Euan McColm: Brexit vote not unfair to Scotland’s Nationalists

Some people will be stirred by this image while others will be left feeling uneasy. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
Some people will be stirred by this image while others will be left feeling uneasy. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
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3,000 people marching in support of a second referendum is a wilful dismissal of democracy, says Euan McColm

THE spectacle of thousands of flag-waving nationalists isn’t for everyone; while some may see such displays as joyous and uplifting, others detect a darker tone. History is littered with moments when flags were used to conceal something shameful. Terrible things have been done in the name of nationalism.

Naturally, Scottish nationalists bristle at the suggestion that theirs is at all similar to any of those other nasty nationalisms. Scottish nationalism, they say, is civic and inclusive. It’s not, they insist, about blood and soil; it’s about shared endeavour.

This is all very well and good but so often, in its expression, Scottish nationalism looks exactly the same as the other nationalisms.

On Saturday, 3,000 or so Scottish nationalists marched through Glasgow, waving flags and carrying banners in support of a second independence referendum. Having lost the 2014 vote by a substantial margin (55-45 is not, as some nationalists would like to believe, a narrow victory), many Yes campaigners are eager for another kick of the constitutional ball.

It is hardly surprising that so many felt compelled to take to the streets on Saturday. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has devoted her energy to gee-ing up nationalists, preparing them for campaign battle, ever since the UK voted on 23 June to leave the EU.

You will have heard Ms Sturgeon explain that Scotland did not vote to leave the EU and, thus, the prospect of a second referendum is back in play. The First Minister has explained repeatedly to Scots that we should feel cheated and betrayed, that we should feel excluded from the UK’s democratic process. And, undoubtedly, those already committed to the cause of Scottish independence will have agreed with every word.

But, despite what Ms Sturgeon and other senior SNP members say, Scotland did not vote to stay in the EU. A majority of Scots voted for the UK to stay in the EU. As full participants in a UK-wide vote, those Scots came out on the losing side. That is democracy. That is how it works. One cannot always be a winner.

Ms Sturgeon’s narrative – the nationalist one – is designed, of course, to create as much grievance as possible. But it is not factually accurate. Scots are not victims of a “democratic deficit”.

Nationalists will, no doubt, see Saturday’s march as evidence that the final push towards the break-up of the UK is now underway. Who could blame them? The First Minister has, over the past month or so, told a story of Scotland denied its destiny by the rest of the UK. This is pure, invigorating oxygen for nationalists.

But others, those who were unconvinced by the case for independence in 2014, do not feel the same way. A new poll on Scottish independence last week found that support for the Union remains the position of the majority. Scots who did not want to break up the UK almost two years ago are no more inclined to want to do so because of the Brexit campaign’s victory.

With this in mind, one wonders about the good sense of holding a huge, disruptive march in the centre of Glasgow on a busy Saturday afternoon.

The First Minister may have made a strategic error in trying to use the EU referendum as the springboard for another crack at Scottish independence. When she succeeded Alex Salmond as First Minister, Ms Sturgeon sought to reassure the pro-UK majority of Scots that she would govern for them just as thoughtfully as she would for those who backed the SNP.

And, for a while at least, she was as good as her word. There was no mention of a second independence referendum in the SNP’s manifesto for last year’s General Election and, before the Holyrood election this year, the party went no further than promising to retain the right to call one should Scots demand it.

Wisely, Ms Sturgeon turned her attention to the domestic political agenda. There was – and there remains – no escaping the fact that standards in Scotland’s schools are not what they once were. There is a real need for improvements in both literacy and numeracy, and it continues to be the case that too few young people from less affluent backgrounds are able to make the move on to higher education.

The appointment of her most capable colleague – deputy First Minister John Swinney – as Cabinet Secretary for Education signalled that Ms Sturgeon did indeed take this matter seriously.

This change of tack should have been welcomed by those whose hunger for Scottish independence remains powerful. The sceptical majority will not change their minds because of marches or flag-waving but if the SNP can show real policy delivery then maybe attitudes to its key proposal of ending the Union will soften.

Pro-independence newspapers and websites hailed Saturday’s march as proof that the passion for independence is blazing as brightly as ever. SNP MPs and MSPs shared photos in the echo chambers of social media, seemingly convinced that the final heave was almost upon us. But for every one of the 3,000 pro-independence Scots who marched, there were very many more who did not. And among those were the sort of No voters who found the flag-waving nationalism of 2014 a complete turn-off.

The First Minister has over-promised when it comes to a second referendum. Her post Brexit-vote campaign was supposed to bring on board a substantial number of those who voted No last time around. But she has failed to do this. Instead, she has reignited the worst of the Yes campaign.

If you are in favour of Scottish independence, you may well have looked at Saturday’s march and felt a swell of pride. The sea of Saltires fluttering through the centre of Glasgow may have made your heart sing.

But many of those whom the SNP has yet to persuade will have watched with a deep sense of unease.