The difference between a Unionist and a British Nationalist is that the former has never questioned the Union while the latter insists that the Union must never be questioned.
I was reminded of the above apophthegm when I saw the headline on a piece in The National today – Do Unionists still think we are Better Together as HMRC Cumbernauld closes? If memory serves – which it does only rarely these days – it comes from an article I wrote some time ago. Or it might have been a Tweet. Or something on Fecaboko, which I still used back then. Whatever! It is a useful reminder that not all who tend to the No side of Scotland’s constitutional divide are the same. This is important for a number of reasons. But it is particularly important when considering a campaign intended to reverse that tendency.
One of the other significant reasons that the aphorism is helpful is as a reminder that language matters. The terms we apply to things and the manner in which we describe them both convey and inform our attitudes toward those things. We talk about things in a given way because of our attitude. We have that attitude to a degree, because of the way we talk about it. The way we feel about something may not derive entirely from the language we use when referring to it, but at the very least those feelings are reinforced and entrenched by how we express ourselves. We should be cautious, therefore, about the terminology we use. We should make some effort to be precise. When in discussion with others, we should be aware that the terms we use may be understood differently by others.
In a political campaign, the message of that campaign is supposed to influence people in a certain way. It is intended to elicit a particular response and prompt a particular action. It should be redundant to say that language is critical in these situations. But it never ceases to amaze me how sloppy even seasoned campaigners can be in their choice of words. Look at how many politicians and other professional communicators get themselves into difficulties on account of some ill-chosen words posted on Twitter. We’ve all done it. But some of the examples are just so obviously wrong it is baffling how the potential for problems isn’t spotted instantly.
In political campaigning, language is crucial to the framing of the issue. For a rather crude example, if you refer to ‘the Tory party’s immigration policy’ you are framing the issue as the Tories and making the campaign an anti-Tory effort. You are locating the issue in the context of the ‘traditional’ Tory/Labour divide of UK politics. In that context, the ‘solution’ is to elect a Labour government. Which is most definitely not a ‘solution’ relevant to Scotland’s constitutional issue. If you refer instead to the ‘British Government’s immigration policy’ you are framing the issue in a markedly different way. By that simple change of terminology, you take the issue out of the context of old-style two-party UK politics and place it firmly in the context of Scotland’s constitutional issue. Or, to look at it another way (or reframe it?) you take the British politics out of the campaign and put modern Scottish politics in its place.
One of the things people find problematic about reframing is that it can be difficult – at least initially – to maintain the new framing. It’s all too easy to slip back into the old framing. Which is hardly surprising if that is the way you’ve thought and spoken about the matter for many years. This is where care with language helps. The concept of reframing is slippery. A few well-chosen terms and phrases can act as anchor points holding the concept in place. Getting into the habit of saying ‘British government’ instead of ‘Tory government’ will help you and those with whom you communicate stay focused on the constitutional question.
It would help Scotland’s cause even more if Yes activists stopped talking and thinking in terms of ‘winning’ or ‘gaining’ independence and instead framed the objective as restoring Scotland’s independence or ending the Union. The modern phase of the independence campaign started eleven years ago with the election of a majority SNP government. In all that time the issue has, with very rare exceptions, been framed entirely as a contest with independence as the prize. That framing took Yes to 45% in the actuakl vote on 18 September 2014. In the seven and a half years since, that figure hasn’t changed. It’s long past time somebody in power asked why that is.
I can answer that question very easily. Although there may be countless excuses and rationalisations covering the abysmal failure to increase support for Yes, one meaningful explanation would be the failure to reframe the issue in the light of changed circumstances and the overwhelming polling evidence which indicates that Nicola Sturgeon’s approach to the constitutional issue is not fit for purpose. If you doubt that polling evidence then look here. Or here. Or go here and do the arithmetic for yourself.
Yes support has not risen because the present approach, while effective up to a point, reached that point in September 2014. The obsessively ‘positive’ campaign had attracted as large a chunk of the electorate as it ever would – at least on its own. The obvious conclusion is that things have to be done differently. Either the whole campaign must change or something must be added to it. Something that is missing. Something that augments the now largely redundant campaign strategy and tactics that have been idling since 2014 – keeping the campaign engine from stalling completely, but not taking it anywhere.
The Yes campaign has offered myriad ‘visions’ of what Scotland might be like after independence and made a hugely detailed ‘case’ for going there all with the purpose of drawing people to Yes. It has been effective. It is not effective now. It is not effective now because while some people can be drawn to Yes having no previously existing strong commitment to the Union, others need to be given a reason to leave where they are before they can be taken anywhere. The idea that there are still ‘soft Nos’ out there in sufficient numbers to provide the additional ten percentage points required is delusional. As far as any serious political campaign need be concerned, there are no ‘soft Nos’. They are all part of that 45% at which Yes has been firmly stuck for approaching eight years – with only the occasional blip always accounted for by external factors.
Which is where the distinction between Unionists and British Nationalists comes into play. What the campaign must target is thinking Unionists. Those Unionists who are capable of questioning the Union given enough reason to do so. The British Nationalists are a lost cause. There is no point in engaging with them other than to hold up the worst of them as examples of what Unionism has become. For many, it will be something they don’t want to be associated with. The Yes campaign must create that association in order for it to have an effect. The effect of giving those Unionists cause to question the Union.
When they question the Union, voters must be left in no doubt that the ugliest face of British Nationalism is the true face of the Union. They must be relentlessly plied with truthful information about the Union and how it affects Scotland now, in the future, and to a lesser extent, in the past. Instead of a glowing ‘vision’ of Scotland’s future as an independent nation once again, the Yes campaign must paint a dark, satanic image of our future under the heel of the Union and the British elites who regard it as ‘precious’ because it is a main pillar of the structures of power, privilege and patronage which advantage the few at increasing cost to the many.
We would be coming woefully late to this reframed campaign. We all know why. So let’s not waste time and energy on endlessly repetitive accounts of the SNP’s failures and failings. Let us rather apply ourselves with as much of the joyful enthusiasm of the old Yes movement as can be mustered to the new task of formulating and conducting a campaign against the Union. If the SNP+SGP/Scottish Government won’t mount this united, focused and disciplined campaign, let’s find or form an organisation that will.
Our nation is in jeopardy. We must act now!
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