Modern Scottish nationalism doesn’t want to break the centuries of cultural and social ties that still exist within the British Isles
When South Sudan was officially born last year, the United States secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, noted that the separation celebrations for African’s newest nation state fell in the same month as her own country’s July Separation Day 235 years before. Yes, you must have heard of it – 4 July, Separation Day: the one with all the red and blue bunting, star-spangled banners and fireworks.
There’s even been a Hollywood blockbuster that takes the same title of Separation Day, when the US president takes to the skies in a fighter jet to save the world from evil aliens.
Thinking about it, I may have got that wrong. Perhaps it was Independence Day, but who cares, separation and independence are synonyms, aren’t they?
Sure, the United Nations charter refers to the sovereign equality of its members, but obviously the founders of the organisation would just have happily used the phrase “separateness of its members”, so let’s not split hairs.
In fact, when the Tory- and Labour-dominated House of Commons Scottish affairs committee decided to investigate the SNP’s planned referendum on you-know-what, they decided to call it an inquiry into The Referendum on Separation for Scotland.
There was clearly nothing political, or dare I say it “rigged”, in that choice of words. I guess separation just looked or sounded better than independence, which, after all, can be quite a complicated word to say.
Alas, separation is, of course, the favoured term for the SNP’s opponents to use when discussing the Nationalists’ core aim. It’s not hard to see why. While most people presumably would like the means to be independent, with the ability to choose to join with others, very few of us fancy the idea of living a separate life.
When I was working for the SNP, I wearily accepted that this, alongside the equally unattractive idea of divorce, isolation, or even the alarming prospect of “ripping Scotland out of the UK” was going to be the standard currency of Labour and Tory language. Such is politics. But I also did not underestimate the potential effectiveness of the separation line of attack. This, no doubt, is the reason why the SNP is due to raise the matter this week with the chairman of the BBC Trust, Lord Patten.
The party is upset that BBC journalists, committed as they must be to “due impartiality”, have on occasion used “separation”, one of the most politically-loaded terms in Scottish politics, as if it is a neutral word. Incidentally, as a former employee of BBC Scotland, I understand the pressures journalists there are under and can honestly say I simply do not believe there is any bias (either for or against the SNP) at work among staff.
But such is the sensitivity and importance of language, as is clearly evident from the discussion over the SNP’s proposed referendum question, that any error, even inadvertent, is going to be picked up.
The issue is perhaps particularly important for reporters in London, who might be new to the independence debate, to understand. No debate on Scotland’s constitutional future is now complete without an intervention, for example, from the former Nato secretary-general, Lord Robertson, warning of the dire consequences of the SNP’s policy of, as he delicately puts it, “tearing Scotland out of Nato”.
The SNP’s difficulty with Nato membership stems from its fierce commitment to a non-nuclear defence policy. But the party always stresses its belief in defence co-operation and membership of Partnership for Peace.
I can remember many conversations with colleagues in the SNP leader’s office when issues such as Nato, the EU and other international institutions were raised. Our attitude to these institutions sometimes caused problems in terms of political positioning because of the stark black-and-white terms in which policies were reported.
On Europe, for instance, it is hard to be characterised as anything other than an EU enthusiast or a eurosceptic. This meant that when the full impact of the disastrous Common Fisheries Policy on Scotland was becoming clear and the SNP, not unnaturally, decided that its first duty was to protect Scottish fishing communities, the story was often reported within a larger narrative of whether this meant a lessening of the party’s enthusiasm for the idea of independence in Europe. In fact, we were advocating what all other enthusiastic EU members do every day: recognising the benefits of sharing sovereignty while protecting important national interests.
This is not separation, it is participation.
The reasons why those of us who believe in independence are so irritated by the separatist charge (my Labour and Conservative friends will be pleased to hear) is that it runs counter to the basic reason we want Scotland to be independent in the first place. In Winnie Ewing’s famous phrase from 1967, we like the idea of Scotland “getting on” the world, instead of watching it pass us by, as if we are not to be trusted with anything other than regional affairs. Indeed, it is the great irony that those who shout separatism the loudest are the most parochial and provincial. For them, curiously, people in Scotland have no business being involved in anything outside our borders. Those great issues are either to be left to others, or are for Scots who have decided to make their careers in London.
And it is in particular the prospect of a new political relationship with the London government that causes the cry of separatist to be shouted loudest of all. This, it seems, is to be one of the main battlegrounds on which the “No” camp is to stand.
It may be fair to say that the SNP is still searching for the best way of expressing the relationship between Scotland and the rest of the UK. This needs articulation, but it just seems weird to assume that it will be anything other than a close and strong one.
As far back as the 1950s, Scandinavian countries established, among other things, a passport union to enable the free movement of people across the Nordic countries. Sixty years on, why would anyone think it a good idea to stop the development of cultural and social ties between countries as close as Scotland and England, just because one of those countries believed there was a need to change the political and economic arrangements?
In this debate, we seem to have two competing views of nationalism.
Those most hostile to Scottish independence seem to think they can convince people that the last hundred years or so have not happened and that we are back in the world of the 19th-century nation state.
On the other hand, those of us who advocate independence perhaps need to do a better job of exposing the absurdity of that position and of explaining the co-operative nature of modern Scottish nationalism and the links that will necessarily endure within the British Isles.
But we are trying to have this debate in 21st-century language. Is it too much to expect the No camp to do so too?
• Ewan Crawford is a lecturer in broadcast journalism and was private secretary to John Swinney when he was SNP leader.
Join the debate: A Question of Independence: How will the referendum work?, 9th March, Edinburgh.