A while ago I reported on a mild-mannered, middle-aged dog-walker who accosted me insultingly while I was walking back from the dentist wearing an SNP badge. Today I went to the same dentist again, wearing the same SNP badge (it lives on the coat, stupid!), and lo and verily behold, same spot, same dog, same guy, same tactic, same spiel. He stopped as he was walking past me on the bridge over the Kelvin, made eye contact, said, “That’s a shame!” and waited.
One thing that will have occurred to readers already is that it’s not a good idea to regularly accost strangers when you walk your dog, because they’re likely to be the same people as you accosted when you last walked your dog. As they were in this case. Another thing that might occur to you is that if you’re going to accost the same stranger again, you could do yourself a favour by recognising them, which he obviously hadn’t. So I told him that he’d tried that trick on me before. He showed no reaction.
I wagged a finger in his face, and told him that if he wanted to talk, he should talk. He didn’t answer, but made to move on.
I put a hand up to his shoulder, to show that I would prefer him to wait. “That’s assault,” he said. He’d remembered who I was now.
Yes, we know that. I’m touching you, so that’s assault. And you initiated the confrontation, so you deal with it. But I didn’t say any of that. I just left my hand there.
“That’s assault,” he said again.
I dropped my hand, but I must have said something that opened his vocal floodgates, because as he walked off he turned and bellowed a torrent of hatred and despair. He despised the SNP and everything they had done to the country. He despised all nationalists. He despised what the SNP had done with education. He hated Alex Salmond, words could not express his contempt for Alex Salmond, who was, quite simply, “a mountebank”. I might be a quite reasonable chap, he said, but the SNP was beyond contempt and I should be ashamed to wear their badge. Then he made off, with his dog, leaving a bystander gobsmacked by the outburst she’d just witnessed, and a bit shaken, and not quite convinced that this was just a political discussion between strangers on a public path along the River Kelvin. We do political discussion robustly in Glasgow.
However, we can learn things from this – four things, perhaps:
- The dog-walker’s tirade was hardly a political statement: it was rather an expression of deep personal unhappiness. We need to think about what that means.
- His despair dates from 2014, not from more recent events. What has upset him is surely indy’s failure to go away after it lost, three years ago.
- He’s no Billy-Boy thug, but a person of some education. I caught the distinct whiff of the professional classes.
- You might think that there’s no talking to such people, but that would be wrong. He’s talked already. He’s given us quite a lot of insight in his tirade, and we can build on that.
Let’s look more closely at the above four points.
Firstly, there was no political content in what the dog-walker said, apart from the Scottish Government’s failure to maintain educational standards; everything else was emotional rant, basic bigotry. There’s a highly sympathetic account here of how life-experiences form our attitudes, which then freeze, so that any counter-evidence simply confirms our prejudice, and leaves us unable to move on. Sometimes not being able to move on is a sign of immaturity: I’m thinking of a neighbour’s teenage daughter who, when Glasgow taxis changed their decor from plain black to dayglow pink with exotic beach scenes, had a tantrum, screaming that “Taxis are black!” Different in scope (of course) from “Scotland is part of the UK”, but absolutely identical in feeling (and her family were all opinionated at the best of times). However, people do change and move on. If society is about anything, it’s about helping each other to grow, and political discourse needs to encompass that. That’s why we need to think about the dog-walker’s outburst not in terms of why he’s wrong, but in terms of why indy gives him the heebie-jeebies.
The ‘backfire effect’ referred to above tells us that when the counter-evidence becomes too great, our world-view closes up into an iron-hard shell, to save itself from collapsing completely. Since the dog-walker mentions Alex Salmond but not Nicola Sturgeon, nor any events under Sturgeon’s premiership, it seems likely that it was the 2014 referendum that left him in despair. His side won it, but the pressure for indy didn’t go away, and the SNP’s massive surge in 2015 must have left him devastated.
The dog-walker spoke with a middle-class accent, standard posh Scottish English, suggestive of a lecturer or lawyer or other professional person. So an educated person, not a yob: a pointer to this is the word he used to describe Wee Eck, “a mountebank”, a word which is not in wide circulation, and is certainly not a preferred term of abuse among the Twitter-stream Yoon thugs. So behind his tirade, if we dug around a bit, we might expect to find a well-thought-out set of anti-indy arguments.
And he’s talked, of course: he’s given us his pitch, he’s opened up his thoughts to us, he’s told us a bit about why he thinks the way he does. He’s taken (encouraged by me, I have to say) the first step towards dialogue, and we could pick at one or two of his viewpoints in the hope of opening them up a bit. We could for example ask why it’s OK to love your country (as presumably he does, because his complaint is that the SNP is destroying it), but not to be a nationalist, and what the difference is. That might get the mental-growth juices working.
Whatever else is to be said about this episode, it’s certainly true that wandering about and verbally assaulting any SNP badge-wearers you happen to meet is a lousy campaigning tactic, and speaks of deep personal disturbance. If that’s the best the anti-indy side can do, then we’ve already won the argument. What we have to do now is to win the vote, and that means winning the hearts and minds of people who currently oppose us.