Please join with me in wishing a very happy fourteenth birthday to the Scottish Government! It was on 3 September 2007 that then First Minister Alex Salmond binned the old ‘Scottish Executive’ title and so in effect created the first Scottish Government of the democratic era. It would be another five years before the legal title was altered by the Scotland Act 2012, but by then only bitter British Nationalists were still using the old name. Indeed, some still do. Their use of the outdated terminology as a pejorative only serves to prove that the British establishment did not want the administration to be regarded as a real government. The term ‘Executive’ was always intended to demean, diminish and degrade. It was a slight. It was an insult.
It was also an object lesson in the importance of language. Alex Salmond evidently understood that what many would dismiss as mere cosmetic tinkering in fact had profound implications for perceptions of the Scottish Government and by association the Scottish Parliament, both at home and abroad. Language matters.
This is a lesson the present administration clearly hasn’t learned. The SNP+SG/Scottish Government still talks of “winning independence” – as if it were some kind of award for which we must qualify rather than something that is already ours but is withheld from us by the Union. An award is something that is given. It is granted by an external agency rather being the very nature of Scotland as a nation. If we speak of independence in such terms then we will tend to think of Scotland as being what the language describes or implies. Or we use such language because we already think of Scotland as less. As subordinate. As inferior. The language used by pretty much the whole of the Yes movement suggests that independence is ‘owned’ not by Scotland’s people but by the British state. It portrays independence as something we must win (back) from England-as-Britain by satisfying conditions set by England-as-Britain and correctly answering every question asked by England-as-Britain while England-as-Britain is at liberty to alter those conditions at will and England-as-Britain judges whether we’ve provided ‘correct’ answers.
I tend to think this is the wrong way of presenting Scotland’s cause. We are not seeking to “win” our independence but to restore it. By that simple change of language we alter the entire meaning of the constitutional issue. We reframe it. Independence ceases to be the contentious issue and becomes the ‘normal’ against which any other status or condition must be assessed. It is not being independent that is now the oddity. It is the abnormality of the Union which is in question. It is the anomalous nature of our existing constitutional arrangements which has to be justified. This framing of the issue more accurately reflects the reality. The grotesque asymmetry of the Union makes it a patently anti-democratic device. That’s what it is. That’s how we should think of it. That is how it should be spoken of. Language matters.
Applying the title ‘Scottish Executive’ was a small act of casual repression by the British political elite which had significant implications for how we think about Scotland and our national cause. Alex Salmond’s insistence that Scotland have a real government in name was a small act of resistance which meant that we have a real government in fact. A real government but for the fact that its ability to govern in the nation’s interest is severely constrained by the Union. We have gone from an ‘Executive’ perhaps petitioning for small additional powers to a globally recognised, fully-fledged, democratically elected Scottish Government denied its rightful powers and demanding their return.
This needs to be reflected in the language used by the Scottish Government and Yes activists. If the 2014 referendum campaign normalised the term ‘independence’ What better way to mark the anniversary of the birth of the Scottish Government than to determine that we shall henceforth speak only of restoring Scotland’s independence? And maybe even talk about ‘smashing’ the Union.
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