I keep coming across Scots from both sides who think the present dominance of the SNP is forever and that independence is inevitable. Of course the nationalists have a strategy of talking up their chances. It’s a good strategy too. But SNP optimism is no more grounded in reality than the defeatism of some Pro UK people who should be defending their country rather than helping their opponents. The truth is that we are not all caught up in a Greek play where the tragic outcome is already determined. We are free individuals and our actions determine the future. That’s why it is uncertain and impossible to predict.
There was an election in Canada last week. A couple of points are worth mentioning. Quebec separatists now poll 19%. Not very long ago they had the support of nearly 50% of the population of Quebec. They came within a whisker of winning a referendum on independence. They must have thought it was inevitable. But no. It’s people who control what happens in the future. Above all the people of Quebec have come to terms with the fact that they are going to remain a part of Canada. Moreover they can be both Québécois and Canadians. Of course they can.
The other interesting point is that the Liberal Party in Canada did terribly in the election of 2011, but then came back to win this time. It moved from 18% to 39%. Things change and a few years is a long time in politics. So who knows who might win an election in the UK or in Scotland in a few years’ time? Who knows what unpredictable events might intervene? Labour might recover in Scotland. So too might the Lib Dems. So too might the Conservatives. We all have one seat at Westminster. But if you believe in your party, campaign for it. Perhaps few others do right now, but that doesn’t matter. Things change.
I’ve recently come out in support of the Conservatives. But that doesn’t mean I’m hostile to Pro UK people in Scotland who disagree. Moreover even when we campaign for different parties, we can still all and always campaign for the UK. But to change things around we need a bit of a rethink. We need to analyse the strengths and weaknesses of the Pro UK position. We need to do the same for our opponent.
The Pro UK side is very strong on economics. The case we all made during the referendum was clear and had reason behind it. The argument that Scotland was economically better off in the UK was overwhelming. That argument has become stronger since. From the perspective of rational self-interest no-one would vote for the SNP. Why are they doing so well then? The reason is obvious. While the SNP’s argument is weak in terms of the rational, it is massively strong in terms of the emotional. Most people make decisions not by coldly calculating self-interest. Rather to be human is to be swayed by emotion. Patriotism is a very powerful emotion. It isn’t in my rational self-interest to join the army and fight in a war. But we know from history that frequently an appeal to patriotic emotion can overcome this. When my heart says one thing I frequently will ignore what my head is saying, or rather find facts that support my heart. It is for this reason above all that so many nationalists object to anything in the “Mainstream media” that contradicts what their heart is saying. It is for this reason that they seek out alternative sources of information and alternative facts. These facts may have soared so high that they’ve taken wing from reality, but everyone likes to confirm their beliefs rather than contradict them. It’s only when the wings get too close to the sun, that we find out what they are made of.
It is, of course, worth making economic arguments. But we made the case so forcefully that it actually hurt our position. The nationalist head ignored our argument, or rather preferred an alternative which confirmed what his heart was feeling. But at the same time, the relentless economic arguments offended the nationalist heart. Every time one of us wrote something about how awful Scotland would be if we became independent, it got the nationalist backs up. We’ll show them, they said. Much of what we wrote was dishonest anyway. I don’t oppose independence because I think Scotland would be poorer. I would oppose it even if I thought it would be richer. The reason for this is that I think Scotland is an integral part of the UK. So why give economic arguments when they are not the reason for my support of the UK? Economics is contingent. In the seventies Scotland may have been better off financially with independence. Who knows what the future would bring? In any event Scotland could prosper as an independent country. But that is not the point. So too could California, or Bavaria.
So cease making relentlessly negative economic arguments. They don’t help the Pro UK position, they hurt it. The same goes for all the other negativity. We should never have said you can’t keep the pound. We should never have said the EU won’t let you in. All we needed to say is that these matters are uncertain. They are. Uncertainty is our friend, like a cheap forties horror flick that can’t afford to pay for the monster’s costume, but instead shows only shadows.
Where the nationalists are strong is on patriotism. The problem we have is that patriotism trumps everything else. They have succeeded in connecting Scottish patriotism with Scottish nationalism. Scottish nationalism is the desire for independence. But huge numbers of patriotic Scots now think that in order to be patriotic they have to support the SNP. Patriotism as a force will crush nearly anything in its path. It will certainly crush the idea that we are better together, or that we might be a bit poorer for a while in the future. It was patriotism that crushed Labour in Scotland. No other force could have done so. It is for this reason also that the SNP are covered in Teflon. If they are the patriotic party, what does a nationalist care how they run the country? The answer is they don’t. They will keep voting for them, for they think it is patriotic to vote for independence and therefore patriotic to vote for the SNP.
As I’ve said before. The SNP has only got one argument for independence, but it is a very good one:
Scotland is a country,
Countries ought to be independent,
Therefore Scotland ought to be independent.
Time and again I come across nationalists who implicitly make this argument. It’s worth remembering that such arguments are inevitably rather circular. What is contained in the premise implicitly will come out in the conclusion. But the point of analysing such an argument is that it can bring clarity to the meaning of the words we use.
The Pro UK person is left with a choice. Either we deny that Scotland is a country, or we deny that countries ought to be independent. The first is not very promising because everyone in Scotland thinks Scotland is a country. I frequently argue that Scotland is only called a country. What this amounts to is that Scotland was a country, until 1707 or perhaps 1603. I think this may well be the truth, but again I will have a problem convincing a patriotic Scot who fervently believes that Scotland is a country. It is for this reason that they frequently react with such fury to my logic.
Most Pro UK Scots would, I suspect, reject challenging the first premise. After all isn’t this why Pro UK Scots continue to support the Scottish rugby or football teams? They must think that Scotland is a country, that’s why they support the team, but that we ought not to be independent, for which reason they voted no. But do they really think that countries ought not to be independent? What about France, or Japan? Is it merely that although they think countries ought to be independent, they ought not to be so if it would make me personally poorer. If that is the nature of your argument it is very thin gruel indeed.
But I don’t think this need be the nature of the argument. There are after all in the world such things as multi-nation nations. There are rather a lot of these. They include Russia, the UK and Canada. What this means is that someone can support two or more nations existing at the same time. I can then support both Scotland and the UK and can describe them both as my country. The difference between this position and the position that Scotland is only called a country is very small indeed. But perhaps this position is more persuasive. As multi-nation nations exist it is perfectly possible to argue that Scotland is not merely called a country, but is in fact a country.
Some nationalists maintain that the UK is not a country, but rather some sort of construct. This puts them into an unfortunate position for two reasons. Firstly it denies that all sorts of places like China and India are countries. You try telling that to the Chinese. Secondly if the UK is not a country, then by definition Scotland is already independent. Why then campaign for something that you already have?
The crucial point however, is that the existence of a multi-nation nation is incompatible with the independence of its parts. If all the parts of a multi-nation nation became independent the whole would, of course, cease to exist. It is therefore logical for me to argue that not all countries ought to be independent, namely those which are parts of a whole. There is nothing inconsistent with someone from Quebec, being both patriotic about Quebec and about Canada. Far from being consistent, this way of feeling is common all over the world.
It is this that Pro UK people need to work on. We already have Scottish patriotism. There is a temptation to get into a competition with the SNP over who is most Scottish. But this is to battle on ground on which they are strong and we are weak. Rather we must change the nature of the battle. Our task over the next few years is to point out the truth that there is nothing incompatible about being patriotic about Scotland and wanting the UK to continue. On this ground the nationalists are very weak indeed. Each of us in fact is a British citizen. No matter how much a Scottish nationalist denies this fact it nevertheless is true. But it is odd indeed not to feel something that you are. If I am cold, it is strange indeed to say I don’t feel cold. Likewise if I am British it is strange indeed to say I don’t feel it.
There is a tendency in Scotland to deny our Britishness. Which of us has not at some point or other corrected someone who has called us British? I’m Scottish we maintain, even if we voted No. Well at some point we have to hear the cockerel crowing. That point is now. We must be comfortable with our dual identity. We must live it each and every day. Don’t think of our compatriots as somehow different. Don’t think of Scotland as something separate. Think and act as a person with two identities. Sure we have our own laws in Scotland, sure we have our own bank notes and our own football teams, but that is not a reason to break up our multi-nation nation it is an expression of it.
All over the world there are countries that are able to express difference within a whole. If they were all to break up into their various linguistic and ethnic groups there would be chaos. Quebec has got over its bout of nationalism and has settled down into being a part of Canada. People there can express their difference as well as their similarity. We in Scotland are far more similar to our neighbours than a French speaking person from Montreal and an English speaking person from Vancouver. Far less separates us in terms of language and in terms of distance. The nationalists in Scotland will continue to deny that they are British. Their movement is not founded on truth therefore and so will in time topple. We can bring that day nearer by expressing both the fact that we are Scottish and that we are British. But please put a little feeling into it. That is what our campaign has lacked for too long. If we can win the emotional argument, we’ll need no other.
This article was originally published in the author’s personal blog on 24 October 2015, click here.