there had been ‘reticence’ by leading nationalists ‘to call out abuse for fear of undermining the more general debate about Scotland’s constitutional future…This can’t go on.’
McDonald was more colourful, saying cybernats ought to ‘just f**king chill out a bit’. He claimed the problem was ‘at the fringes not at the heart’ of the movement (which is not true) and that some Nationalists behave ‘no better than the types of obnoxious thugs who turned up at Donald Trump’s rallies’ (which is true).
Smith said nationalism had to confront its dark side ‘in the same way the Tartan Army had to clean up its act in the 1980s’. Of cybernats, he said: ‘Call them out and send them to Coventry’. (They should take this literally. Few punishments would pain a Scottish Nationalist like being despatched to England.)
The trio are among the most perceptive thinkers in their party and their intervention is welcome. It is, however, a bit late in the day. The SNP and the broader nationalist movement are heavily populated with referendum-era converts. This phenomenon boosted the SNP’s rolls but it also meant that the vast majority of members joined a party in which belligerence and demonisation had already been normalised. The sheer number of the party’s elected representatives — councillors, MPs and MSPs — who followed, retweeted and engaged with cybernats signalled to the membership that such behaviour had a legitimate place within the SNP.
In some instances, that place is called parliament. MSP Sandra White was forced to apologise after retweeting an anti-Semitic cartoon. MP Pete Wishart, who now wants to be Commons Speaker, posted a graphic that labelled council candidates from the Unionist parties ‘wank’, ‘wankier’ and ‘absolute total wank’.
Nor is it only backbench obscurities who behave like this. Scottish cabinet minister Roseanna Cunningham once branded Ruth Davidson ‘Scotland’s 21st century #ToomTabard’, reviving the nickname of John Balliol, a 13th-century Scottish king despised as a vassal of the English crown. SNP Brexit secretary Mike Russell tweeted a list of Scottish MPs who voted for Theresa May’s deal with the hashtag #RagmanRoll. Ragman Rolls were the documents Scottish noblemen signed to declare their allegiance to Edward I of England.
Cybernattery, whether by the higher-ups or the hoi polloi, is now indivisible from Scottish nationalism and the pushback against the triumvirate who spoke out confirms that. Like the extreme and thuggish rhetoric in which so much of Corbynism plays out, to its practitioners cybernattery is a more authentic nationalism than any polite and civil pro-independence discourse. Their excesses might be reined in here and there but the cybernats are a fully-fledged wing of the SNP, legitimised by the party’s failure to confront and expel them. This tiger isn’t going to skulk away without a fight.
There is a lesson in all this for the SNP’s opponents. For many years, nationalists challenged on their cybernat problem would reassure themselves it was a problem for ‘both sides’ of Scotland’s constitutional struggle. It wasn’t then but it increasingly is now. A more combative strain of anti-independence politics, New Unionism, is taking hold, provoked by and unconsciously modelled on cybernattery. It is no less obsessive, paranoid, bellicose or dehumanising of those who disagree with it. The Tories and Labour are not yet tiger-riding this New Unionism but there is every danger they will end up doing so. It will have them by the throat one day too.