Let’s Not Forget The Negative Case for Independence


By David Nairn with additional input from Martin Kelly

A recent article in the Herald newspaper gave the impression that Alan Bissett, Scotland’s Writer of the Year, had been quietly dropped by Yes Scotland, the organisation leading the pro-independence campaign. 

Mr Bissett, was said to be angry about Scotland’s subjugated status and its malign effects and there was a suggestion in the Herald interview that this passion might not chime with the positive message being promoted by Yes Scotland.

However the truth is that Mr Bissett remains very much on board with Yes Scotland.  Indeed he performed at two Yes events last week and tomorrow (Monday) he is delighted to be speaking at a public meeting in his home town of Falkirk along with a number of other key independence supporters including the Yes Scotland Advisory Board chairman Dennis Canavan.

Bissett, who appeared on the platform during the launch of the campaign in Edinburgh in May, is the creator of Vote Britain, possibly the most devastatingly eloquent dismantling of the idea of a glorious, mutually beneficial United Kingdom you’ll see anywhere.

The thinking of those leading the Yes campaign is that it must be informative and positive. The Scottish National Party has progressed steadily from opposition to landslide victory by way of a consistently positive, upbeat approach founded on an ambitious view of Scotland’s place in the world. The contrast with the Unionist bloc’s unwaveringly cynical, visionless – and, to date, unsuccessful – negativity could hardly be clearer.

And the other characteristic of the SNP has been discipline; in the forthcoming campaign it will, of course, be vital that Yes Scotland representatives are on message – Bissett’s frontline involvement means he will be part of that message.

But the bigger issue raised here is this: Just what sort of message is it that Yes Scotland representatives should be on?

The pro-dependence campaign’s central message has already been given a substantial airing in the last months and will be cranked up to a bombardment over the next two years, courtesy of a cheerleading press and state broadcaster (and, if the UK’s Electoral Commission were to get its way, a lavishly bankrolled marketing campaign.)

Their message goes like this: ‘Why would we want to break up the most successful political union in the entire history of the Earth?’ This will be accompanied by a dreamy picture of a beneficent, honourable, stylish United Kingdom that will be heavy on nostalgia and, necessarily, light on detail.

Expect a deluge of references to those hoary favourites, the creation of the NHS and the Second World War, as well as plenty revisiting of the recent propaganda-fest that was the London Olympics. The Westminster government’s announcement of an eye-watering £50m to ‘commemorate’ the centenary of the start of the futile imperial catastrophe that was World War I – a centenary that just so happens to fall a few weeks before the independence referendum – illustrates how wedded the British Establishment is to the use of propaganda. David Cameron, rather giving the game way, explicitly anticipates that this ‘commemoration’ will press the same buttons as this summer’s Jubilee celebrations.

In tandem with this, and already gearing up, will be the most relentless campaign of scare-mongering, misinformation, distortion and, if required, dirty tricks, that Scotland will have witnessed in modern times – the essence of which will be the trusty mantra of ‘you’re too wee, too poor and too stupid.’ As the populations of many countries, from India to South Africa, from Kenya to Ireland, can painfully testify, when British power is under threat, it fights very, very dirty. And with the prospect of losing Scotland, it arguably faces a greater threat than ever before.

In the face of this, and with polls to date showing a head start for the pro-dependence side, it is uncertain that the Yes campaign would be effective were it to rely solely on straightforward upbeat messages about an independent Scotland. Instead, in addition to the positive approach that has served the forces of progress so well to date, the Yes campaign needs to tackle head-on the myth of the Most-Successful-Political-Union-Since-Time-Began and move the spotlight from being almost exclusively on what independence looks like onto what Unionism looks like.

Not just onto whatever tinkering and self-serving constitutional sops the Unionists might dream up between now and late 2014. But onto the proven reality of life in Scotland under London rule. The Yes campaign must, in short, deliver some home truths about what being part of the United Kingdom actually means for Scotland…

  • Such as having an admirably social democratic, left-of-centre tradition yet being part of the fourth most unequal state in the developed world;
  • or being one of the most resource rich countries in the world but having a staggering 23% of its children living below the official state poverty line;
  • or having one of the most scandalous health records in the developed world, with the worst death rates anywhere in Europe for cardiovascular diseases, and a full 20% of the population of its main city dying before they reach 65;
  • or having a state broadcasting service described by its leading historian as a ‘national disgrace’; or being, according to UNESCO, the most aggressive society in the developed world (there being a clear link between impotence and anger);
  • or having a catastrophic dependency on alcohol, with the eighth highest consumption anywhere in the world, well over a million adults drinking harmfully and one in every 20 deaths attributed to alcohol;
  • or a suicide rate almost double that of the rest of the UK;
  • or losing huge swathes of its population, measured in the millions, to emigration over the last generations.

There are myriad such statistics and quotations that illustrate the truth of Scotland’s tragic lot within the United Kingdom. The reality is a deeply unhealthy and unhappy country, reduced to the status of a province, and profoundly impoverished socially, politically, economically, culturally and psychologically.

For Scotland, as for colonised peoples throughout history, being controlled by another country has proved disastrous.

The pro-dependence campaign will attempt to characterise the choices in the referendum as being on one hand the uncertainty of independence, and on the other the reassurance of a successful, mutually beneficial partnership (‘Our United Kingdom’). Both of these characterisations are mendacious.

To win, Yes Scotland must address both: emphasising that Scotland has every potential to be a highly successful, wealthy, advanced, democratic, fair, modern and, above all, normal European nation; and at the same time providing something that many Scots, particularly those timid about the prospect of independence will never have contemplated: an unvarnished picture of what being in a subjugated position in a bizarre and dysfunctional political ‘union’ has really meant for Scotland and its people.

[Notice – This opinion piece has been edited in order to reflect additional information received by Newsnet Scotland since its publication.]