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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