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Blogs Coffee House

Yes voters are the Union’s secret weapon

1 May 2014

1:21 PM

1 May 2014

1:21 PM

Well some of them are anyway. Consider the tweet above. It’s since been deleted and you can see why. Gerry Adams’ arrest might not be an obvious element of the Pan-Unionist Conspiracy but if you think that you lack the imagination necessary to be the wilder kind of Scottish nationalist. Then again paranoia is a consequence of monomania and breathtaking solipsism.

Of course it’s just a tweet and only a single one at that. But there are plenty others like it. And yes, for sure, there are loonies on the Unionist side too. There really are people who think Alex Salmond evil and, lord knows, there are any number of Unionists making daft claims about the consequences of independence.

But it’s nationalists – or Yes voters – who need to make the case for change. I think it would be useful if Unionists offered a more upbeat and emotional argument for what the Union can offer in the future (as well as, sure, what it has given in the past) but it’s not necessarily a necessary part of their remit. And when nationalists promise the earth someone ought to ask if voters are being sold a unicorn.

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Still, perhaps Salmond’s neatest ploy in this campaign has been to put the Union on trial, switching the burden of proof from the Yes side to the No campaign. It’s not a daft notion either; if the Union has been and will continue to be so great for Scotland then it should be easy to demonstrate its advantages.

It’s not a secret, however, that many senior nationalists gaze upon some of their followers with some measure of despair and even, occasionally, horror. The heidbangers tarnish the brand, if you like.

They are the Union’s secret weapon. I wrote about this in The Times last month. Annoyingly the article appears to have vanished from the paper’s website but here’s the gist of it:

The SNP leadership generally eschews bigotry. John Swinney no longer tells the “Brits” where “to get off”; Alex Salmond no longer labels his opponents “Uncle Tams” who are “Scottish on the outside and British on the inside”. Sensible, or grown-up, Nationalists acknowledge they enjoy no monopoly on Scottishness or patriotism.

And yet a reasonable person might reasonably wonder if the SNP’s newfound respect, even appreciation, for Britain and Britishness is anything more than a tactical ploy designed to woo suspicious – or easily gulled – voters. It is certainly convenient and perhaps too convenient to be entirely plausible. Apparently you can be British and still favour independence but this is, if pursued to its logical conclusion, a contradiction in terms bordering on absurdity. Whatever next: Unionists for Independence?

Nevertheless, fairness demands we acknowledge the existence of a significant gulf between the moderate SNP leadership and a good chunk of the nationalist movement. Only a few headbangers turned up at Labour’s spring conference sporting signs labelled “Quisling” but a disconcerting number of Yes supporters plainly consider themselves more authentic Scots than their opponents. They are not just right, they are better people too. There is an arrogance here – often expressed with sneering certainty – that is deeply unattractive.

There has been much talk – perhaps too much – about the “negativity” espoused by Unionists. Some of this has been justified. No-one would accuse the Better Together campaign of running a campaign of unbridled optimism. But too little attention has been paid to the negative aspects of the Yes campaign. It is, after all, predicated on the rejection of three hundred years of British constitutional history.

The notion that Britain is a clapped-out country offering Scots no kind of viable future will surprise the 38% of Scots who, according to the latest Social Attitudes Survey, feel “very proud” of their British identity but there you have it. Perhaps they have been brainwashed. Certainly no right-thinking patriot could sensibly dispute the uber-nationalist interpretation of Scottish history.

It is a worldview that bathes itself in victimhood. Scotland is so small, even so impoverished, that she is easily oppressed. Everything is rotten and poor Scotland can never catch a break. It takes a peculiar solipsism to suppose that everything from the Olympic Games to Armistice Day is part of a plot to deny Scotland her rightful place in the world but it all makes sense to the kind of nationalist who considers the Great British Bake-Off part of a BBC-sponsored Unionist conspiracy.

As “civic” nationalism goes, this brand is pretty ethnic. Britain is always guilty until proven innocent (though other countries, no matter how vile, are given the benefit of the doubt, especially if they’re the target of British foreign policy). It is a worldview that condemns Britain’s participation in the slave trade but affords this country no credit for ending it. A worldview that sincerely believes Scottish soldiers are deliberately used as cannon fodder by heartless British generals who prefer to save the lives of English troops.

Keeping up with all this exhausting chippyness is itself exhausting. Who can be bothered with it? It is bad enough sharing a country with people as utterly humourless and small-minded as this; intolerable to do so in circumstances that would cheer them. This may not be an ennobling or especially virtuous reason to vote No but it remains a tempting one.

If you felt like being pretentious you might say some Scottish Nationalists have invented an unrecognisable Britain against which they can define their imaginary, but perfect, Scotland. It is both an illusion and a prospectus for independence built upon a false bill of goods.

The problem the nationalists have – one acknowledged by more thoughtful Yes voters – is that plenty of their compatriots are quite comfortable with an identity that is Scottish and British. To reject the latter would be, in some sense, to reject a part of themselves. This is not some kind of Caledonian “false consciousness” or Scottish cringe. The Scots are rather bigger, and better, than that. But if this kind of loopy, whining, paranoid nationalist did not exist Better Together might have wanted to invent them, all the better to discredit the nationalist cause.

Since the burden of proof rests with those advocating separatism each Yes-voting Scot is, in effect, a “brand ambassador” for independence. Their arguments leave an impression and so does the manner in which the case for independence is made. Bluff, bluster and bullying are by no means confined to one side of the argument.

Of course there is more to the Nationalist cause than this and it is not altogether fair to judge the Yes campaign – or any campaign – by the worst of its followers. The plausible case for independence is not substantively damaged by its mankier, more idiotic followers. Reason tells you that. But reason, as we all know, is only part of politics. Emotion matters too and the worst kind of nationalists may yet have an impact on the referendum that is both not what they might hope it to be and disproportionate to their numbers.

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