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New Year's Resolutions
Supporters of remaining in the UK should resolve not to be opponents who help the SNP.
Happy New Year to subscribers and occasional readers. In this issue, I suggest four 2022 resolutions for supporters of remaining in the UK.
It is a year since I wrote the first Notes on Nationalism. I hope that what I send has been of interest. More importantly, I hope it has been of help to those seeking to make an argument. Some have told me I should make this newsletter a paid service. I am reluctant to do this because I worry that when you chase subscribers contributions you are more likely to write what people want to hear rather than what they need to hear.
This edition falls firmly into the latter category.
The resolutions I suggest are based on two things: bitter experience of the behaviour of nationalist activists and a fear that some on the pro-UK side of the debate risk becoming the thing they hate.
1. Don’t wrestle with a chimney sweep.
Nationalism lost in 2014 because their argument was emotional but irrational, while Better Together’s argument was both rational and emotional. The biggest weakness of the SNP’s effort to leave the UK today is still that it makes no sense.
This is a lesson lost on the leadership of the SNP. They are giving up on building a credible case for leaving the UK and instead are choosing post-truth narratives. Think of how their Trade Minister who was caught admitting that their currency policy was a deliberate con; or how their Finance Minister lies that resources flow North to South in the UK; or how, having based her entire case for leaving the UK on the GERS figures, the First Minister now tries to discredit her own government’s economic analysis; or look at earlier today when the SNP quote a source on pensions who they know has contradicted their claim.
It is objectively irrational to leave a union with your biggest trading partner in order to join one with the people you sell three times less to. It is illogical to argue that austerity is bad and then to propose giving up £1 in every seven spent by the public sector in Scotland. It is unreasonable to suggest that an advanced economy, with 200,000 jobs linked to financial services, should operate without a central bank for a decade.
When you spend countless hours prosecuting daft conspiracy theories about Peter Murrell’s whereabouts or Nicola Sturgeon’s private life, you are vacating the territory that supporters of remaining in the UK should want to fight on. Our case makes sense, theirs does not and cannot.
2022 may see nationalists who thrive on disinformation lose key elections from Brazil to Hungary. This might finally be the year when the tide of disinformation, populism and division really turns. Scottish nationalism is encumbered by a movement that is addicted to this type of politics. In 2022 you should resolve not to become what you are fighting against. Doing so won’t make them clean, it will just get you dirty.
Be confident enough to hold the ground that kept Scotland in the UK. That will mean conceding weaknesses in your own case. For example, only by recognising the folly of Brexit can you make the case against erecting another border, this time across our island. But acknowledging complexity will only make you appear more calm, honest and rational in the face of an opponent which is increasingly angry, dishonest and doctrinaire.
2. Offer ‘and’ not ‘or’.
Scottish nationalists constantly seek to strip opponents of leaving the UK of our identity as Scots. It happens in the chorus of SNP members labelling us as traitors, following the dog whistles of SNP parliamentarians and Ministers.
Scots didn’t vote to remain in the UK in 2014 because they weren’t proudly Scottish, they just didn’t see why their Scottishness needed a political test. Politicians and political projects don’t define our national identity, we do and we get to decide as individuals what form that takes. It is far more attractive to be able to choose what your identity is than to have a politician on the make force you to make an unnecessary choice. Who doesn’t want ‘and’ rather than ‘or’?
Scots can be British and Scottish; Scottish and English; Scottish, British and Pakistani… Pluralism means these ideas are in complement to each other, not in competition. Only when those who see the world in terms of cricket-test absolutes get involved does any of this become a matter for politics rather than personal choice.
The SNP pretend they believe in this cosmopolitan idea this too, but every time they conflate support for the political project of leaving the UK with support for Scotland as an idea, they betray that theirs is an exclusive nationalism that forces people to choose.
It is infuriating to have all that is beautiful about your national identity stripped away by ugly political tactics. I understand that better than anyone. What I don’t understand is why some opponents of the SNP online react to this in a way that strengthens the frame nationalists are trying to build. Too many supporters of remaining in the UK appear to badge themselves as British rather than as Scottish and British. Sticking a Union flag on your profile as a tribal signal simply reinforces the nationalist frame that the constitutional debate is a battle of identities rather than a practical policy choice that is quite apart from to do with how much we love Scotland.
More damaging are those who do the SNP’s job by assuming that support for anything distinctively Scottish means that is part of a pro-independence plot. We see this most commonly in the subset of pro-Union tweeters who obsess about Gaelic. Every time they reflexively rail against investing in one of our languages, they are legitimising the SNP’s lie that those of us who are against Scexit are somehow anti-Scottish. By seeking out this culture war, you are alienating your own voters. The areas where the Gaelic language is strongest - the Outer Hebrides, Argyll, The Highlands - all voted to remain in the UK in the 2014 referendum.
3. Remember that Nicola Sturgeon’s failures are so big, they don’t require your hyperbole.
Nicola Sturgeon is a failure. Despite huge advantages, she lost the referendum campaign she ran in 2014. As First Minister, she has overseen mismanagement and decline in almost every area of policy. As a public figure, she is vain. She lacks political courage. She values short term tactics over real vision for how to use the power of government. I could, and will go on, but the point is there is no shortage of shortcomings for her opponents to use. There is no need for hyperbole.
I don’t know if you are one of the people who needs to hear this, but she isn’t a Nazi or a dictator. Talking in these terms doesn’t damage her, it simply makes you look like you live in a different reality from the voters you are supposed to be trying to win over. All the time you spend pretending to believe you live in a totalitarian state is time you are not talking about her very real failures. You are letting her off the hook. If accepting that Nicola Sturgeon isn’t Hitler doesn’t allow you enough space to criticise her, delete your account.
Similarly, ditch the sexist attacks on the First Minister. If you go after Nicola Sturgeon in a sexist way, it is wrong. It is also self-defeating. Misogynistic attacks make her a more sympathetic figure and make you look deeply unattractive. You may not be conscious that the memes and language you have picked up are based on her gender, but think before you post. For example, only women are labelled a “nippy sweety”. The only reason to call her “Mrs Murrell” is to diminish her as a woman.
Women were more likely than men to vote to remain in the UK, why push them towards Nicola Sturgeon by attacking her in this way?
4. Don’t be the footballer who shouts in the ref’s face.
The SNP have always had a similar relationship to the media as the angry villagers wielding flaming torches had with Frankenstein’s monster. Journalists doing the essential work of democracy are routinely bullied, blocked and treated with disrespect.
This isn’t just an inevitable consequence of our social media age, it has been a deliberate strategy of a governing party who knows that their arguments don’t stand up to rational scrutiny. It is worth reading this week’s column by the former editor of the Yes-supporting Sunday Herald on the SNP’s intolerance of the media:
“Ms Sturgeon seems to have quite the appetite for undermining Scottish journalism. It’s entirely understandable, given her Government’s disastrous record, and the lack of any real opposition in Holyrood. Journalism is about the only effective check on her power.”
Sometimes “working the refs” has worked for the SNP, but more often than not it makes journalists more determined to ask the difficult question and expose their lies. And it’s essential that they do. The massive contradictions in the SNP’s case for leaving the UK will only be exposed by journalists asking difficult questions and explaining complicated issues to voters.
Some think aping the deranged cybernats who abuse the media on behalf of the other side of the debate will balance out their bullying. In reality, it simply hastens the decay of trusted journalism, spreads the infection of misinformation and quickens the erosion of objective truth.
And, once again, you risk pushing voters away with this behaviour. A cause that is confident of its case welcomes scrutiny. Reacting to sceptical questioning in an aggressive way is noticed by voters who assume that the anger comes from being caught out in some way. Worse, by engaging so aggressively with negative coverage for your side of the debate, you only serve to amplify it in the algorithm, ensuring it is seen by more people.
Part of the problem of social media is that it gamifies political division. People become addicted to antagonism and forget that the point isn’t to have the argument with committed nationalists, but to win the argument in the minds of undecided voters.
If you recognise some of the behaviour above in people you interact with online, challenge it. If you recognise it in yourself, reading this might make you angry. So be it. But you need to understand that these behaviours make the break up of the UK more, not less likely. Ask yourself if you value fighting nationalists more than you value defeating nationalism, and realise these aren’t the same thing.
In case you missed it…
In the final First Minister’s Questions of 2021, an extraordinary exchange took place. A few days before the Finance Minister Kate Forbes asked a question from the audience at an event held by the Royal Society of Edinburgh: “Would it be such a great loss not to be able to do quantitative easing?” I’ve written before about why the insurance policy of Quantitative Easing is essential to the independence debate and won’t repeat myself here. Others too continue to make this important case.
If the finance minister of the UK, or any other developed economy, popped up in a Q&A to explain that they didn’t think QE is a power they have, it would be a bit of a thing. What if the Prime Minister was then to back them?
A few days later Labour MSP Michael Marra rose to put Forbes own Question to the First Minister:
Nicola Sturgeon had a choice here: act responsibly and acknowledge that QE has saved our economy twice in the last decade, or back her Finance Minister. She choose the latter. The First Minister doesn’t really think that Quantitative Easing is bad, how could she when it has paid our wages during the pandemic, enabled mass vaccination and kept the NHS afloat? The problem is that she wants to take this insurance policy away from us so she has to devalue it.
Some say that the First Minister doesn’t understand economics. I don’t think it’s that as she’s hardly daft. It’s not a lack of understanding, it’s a lack of interest. Any amount of economic pain would be a price worth paying for running the flag up the pole on independence day.