Whataboutery is a pandemic as Margaret Ferrier debate shows - Euan McColm

I made a huge mistake a couple of 
days ago. There was no excuse 
for it.

Sunday, 4th October 2020, 7:00 am
The First Minister with Margaret Ferrier on the campaign trail last year
The First Minister with Margaret Ferrier on the campaign trail last year

While trying out some new Bluetooth earphones, I tuned into a radio phone-in show. And then I compounded the error by not immediately tuning out.

The subject up for discussion was the behaviour of Margaret Ferrier, the MP suspended – but not expelled – from the SNP over her utterly bewildering decisions to first take a train from Glasgow to London after taking a coronavirus test and then, having received notification that she was, indeed, suffering from the virus, to make the return journey.

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Ferrier, the member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West, put countless people at risk of serious illness or even death by flouting the law and it is very difficult to disagree with the view of First Minister Nicola Sturgeon that she should step down as an MP immediately.

But this was a radio phone-in which meant people were being invited to express opinions. As any regular readers will know, no good can come of that.

One caller was having none of the criticism of Ferrier. Why, he wanted to know, were we so focused on poor old Margaret Ferrier.? There had been no consequences for Tory housing minister Robert Jenrick after he broke lockdown rules by driving 150 miles or for the Prime Minister’s adviser Dominic Cummings, whose trip from London to County Durham while concerned he mighty be infected led to a week of negative headlines, or, for that matter, Jeremy Corbyn, photographed last week breaking the rule limiting gatherings of friends in England and Wales to six.

It was classic whataboutery and it made my blood boil.

Lest you think this was a one-off, an aberration, I direct you to social media where this particular argument enjoyed huge popularity. Yes, Ferrier might have broken the law but so did x, y, and z.

Whataboutery is a pandemic, infecting our politics and eroding any kind of moral dimension. Rather than accept the failings of a member of our tribe, we throw stones at the other side. It is exhausting and I wish to goodness it would stop.

There is merit, of course, in the counsel that those of us in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones but the failure of one of our own can never by excused by the failure of one of the other lot. The seriousness of Ferrier’s actions is in no way ameliorated by reckless decisions made by others, whether Cummings or anyone else.

Yet, whataboutery continues to spread, making stupid people think they’re clever, convincing them that they have a winning argument when, in reality, all they have is tribal blindness.

At the risk of sounding both old and naive, I yearn for a politics where morality isn’t optional, where people from one tribe don’t seek to excuse the appalling behaviour of colleagues by pointing to the appalling behaviour of others.

Feeding this grim trend is, I think, the fact that our politics has never been more binary.

If you are an ardent Brexiteer, for example, then you are hardly likely to change your mind on the subject just because this of that Eurosceptic MP is found to have done something deplorable. Similarly, Scottish nationalists are not going to change their views on the constitutional settlement just because Ferrier behaved so deplorably, or because MSP Derek Mackay had to quit as Finance Secretary after it emerged he’d been relentlessly texting a 16-year-old, or because former Holyrood member Bill Walker went to jail for a year for domestic abuse, or because… well, you get the picture, I’m sure.

This breakdown of morality in politics can be hugely beneficial to those on the front line. The SNP rose to power while promising a more honest, more decent politics. They would point to the Tories and Labour and shake their heads at how these parties took voters for granted. The unionist parties’ politics was grubby and dishonest. The nationalists would clean things up.

Where are we now? Well, we have a First Minister in Nicola Sturgeon who stands accused of getting in the way of the Holyrood inquiry into how an investigation of complaints about the behaviour of Alex Salmond collapsed at a cost to the taxpayer of more than half a million pounds.

At the risk of indulging in the sort of behaviour favoured by the seasoned whatabouter, I wonder whether SNP supporters would be quite so relaxed if a Tory or Labour politician was similarly accused.

My guess is that they would not.

One of the Scottish nationalists’ favourite tactics is to demand the UK government publishes full details of this or that incident in the name of transparency. This, of course, is perfectly sensible politics, but if we agree that such calls are legitimate, we must also agree that so are calls for the SNP to come clean about what, precisely, went on during the Salmond business.

They do things bigger in America where whataboutery is taken to new heights. Should any opponent dare criticise President Donald Trump for, say, telling literally thousands of lies since taking office, we can expect his supporters to retaliate with ever more outlandish accusations.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, legitimate questions about Trump’s behaviour – whether relating to his treatment of women or his deeply questionable business dealings – were deflected by wild claims about his opponent, Hillary Clinton. And that worked. Enough people bought into the idea that she was physically unfit to serve or so deeply corrupt that she couldn’t be trusted to sit in the Oval Office.

The same tactics are being deployed against this year’s challenger, Joe Biden. As critics point to Trump’s appalling record, his supporters make wild claims about Biden’s health (blackly ironic, now) and his integrity.

We wouldn’t accept this sort of behaviour from children. How depressing that we’ve allowed it to scar our politics.

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