The campaign to confront the rise of Scottish Nationalism and its ambition to break-up the United Kingdom is set to be a long one. It should have been enough to have won clearly once, but it seems those in favour of keeping the UK together will need to win at least three times…
I prefer to think the best of people. This applies as much to the 1.6 million people who voted ‘Yes’ in the Scottish Referendum, as it does to the 2 million who voted ‘No’, as I did. But that does not mean I will stand by and say nothing when a minority seek to impose their will on the majority. Scottish Nationalism threatens everything I believe in and care for.
The Long Campaign, is the concerted effort needed over many years to oppose the Nationalist ambition to separate the people of Scotland from family, friends, and colleagues, living in the rest of the United Kingdom. The Long Campaign, is needed to defend all that is good about this great union of nations that we have been an integral and successful part of, over so many generations. The Long Campaign, seeks to protect the fundamentals of our society, our shared heritage and common values. The Long Campaign I am speaking of, is not just the years of campaigning ahead of the Referendum, but critically it needs to continue on through the election campaigns that face us, this year and next, and beyond.
If we care about preventing the forces of Nationalism undermining our country to the point where it fractures, we must keep opposing them. It is this separation of Scotland from so much we care about, and at times have so depended on, that is the core and overwhelming objective of the SNP in all that it says, and all that it does.
The Scottish Referendum
The 2014 Scottish Referendum tended by its nature to polarise and exaggerate opinions and differences across Scotland. For some, this tension was judged helpful to their cause. For many others, the expression of a newly defined, some would say exaggerated, sense of what it meant to be Scottish, made them feel very uncomfortable. The Scottish Nationalist Government chose to frame the debate as one in which “you are either for us, or against us”. You either vote ‘Yes’ for Scotland or you must be the other thing. Against us. Against Scotland. Encouraged by this stance, the activists who roamed largely unchecked on the internet and the streets, set out to intimidate and abuse any who dared to try to speak out, and this approach continues.
The Nationalists have zealots in their midst who apply no self-control or proper sense of moderation in the way they promote their cause, and attempt to silence those who try to speak out against them. Many commentators have reflected that the Referendum campaign was notable for being peaceful, and a good example of a democratic approach to constitutional change. Alex Salmond talked of it being an ‘exemplar’. This is all very well if you were a detached observer or viewed the proceedings through the rose tinted spectacles of Nationalism. For those trying to take an active part in the debate in support of keeping Scotland in the UK, this was a campaign that demanded a very thick skin in the face of sometimes torrents of abuse and intimidation. Many chose instead to keep quiet, and who could blame them when in this highly connected age, family, friends, neighbours and business colleagues could all find themselves quickly drawn into the repercussions of a word judged out of place by the hard core Nationalist activists.
The Nationalist approach to campaigning
Over the course of the Referendum campaign, there were unsavoury and completely unforgivable examples of bad behaviour and intimidation on both sides of the argument. Nevertheless, to any who sought to take any kind of active part in the campaign from the ‘No’ side of the debate, whether it was with an off-hand but high profile few words of support, or an expression of how their particular field of expertise viewed the relevant issues of the debate, or perhaps a relatively low level – and so largely out of the public eye – attempt to argue the case for keeping the country together, they faced an at times overwhelming tirade of insults, derision and threats.
Those who would break up the United Kingdom sought to bully their opponents into submission. This attitude emanated from the top, with Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon often preferring to sneer at opponents, deriding alternate views to their own, rather than taking part in honest debate. They both tried to stoke up grievance against the rest of the UK, putting words into their opponents mouths to paint them in the worst possible light, and in-turn offered a very poor example to their followers. Nicola Sturgeon in particular, hit some terrible low points in the campaign when despite her undoubted experience and skills, she approached some debates determined simply to shout down and throw her opponents off balance.
The Scottish Government used its influence from the top to intimidate business, academia and any involved at various levels of the public sector. The message was clear to them all. Feel free to take part in the debate – just don’t criticise the Scottish Government. And the underlying threat was just as clear. This was a Nationalist Government who would remember who were its friends and who were not. The Nationalist grassroots campaign followed their lead, threatening boycotts for example, for the companies of any business people having the temerity to speak out against them.
Having dominated the agenda and tone of debate through the Referendum, this intimidating approach from the Nationalist side continues as we now move on to the General Election the SNP, buoyed up by opinion polls suggesting they could win a landslide in Scotland.
The General Election campaign in Scotland
In some ways the potential outcomes predicted in the opinion polls should not be a great surprise. Some of it is down to simple arithmetic. The 45% on the losing side of the Scottish Referendum campaign, are realising that the simple tactic of voting for one party – the SNP – will potentially enable them to defeat the 55% who voted ‘No’ but are now largely divided back into three separate political camps, in opposition as much with each other, as with the SNP.
Here in Scotland, over the course of a series of election campaigns, the Scottish National Party have transformed themselves from a relatively minor player to holding near absolute control, using the application of proportional representation and the perfect storm that befell their opponents.
In the coming General Election, the post Referendum dynamic gives the SNP an opportunity to secure disproportionate influence in Westminster, through the vagaries of the first past the post system combined with the potential for a ‘hung’ Parliament with no clear majority. The SNP always make the most of any opportunity to gain political advantage, so they can be expected to maximise any influence to further their separatist ambitions. Meanwhile, their opponents seem so often to not realise when they are being out-manoeuvred, as if offering the Nationalists an open goal.
For those simply wanting to keep their country together – hardly a particularly revolutionary idea – it can sometimes be frustratingly difficult to form common cause with all who would naturally be inclined to support this view. Perhaps some feel hidebound by traditional party allegiances, and suspicious of the ramifications of tactical voting. Others are in the silent majority, who as the name implies, are inclined not to make too much noise about what they believe in. Arguably, we British are of course not particularly demonstrative by nature. This can lead to the loud and rather intimidating activists of the Nationalists seeming to dominate the debate, to the point where they sometimes appear to have the field to themselves.
The popularisation of Nationalism in Scotland
Sadly, so many of those ‘Yes’ voters who during the Referendum campaign would have described their stance as ‘I am not a nationalist, but….’, have decided that the momentum of that campaign is best maintained by getting over their distaste for Scottish Nationalism and voting for the SNP. This despite Scottish Nationalism being founded on a sense of deep seated grievance against the rest of the UK in general, and the prejudice of its hard core support against the English in particular. Many of the SNP’s new progressive supporters would previously have opposed such narrow minded discrimination, and the manipulation of the electorate that so often goes with it. They would probably still protest at UKIP candidates promoting their right wing version of Nationalism, in which Europe and immigrants are the ones targeted for blame. But the underlying frustration of so many on the left in Scottish politics with the mainstream UK political parties, seems to have boiled over into an extended protest voting pattern, which the Scottish Nationalists look set to benefit from.
For some years, Scottish Nationalism has been very good at cosmetically rebranding itself to make it appear more socially acceptable. The pre-fix ‘civic-’ was put in front of their form of Nationalism, as if this along with some renowned supporters, whether they be writers, clerics, business leaders, film stars or academics, could transform their image. Of course, the Scottish Nationalists can always find examples of such supporters from every walk of life in Scotland, happy to have their photo taken with the First Minister, no matter whether they represent a minority view from their particular filed of expertise or influence.
During the Referendum campaign, this approach to improving the social acceptability of Scottish Nationalism, was taken to a whole new level. After so many years of the SNP Government largely ignoring them, they ‘discovered’ people in poverty, realising this could be very helpful as a tactic to bring the disaffected radical left wing of Scottish politics on board. Cynical this may have been, but it has worked for the Scottish Nationalists. They not only had the Scottish Greens and Scottish Socialists under their wing during the course of the Referendum campaign, but also a new swathe of previous Labour voters, including it appeared almost the entire Scottish creative and artistic community. This could hardly be dismissed as cosmetic, and this cross section of left wingers who took such an active part in the campaign were often far more engaging, respected and effective, than many previous Scottish Nationalist supporters.
A new rebranding?
With the post Referendum momentum continuing, including a great influx of new members from the left, the Scottish Nationalist leadership have taken to letting the rather dry, if comforting sounding, ‘civic-’ prefix drop away, replacing it with ‘progressive-’. This shiny new wrapper of ‘Progressive Nationalism’ somehow enables the radical new left support to come on board alongside the traditional core Scottish Nationalists.
This new rebranding will be quite an achievement if they can sustain it as a practical reality, rather than just a label. To have taken a Scottish Nationalism founded on a general culture of grievance against the rest of the UK, and a very specific prejudice against the English, and convert it with a few cynical tactical shifts and some astute semantic rebranding, to something that the left of the Scottish political spectrum can view as socially acceptable, is quite something. But keeping that new and very active support on side, whilst still speaking the language of the political centre, will really start to stretch the abilities of the Nationalist leadership in their ambition of being all things to all men.
It really did ring hollow for example, for Nicola Surgeon to reassure a gathering of business leaders shortly after her appointment as our new First Minister that they had nothing to fear from her. They had after all just seen footage of her being feted like a rock star at mass gatherings of activists who are anticipating nationalisation and new taxes to clobber the bosses as a price for their support. For so many of the new SNP supporters, big and profitable businesses are an anathema, with only small businesses that know their place and do not get above themselves, being politically acceptable, in their vision of the new Scotland. Just as the business community UK wide are against the UKIP proposal that the UK come out of the European Union, when it represents their largest marketplace, similarly businesses in Scotland do not want to be separated from their biggest market, namely the rest of the UK.
Opposing Scottish Nationalism
I voted ‘No’ in the Referendum and campaigned to keep the UK together. I was speaking out against a Scottish Government that I believed was seeking to mislead and manipulate its own people. Effectively, they were seeking to impose the will of a very active and often vociferous minority, on a generally less demonstrative majority. In opposing them, I have either personally, or collectively as one of the 2 million who voted ‘No’, been labelled variously as negative, gullible, naïve, a traitor, selfish, unpatriotic and an awful lot worse. At the same time in trying to express my views during the course of the campaign, my English accent – even though I have lived in Scotland for 24 years – was also seen by some as a particular problem, and reason for them to suggest “you should go back to where you came from”, though expressed in somewhat more colourful language.
Now in the General Election campaign, while many will perfectly reasonably simply vote for whichever party they have traditionally supported, others will take a different view. For me and thousands across Scotland, there is a more nuanced approach required. This in response to the relentless push from Nationalists determined to ignore the democratic choice of the majority in Scotland to stay in the UK. This is why many of us will vote for whichever party is most likely to defeat the local SNP candidate. I would vote for whoever amongst the Conservative, Labour or Liberal Democrats offer the best local opponent to the Nationalists. As I live in the constituency with Scotland’s only current Conservative MP, I will vote for David Mundell, the first time I have voted Conservative over the course of the last 40 years or so of placing my cross on a ballot paper.
The tactics of Scottish Nationalism
In opposing the SNP you soon learn how often their leadership resort to fantasy economics and Nationalist double-talk. It is incredibly frustrating to see how effective these techniques can be. In particular, the way that simply repeating their assertions again and again, can attach a popular credibility to them, no matter how flimsy the numbers or rationale might be.
During the Referendum campaign the Nationalist leadership became very adept at simply making up numbers to suit their purpose whenever expert predictions and opinion went against them. Witness how the subsequent collapse in oil prices has exposed the lack of independent thinking and rigour in the economic case for their separated Scotland. Yet there is not so much of a hint of embarrassment or regret from the Nationalist leadership, nor even more worryingly their supporters. Perhaps the hard core followers of Nationalism are well aware of the tactics being used and go along with the pretence in pursuit of what they view as the greater good of the ultimate break-up of the United Kingdom.
The Scottish Nationalist Government’s Fiscal Commission was used throughout the Referendum campaign as a simple device to add a false credibility to numbers made to suit the SNP’s purpose. The Commissioners were not remotely independent, but rather hand-picked members of Alex Salmond’s own inner circle of economic advisers. How many times were we reminded that a couple of them had Nobel prizes for their work in economics? No doubt both esteemed experts in their given field, yet the fact that so many other eminent economists, including many more Nobel prize winners, considered the Scottish Government’s economic plans fanciful, cut no ice with the Nationalists.
The use of Nationalist double-talk runs through almost every pronouncement of the SNP leadership. Sometimes this involves putting words into the mouths of their opponents to make it easier to deride them and to stir up the Nationalist activist base. So the oft quoted claim that the opponents of Scottish Nationalism were suggesting that Scotland was ‘too wee, too poor, and too stupid’ to run their own affairs. No Unionist politician ever came remotely near to saying such a thing. Some did of course suggest that there are benefits in being part of bigger Union of countries. Some did suggest there could be negative economic outcomes to splitting Scotland apart from its biggest market. Some did suggest that there would be complications and difficulties in trying to run Scotland separately when it has for so long been an integrated part of the UK whole. But rather than get involved with debating these points, the Nationalist leadership preferred to re-run the ‘too wee, too poor, too stupid’ line, and many of the Nationalist’s cheerleaders and apologists in the media took to repeating the line too. Yet it was simply made up. By the Nationalists. Pure double-talk.
Now, in the run up to the General Election we hear time and time again how only the SNP would properly represent the people of Scotland. What the people of Scotland all know, whether they support or oppose the SNP, is that the Nationalists leadership have absolutely no intention of representing what the majority of people of Scotland consider to be in our best interests. After all they have clearly decided to ignore the democratic will of the people of Scotland as so recently determined in the 2014 Referendum. No, what the Scottish Nationalist leadership are saying in their cynical use of Nationalist double-talk, is that the SNP will be the best ones to represent the ambitions of themselves and their followers. They will seek to undermine the UK Parliament at every opportunity, to drive wedges between the peoples of the United Kingdom, all with the intention of creating sufficient discord that when the prospect of another Referendum is raised, the UK Government and the people of the rest of the UK just might be inclined to agree.
The Long Campaign
Despite their manipulation and abuse of power, the result of the Referendum still went against the Nationalists, with a clear majority of the people of Scotland voting in favour of staying in the United Kingdom. But the Scottish Nationalist leadership and its hard core support only allowed that result to cause the merest pause in their momentum. Just as through the course of the Referendum campaign, they found a way to shrug off what at times appeared the most decisive of critiques, whether from leading economists concerning financial forecasts, oil industry experts on the likely outlook for oil prices or the Scottish Parliament’s own research service discovering a huge hole in the Nationalists’ childcare funding assumptions, so again they quickly found a way to effectively brush off what might have caused a more honourable campaign a good deal more than a mere pause for thought. Effectively, Scottish Nationalists have ignored the outcome of the Referendum. Rather than view it as a defeat, they concluded it could be treated as a mere stepping stone to their next opportunity to break-up the United Kingdom.
I am not against those who vote for the SNP, nor even those who argue the case for Scottish Nationalism, no matter how they might sometimes frustrate me! Rather I am simply against prejudice, intimidation, and the abuse of power. All of which run through not only the worst excesses of the more extreme fringes of Scottish Nationalism, but also go to the very heart of how its leadership have sought to mislead and manipulate the people of Scotland.
How can Scottish Nationalism be stopped? Certainly not by trying to out-shout or out-intimidate them. Mirroring their tactics will rightly completely turn off those who have been concerned but have not yet spoken out. Equally though it cannot be right to stay silent when we know there is such serious harm being done to our country. Intimidated or not, we must try to speak out as best we can.
So what does all this mean for those who want simply to avoid their country breaking apart? The 2014 Referendum was a hard fought campaign. If the result had been the other way round then the Nationalists would most definitely have ensured its effect was permanent, in separation of Scotland from the UK. Yet the Nationalist leadership think they can simply ignore the will of the majority who decided not to choose a break-up of the UK.
The momentum of the Nationalist campaign, the simple arithmetic that has now undermined the ‘No’ side of the debate once divided back into three political parties, has buoyed up the SNP. They realise one way of overcoming the Referendum defeat is to act as if it did not happen, seeking to disrupt and divide with a view to ultimate separation.
With all this in mind, the Long Campaign needs to succeed three times. After the success of the Referendum, the target must be to avoid the SNP holding the balance of power in Westminster after the 2015 General Election, and then to prevent them securing an absolute majority in the 2016 Scottish Parliament election. So, building on the Referendum victory, slowing the advance of Scottish Nationalism, and ultimately reversing it.