Unionists wheel out same old propaganda guns against new case for independence - Joyce McMillan

For those of us - almost one voter in five - who changed our view to become supporters of Scottish independence during the referendum campaign of 2012-14, this has been a strange week; part deja vu, part new beginning, as the Scottish government finally launched its campaign for a second independence referendum, possibly to be held in 2023.

What was slightly unexpected, though, was the intensity with which this week’s events reminded me of the main reason why my sympathies changed before the 2014 poll; namely the abysmal quality of the arguments put forward by the unionist camp, which, in the main, offered a profoundly unattractive mixture of insult, misrepresentation, and vaguely threatening negativity.

It was therefore was both interesting and instructive, this week, to note that while the Scottish Government is at least trying to update and nuance its arguments for independence - majoring on the many example of successful smaller independent states in Scotland’s immediate vicinity - the arguments against it have barely changed at all, either in tone or content.

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Chief among them, for example, is the “now is not the time” argument, deployed by Douglas Ross at yesterday’s First Minister’s Questions, which implies that it is never the time to discuss independence, because Scottish people care more about social and economic issues than they do about national identity - as indeed they do. What Ross and others on the British right have consistently failed to understand, though, is that the growing support for Scottish independence since the 1970’s has never been about a massive surge in blue-face-painting national sentiment, but is precisely about a policy disagreement, now more than 40 years old, on how major social and economic issues should be tackled. Nicola Sturgeon is therefore speaking a language that at least half the nation understands, when she firmly replies that independence is not a distraction from meeting the real priorities of the Scottish people; but is now, perhaps, the only effective means of ensuring that those priorities can be met at all.

Next up in the Unionist arsenal is what we might called the Madrid manoeuvre - the vaguely Francoist idea, beloved of some Tory MSP’s, that independence movements in peripheral regions are always in some sense “illegal” or “wildcat”; this even in the presence of a First Minister who invariably insists that she would never act illegally, and would never hold a referendum without full international recognition. Hot on the heels of the Madrid manoeuvre comes the NATO negative, or the idea that Scottish independence wold “weaken the west”, a truly laughable accusation from supporters of a British state which has spent the last seven years seeking to split and undermine the European Union, and has now set its sights on both the Good Friday Agreement and the European Charter of Human Rights.

And then finally, there are the two biggest accusations levelled at the Scottish Government this week. The first is that its reliance on international examples of successful independence is boring and irrelevant, when in fact its relevance could hardly be more obvious. There are two prime reasons why many Scots fight shy of the idea of independence; and the first boils down to a lack of confidence, a feeling that an independent Scotland would be “all on its own”. This is why the idea of “Scotland in Europe” was so vital in building SNP support from the 1980’s on; and why the list of nearby example countries deployed by the Scottish Government on Tuesday has the potential to make the same impact, in even greater detail.

Scottish Conservative Leader Douglas Ross fails to understand that support for Scottish independence has always been driven by policy disagreement, now more than 40 years old, on how major social and economic reforms isses should be delivered, writes Joyce McMillan. PIC: PA

And that, finally, leaves just ones shot in the Unionist locker; the bully boy argument that if Scotland votes for independence, then the remaining UK will make sure that it is the worse for us - and that there will, in particular, be a fierce EU border between Berwick and Carlisle, drastically reducing cross border trade and travel, encouraging boycotts of Scottish goods, and dividing workmates and families.

Now it does take some cheek for supporters of the British state that gave us Brexit to deploy that “borders” argument, although deploy it they do. Inconveniently, though, the British state has just demonstrated that it is perfectly well able to negotiate away an EU border when it wants to, as it has done between Northern Ireland and the south. And equally inconveniently, western Europe is dotted with EU borders - between Norway and Sweden, or Germany and Switzerland - across which trade and travel is largely frictionless; suggesting that the chances of the Scottish-English border emerging as any kind of serious barrier to commerce or travel must, while not negligible, be classed as relatively small.

Now of course, the weakness of these arguments does not mean that they will not prevail. Despite the notable failure of the Remain campaign in 2016, Project Fear is generally a very successful electoral tactic; and it is certainly also true that a change of government London may usher in a further period of wait-and-see assessment of whether the British state can once again redeem itself, and become a relatively progressive project.

What is clear, though, is that as things stand, in this summer of 2022, Unionist thinking about the future of English-Scottish relations has barely altered since 2014, and in some ways has actually regressed. As a result - and although the bar is low - the Scottish government’s case for independence once again, this week, sounded more dynamic, more credible, and more in tune with 21st century values than the Unionist forces ranged against it. And until some UK party leadership emerges which can seriously improve on that prospectus, not only in constitutional but in social and economic terms, the Union will continue to lose the argument; even as it once again wheels out its big propaganda guns, to score what may well be another joyless victory, of fear over hope.

Scottish Government Minister and Scottish Green Party Co-Leader Patrick Harvie (left) and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon speaking at a press conference at Bute House in Edinburgh at the launch of new paper on Scottish independence. Picture date: Tuesday June 14, 2022.
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