A few weeks ago I noticed something strange in the Daily Mail. “What’s new?” I hear you cry – but bear with me. ‘Nursing home tycoon’ Robert Kilgour had announced plans to go to court to try to stop Holyrood legislating an independence referendum. It wasn’t the announcement – but the language in which he phrased it that grabbed me.
Kilgour’s statement was obviously full of references to “shes” and “hers.” “If she tries to participate in an illegal referendum”, “we are ready to confront her”, he declared. You’ve probably already inferred that he was referring to the Prime Minister – but it struck me as an odd and rather telling way to frame a legal challenge to legislation that would need the backing of 65 MSPs to become law.
You can consider this as customization. And last week it was a common thread running through much of the hostile reporting following the Prime Minister’s announcement of the Supreme Court referral to Holyrood.
Reading some of the oldest corners of mainstream media, you would think there was precisely one woman in all of Scotland who wanted to give Scots the right to exercise their right to self-determination.
READ MORE: Alex Cole-Hamilton reprimanded by Ballot Box Scotland after Scottish independence claim
You imagine that there is no obvious commitment to respect. No cabinet support. No parliamentary majority. No enlarged party – or enlarged movement – to test the future of the Union. No voters either. Just Nicola, standing in a field alone with a sign that read: “separation now,” accompanied by boos from across the nation. The reason we’re here isn’t popular support for Britain’s breakup, but one woman’s ‘reckless obsession’, as one media outlet aptly described it last week.
British political reporting takes the form of this kind of character-driven reporting, reframing social forces and structural issues as battles between personalities – just think Brexit – but it’s ridiculous. It’s not an analysis, it’s a fever dream. It is a political psychosis. To believe it, you must discard not only your ability to think, but also your ability to count.
If the image of Scotland sketched in the pages of the print media in recent days were true, Nicola Sturgeon would not be the Prime Minister, the SNP would not be the largest party and Holyrood would not have a pro-independence majority. Are we supposed to believe that all of this happened by accident, by chance, inexplicably? You have to wonder who the opposition parties and their media cronies are trying to convince here – the public, or themselves.
Trade unionists are more than entitled to their political opinions – but they are not entitled to their own facts. The 2014 referendum established that support for Scottish independence is not a fringe concern of a committed but eccentric group of activists and poets in Scotland – but a proposition backed by more than 1.6 million people. There is no point in pretending otherwise.
The Yes campaign may not have won a majority eight years ago, but it has helped make independence a mainstream political idea – one whose appeal transcends age groups, classes , gender, ethnicity and geography. Although the profile of that support has changed since 2014, polls show that levels of support for a new state remain strong, including among voters who otherwise support the Labor Party.
You imagine that the continued electoral success of pro-independence parties would underscore that a significant proportion of the Scottish electorate remain convinced that this country’s democratic future lies as an independent state. But apparently not. We held an election at Holyrood last year. The public had the opportunity to comment on the parties and their manifestos. They decided to bring an independence majority back to Holyrood, on a clear platform for an independence referendum to be held. It was Douglas Ross who told voters ahead of Election Day that “people need to be very clear that a vote for the SNP is a vote for another independence referendum”.
We are not in the 1950s or even the 1980s. If Labor wants to spend its time dreaming of the glory days when the SNP had only six MPs in the House of Commons out of their 56, they are the welcome to take advantage of their political catatonia. But here, in reality, independence has not disappeared and will not disappear. Squeeze your eyes, tap the heels of your ruby slippers three times – you’re still not in Kansas anymore. Too many things have changed. But many prominent trade unionists still seem unwilling or unprepared to face this reality. They are in a state of denial about what they are dealing with.
Whether you supported or opposed these developments, you cannot credibly deny that the last eight years have seen significant changes in the British state and the way it has governed, from the UK’s departure from EU to the emergence of a conservative majority with a broad vision of a more unitary unionist state, ready to systematically overrule devolved legislatures and reclaim the powers of Edinburgh and now Cardiff too.
2014 No campaign chief strategist Blair McDougall memorably claimed during the 2014 campaign that Boris Johnson would not become Prime Minister and that the process of withdrawing your EU citizenship was to “vote yes”. Hard experience has taught us otherwise. You would think that experience might have taught these flawed prophets some modesty, might have advised them to acknowledge that the prospectus that was used to convince a majority of Scots to stay in the Union turned out to be wrong. Apparently not.
You can understand the bottomless fascination Unionist politicians and mainstream voices in the media have about some of the craziest things said by random punters who support Scottish independence as another manifestation of this ostrich politics .
It’s a generally unacknowledged truth in the Scottish media that independence politicians are held responsible for every one of the craziest elements supporting independence – every single one of them – while pro-Union politicians are spared the questions about their fellow travelers and the vitriol they throw out.
If a weirdo in faux chain mail and a plastic cutlass delivers a quirky speech about all things independence, the images from the scene will reliably do big numbers in the yoonisphere. You can understand this as a pure exercise in political cynicism. Anything that drives your opponents bad or crazy is worth loading into the slurring spreader and giving a good spread. And fair enough, as far as that goes.
READ MORE: UK threat to cancel Wales shows Westminster treats devolved nations ‘like children’
BUT this obsession with inconsequential and inflammatory remarks from unmarked and dummies has psychologically more interesting dimensions. The implication – the insinuation – is that these voices are representative of the broad coalition of people who believe Scotland should be an independent country. More escape, I think.
Faced with the harsh reality that this movement is made up of hundreds of thousands of ordinary people from all walks of life – they routinely obsess over and amplify unrepresentative extremes, presumably hoping to convince people that this is “the mask which slips.”
If you’re ever convinced that independence supporters are part of a brainwashing cult – a recurring trope of some of the more easily provoked corners of social media and conservative MSPs – I dare say that this is all fun, confirming your existing biases and assumptions about your political opponents. I understand why Unionists might prefer to fight an independence campaign rooted in ethnic nationalism, nostalgia and bad history, whose representatives were easily dismissed as crackpots from the margins and extremes of popular opinion. It would be an easier campaign to beat if that were true. But it’s pure projection.
Deep in their hearts, they must realize that this is not the reality of our political moment or movement. Dough comes out of a strawman if you will – it’s still a strawman.