Kenny Farquharson: It’s the ‘I’m not a Nat but . . .’ voters who could tip independence scales

Non-Nationalist voters who are pro-independence could make all the difference. Picture: PA
Non-Nationalist voters who are pro-independence could make all the difference. Picture: PA
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THE campaign for Scottish independence chalked up another celebrity supporter last week. Booker Prize-winning novelist Jim Kelman declared his hand in a long article in a New York art magazine.

It was a curious endorsement, and not just because of where it appeared. Kelman accompanied it with a vicious attack on the SNP for its policy on the monarchy, and a withering condemnation of nationalism and patriotism in general. But a vote’s a vote, regardless of how many private caveats are attached. Kelman’s support is interesting and significant. It exemplifies what could be a decisive factor in the referendum campaign. I’m calling this the “I’m not a Nat, but...” tendency, and it could hand the Yes camp a historic victory.

This is the key passage in Kelman’s essay: “People are right to treat nationalism with caution. None more than Scottish people who favor [sic] self-determination. Any form of nationalism is dangerous, and should be treated with caution. I cannot accept nationalism and I am not a Scottish Nationalist. But once that is said, I favor a ‘yes or no’ decision on independence and I shall vote ‘yes’ to independence.”

This is interesting because it breaks all the rules that are meant to govern this debate. To many of those already engaged in the referendum battle – the zealots on both sides who trade insults on Twitter and the comment threads of – this is a binary battle. You are either a Unionist or a Nationalist. The two camps are clearly defined and entirely separate, and membership of one or the other is compulsory. Each is the other’s mortal enemy in an all-consuming fight to the death.

Back in the real world, this is not how most Scots think. Just because opinion polls ask a simple yes-or-no question on independence does not mean the respondents have a simple yes-or-no attitude to the issue at hand. Their reasons for favouring one option over the other when forced to choose are complex, varied and fluid. On the constitutional issue, Scots are not like football supporters with fixed allegiances, who only rarely take the momentous decision to switch to a new team.

Of the two sides in this debate, the Nationalists show the most nuanced appreciation of this truth. In his speech to the party faithful at the SNP spring conference last month, Alex Salmond talked about independence being a sliding scale, with devolution representing “a little bit of independence”. This is closer to what most people think than the “for freedom or against freedom” approach. It carries risk, of course – a sliding scale works in both directions, and a point halfway to independence might, if on the table, be quite enough of a slide for many people.

In the Unionist camp, so far at least, this is still a binary debate – for or against Britain. The signs are that the anti-indy campaign will be draped in Union flags and red-white-and-blue bunting. This would be a terrible mistake. Even those Scots who have no intention of voting for independence see Britishness as a secondary – albeit significant – part of their identity. They are Scots first and foremost. They are comfortable being British and want the United Kingdom to stay united. But the sight of a Union flag does not stir their blood with patriotic pride the way a Saltire does. And I have yet to meet a Scot outside the political bubble who would comfortably describe themselves as “a Unionist” or cleave to the concept of “The Union”. This terminology has zero emotional heft.

There seems to be little appreciation in the anti-indy camp that this contest is all about Scotland. It is not about Scots v Brits, it is all about Scots. More specifically, it is about what kind of Scots we want to be. The anti-indy parties shy away from this approach because they think it is a battle they cannot win. The reductive phrase they have for this is that “you can’t out-nat the Nats”. Frankly, this is one of the most depressing phrases in Scottish political discourse. It fails to appreciate that the anti-indy argument can be couched successfully in terms of Scottish values; that people can be asked “what kind of Scot do you want to be?” and they can answer “the kind that prizes co-operation, solidarity, diversity and common endeavour with our nearest neighbours over the idea of going it alone”. Just as you don’t have to be a Nationalist to vote for independence, you don’t have to be a Unionist to vote against it.

“I’m not a Nat, but...” comes in many forms. There are those who see it as a route to a low-tax entrepreneurial heaven. There are those, like Kelman, who see it as a step towards a Scottish socialist republic of some kind. There are those who are long-time adherents of Home Rule who, if there is no credible plan on the table for a powerhouse parliament within the UK, will shrug and choose one outwith.

And perhaps the biggest group of all in the “I’m not a Nat, but...” category is those whose vote in the referendum in October 2014 will depend on who, at that point, is most likely to win the UK general election in May 2015. If it looks like the Tories, these people might well choose independence. Their view will be: “I’m not a Nat, but I’m damned if I’m going to put up with this shower for another five years.” After all, in Scotland we talk about Tories in the way Americans talk about buffalo – you can still see one or two dotted around the plains, but the days of the great herds are gone forever.

It’s hard to say how big this group might be, but it could be substantial. Therefore it’s not too stark a statement to say that the future of the UK might depend on whether Ed Miliband manages to get his act together and act like a credible UK prime minister. No pressure then, Ed. Jim Kelman is just the tip of a rather large iceberg sitting in the path of the good ship United Kingdom. It may not be Nationalists who win independence for Scotland. It could quite conceivably be Scots who, come polling day, think: “I’m not a Nat, but..”