I discovered the news about Nelson Mandela last night in the worst possible way - I stumbled on a Twitter conversation midway through, and the sickening realisation only very gradually dawned about what it was referring to. I'll leave the tributes to those who can do it far better than me. I'm not sure if Glenda Jackson has written anything yet - I recall that back at the turn of the century, there was a programme on the BBC News channel in which Jackson, Shirley Williams and Ken Clarke were all asked to choose their 'Person of the Millennium', and Jackson had no hesitation in opting for Mandela. (Williams chose Thomas Aquinas, while Clarke bizarrely plumped for Henry II of England on the grounds that he was an "excellent Tory"!)
Unfortunately, moments like this do tend to bring out the worst in some people, and in many ways we're seeing a reverse mirror image of what happened when Mrs Thatcher died - this time it's a few extremists on the Right who are disgracing themselves by 'celebrating' the demise of a 'terrorist'. Mick Pork sent me an email earlier today to say that, predictably, the racists and bigots were out in full force at Political Betting (with, we're entitled to assume, the full blessing of the site's right-leaning Lib Dem owner Mike Smithson, because we know that he has no compunction whatever about banning or censoring people when it suits him). Mick added that it was jaw-dropping stuff even by PB standards. I had a quick look, but to be honest I couldn't bear to wade through the usual drivel (believe it or not there was still someone wittering on about "the Shetlands"!) to get to the extremist comments.
However, I'm still glad I had a peek, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, there was the unintentional comic genius of Plato, the site's untouchable (and unspoofable) Queen Bee, who was earnestly comparing Mandela to the Queen Mother! And secondly, the site's notorious Tory moderator TSE reposted a tweet from Jeff Breslin that I probably would have missed otherwise.
As long-term readers know, I used to be a huge admirer of Jeff's. To some extent I still am - it's refreshing to see a highly intelligent person with no fixed loyalty to any ideology or party thinking aloud in such a straightforwardly honest way about his political views and underlying reasoning. However, I stopped following him on Twitter a few months ago. The reason was that I got the distinct impression that he was one of the ten or so people (almost all of them associated in some way with the Better Nation blog or Green politics) who had immediately unfollowed me after Better Nation supremo and former Green press officer James Mackenzie decreed on the basis of no evidence whatsoever that I am a Woman Hater. Now, don't get me wrong - I have no problem at all with people unfollowing me. But when someone does it in apparent solidarity with an individual who has just launched an unprovoked and deeply offensive personal attack on me, then it's bound to give me some pause for thought about them.
All the same, I wouldn't have wanted to miss Jeff's tweet today, mainly because of the revealing way in which certain people responded to it -
Jeff Breslin : I might as well say it since everyone knows it - in time, history will view Salmond as Scotland's paler Mandela. #LongWalkToFreedom
Now this is what Jeff does best, because there's so much potential ambiguity to it, and it forces people to stop and think. Is he being deadly serious, or only half-serious? Or is the tweet in fact dripping with irony, and intended to subtly poke fun at the regard in which some people hold Salmond? You can read it in almost any or all of those ways - or if you're less smart, you can give the game away about your own prejudices by not bothering to check, and rushing in with a knee-jerk response. Guess which course of action the chief of the anti-independence campaign decided to follow?
Blair McDougall : do you honestly not see how offensive that is?
Even if Jeff was being 100% serious, what would be "offensive" about it? It isn't in any way disrespectful towards Mandela - it might well be considered overly respectful of Alex Salmond, and therefore open to mockery, but it's not "offensive". Unless of course you find it inconceivable that the democratically-elected political leader of Scotland could ever be held in extremely high regard by any rational person - that's the only way in which comparing a recently-deceased world leader with the First Minister of Scotland could ever be considered disrespectful, insulting or offensive. And if that is indeed the way you see things, then you might want to reflect on what it says about your perception of your own country, and the credibility of your claim to be running a 'patriotic' anti-independence campaign.
For the record, here is how Jeff explained his tweet -
Wow. Mental response to earlier tweet. To clarify, only a handful of lives as remarkable as Mandela's, of which Salmond's isn't. But there are clear similarities to a lesser (i.e. paler) degree, eg personal sacrifices, which there's little point ignoring.
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UPDATE : Has Jeff Breslin been harried into deleting his entire Twitter account? He suddenly seems to have completely disappeared. Absurd if so.