Is this the SNP’s biggest Twit? Rude, insulting, crass and often sent in the dead of night, Pete Wishart’s tweets have offended so often even some in his own party wish he’d shut up.
Puerile insults: The SNP’s Pete Wishart is a regular presence on social media
Twenty-odd years ago tensions were running high in the Celtic rock band Runrig. The singer, Donnie Munro, was a lifelong Labour supporter whose heart was set on becoming an MP. The keyboard player, Pete Wishart, was increasingly politically engaged to having given up his card-carrying membership of the Labour party – as an ardent Nationalist.
Where did this leave a group whose identity was rooted in its Scottishness? In songs about the nation’s history and politics, what was the band’s message to a fanbase steeped in Caledonian culture? Something had to give. It was Skye-born Munro who blinked first, leaving Runrig in 1997 and, in the process, unburdened himself of years of frustration.
SNP activists had called him an ‘English b *** ’, an ‘English lover’ and ‘a traitor’, he said. He feared the party was capitalising on the populist symbolism of the film Braveheart to poison Scottish minds against their neighbours across the Border. He warned that a rump of SNP supporters now believed anyone who was not one of them must be the enemy. As a description of the kind of fingers-in-ears Nationalist shouter Pete Wishart was to become, it was spookily accurate. In the years since their paths diverged, the man Mr Munro once shared a stage with has become one of the most malignant public figures on Twitter – and better known as the trolling MP than he ever was as a member of Runrig or, before that, Big Country. In short, the singer has watched his old musical mucker become the leading exponent of exactly the kind of aggressive, tribal Nationalism that prompted him to leave the band in the first place. Having established himself over several years as a tweet-first, engage brain-later SNP firebrand, the Dunfermline-born politician plumbed fresh depths when he shared a mocked up council election ballot paper on his Twitter account. On it the Lib Dems were described as W, Labour as Wier and the Conservatives as Absolute Total W. Puerile insults from a 55year-old parliamentarian in the very week his party leader Nicola Sturgeon had called for a civilised and respectful debate in Scotland. How eyes must have rolled at SNP HQ. But the timing of his crassness was disastrous for another reason: days after it appeared, Prime Minister Theresa May announced a General Election. Mr Wishart’s own name was about to appear on a ballot paper three years earlier than scheduled – and his Perth and North Perthshire seat is a prime Tory target. ‘I will treat this as a marginal constituency and fight for every vote,’ he pledged last month. ‘I’m the longest-serving MP for Scotland and everyone in North Perthshire will know someone I have helped.’
The trouble is almost everyone will know someone he has offended too – and many even in his own party would cheerfully see him lose his seat.
Mr Wishart’s cause will not be helped by signs of impatience among his own constituents over an MP apparently more interested in Twitter trolling than any other part of the job. Then there is the fact that his own party appears increasingly embarrassed by him.
Even party leader Miss Sturgeon has joked to journalists that she would like to confiscate his mobile phone to keep him off Twitter.
Sources indicate that senior SNP figures now see him as ‘Uncle Pete’, the bedraggled curmudgeon who shoots his mouth off at weddings and is tolerated only through gritted teeth. They dearly wish he would give social media a rest.
‘He is, to all intents and purposes, a professional internet troll,’ said one parliamentary source. ‘He’s looking for a reaction. He thrives on reaction and annoying Unionists on Twitter and absolutely revels in it. Basically, it’s a hobby for him but the party’s patience has been wearing thin for a long time now.’
Mr Wishart deleted his offensive ballot paper tweet 24 hours after posting it – but still tried to have the last word.
He tweeted: ‘For press accuracy. It was a retweet of a popular meme that’s doing the rounds on a popular Chewing the Fat sketch. You’re welcome.’
Whatever the mechanics, his lamentable lack of judgment was well established long before the latest episode. In October last year, he opined on Twitter that ‘Blairites are now like your embarrassing incontinent old relative stuck away in a care home who you might go and visit occasionally’.
In his haste to get his attempt at satire online, it seemed he never stopped to consider that SNP supporters had elderly relatives too.
OUTRAGE ensued. Among those appalled by the comment was Edinburgh man Andy Morris. He tweeted the politician saying his late grandfather, who had fought for his country in the war, had suffered from incontinence. ‘The only embarrassing thing is you,’ he told him.
Even those who acknowledged the existence of a ‘Planet Pete’ with different laws of political discourse than their own thought the remark uniquely brainless and attention-seeking. Indeed, in what is thought to be a first, Mr Wishart himself expressed disapproval for his crassness. ‘Sorry for any offence,’ he tweeted as the scale of the revulsion he had caused became clear.
Yet, while Mr Wishart is all about getting up Unionist noses on Twitter, those who know him well insist he is capable of civility in person.
‘In real life, he’s a world away from the persona he creates for himself as a complete monster on Twitter,’ said one parliamentary source. ‘The difference is remarkable, to be honest. He treats it like a game, he knows what he is doing online and he’s doing it deliberately.’
The problem is his online persona and often infantile behaviour in the Commons have come to define him. He has become a figurehead to the most mindless Nationalists on the web and ringleader of the most disruptive SNP element in the chamber – MPs the late Father of the House, Sir Gerald Kaufman, described as ‘goons’.
Witness the rota Mr Wishart organised to ensure Nationalist MPs were always sitting on the front row of the opposition benches and thus deny veteran Labour MPs such as Dennis Skinner their place there.
And witness his vendetta last year against the journalist and Mail writer Stephen Daisley who, at the time, wrote a column for the STV website. In it, he expressed the view the SNP was ‘expert at mining grievance from even the most innocuous act or statement’.
Rising inexorably to the bait, Mr Wishart tweeted the journalist’s employer: ‘Hi @STVnews is this your view or just the view of the “digital” arm of the “STV family”?’ That earned a delicious rejoinder from author JK Rowling, whose Perthshire home is in Mr Wishart’s constituency: ‘Is trying to intimidate journalists you dislike @TheSNP policy or just a vendetta of your own?’
Yet, following online pressure from both Mr Wishart and fellow MP John Nicolson, himself a former TV newsman, the journalist’s column was axed. Had they just used Twitter as a weapon to silence a high-profile critic?
‘If any other journos want to be intimidated just let me know,’ tweeted Mr Wishart, clearly in his element. ‘We’re offering a cheap deal in gagging just now.’
Then there was the time in 2015 when ‘Uncle Pete’ went off-piste on the issue of second jobs for MPs. Getting to his feet in the Commons, he let rip at other parties whose MPs had a second job, directorships or place on a company. And here, to the dismay of senior party figures, he left no room for doubt – not one Nationalist MP had a ‘second master’.
He was speaking in February that year when Nationalist MPs numbered only six. By May they were joined by 50 more, bringing their second jobs, directorships and places on companies with them. The charges of hypocrisy flew.
Things have a nasty habit of going wrong even when Mr Wishart thinks he is on message. Some suggest that in common with other parliamentary colleagues, he struggles to consider issues in the round. Party politics alone determine whether things are good or evil, which makes expounding on them hazardous. Hence, at the height of the Named Person controversy, his declaration that all opponents of the scheme were clearly Tory/Unionist. As if this were purely a question of tribalism rather than personal freedom and parental rights.
And hence the extraordinary strategy adopted by this elected politician and several SNP colleagues of blocking followers on Twitter who post comments disagreeing with them, however politely. Silencing critics, so the reasoning appears to go, gets the job done better than engaging with them. ‘He’s like 90 per cent of the SNP politicians at Westminster,’ said one insider there. ‘He does not understand why people could have voted No in the referendum and valued the Union. He just doesn’t get it.’ Mr Wishart’s political journey, according to his bandmate Donnie Munro at least, began as a card-carrying member of the Labour Party. It was something of a surprise, therefore, for the singer to be accused by him of abandoning his core beliefs. The keyboard player had ‘crossed the political divide only a matter of years ago, wrote Mr Munro. Mr Wishart hit back, claiming ‘it was New Labour’s adoption of Conservative policies, and Donnie’s subsequent adoption of them’ that had scuppered the singer’s bid to become an elected politician. The pair bickered through newspaper columns and letters pages for years until, in 2001, Mr Wishart achieved for the SNP what Mr Munro had failed to do for Labour. He got himself elected as MP for Tayside North. Married to primary teacher Caroline Lindsay, with a young son Brodie, the newcomer MP took some time to find his mojo.
AS SNP spokesman for sport, one of his early hobby horses was the introduction of a requirement for Scottish referees to declare publicly which team they supported. Once this was known, they should not be allowed to officiate at their team’s matches, Mr Wishart said.
But what if they were Celtic supporters, asked critics. Should they be allowed to referee Rangers matches? Or Aberdeen or Hibernian ones if they were catching Celtic in the league. Wasn’t it better, they asked, just to expect referees to be impartial? Mr Wishart went back to the drawing board.
But, with the advent of Twitter, his confidence grew. Now divorced, and sitting up late in his London bolthole, he threw himself into the medium as the independence debate gathered pace and grew nastier.
The ultimate badge of honour came in March 2015 when he was named parliamentary tweeter of the year at the Political Twitter Awards. ‘So chuffed,’ he tweeted. ‘Twitter allows us to have conversations with our constituents, promote the issues that are important to us and it is also just great fun.’
Could it be that the ‘fun’ has distracted Mr Wishart from the job in hand – that of representing the people of Perth and North Perthshire?
Perhaps Commons Speaker John Bercow sums the position up best. Last year, following a particularly witless heckle from the former musician, he declared: ‘Order. Pete Wishart is an aspiring statesman. His aspiration may be a little way from fulfilment.’