All nationalists are patriots but not all patriots are nationalists and Yes campaign would do well to remember it, writes John McTernan
There are many spurious arguments on both sides in the independence debate, but the most fallacious by far is that the No campaign are “unionists”. We’re not. We’re actually “status quo-ists”. Not fans of guitar solos by denim-clad long-hairs, but people who oppose disruptive and unnecessary constitutional change.
Now I understand why the Yes campaign want to lump all of their opponents into one box. As the saying goes – “it takes a stigma to beat a dogma”. But the unionist tradition is only one of the strands of opinion that believes that the United Kingdom has been a force for good, here in Scotland and abroad more generally.
There is a strong progressive politics too – represented by Scottish Labour and the Scottish Liberal Democrats – that sees the UK as a mighty engine for social justice.
Since the independence debate began I have held these opinions and expressed them strongly. Often through a terse tweet: “I’m not a unionist, I’m a socialist”. But they crystallised when I was generously invited by Gerry Hassan and National Collective to speak at a Yestival event this week in Summerhall, Edinburgh. The title for my speech was “Patriots vote No”. Another terse expression of a view I’ve formed over the last five years.
There has been a systematic confusion of terms over recent years. All nationalists are patriots – I don’t doubt that – but not all patriots are nationalists. Sometimes there’s an odd scratchiness from Yes supporters when I raise this. Odd because it doesn’t seek to reclaim patriotism for Yes, rather it rushes to repudiate the pride and passion of love for your country, dismissing it as mere flag-waving. Others ask, archly, why only Better Together ever talk about patriotism as if it is a trap, an unfair trick or a cul-de-sac in the debate. It seems that there is real fear of the greatest reverse ferret of all time. The flag that once symbolised the great nationalist claim on history has been embraced, indeed is being lustily waved, by the No campaign.
Symbols are precious to campaigns. The Queen, the pound, the BBC are all hoisted aloft by the SNP to prove that although everything will change, nothing will change. Understandably, as ultimately the voters are highly risk-averse. They live in what is already a fast-changing world that forces unavoidable social and economic transformation on them.
Disruptive change that is optional mostly gets a rapid “no, thanks, I have quite enough at home already”.
So, why does the Yes campaign seem to have an aversion to patriotism?
Perhaps it is the ultimate consequence of the extraordinary discipline of the nationalists. To create a safe, consensual, unthreatening vision of independence they have rubbed off all their rough edges. Bannockburn, Braveheart, the Saltire are all abandoned in the pursuit of a moderate, centrist appeal.
However, it leaves an emotional hole in their armoury – and a huge opportunity for No.
It goes far beyond the simple claim – “it’s my flag too”. It opens the door to one of the most powerful arguments – “It’s because I love my country that I will be voting No…’ What a gift of an argument this is. It combines emotion (“I love”) with logic (“because”) and casts No into a warm positive light.
Now it’s not just the cost of discipline the SNP are paying, though they are – and in a way so reminiscent of what happened to Neil Kinnock, who donned a good suit, tamed his rhetoric and lost his heart and soul.
There is a real risk for the Yes campaign in opening the patriotism box.
The statement “It’s because I love my country” is paradoxically contestable and uncontestable at the same time. On the one hand, I am saying that I love my country. That is a personal opinion – and you can’t prove I’m wrong. On the other hand, mine is an open-ended proposition – it starts a conversation, it doesn’t close it down.
That is death to the Yes campaign. Their strength is not merely message discipline, it is the absolutism of the evangelical believer – “Scotland will be better.” There is no how or why – just an absolute belief.
This is powerful. Up to a point. And that point is Scottishness.
As Jim Murphy has written “Why?” is one of the most Scottish of words. It is what launched the Enlightenment and fuelled the great Scottish inventors. Yes will not, cannot, answer the question “why will independence make things better?” Once you start to describe the how and the why you have opened yourself to debate.
Yes need all debate to be kicked beyond 18 September. Opening the box means debating trade-offs, global trends, sticky issues – it is real politics in all its glory. Difficult, disappointing, inspirational, transformative but above all engrossing.
Politics – high or low – is a continual conversation. But conversation, as the saying goes, is not just waiting for your turn to speak. That, in the end, is the fundamental weakness of Yes.
Every proposition they advance is intended to close a conversation down. It worked well for a while, but it was never a majoritarian strategy. It was a line of least resistance plan – give people the fewest things to react against and hope that momentum can get us over the line.
A strategy all right. But one with a huge and ironic vulnerability – patriotism, the love of Scotland itself.
I love Scotland. It is, as MacDiarmid said, that small white rose whose smell breaks your heart.
But as a socialist I love it too much to separate it from the redistributive power of the world’s fifth largest economy – which brings £12 billion a year. I love it too much to see it with a weak currency or as a minnow in the EU.
We all love Scotland. Most of us have patriotic reasons to want it to stay in the UK. What’s yours?