Scottish independence: Unionists must learn from Remain disaster – Ayesha Hazarika

Boris Johnson is unionists' biggest problem (Picture: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP via Getty Images)
Boris Johnson is unionists' biggest problem (Picture: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP via Getty Images)
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Sneering at supporters of Scottish independence is not going to help the cause of unionism, just as mocking Brexiteers backfired on the Remain camp in the Brexit referendum, says Ayesha Hazarika.

Last Friday – when we finally left the EU – already feels a lifetime ago. As a staunch Remainer and a proud Scot, I was delighted to be up in Glasgow far away from braying mobs of jubilant Brexiteers in Westminster. I had no problem with them partying on down like it’s 1953 – hey, they won big –

I just didn’t want to be anywhere near it. Not only because no doubt I would have been told to go home or F off at some point, but I’m kind of used to that. It was more that it would have brought back some recent, now rather cringing memories of hosting big rallies for the People’s Vote.

We all had a lovely time but my God, don’t they feel a colossal waste of time and energy in hindsight? Do I regret giving so much time to the cause of a second referendum? No, as I passionately believed it was the right thing to call for, and it was a nice day out.

Should we all learn from what an abject failure it turned out to be? Absolutely. Which takes me to Scotland. I wandered around on Friday feeling very low and expecting every other human and small animal I encountered to feel the same. Not so. Everyone I met was just getting on with their everyday business. The lady at the local shop asked me what was wrong.

“Brexit” I murmured mournfully. She threw back her head and laughed, “Forget it doll, bring on Scexit.” I was about to start lecturing her about the oil price, the possibility of a hard border and the need to bring down the deficit via public spending but the sheer, glistening glee stopped me in my tracks. This was clearly not the moment. This woman who is beyond excited about Scottish independence was not going to be, an any way, persuaded by my entirely legitimate but highly depressing doomsday witterings. She would have dismissed me immediately and probably battered me.

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I also watched many Unionist colleagues whom I greatly admire gloating all over social media about a poll which put support for independence at 51 per cent. I saw people tweeting about how “hilarious” it was that on the day Britain was leaving the EU, the SNP could only manage 51 per cent. “HAHAHA” I felt a familiar chill of de ja vu. Calling people who want independence thick or stupid and mocking a poll doesn’t strike me as the most intelligent way to build an argument. I mean, it worked so well for us Remainers right? Of course there are many important economic and trading realities that must be explained and explored, and claims by pro-independence figures must be subject to the most rigorous of scrutiny. But failing to understand that political, cultural and most importantly emotional currents would be astonishingly myopic and self-defeating for the unionist cause. If there’s one thing so called smart political operators should acknowledge after the last five years, is that campaigns aren’t won by arid statistics and wall to wall negativity. That may not be right or fair, but alas that’s life. The other big mistakes that unionists risk is assuming all independence supporters are SNP fans. The apparently growing yes movement is broader than the SNP. I spoke to someone who is ardent about independence but also wants there to be much more scrutiny of the SNP’s domestic record particularly on health and education. “I’m for independence – that doesn’t mean I love the SNP.” The collapse of Labour means there is no alternative particularly for progressives who want independence.

But the biggest drag anchor on the unionist cause is beyond their control - Boris Johnson. A friend tells me that when everyone’s mobile news alerts start pinging in the office at the same time they all joke “What’s Trump or Boris been up to now.” That’s how they see the Prime Minister. His lack of respect for Scotland and their First Minister as revealed by his alleged comments about the Krankies fuels that. At least get some new jokes man. Every time Johnson denigrates Scotland or fails to show its people any respect, is a shot in the arm for the yes campaign. The pro-independence movement will successfully leap on any Johnson misspeak or slur deliberate or intentional as a “message to Scotland.” How No 10 handles the COP 26 conference in Glasgow could well prove an embarrassment of riches

This fight is far from over and independence is by no means a done deal. There are a large group of silent unionists who feel highly anxious about separation. But to have any chance of success, the no campaign must learn the lessons of the disastrous remain campaign. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Unionist need a better narrative and better voices. And most importantly they need a more positive, humble strategy which is sensitive, sophisticated and spirited not just a bunch of spreadsheets with a sprinkle of sneer.