Scottish independence: Irredentism, not nationalism, will deliver a Yes vote - Alastair Stewart

Irredentism is any movement intended to reclaim and reoccupy territory considered lost.
Even Yes supporters seem bored and fed up with 15 years of talk and little action, argues Alastair StewartEven Yes supporters seem bored and fed up with 15 years of talk and little action, argues Alastair Stewart
Even Yes supporters seem bored and fed up with 15 years of talk and little action, argues Alastair Stewart

The concept of reclaiming land by historical, legal or ethnic association is familiar, even if the name is not. Often it's associated with the cliched, dated and racist notions of generational blood feuds in the Balkans.

But it was also the guiding article of faith behind Brexit. That argument wasn't about bombastic British pride. The Leave strategy stirred up rage that sovereignty, money, immigration control and even British culture had been stripped away. And that's why it won.

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If the Yes movement is ever to achieve a breakaway vote, it's going to have to get its hands dirty. Even Yes supporters seem bored and fed up with 15 years of talk and little action. The argument is much the same as it was in the run-up to 2014: those who live in Scotland should determine its future. The principle is fine, but it's a broken record. It has no bite or zeal.

The Brexit strategy was an ugly one for an ugly purpose to an uglier end. But it didn't win because it made a positive case for global Britain. That's lightweight. It won because it vilified the EU, condemned our leaders for handing over our decision-making powers and demanded we got them back. Big red buses promising £350 million to fund the NHS 'instead' did no harm, either. The validity of the claim is irrelevant now.

The Yes alliance, represented by the SNP power, prides itself on a centre-left, inclusive and optimistic vision. Scotland will be a good global citizen. Scotland will kick out the Tories and nuclear weapons. Scotland will put all people first. Legitimate, if slightly floral, rhetoric. But it is all reactionary to whatever Westminster and UK governments are doing at that moment in time.

The Yes language never goes far enough. Only the fringe groups and online trolls are full of venom and bile. There is a middle ground. The official channels are procedural, legalistic and very small 'c'. They don't ignite the passions of undecideds and No voters. It's why polls flutter, moods change and press interest ebbs and flows.

Positive nationalism failed in 2014. Negative irredentism needs to be presented as Brexit was - we've lost something, we've had powers stolen, we can't do X because of Y. It's an outrage, an affront to decency, let’s have weekly marches. Nothing excites change like feeling something has been ripped away. That's a hard sell for a Union that has been a unitary state for 314 years.

Benedict Anderson described nations as imagined communities. We all have something akin to a telepathic link of language, place, and history. What makes 'us' Scottish is much more than simply living here: it's a shared, subconscious identity made from millions of interactions and shared experiences. That identity is not full of the sheer fury needed to achieve a breakaway from one of the most successful political unions in the world.

In a country as old as ours, Scotland operates within several conflicting, contradictory and overlapping paradigms: local communities, cities, nations, the UK-state, Europe and now the demands of global citizenship. Scottish nationalism cannot possibly trump all these factors without making the case that all these things have taken something away from being Scottish.

Adopting an irredentist strategy might win Scottish independence. It would require aggression and bombast hitherto unseen in Scottish public life. It would need to translate that visceral feeling felt when watching 'Braveheart' into something that's rooted in fact, not fiction.

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Even considering it might offer a satisfying explanation as to why Scottish independence will not move forward as a debate. At the moment, it is locked in a tedious repetition of which neither nationalist nor unionist can break.

Irredentism is about getting something back, not getting it for the first time. It's a rage at someone sitting in your living room with their feet on the coffee table ripping pages out of your books. It is not about rationally reasoning with the said neighbour about why he be happier if he recognised your rights. Or why said neighbour should really, if he doesn't mind, be kind enough to leave.

It's a zero-sum game. Irredentism doesn't just need to be about reclaiming territory. It can be taking back rights, liberties and justice. The uncomfortable truth for Yes supporters is Brexit is a strategic exemplar. EU mandarins weren't watering their horses at Westminster, but the feelings of loss and injustice turned disgust into a tangible electoral outcome.

This is not to approve of the means or the ends. But it goes some way to explaining the growing frustration from yes supporters that more isn't being done to actually get independence. There isn't a dynamic strategy at play. Most political change of the sort we're talking about comes from a very aggrieved place. If there were a second vote tomorrow, it would return the same decision as the last.

Scottish nationalism as a political force is superficial compared to its historical and global counterparts. Cultural, political nationalism that can be assuaged with devolution and more powers will not awaken a spitting fighting temper overnight. Even the intricate, detailed, and tediously logistical blueprints for being independent haven't been drafted. The movement seems to stumble at this point as if it's scared to do what is necessary.

Countries that are born, or born again, seldom do so gently. Empires and nation-states rarely split quietly. Brexit demonstrated that irredentism was about sentiment, real and imagined. It was about administrative loss, surrender of sovereignty, and it provoked an electoral dragon. Whatever one thinks of the outcome, it achieved an end - the real question is, why is the yes campaign not fighting, really fighting, for Scottish independence?

Alastair Stewart is a freelance writer and public affairs consultant. Read more from Alastair at and follow him on Twitter @agjstewart.

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