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For a second independence referendum to result in a Yes, the pro-independence case must be framed around empirical – rather than emotive – arguments

The referendum on Scottish independence in 2014 was the culmination of a life’s work for Alex Salmond, who had beaten the drum first for devolution, and then for independence since the 1970’s as a campaigner, MP, MSP, and finally as First Minister for Scotland. Andrew Scott Crines looks at the way Salmond used – and uses – language and rhetoric, both in support of independence but also in support of his other political passions. He concludes that the former First Minister’s approach of justifying independence through civil nationalism should be supplanted by one which emphasises empirical facts. 

CreditL John Paul Photographer, CC BY SA 3.0 (via Wikimedia Commons)

Credit: John Paul Photographer, CC BY SA 3.0 (via Wikimedia Commons)

To the English observer, Alex Salmond’s political persona is tied to one issue: independence for Scotland. From that point of view, Salmond’s single focus – which borders on the monomania – is an all consuming political objective with little or no interest in other political issues. But, from the position of a Scottish supporter, independence is the means through which a far more complex range of political and social objectives can be achieved. He is considered to be a classic social democrat and progressive in his political outlook, which would not look out of place in group of similar minded left-leaning figures. Indeed, as a member of left-leaning factions such as the 79 Group, Salmond’s political history is comfortable associating with Labour MPs, such as Jim Sillars (who, in 1980, led a faction of Scottish Labour MPs into the SNP).

The persona he constructs is different to both sections of the electorate. In Scotland, his social democratic persona leads him to comment on a range of issues such as education, health, welfare, and promoting greater social and economic equality. His arguments for greater state-led intervention enabled him to revolve his persona around areas of social concern. But in England, his divisive persona is simply as a politician who wants to break up the United Kingdom. The English voter has little or no awareness of Salmond’s ideological position, which leads to emotional attacks from opponents, even if they share his positions on other issues. As a consequence, those who share ideological positions find themselves separated by the desire to either break up or retain the United Kingdom for the same reasons as each other (ie: independence enables greater social justice vs the UK enables a greater sense of social solidarity).

Also of significance is the fact he is simply a bigger name in Scotland after decades of political experience. His persona is well developed having been ‘bloodied’ during Thatcher’s premiership, and the economic troubles under Major’s government. For the Scottish voter, he is simply a longstanding figure who stood up against Westminster during the time of the Poll Tax, the 1993 recession, and the subsequent disappointments of the New Labour years. To England, he is remembered simply as the figure who took devolution and made it about independence.

Thus, the attitude of voters towards Salmond is framed very much by his long history in Scotland but also relative newness in England. His persona is constructed very much on the former. For Salmond, the battle for independence is rooted not just in Scotland’s history, but also his own. His is a long struggle against Westminster, which is cast as a distant institution imposing its will on Scotland. Given Salmond’s long history, he can remind the Scottish voter of the imposition of the Poll Tax one year before England, and of the deindustrialisation, and of the unfair treatment of Scotland during the recession years. By doing so, he reminds them of these key points of division to predict their possible repeat. This is premised on the notion that Westminster (as a collective) remains hostile to the SNP (and, by proxy, Scotland) because of the desire to leave the United Kingdom.

As a consequence, the trajectory towards independence seems to predicate upon emotion, the style Salmond presents, and also the support-base which he has helped create during his leadership of the SNP. Today, his inheritance has been passed on to Nicola Sturgeon, but Salmond remains a major political figure in the arguments for independence.

Today, what could be termed ‘grievance’ remains a core justification for separation, with ‘the Vow’ being framed as a betrayal. Furthermore, the EU referendum is likely to be used to present the fear of withdrawal as detrimental to Scotland, whilst the newly elected Conservative government seems to confirm the line that ‘Scotland doesn’t vote Tory, yet gets Tory governments anyway’. Also how the Conservatives treat Scotland will be fundamental in framing the renewed nationalist arguments for independence. Given the prominence the Tories are giving English Votes for English Laws, and the accusations made by Gordon Brown that Cameron is stoking English nationalism to combat UKIP, it is likely Salmond and Sturgeon will be able to construct the impression of further indifference to Scotland by the Tories. By doing so, the chances of a second referendum increase, and with it new arguments for independence.

However, in the eventuality of a second referendum the core issues of currency, health, and pensions need to be addressed without the perception of ‘blind faith’ being the argument deployed by the SNP. For the nationalists to address this issue, plans for an own currency, health service, and a deal on pensions will provide a more solid foundation for success. To do this the case for independence needs to be framed more around empirical arguments rather than the emotive rhetoric of Salmond’s ‘civic nationalism’ which became a feature of the independence referendum campaign in 2014. Should the argument for independence fail to resonate a second time, then the raison d’etre of the SNP becomes null and void regardless of how poorly it believes Westminster behaves.

This post represents the views of the author, and not those of Democratic Audit Scotland or any organisation associated with it. Please read our comments policy before posting. 

Andrew_Crines3_webAndrew Crines is a Lecturer in British Politics at the University of Leeds, specialising in oratorical and rhetorical analysis across British Politics. Dr Crines has written a monograph entitled ‘Michael Foot and the Labour Leadership’, and is currently editing a volume with Dr Richard Hayton (Leeds) on Oratory in the Labour Party.

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