Ewan Crawford: Identity issue cloaks weakness of No campaign
SAYING that Scots will no longer be Brits after independence is an attempt to divert attention from the No campaign’s lack of cohesion, writes Ewan Crawford
WHEN the ex-Liberal Democrat leader, Tavish Scott, took to social networking site Twitter to announce elegantly “nats well stuffed by tonight” following the Jubilee concert, I assumed he was just momentarily a little overcome by emotion after seeing comedian Peter Kay’s full beefeater outfit.
In fact, Tavish’s hope that the concert would be problematic for independence supporters seems instead to be part of a wider, thought-through strategy.
In an odd inversion of the slogans you might expect from the SNP’s opponents, the No camp has firmly embraced identity politics.
There has been much comment on the British identity speech given by the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, and his rather odd assertion that no-one in Scotland “would be British any more” if we dare to vote for independence.
Clearly a lot more of this can be expected when the No campaign formally launches.
But setting aside the arguments over whether or not a political leader is entitled to dictate anyone’s identity, the politics of this to me seem hard to explain.
There have been many academic studies demonstrating a rise in Scottish identity since at least 1997 and the referendum to establish the Scottish Parliament.
This strong sense of Scottish identity now seems entrenched, with many more people saying they are, for example Scottish, not British or more Scottish than British.
But the more interesting point is that political scientists have struggled to find a strong connection between these answers on national identity and views on independence.
This is mainly because Scottish identity is so pervasive that most parties can claim as supporters people who identify themselves as primarily or exclusively Scottish.
The really odd thing, that it may seem difficult to work out, is why opponents of independence are attempting to force voters to make a choice on identity and to link that choice to the constitutional debate.
When asked to make a straight choice between Scottish and British, Scottishness wins so if this is to be the new criteria for voting in the independence referendum it is an entirely self-defeating strategy.
The reality, however, is that many more voters will make their minds up on economic and social policy issues than on questions of identity or of, thankfully, which flags are waved.
Intriguingly these issues have been raised while the Olympic Torch has been carried across the country. Tomorrow, it leaves Scotland after a triumphant tour, culminating in the ultimate accolade of a special BBC programme presented by Jackie Bird from Edinburgh Castle.
Many heart-warming stories associated with the torch bearers have been revealed and, as I saw for myself in Glasgow last week, when the torch comes to town a real sense of community can be felt.
Some commentators have attempted to make comparisons between the reaction in Scotland to the torch and the Diamond Jubilee. Some have even estimated the number of Union flags on display and have drawn conclusions about the impact on the independence referendum.
But it is the inherent weakness in the anti-independence parties’ campaign that is forcing them on to the identity ground.
It was revealed at the weekend that “Better Together” is to be the main slogan for the No campaign.
However, the Tories and the Labour Party have different views on what or who is actually better. Is Labour really saying that Scotland is better together with a Conservative-led government supported by a small percentage of voters?
The shadow chancellor, Ed Balls, reminds us daily of the economic catastrophe caused by the austerity policies pursued by his counter-part George Osborne. Is it Labour’s position that we in Scotland are better off together with Mr Osborne and his insistence on massive public spending cuts?
Last week, in response to an announcement on defence, Labour’s Jim Murphy issued a press release claiming the UK government had increased uncertainty within the armed forces, that “regiments, jobs and traditions will be lost” and that 30,000 forces personnel were to be sacked in a “perverse” move.
So rubbish does Mr Murphy believe Tory stewardship of defence to be that he has dismissed the Conservative review and has set up yet another review of his own. But when this is translated for a Scottish audience UK defence policy is presented as a calm sea of certainty.
In these big policy issues it is laughable for Labour to suggest we are better off with the Conservatives.
This explains the focus on British identity and the content of Ed Miliband’s speech, which was an odd fusion of past efforts by his former boss, Gordon Brown, and the ex- Conservative prime minister, John Major. Economic, social and other policy areas are simply too tricky.
The two parties instead agree on one thing: maintaining decision-making at Westminster, which, it is hoped, can be cloaked in a debate about identity.
In this respect the tactic is from the same stable as the spurious distinction between patriotism and nationalism exposed by the social scientist, Michael Billig.
Professor Billig cleverly charts the way political leaders in Britain (and elsewhere) reserve the term “nationalist” for others while presenting their own nation states as natural, common-sense entities and themselves as reasonable patriots.
But there seems little reason in a system that leaves control of Scottish tax and welfare policies in the hands of Mr Osborne and David Cameron.
In particular, as Jim Murphy might say, it is perverse to deny the Holyrood Parliament the ability to offer incentives to stimulate private sector growth and the means to engage in greater public sector infrastructure investment. After all, job creation does not threaten anyone’s identity.
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