As the Scottish independence referendum came to a close in 2014, the high turnout suggested to the world that Scotland had found a political awakening. Yet the battle was mostly not one of reasoned political debate, igniting passion and interest, but of successfully framing the debate in terms of ‘positive and new’ versus ‘negative and old’. People turned out in high numbers because we had divided the country into teams of individuals who would be responsible for failure had they not turned out. This was far from an act of mass political involvement, but representative of a country that had been successfully divided – a divide that remains to this day.
Ironically the SNP, who claimed the ‘positive and new’ mantle despite being the Scottish government’s elite, were the ones to use this old political tactic of framing the debate like a PR company rather than having the debate. What at any other vote would have been pointed out as ‘spin’, was labelled ‘passion’ because, the mainstream media didn’t want to be seen as bigots against us poor Scottish people (they are after all the Scottish-NP). The SNP gave the occasional lip-service to economics, or EU membership, yet they primarily devoted time to this ‘positive change’ spin. Championing a yes vote for them meant ignoring debate in favour of positivity, newness, difference and thus hope. In short, all those tired tactics that normal political parties employ, which the SNP seek to be the alternative to.
The fact that the Better Together campaign focused on the almost certainly negative repercussions of independence – primarily the huge risk to the economy and the real welfare of people in Scotland – rather than playing this political game of building positive, iconic images, meant the vote was in the end too close to call until the final few days. It was highly ironic, not to mention telling, that the swing toward the traditional political spin of the yes campaign looked to be conclusive until the likes of Gordon Brown began playing the ‘inspirational’ and ‘hope’ cards in favour of the union. The entire campaign was fought for on the grounds that Westminster was old and tired politics that we Scots did not relate to, yet we seemed only to relate to these old and tired politics when it came to the biggest of Scottish votes in years. We labelled criticism and reason as ‘negativity’ and fell hook line and sinker for that spin (the thing we think we hate).
The vote is now long past, yet the scars remain. The polls so far suggest that the general election will see the SNP make huge gains in Scotland, after they picked up huge numbers of new party members in the midst of their independence failures. Further irony is the great success they see this failure-begetting-support as. Yet more traditional political spin, and once more it’s working. They haven’t changed their basic policies to pick up this support, in fact the only change they’ve really made is cosmetic: their leader. Behead the old, failed leader, and elect a new, positive one. That spin hasn’t been unearthed either. But Scottish society is now so divided that many of the people on the yes team no longer care about their personal feelings on political issues, so much as they care about atoning for their loss last September. Of course they see it not as the sour grapes or desperate logic-vacant nationalism that it probably is, but as positive, hopeful voting. Of course they do. This is new politics, remember. Old political spin is labelled as new, here.
Many of these voters may have previously been pro-independence, but preferred Labour in terms of actual policy, but that feeling has now gone. The SNP lost the vote, but for 45% of people they successfully framed Westminster, the English and everything other than the SNP as old and tired politics. Policy itself no longer matters; they are now New Team Scotland. Who cares about social justice or the economy here and now, they want their team to be fighting for silverware – they want another referendum so as they can have another shot at glory. Or hope, or positivity, or whatever else Nicola Sturgeon will pull out of her positivity thesaurus.
How are the SNP to blame for closing down political debate like this, you might ask. Surely they are doing nothing wrong by simply pandering to this opinion? Well, even if you ignore the self-serving and deceitful spin I’ve so far mentioned, there are still two huge reasons to lay blame at the door of the SNP.
Firstly they refuse to rule out further pushes for referendums on independence, despite at least 55% of the country voting against it (at its lowest period) and it now being an unrealistic proposition for a good few terms of parliament yet. To rule it out would be a responsible and honest act, one that would allow people to start focusing on SNP policies rather on independence. But to do so would mean the fractured population no longer divided itself in a way that supported the SNP winning hordes of new seats. Traditional, apparently tired, political manoeuvring.
Secondly it’s because they refuse to rule out supporting a Labour government in a coalition, despite knowing that they would never commit such political suicide as it would ruin their ‘fresh, new politics’ spin. Support for the SNP would drop after being part of a coalition, but it will grow with a UK Tory government; providing yet more ammunition for their argument that Scotland never gets the government it votes for. So they will not rule out an informal coalition while people are voting, yet never agree to one after voting is over. More of that political deception and points scoring that they represent the best example of, but also the self-proclaimed alternative to.
There’s a lot of irony in this story, but I’ve yet to get to the most depressing part. As I came to my decision to vote no last year, I tried to second guess my opinions by considering the counter-arguments. The best reason for supporting independence, I thought, was because an independent Scotland would be a leftist Scotland. The Tories are almost non-existent up here, and UKIP certainly won’t get much of a look in. The more I thought about it, though, the less important this reason seemed. Partly because I’m an ethicist and I agree with the morality of ‘the Stewart Lee argument’, in which he noted a leftist Scotland would leave the much larger population of the rest of the UK at the mercy of the Tories. Like fencing off an environmental community, and allowing the rest of the world to burn increasing levels of fossil fuels with the lessened opposition. But partly also because the SNP aren’t as progressive as people think. As Tory support in Scotland has dropped, SNP support has grown. It’s no great task to link nationalism and right wing sentiment (you will notice that the UKIP or the BNP aren’t progressive in their political opinions), and that section of society would be pandered to a lot more when the tantalising nationalism of independence wasn’t appealing to it any longer.
Yet the argument that an independent Scotland could be a Tory-free Scotland appealed to a lot of people. Indeed, I knew more people who were influenced to vote yes by this argument than any other. But now the yes vote, which was so enthused by this idea of a Tory-free Scotland, may end up being the main factor in handing back power to a Tory government at the first opportunity (due to all that dishonest SNP political manoeuvring I earlier mentioned). Not just in Scotland but the entire UK – support that could go to the opponents of the Tories, Labour, is being deceptively garnered away for the SNP’s nationalistic intentions. So not only did the SNP fail in guaranteeing a Tory-free rule in Scotland – which was supposedly what their supporters so desired – but it’s now purposefully relieving Scotlandand the UK of its opportunity to avoid it. If closing down debate wasn’t enough, the SNP are now partaking in an ironic political sabotage of their own supporter’s opinions. The UK’s only hope is that SNP supporters realise this before voting in May.