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Come in Britain, your time is up

7 September 2014

1:01 PM

7 September 2014

1:01 PM

How do you kill an idea? That is the Unionist quandary this weekend. For a long time now the Better Together campaign has based its hostility to Scottish independence on the risks and uncertainties that, unavoidably, come with independence. This, they say, is what tests well with their focus groups. No-one gives a stuff about all that identity crap, they say, so there’s no need to talk about it. Instead, hype the unknowns – of both the known and unknown variety – and bang on and on about all that risk and all that uncertainty.

Which, like, is fine. Until the point it ceases to be fine. Until the point at which it stops working. Which, like, would be right about now.

YouGov’s previous poll was an Oh fuck moment for Unionists. Today’s upgrades the threat level by another couple of notches. We’ve reached DefCon Oh my fucking God. But not in a good or droll way. I mean, even people in London are noticing now. Not before time, of course.

But, yes, the idea. Despite the fact that both the Yes and No campaigns have done their best to present this referendum as a battle between rival cost-benefit analyses, it is still – as it has always been – about the idea.

There’s always been a constituency for independence and it’s always been larger than many people imagine. Always. How often have you heard a variation on the theme of I like the idea but I’m no’ sure we could really do it? or Yes, in an ideal world and all other things being equal (but not, alas, in this world).

Even when the idea was ridiculous it was attractive, you see. The idea being Scotland as Scotland. Ever since the bells at St Giles asked How Can I Be Sad On My Wedding Day? there’s been an ambivalence at the heart of all but the most devout brand of Unionism. Much was gained after 1707 but something – and there’s no point denying this – was lost too. (The reverse is true in 2014 too: something will be gained by independence but much will be lost as well.)

We’ve always known this too. Which may be why Better Together has not fought the idea. Not only that, it’s conceded the idea. Even Better Together doesn’t mean Rubbish Apart.


The problem, you see, with Whataboutery is that it becomes tedious. There you go again. Granted, much of the Scottish Government’s prospectus for independence is weapons-grade drivel and, sure, many of the people thirstiest for Yes are going to be hellish disappointed by the humdrum realities of life post-independence but that’s all, in the end, a different matter.

Because while the details are important they’re also not what this is really about. The Unionist difficulty is that most of us are at least part-time nationalists too. I think there’s always been a majority for independence if all other things were busy being equal. I think you can find this in Boswell and Stevenson and even, actually, in parts of Scott and Buchan too. The Yes campaign has been built on the idea that this time, now, all those other things actually are equal. So why not go for it? (Breathes there a man with soul so dead and all that jazz.)

And eventually Whataboutery becomes a variation on the old gag about What did the Romans ever do for us? So you have all these process-based objections to independence. That’s fine. Let’s answer them. What have you got now?

The answers don’t even have to be good responses; they just need a veneer of plausibility. In any case, fixating upon the process implicitly concedes the principle. It allows that, actually, I’d be happy to give it a lash but I’m worried it might all go tits-up. But what if I could reassure you it will be tits-doon? Ah, well, then it would be different.

The Yes campaign has always believed that there are many Scots who simply need a kind of permission to vote for independence. That’s why the SNP has run Project Reassurance. The White Paper – all 650 pages of it – wasn’t meant to be read; it was supposed to be a thudding statement declaring We’ve thought about this and it’s going to be OK. An exercise in patiently exhausting objections. Because when those objections are exhausted what does No have left?

In this respect, the No campaign’s (understandable) focus on process and detail has inadvertently assisted the Yes campaign. It’s put the emphasis of the campaign where they’d want it to be. (I think the Yes campaign has made plenty of mistakes too but that’s a matter for another day.)

Which brings us back to the idea. Unionists are correct to acknowledge that of course an independent Scotland is an eminently viable proposition and there’s little reason to suppose it couldn’t – assuming non-lunatic governance – be a modestly successful kind of place. It would be dismal to claim otherwise.

But of course acknowledging this opens the Overton Window another notch. Remember Overton’s analysis: ideas are initially unthinkable. Then they are radical until the moment at which they seem acceptable. From there it’s but a short mutation to sensible. At which point they can become popular. Which in turn means they can be policy.

That’s your story of Scottish independence, right there. Even Unionists generally concede the idea is acceptable (though not desirable).

That’s why I’ve always felt that Yes had an easier job  – and perhaps a better story to tell – in this campaign. (That may also be why some people very close to David Cameron have always felt Yes might well win.)

You can’t kill the idea. Not now. Not when it’s existed for 300 years and more. It existed even during the great Unionist-Nationalist nineteenth century. It won’t disappear now.

You can’t tell people they shouldn’t think about independence and you can’t tell them that independence isn’t worth achieving because, frankly, they’d just be crap at it. But that doesn’t mean Unionism must lack tunes. It’s just that the No campaign has generally declined to sing them.

Hell, I don’t think Alistair Darling mentioned Britain or Britishness even once during his second debate with Alex Salmond. It’s true that putting the red white and blue centre-stage wouldn’t necessarily transform the No campaign. But that misunderstands the point. Britain – and the Union – is the base upon which you build your campaign. Everything else is just tactics. Britain is the grammar; everything that follows is idiom.

As I say, you can’t kill an idea. But you can counter it with another idea. In this instance the other idea has the benefit of complementing the first idea. You could even reckon it the best of both worlds. But you have to believe in it properly, fully, whole-heartedly. Because it you can’t sell it why should anyone else buy it?

Perhaps Scots will peer over the edge and think, jings, that’s a long way down. Perhaps we’ll conclude that, despite everything, all things still aren’t busy being equal but right now, this morning, that seems about the best the Union can hope for. Still time for things to change, right enough – only one poll and all that –  but, you know, there are peer and herd effects here: the more thinkable an idea becomes the more popular it is likely to prove. People say: Bloody hell, if you’re going to jump I’ll jump too. Even if it is a long way down.


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Show comments
  • peter the painter

    For this predominantly leftist voting country – in theory voting Yes would guarantee an all-socialist utopia, a No vote – potential for periodic toryism such as is now.
    Don’t take a genius to realise that to walk it like they talk it, they have to vote Yes.
    But just as one suspects, they’ve principles; but in principle only. In reality,
    the Scots are collectively all about privatising their gains, and socialising their losses.

  • Norman

    I don’t have answer to your question ” How do you kill an idea” but I have an answer to the question that appear later in the saga of Scottish Independence.

    The question that will come eventually ” Who killed Scotland”

    Answer, Alex Salmond und the SNP” and the naive fools who believe that the Scottish Grass is greener than the grass on the other side of the border.

  • thomasaikenhead

    “That’s your story of Scottish independence, right there. Even Unionists generally concede the idea is acceptable (though not desirable).”

    This is simply ‘The Irish Question’ deja vu!

    An independent Scotland, like an independent Ireland, is simply inevitable.

  • Shenandoah

    Reported by National Review Online: ‘The new YouGov poll on Scotland’s September18 vote on independence shows “yes” in the lead for the first time, by a narrow 51 percent to 49 percent. The reason British politicians are now scrambling to offer Scotland more powers is that until now YouGovhad been the poll showing the least support for separation.

    British treasury secretary George Osborne has quickly promised that within days Scottish voters will be offered “more tax powers, more spending powers, more power over the welfare state.” He pledged that “Scotland will have the best of both worlds” by avoiding “the risks of separation” while acquiring “more control over their own destiny.” For many Scots, the last-minute offer lacks credibility for its lateness. Moreover, the offer comes after several hundred thousand votes have already been cast by mail’.

    So Mr Osborne tries to woo the Scots by offering them more time on the clock while they bury their hands in the UK gold box, like it’s a game show (only an hour left to get rich — tick tock!). More power for them means less power for the already seething English. Yeah, that’s going to work.

    A union takes two, it cuts both ways. Some smart-alec below scoffed at my lack of ‘honeyed words’ for his hostile anti-UK position. I haven’t heard a single ‘honeyed word’ from any Scot, have you? Why do the ‘honeyed words’ all have to come from us?

    Let them go.

    • ryongsong

      I wonder if you have even listened to the Yes position, except through the London media.

      I think Scotland and England will have a much better relationship post independence. We can forge new partnerships where we feel they are mutually benficial, kind of the way it should have been in the first place. Surely we can all welcome the opportunity for Scotland to take responsibility for its own affairs.

      • Shenandoah

        No, I think Scotland left to its own devices would a) become even more socialist than it is already and b) make common cause with other political naifs, i.e. our enemies.

        Scotland without the Union is not politically responsible.

  • Shenandoah

    So let me get this straight. Alex Salmond, that giant of something or other, has arranged for 16-year-olds and 17-year-olds to vote on Scottish secession?

    These are know-nothings, folks. They are wannabe grown-ups — and, with the best of intentions, they are not fit to vote in a question of this magnitude. I remember being 16 and 17. I was precocious. All the same, I would not have been fit to vote, either. I would have been confused and easily manipulated. I guess that’s why the Scottish Left wanted it this way.

  • MacTurk

    The ‘No’ side, officially titled “Better Together”, better classified as “Project Fear” spent most of the last two years bombarding Scotland with apocalyptic nonsense, all themed on how the tiny, weak, useless country called Scotland could not possibly survive on its own. An independent Scotland, we were assured, would be reduced to a howling wilderness, bereft of roads, buildings, and all infrastructure, carpet bombed by the RAF, a single party dictatorship subject to hyperinflation; a combination of North Korea and Weimar Germany.

    Then, over the last six months or so, the program turned 180 degrees, and suddenly an independent Scotland became a hugely important country, which would shake the pillars of western civilisation, cause the collapse of humanity as we know it, and leave the rUK in a state of inconsolable grief.

    The main point that the entire British establishment has missed is that British identity has become a minority taste in Scotland. This trend has been growing, and accelerating, since the 1970s. Most Scots identify as Scots, exclusively.

  • George Purcell

    Anyone who is surprised, at all, by the closing of the polls in the referendum has not spent significant time in Scotland.
    No may still pull it out, but I rather think it won’t

  • albertcooper

    A dream no more Bagpipes,Burns nights,Highland Dancing the list goes on,allowed in England ! Oh make my dream reality

    • goggyturk

      Yes, you can have your… um…

      What is it you do down there again?

      • albertcooper

        None of the above !

    • Norman

      you forgot the “Royal Military Tattoo “, it will have to be renamed as the “Royal” part will disappear as they will no longer have a Monarchy, they will then have a Dictator called Alex Salmond and his SNP!

  • Chris Quin

    How do you sell an idea dreamt up by a load of scheming Westminster types in 1707, that is probably at least 100 years past its sell-by date. I know let’s hire Alistair Darling – yes, that’ll work.

    Any one who votes for the continuance of this antiqated stitch-up has no soul.

    “We’re bought and sold for English Gold” Burns

  • goggyturk

    “How do you kill an idea?”

    With bombs. It’s the only way to explain the West’s Middle East policy.

    • Ed  

      Sure. Beheading people is fine. There’s nothing we should do about that….

      • goggyturk

        I was thinking more of the last 15 years or so, but bombing won’t stop the beheadings. It may buy some time for the Kurds to regroup but Iraq has now ceased to exist.

        As for ISIS, all this talk about ‘crushing’ them is just that – talk. We do not have the military capability to do that.

  • The Laughing Cavalier

    Has anyone else noticed that the upsurge for the “Aye” campaign has occurred since Gordon Brown became more prominent in the unionist cause? The curse of McDoom seems to have struck again.