Ian Swanson: Why Nicola Sturgeon is no Braveheart

independence campaigners were quick to capitalise on the emotions stirred up by Mel ­Gibson’s Braveheart when it first hit the big screen.

Even though Hollywood’s version of William Wallace’s exploits was branded “historical bunkum”, SNP branches were ready with leaflets featuring Gibson’s picture and the caption: “Independence – we need it more than ever”.

For some it was almost a case of “You’ve seen the film, now free the country.”

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Braveheart’s release in 1995 came 12 years before the SNP took control at Holyrood. That didn’t stop Gibson – who was criticised over his Scottish accent in the film – claiming the Oscar-winning movie had helped the Nationalists to power. “It started the ball rolling,” he said.

But this week SNP Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon made clear she is no Braveheart nationalist.

In her first speech since taking on the role of the Scottish Government’s “Yes Minister”, leading the 2014 referendum drive, she explained that her desire for an independent Scotland stemmed from the principles “not of identity or nationality, but of democracy and social justice”.

She told her audience she had never doubted Scotland’s inalienable right as a nation to self-determination.

But she directed her appeal firmly at those who do not feel inspired to action by the tales of Wallace and Robert the Bruce.

In the battle for votes, those for whom Scottish national identity is a key driving force have probably already committed themselves to the Yes cause. Ms Sturgeon knows she needs to win over people who have other concerns.

So her appeal was: “Base your decision, not on how Scottish or British you feel, but on what kind of country you want Scotland to be and how best you think that can be achieved.”

The SNP has recently tried to present the decision on independence as being a choice between home rule or Tory rule. But in her speech Ms Sturgeon had a challenge for those who believe ­Scotland’s best prospect is with a Labour government at Westminster.

“Labour’s argument is that Scotland should bear the storms of UK membership when the Tories are in office because, in the event of a Labour ­government, things will improve more than they ever could with ­independence.

“I simply do not believe that Scotland should have to put up with long periods of UK government led by a party we did not vote for. It is, surely, democratically indefensible that although the Tories have never won a majority of votes or seats in Scotland in my entire lifetime – or even come anywhere close – they have ­nevertheless governed Scotland for more than half of my lifetime.”

And she went on to imply that even when Labour was in power at UK level, it was not the kind of Labour Party Scots wanted. “In the end the Blair government elected in 1997 was not an alternative to Conservatism. It was business as usual.”

This is the “democratic deficit” case that helped win devolution. The Scottish Parliament has allowed Scotland to follow its own policies on education and health, deciding not to pursue the controversial academies and health trusts which dominate the scene down south. But now the SNP is using the same argument to push for a complete handover of power. The arguments for and against independence are many and varied – and over the next two years there will be plenty time to air them.

But it is interesting to examine the motivations at work. Alex Salmond has spoken in the past about learning the stories of Bruce and Wallace as a boy at his grandfather’s knee.

John Swinney has told how he joined the SNP at 15 after being infuriated at Scottish sports stars being described as British when they won but Scottish if they lost.

Some would question Ms Sturgeon’s apparent distancing of herself from the Braveheart approach. But taken at face value, it is a sensible attempt to reach voters who would not count themselves as nationalists but are open to persuasion.

She even claimed in her speech that “feeling British” is not inconsistent with “a pragmatic, utilitarian support for political independence”.

No doubt passion and patriotism will play a part in the debate – on both sides – between now and referendum day. But focusing on the democratic arguments for independence – or the Union – is likely to be better for everyone.