Danny Finkelstein’s column in the Times today is characteristically elegant and incisive. In politics as in life he writes, “whatever apparent power and temptation lies with the adoption of the identity of victimhood it is ultimately destructive”.
Since Finkelstein is pondering lessons that may be drawn from the life of Nelson Mandela it may not be immediately obvious that the conclusion he reaches has some relevance to the campaign for Scottish independence. I better elaborate, then.
Much has been said about how and why Unionists need a better “narrative” when making the case for Scotland as part of the United Kingdom. This is true. There is a need for a positive, optimistic, case for the Union. This is also true.
On the other hand, it is less frequently noted that the Yes campaign is pretty negative too. For all the talk of hope and change and so on it remains the case that the SNP – and the broader Yes campaign – is just as happy to wallow in negativity as their Unionist opponents.
In one sense this is as understandable as it is unavoidable. To win, the nationalists must first persuade Scots that the United Kingdom is irretrievably broken and, secondly, that independence is the best way of fixing Scotland or, if you prefer, salvaging something from the wreckage. Inevitably this demands some emphasis on the negative aspects of life in modern Britain. Less hope, more whinge.
This is fine as far as it goes. But it doesn’t go very far for the simple reason that, despite the usual grumbling, most people do not think life in Britain is all that intolerable.
Despite this, Yes campaigners would have you believe that the future for Scotland inside the United Kingdom is bleaker than a November day in Fraserburgh. A cold future awaits us, perhaps even a mini ice age. Just contemplating the notion should be enough to give you the shivers.
After all, what is there to look forward to? Another Tory-led government? Nuclear-armed submarines on the Clyde? The bedroom tax and more welfare reform? Cuts to the Scottish block grant? The prospect of having to work until you are 70 before receiving a state pension? Ochone, ochone.
Fine. These may all be unfortunate things up with which we may have to put. They’re not quite the kind of grievances that demand independence, however. Much more of this and you start to get the impression that the SNP think Scotland is some poor, abused, much put upon creature. A victim, in other words. There is, thus, a streak of self-pity running through the Yes campaign and self-pity is rarely ennobling or dignified. Poor wee Scotland needs independence, you see, to protect itself against the southern nasties.
But most people don’t think like that. They don’t believe Scots should be scared of a future within the United Kingdom for the obvious reason that they’re not scared by living in the United Kingdom right now. Trying to persuade them otherwise asks them to doubt their own experience.
It is true that polls presently show that those Scots with least to lose are also those most likely to vote for independence. Furthermore, polls do suggest that the referendum result becomes a coin-toss if – a mighty if – the nationalists can persuade people that independence will make them materially better off.
I wonder, however, how presenting Scots as victims helps persuade the electorate that they actually will be better off after independence. I have my doubts. I wonder if this picture of a Scotland that needs to be protected does not, for some, suggest a Scotland too feeble or timid to make a proper go of things after independence. That is, I wonder if one part of the nationalist message cuts across or contradicts another part of the independence pitch.
And, of course, there is Holyrood. Many people take the view that the Scottish parliament already safeguards Scotland’s ability to withstand policy made in Westminster. Not, admittedly, in every area but in many. After all, Alex Salmond won two elections by promising he could use Holyrood’s powers to stand up for Scotland. Now the nationalists tell us he won’t be able to do so in the event of Scotland voting No. Really?
Nor is nationalist talk of a renewed democratic deficit all that persuasive. Sure, the Tories only have one MP in Scotland and between them the coalition parties can only count on a dozen Scottish votes. But a majority of English voters did not vote Conservative either. There is a distinction to be drawn between legitimacy conferred by a parliamentary majority and that earned by a majority of votes cast. In the latter instance, Scotland is different only by degree not kind.
The fact of the matter is that almost all British governments are delivered on a minority of the vote. Neither Tony Blair nor Margaret Thatcher ever won a majority of votes cast. They were the most popular minority enthusiasm. (Alex Salmond didn’t win a majority of votes cast in 2011 either). And within Scotland 875,000 people voted for Conservative or Liberal Democrat candidates in 2010. (490,000 voted SNP.) You can argue that’s not enough to give the government “legitimacy” but you can’t quite pretend it’s a trivial level of support for the governing parties.
Even after independence most of us are likely to be ruled by a party for which we did not vote. Scotland, in this respect, will just be a smaller Britain. That’s fine but I think it reduces the impact of the democratic deficit argument which is, in any case, in part the consequence of our electoral system not the cumulative total of votes cast.
Anyway, the point is that this too stresses Scottish victimhood and this is a problem not simply because it is unattractive and negative but because, again, it is not how people see themselves or, just as importantly, how they would like to see themselves.
The Yes campaign has to paint this dystopian picture of life in Britain before it can sell its sunny portrait of life after independence. Fair enough. But the trouble is that part one of the project requires hefty amounts of scaremongering (to choose a word at random) before you can switch to part two.
Sensible Unionists acknowledge there’s no good reason why Scotland couldn’t possibly thrive after independence (though there’d be an awkward and difficult transition period).
But the reverse holds true too: Scotland can be a pretty decent and happy and prosperous place without independence too. Can be? Why, is! If it weren’t there’d be no good economic case for independence at all. Life will go on. Even after a No vote.
The more nationalists deny this the dafter – and smaller – they look. There is, then, more than one Project Fear in this referendum and neither of them are particularly attractive. As Danny Finkelstein says, cultivating victimhood is a destructive hobby.