Do You Believe in Fairies?
National pride is used as a cheat code by nationalists. We need to call it out.
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Last time I wrote about the similarities between the policies of Brexit and Scexit. This edition examines the similarities between their underlying philosophies. For those desperate to be offended: similar does not mean identical.
One of the most frustrating things about nationalist arguments is that they are framed around the idea that only nationalists truly believe in our countries. The idea has been at the heart of the SNP for decades. We can also hear it in the messages of pro-Brexit politicians. For some examples watch this short video.
Rather than confront the costs of the divorce they advocate; they implore voters simply to believe. As if the problems they would create will be overcome if they can just create an abundance of national pride. For them creating a better country is like Peter Pan: if only everyone believes enough in fairies, everything will be ok.
Ultimately, the decision of whether to share sovereignty with our neighbours, and how much, is just a policy. Like any other policy it is to be debated and tested, but the nationalist fetishizes this single issue. They invest the drawing of borders with magical powers.
We see this in the core argument advanced by both campaigns to leave the European and British Unions in the video above: that political decisions are better made exclusively by the people of a particular nation.
If the premise of your politics is that national identity is the engine of progress, then it makes sense to focus on where the lines are drawn. The nationalist logic suggests that the stronger the shared identify, the better the society. Conversely, the more loosely felt the shared identity, the worse the society. So political change relies on more narrowly defining ‘us’ around shared identity rather than shared interests.
Often the argument is used as a deliberate, and sometimes pretty ugly, attempt to delegitimise opponents by painting us as unpatriotic outsiders. For nationalism’s leaders it is a cynical attempt to avoid scrutiny. Sceptics aren’t just asking questions about a policy; we are undermining the nation. It’s not that those who oppose the nationalist project are wrong, in the way you might have honestly held different principles on education or tax policy, no, it’s that we are fundamentally deficient in some way - that we must be uncaring, or feart, or obsequious - and ultimately that we aren’t really even Scottish, or British, at all.
The deeper strategic purpose of the belief frame is to make politics a competition of identity rather than ideas. Too often those of us who oppose nationalism have engaged in that competition. We have sought to pass the hygiene standard of patriotism without remembering to make the principled and practical arguments for solidarity and sharing at the same time.
I often think that running political campaigns as a nationalist must be like playing a game with the cheat codes. They lazily press emotional buttons leaving those of us with a more pluralist and honest approach to identity and sovereignty at a permanent disadvantage. The great apologist for nationalism, GK Chesterton, understood this when he wrote:
“Cosmopolitanism gives us one country, and it is good; nationalism gives us a hundred countries, and every one of them is the best.”
Recognising and Responding
I promised there would always be a practical bit, but this is such a huge part of the nationalist argument that it needs to be miniaturised to get to grips with. So I’m going to take on probably the most common soundbite of nationalism, used in response to every attempt to have a rational, economic debate: “too wee, too poor, too stupid”.
If you have ever had any sort of conversation about Scotland exiting the UK, you have heard this. It probably put you immediately on the back foot because what you thought was a reasoned conversation about economics instantly becomes a test of your national pride. The strong evidence that we are better off sharing with others is reframed as an insult to the nation.
If you are in any doubt that the TWTPTS trope is entirely an attempt to stoke up a defensive reaction around national pride, go back exactly twenty years to its inception. In his conference speech accusing non-nationalists of “split loyalties”, John Swinney said:
“they will always run down the Scots - why they will always say we are too stupid and too poor to be trusted to run the affairs of our own country.”
One of the reasons framing is so important in politics is that they offer mental shortcuts to understand an otherwise too-complicated world. Over time, through repetition, there becomes a dominant frame which forms habits of thought in voters mind. Over twenty years, for a significant number of voters, a dominant frame for questions about Scotland’s finances has formed. They hear economic arguments and the SNP remind them that it’s really about self-respect and pride.
We know from voter research, these people will bridle if it is suggested we are ‘subsidised by England’. See this recently published research for example. We might find it amazing that anyone would think that higher public spending is somehow a slight on our status as a nation, or that cutting the arse out of public services will make us more Scottish, nevertheless we have a responsibility to use messages that work. So, don’t use language that makes it easier to think of this in identity terms. Instead of England v Scotland, talk about how every part of the UK, including the North of England, Wales, and Scotland gets money redistributed from the South East. Balance the emotions the SNP appeal to with other, just as powerful values: point out that the money the SNP would turn away is equivalent to most of the NHS budget.
To create the space to use counter arguments that reframe the economic questions as being about things like paying for the NHS, you also have to call out what the SNP are doing when they use these tactics. They hope Scots are, to borrow a phrase, too stupid to see through it. Thankfully, we are not. Say it again and again in response:
Those of us who are worried about the funding for our NHS are labelled unpatriotic by the SNP because they want us to stop asking the questions they don’t have answers to.
Framing political debates is a long-term discipline. JFK was fond of telling the story of the French Marshall who asked his gardener whether he had planted the tree he had asked him to. The gardener replied that the tree was slow growing and would not reach maturity for a century. The Marshall replied, “In that case, there is no time to lose; plant it this afternoon!”
Dominant frames are formed over decades, so the more panicked pro-union voices should calm down, but they should also get on with planting their arguments. There is no time to lose.
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