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Blogs Coffee House

Who are the real bullies in the Scottish independence debate?

19 February 2014

10:27 AM

19 February 2014

10:27 AM

Stewart Hosie, the SNP’s finance spokesman at Westminster, said something unwittingly revealing last night. Taking part in the latest of BBC Scotland’s referendum debates (you can catch it here), he observed that:

There is a plan from the Scottish government and the Yes side… What we don’t have is a plan a from the No people about what happens in the event of a No vote. So I want them to explain to you today when are they going to cut £4bn from Scotland’s budget?

[…] There is precisely nothing from the No camp to explain what they’re going to do to Scotland in the event of a no vote.

Give Hosie marks for honesty. You don’t often get it as clear as this. I don’t think Hosie mis-spoke here. Not when he’s inventing a phantom threat to the Scottish block grant. Not when he’s suggesting that the Unionist parties wish to punish Scotland for having merely the temerity to discuss its own future.

True, some backbenchers think the Barnett Formula needs re-examining (they are right, by the way) but David Cameron has made it perfectly clear that tinkering with Barnett is “not on the horizon”. Of course Cameron cannot bind future parliaments and this allows the nationalists – the keenest sophists in British politics – to pretend that Cameron has “let the cat out the bag” and secretly hankers to scrap Barnett.

In any case, who’s scaremongering now? Vote Yes, otherwise Westminster is going to do any number of nasty things to Scotland. Just to put the uppity Jocks in their place. A reasonable person might conclude this is, rhetorically, a form of bullying.

And since Unionist parties wish to punish Scotland it follows, quite clearly, that no proper patriot could in good conscience support a No vote. To do so is to out yourself as some kind of self-loathing Scot. And since no patriot could welcome such punishment it follows that voting No is a form of treachery.

[Alt-Text]


An honest disagreement of what is in the national interest cannot be had. No voters are at best careless of Scotland’s interests and, more probably, motivated by malice. You are, as George W Bush once said, with us or against us.

As dividing lines go this is as crude as it is effective. Real Scots vote for independence, plastic Scots vote No.

There will be more of this as the referendum day draws nearer. For all that the SNP offers a sober, technocratic vision of the future this debate still, in the end, comes down to identity. It was Alex Salmond, some years ago, who accused George Robertson of being an “Uncle Tam”: “Scottish on the outside, British on the inside. Tartan ties – Union Jack underpants”.

The SNP leadership don’t often talk of Uncle Tams these days but the instincts that lead to such accusations haven’t disappeared entirely. (It goes without saying that it’s a depressing way of thinking and one that, for anyone who knows anything about race relations in the United States, is an ugly one.)

Perhaps this should not surprise. The Nationalist rise to power at Holyrood was in large part predicated upon an acceptance that, even if one did not agree with all their policies, they would “stand up for Scotland”, acting as a shield or bulwark against Westminster governments of any party. It was – and is – a politics of pose or posture more than policy. Since this has proved a mightily effective frame for SNP operations it is understandable that it is being used again.

But the stakes are higher in this referendum campaign. Sensible Unionists – including David Cameron – acknowledge there’s no reason why an independent Scotland would have to be a basket case or shortbread republic. Sensible Unionists can admit there’s nothing reprehensible about desiring independence. Sensible Unionists know independence is feasible. (That there are plenty of stupid Unionists and that some of them are in the cabinet is a matter for another time)

I think sensible Nationalists know that a No vote is hardly the end of the world. After all, by their own arguments, Scotland is already an extremely successful little country. If it were not it would be less well-placed to begin life as an independent country. But to listen to them you would think Scotland faces a future as bleak as Sodom and Gomorroah, punished by a wrathful lord. This is scaremongering too.

It presents Scotland, curiously, as a place too small, too weak to withstand the wrath of Westminster. It suggests, perhaps even craves, a kind of victim status. If you vote No then heaven help us all but we shall reap what we sow and deserve everything we get. Good and hard, preferably.

Perhaps this will all prove effective. It might! But I don’t think suggesting Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat voters want to punish Scotland is an edifying approach. It reminds us, however, that identity – Scottishness – really is at the heart of this campaign no matter how many Yes supporters tell you it isn’t. Real Scots vote Yes; bad Scots vote No. And who wants to be the bad guy?

It’s a form of bullying. So be it, but at least be honest about it. For that at least, Stewart Hosie deserves some credit.

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