Round about Wednesday. 70 days of campaigning to go.
It’s a truth universally acknowledged that fishermen are among the most genteel and well-mannered of people. Etiquette is everything to them, and woe betide the crewman who holds his pinky out at the wrong angle when sipping his Earl Grey after an honest day’s toil. Should a fisherman ever drop a crate of haddock on his toe, his colleagues are immediately on the scene with smelling salts in case his cry of “Dash it, what a silly sausage I am!” causes alarm to the local ladyfolk. Accordingly, the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation draws its membership from only the finest European finishing schools, and was once forced to eject Noel Coward for being too boisterous.
In that context, it’s easy to see why the Federation’s chief executive, Bertie Armstrong, should have been so scandalised to receive a letter from Alex Salmond that, God forgive me for even saying it, bordered on the brusque. Far be it from me to join those scoffers who assert that Mr Armstrong has a squad of Munro-baggers permanently stalking him in case he decides to get creative with a molehill.
The whole unfortunate episode goes back to Mr Salmond’s speech in April to the College of Europe in Bruges, when he pointed out the absurd results of an independent Scotland’s expulsion from the EU, such as other nations losing EU-based fishing rights in Scottish waters. To most observers the address was measured and statesmanlike, and the point about fishing rights a statement of the bleedin’ obvious, since even Better Together’s schoolboy fantasists can’t expect Scotland to lose all of its EU benefits while simultaneously being held fast to its obligations.
But, needless to say, some sections of the Scottish press took a puff on their crack pipe and edited the entire speech down to “Salmond threatens Europe”. Perhaps Bertie truly swallowed this hook, line and sinker, in which case I’d like to advise him of a fabulous lottery prize that’s his for the taking once he’s sent me his bank details. It’s equally likely, however, that he spied a delicious opportunity for stirring, for he ensured that his subsequent letter to the Scottish Government seeking “clarification” was accompanied by fireworks and a brass band. The Telegraph, pausing only to wet itself with delight, reported this as “Salmond accused of blunder”.
If Bertie had been inclined to accentuate the positive, he’d have acknowledged that the First Minister’s response to his missive was refreshingly free of platitudes. Instead he did a shambolic impression of Arjen Robben collapsing in the penalty box, protesting about being intimidated by verbal shafts such as “ridiculous interpretation” and “astonishing”. I’m sure there must be spine-chilling seafarers’ legends about the sort of meltdown he experienced whenever he encountered 20-foot waves lashing the deck.
The disclosure of Mr Salmond’s snarly eyebrow-raising came in an edition of Channel 4’s Dispatches, with the camera lingering meaningfully over the offending words but offering little other context, thereby avoiding any danger of viewers forming an opinion of their own. It was an enormously frustrating programme, with snippets of referendum gossip wheeching past your eyes like canapés served by a roller-skating waiter, as it gradually dawned on you that this was the only grub you were going to get tonight. Though vaguely even-handed in a tit-for-tat sort of way, it was so shallow that you could have wheeled on Sanjeev Kohli to present it without making any difference.
We did get a glimpse of the virtual reality scam known as Vote No Borders, the most outrageous Tory front since Fatty Soames, but it got no further than the Acanchi website and an enigmatic reference to “country-branding” before the script drifted off into a half-arsed whinge about how beastly everyone’s been to celebrities. We also heard about the Foreign Office’s new role as chief pimp for the Union, whispering to visiting dignitaries “Give us a half-decent soundbite, or you don’t get to meet Her Majesty”. In response to this charge Westminster played the card marked "So what?", which, according to emergency legislation I must have missed, obliged Channel 4 to stop asking awkward questions.
No such luck for the dastardly SNP, who got clobbered even for mild-mannered John Swinney reminding bodies such as Visit Scotland that their legal obligation to stay neutral involved fleeing from the clutches of the CBI. Not to mention the fact that five out of 50 companies consulted by C4 “had a feeling”, following contact with the Scottish Government, that if they didn’t stay schtum on independence there might be “retribution down the line”. Such as what? Being paraded down Sauchiehall Street wearing Scotland Commonwealth Games uniforms? Being forced to buy season tickets to watch Hibs?
In each and every case, there was no smoking gun, not so much as a water pistol craving an e-cigarette. But it was enough for the salivating hacks, who were quite content to insinuate that the SNP were basically the Mafia.
What conversations might they invent to explain Italy’s Foreign Affairs Minister Sanro Gozi declaring his country’s neutrality on the indyref result? “Buon giorno, Signor Gozi. My name is Don Alessandro and this is Nicola, who may look quiet, but cross her in debate and she’ll bite your leg off. Nice olive groves you have here. What a shame it would be if they all suddenly burned to the ground...”
Actually, I’m in no doubt that the SNP has occasionally exerted pressure to get its way, because every government, actual and wannabe, does that. That’s why they all employ ruthless bastards. Did David Cameron appoint Andy Coulson as his media chief because of his dressmaking skills? Was Alistair Campbell allowed to hound people, allegedly to extremes I can’t mention for legal reasons, because Tony Blair enjoyed his office banter? And if a Labour spin-doctor calls up a BBC Scotland producer following a news broadcast, is it to exchange recipes for lemon drizzle cake?
I’m not a fan of the practice, and I’ll be first to hang out the bunting if we can use the carbolic soap of regained sovereignty to wash it from our body politic. But let’s not exaggerate it when you can clearly hear complainants sharpening their axes in the background, or assume it never existed before being thought up by the SNP in a brimstone-filled room in 2007.
Anyway, those are my opinions on political “bullying”. I’d be grateful if you’d spread them far and wide and recommend this blog to everyone you meet. It is, of course, entirely your decision. But that’s a nice laptop you’ve got there. What a shame if it suddenly fell victim to a horrible debilitating virus...