The comedian Bill Hicks, who sadly passed far too early, was famed for many of his routines but one which sprung to mind recently was about government control of the media. The point of the skit was that we the people are kept quiet and compliant with a diet of TV programmes and frivolous distractions while the government was in control. The quote which came to mind was “you are free, to do as we tell you”. Given the furore over a blog post by Grouse Beater it seems that in the SNP you are free to say what they tell you.
For those unaware, the background here is that the blogger Grouse Beater wrote a piece about the recent GMB strikes. In it he tried to make the point that by using unions for political gain the Labour party were undermining public confidence in unions and that it was a dangerous road. He made a somewhat clumsy reference to the second world war and the rhetoric employed by Adolf Hitler which was to diminish the power of unions. In the piece Grouse Beater quoted a section of Hitler’s writings where the despot painted “the Jew” as the enemy. As it turns out Rhea Wolfson, the GMB activist who claimed to have organised the strike and Labour party candidate, is Jewish. She took offence to the blog, made a complaint and Grouse Beater found himself in the middle of a media storm.
The Daily Record printed a piece trying to claim that he had referred to Rhea as “the Jew”, which was more than a simple misinterpretation but instead represented a malicious mis-reading of the blog post. SNP MSPs and other party officials immediately leapt to the “we must call out/stamp out anti-Semitism wherever we see it” response rather than possibly be seen to condone such behaviour by questioning whether it was anti-Semitic or not. Grouse Beater (GB) was suspended from the party “pending an investigation”, but given the statements made by SNP elected officials, and that he claims someone from party called his local branch to have him ostracised, it seems unlikely there will be a positive outcome for him.
The SNP’s reaction to this has worried many online who already had some serious concerns regarding the party’s treatment of any of its members who are seen to have done wrong. Michelle Thomson was perhaps the most high profile case of someone who did nothing wrong but was left hanging out to dry by a party which had asked her to give up her life in order to be an MP. The party’s fear of negative press trumped their support for one of their own MPs. Where was the robust challenge and the standing by your members? The reason Michelle Thomson was allowed to be flung under the bus wasn’t because a solicitor she used was under investigation, but predominantly because the First Minister didn’t like her business practices. They were so scared of the whiff of bad publicity that an impression was allowed to be formed that she had done something wrong.
In the current case it seems the same process is playing out. To even try to defend GB and point out the fact the blog was not anti-Semitic and that the reference to “the Jew” was not aimed at Rhea would simply take too much effort, involve too many questions from the media and would inevitably lead to accusations of the party being soft on anti-Semitism. That’s not something the party will stand for so he will likely be cast aside along with anyone else who is deemed too difficult to defend.
The right to free speech is sacrosanct. It has limits in terms of legality, incitement to hatred or violence, racism, actual anti-Semitism and others, but there is no right to not be offended. As pointed out by one SNP councillor on Twitter there is no entitlement to be in SNP and that the party has rules over what it deems appropriate. That’s true and it’s only right, but it does now seem that in order to be an SNP party member you have to be willing to forgo some of your rights to free speech. It further seems that if you do say something online that the party deems inappropriate you will receive no help, no support, no right of reply and no ability to defend yourself.
As a party aiming to govern for all of Scotland and not just independence supporters or SNP members it is perfectly understandable that they would seek to minimise any offence caused to anyone. People have to feel free and welcome to join whatever their background may be. But as a party funded by their members and one which is proud to claim it has more members than the Tory party UK wide they show scant regard for the people who pay their dues.
This case could have been avoided entirely if GB hadn’t mentioned the H-word or put the specific quote he did, it could probably have been minimised if he had just apologised for any unintended offence caused and perhaps edited the piece to make his point more clearly (which he did anyway), but if you don’t think you’ve done anything wrong or you’re incorrectly accused of anti-Semitism it is perfectly reasonable that someone would defend themselves. If you’re exercising your legal right to free speech and you don’t have anything to apologise for then why apologise? Isn’t it more appropriate to point out that the allegation being made is a smear to detract from the point of the article?
From that perspective it was a resounding success because now all anyone is taking about is whether the piece was anti-Semitic or not, not whether he was right about the Labour candidate using the workers union to further her own political career and not the interests of the members. Nobody is talking about the decade or more that Labour not only failed to make reparations but actively sought to quash claims about equal pay. There is no discussion going on about the role of GMB in those pay claims or their previous terrible advice to members. In place of that there is simply in-fighting in the party and wider Yes movement between those who feel GB was unfairly treated and those who don’t want to be seen to condone anti-Semitism.
Instead of standing up for their member and pointing out the piece wasn’t anti-Semitic the SNP accepted the accusation and in doing so upset a number of their own supporters. GB will most likely be kicked out of the party and the SNP will continue on untarnished. The First Minister described one councillor sharing the article as an “error in judgement”, one born of ignorance. That councillor has now written an unreserved apology to Ms Wolfson, further cementing GB’s assumed guilt. She spoke about the fact racism, anti-Semitism and other forms of hate speech should be stamped out. That’s not a statement anyone could disagree with but it also would simply solidify in the minds of any viewer the idea that the blog was racist or anti-Semitic.
Free speech is a right held by all of us, but SNP members should be put on notice as a result of this that if they say anything deemed to be “inappropriate” they may well find themselves traduced in parliament, written about in newspapers and dropped like a hot stone. You are free, to say what they tell you.