I can’t say that Nicola Sturgeon is wrong in her remarks regarding the complexity of personal identity. I can’t even deny that even I am British in the rather trivial sense that I live in a nation located on the Northern part of the largest of the British Isles. By a similar argument, Canadians are American and Norwegians are Scandinavian and Germans are European. What I find surprising and not a little disappointing is that the First Minister should volunteer such a comment in the course of a conversation before a live audience.
So, this might surprise people, but do you know I consider myself British as well as Scottish.
If Nicola Sturgeon is as aware of the complexity of personal identity as she implies, and if she is the skilled communicator many ─ including myself ─ have long supposed her to be, it is baffling that she should so lightly toss out what she must surely realise is a statement likely to cause controversy, even if not strictly a controversial statement. If she is cognisant of the complexity then we have to suppose her to be aware that the term ‘British’ carries a mass of implications and connotations, all of which are called into play when she describes herself as “British as well as Scottish”. She may intend this in the narrow and trivial geographical sense to which I have referred. But she must know that it will be heard by others in any of the other senses in which it can be used. So why say it?
Reports indicate that Nicola Sturgeon was under no pressure when she made the comment. This was not forced from her in the course of a grilling by a skilled and relentless interrogator. It was dropped into the conversation almost as if it was an impromptu remark. Something said on the spur of the moment and without due consideration. But this would not be the conduct of an accomplished communicator. Or the behaviour of an adroit politician. Sturgeon is supposed to be both. Which leads us inexorably to the conclusion that she spoke as she did quite purposefully. But for what purpose?
Is Nicola Sturgeon literally asking for trouble? Is she actually intent on drawing fire from certain sections of the independence movement? She may have made a point of explaining her ‘confession’ as no more than a concession to geographical classification, just as she made a point of explaining that her proposed October 2023 referendum is strictly “consultative and non-self-executing”. But in large part, the art of communication consists of knowing what the audience will hear and what it will not attend to. The skilled communicator knows more than the dictionary definition of words. They know what those words convey to a particular audience in a given context.
Nicola Sturgeon must be aware of how her comment about being British as well as Scottish in a geographical sense will sound to those of us who, with varying degrees of vehemence, insist that we are Scottish not British in the political sense. She must know that her remark will be regarded as provocative. And it is surely no coincidence that the part of the independence movement which is likely to be most irked by her words overlaps to a significant degree with those activists she deprecates. The part of the Yes movement that is outside her control. The part which she wants having no role at all in the coming campaign because she cannot dictate what that role must be.
Power is relative. Lessening the power of a countervailing force is effectively the same as increasing the power of a prevailing force. In relation to Scotland’s independence movement, Sturgeon and her party regard themselves, with full justification, as the prevailing force. That’s fine. There will always be a prevailing force. From the perspective of Scotland’s cause, it is obviously ideal that the prevailing political force in Scotland should be pro-independence. The problem arises when that prevailing force comes to perceive other activists for the same cause as a countervailing force which must be disempowered. To put all of this in the starkest terms, Nicola Sturgeon has come to regard the part of the Yes movement not under her sway as an enemy. An enemy she and her followers have identified as/with Alba Party. An enemy which, for Sturgeon personally, has the face of Alex Salmond
It would be a mistake to see too much wanton malice in this antipathy. It’s just politics. Nicola Sturgeon is only playing the political game according to its ancient and unchanging basic rules. It would be foolish to castigate her for this. It is, after all, why she was elevated to her present position ─ because she plays the game so well. The SNP did not drag us along on its quest for political power. We, the people of Scotland, pushed the SNP to the vanguard of our quest for independence.
It may not be entirely personal or particularly malicious, but Sturgeon’s attitude to what we may think of as the non-SNP part of the Yes movement is unhealthy. It is politically unwise. If the point of her ‘British and Scottish’ remark was to provoke an extremely adverse reaction from some in the non-SNP part of the Yes movement in the hope and expectation that this would delegitimise the dissenting voices, then it is a mistake. It is a mistake in terms of Scotland’s cause even if not in terms of ‘pure’ politics. The dogmatic dichotomy of ‘with us or against us’ may be a viable gambit in a game where the objective is political power. But in a fight for a specific political or social aim it makes no sense whatever to alienate natural allies. Of course, effective political power ─ the power to effect change ─ is essential if that aim is to be achieved. But it is folly of the worst kind to jeopardise the cause for a form or measure of political power which is not relevant to the purpose of furthering the cause.
If we recognise the folly of what Nicola Sturgeon appears to be doing, how much more foolish would we be if we were to make the same mistake? I may be wrong in thinking the ‘British and Scottish’ remark was intended to rile the non-SNP part of the Yes movement and provoke intemperate reactions from some. But it is difficult to see what other reason Sturgeon might have had for shoe-horning the remark into the conversation in the way that she did. But I am most assuredly not wrong about the need for unity of purpose across the Yes movement. If Sturgeon is doing what I suspect her of doing then we should not rise to the bait.
I long since gave up hope that the SNP and non-SNP sections of the Yes movement might work together. That simply is not going to happen and we should not waste time and effort and resources trying to make it happen. I am, however, firmly persuaded that the two ‘sides’ of the Yes movement can work in parallel. We may not be able to work together, but we can surely develop a working relationship. Which is why The People Say Yes must adopt a strict policy of not attacking the SNP. Call it a unilateral declaration of peace.
I disavow Britishness as part of my personal identity because the political connotations are anathema to me. So much so that I would go to some effort to avoid acknowledging any geographical Britishness lest it be misinterpreted as embracing political Britishness. It would surely have been better had Nicola Sturgeon been similarly minded. Not for the first time, I find her attitude disappointing and her actions ill-considered. But she is not the enemy. She is not an enemy to Scotland’s cause. She’s just rather less of a leader than I had hoped she would be. So, leadership must be found elsewhere. Leadership which supplements and augments that provided by our First Minister in the realm of the constitutional issue. We cannot replace Nicola Sturgeon. It is silly to even talk of doing so. What we might do, however, is reinforce the leadership of Scotland’s independence movement.
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