The power and absence of doubt in the nationalist independence cause

The idea of independence has already won. A show of doubt and an acknowledgement of risk would reassure, not deter, wavering voters.

Gerry Hassan
18 August 2014

It has not been a great week for the independence cause and for the SNP.

This has been made worse by the self-denial and delusion expressed by a host of independence supporters including parts of the commentariat, the SNP and on-line opinion.

The SNP’s position on currency union, along with EU membership, has for ages been the weak flank of their entire proposition. Thus, it should have been no surprise to anyone when Alistair Darling basically mugged Salmond on the former in last week’s TV debate.

These problems touch on the dominant voice of the independence debate and cause. It is one of certainty, not showing doubt or acknowledging risk, and instead presenting an air of effortless confidence.

This approach does not address many of the realities of independence and much of the modern world: the realities of risk, uncertainty and the virtues of ambiguity and doubt.

In so doing, this presents a panglossian idea of independence which does not correspond to how most voters see their lives and world, and does not connect to the lived experiences of most Scottish people.

Taken over a long campaign, this has had the effect for all the engagement, emergence of new voices, and sound and fury, of producing a problematic credibility and connection gap in the SNP’s independence’s prospectus.

Any successful political strategy has to at times address its weaknesses, and attempt to understand and diminish them. It should get inside the head and heart of its opponent’s arguments and understand their emotions, rationale and logic. What it shouldn’t do is what a major part of our debate has done: demonise and stigmatise the other side, whether it be Yes thinking the existence of ‘Project Fear’ is enough to show that all right-minded people should be on their side, to ‘Better Together’s’ inability to understand the legitimacy and appeal of independence (hence bogey words like ‘separatism’ and ‘narrow nationalism’).

Imagine if the independence cause were to offer in these last few weeks a different kind of tone and content. Picture Nicola Sturgeon before September 18th having the courage and conviction to stand up and talk about her own doubts and risks on independence.

Think of the effect of Sturgeon saying that at times she too has had doubts and has felt uncertain about the project and idea of independence. This would entail her saying that she has at times had anxieties about the risks inherent in independence.

She would understand and put herself in the shoes of those who have fears and concerns about the whole idea of independence. In so doing she would show a different kind of political intelligence to that on show so far from both camps, and would not dismiss her opponents as just being about ‘Project Fear’.

This would be generous, human and speaking to the majority of Scotland in a style and language people can understand and see themselves in. It would go beyond the stale Yes/No certainties which have stifled much of the official debate.

Such an approach would be mature, aid better debate and how voters weigh up and decide where to cast their votes. Evidence points to how this could resonate and speak to people.

Scottish Labour Party focus group findings demonstrate that one of the biggest public fear factors is a view that the SNP refusal’s to acknowledge and address the existence of risks in independence makes them feel that these must be huge. The logic runs that: these unstated risks are so big and gargantuan that this is the reason the SNP leadership will not address them, knowing that they are so large, and having decided to keep silent about them in public for the course of the campaign.

Voters understand the limitations in both the SNP version of independence and ‘Better Together’s’ defence of the union. They can implicitly see through both, but for the SNP the problem is that they need to make the case for change, convince and reassure.

The SNP’s political strategy owes its origins in a number of factors. There was the embracing of Martin Seligman’s ‘positive psychology’, which Salmond has previously cited as having played a role in changing his ‘mindset’. There was the work of the RED consultancy in aiding the party at senior levels to think and talk differently.

This contributed to the SNP transforming its message in both 2007 and 2011 to become hugely successful: shifting from the previous politics of griping and grievance to emphasising the positive potential of self-government. Such a shift on both occasions took the SNP’s opponents by surprise, Labour in particular, aided by it being in hock to a set of outdated stereotypes about the Nationalists.

This backstory and set of insights has been brought to the SNP offer of independence. There is the constant assertion that ‘Yes Scotland’ is offering a politics of optimism, and that hope will always trump fear in a democratic political contest anywhere in the world (palpably untrue as the Tory victory in the 1992 UK election shows).

This mindset on independence has presented what, at times, has come across as a one-dimensional offer: of believing in your own enlightened, slightly messianic language that Scotland is or can be this land of near limitless opportunity, and that all that is holding us back is the wicked union (the same union the SNP are keeping half the institutions of!).

Does it really mean anything to most Scots voters that an independent Scotland would be the 14th richest country in the world in GDP per head? I doubt it, but even more serious is the sharp shift in the SNP presentation of Scotland pre-2007 to today, from basket case to a mix of Celtic Tiger, California and Nordic dreams.

If the SNP could adopt a different tone it would speak to the Scotland which is unsure, nervous and waiting to be won over. These include younger voters, female working class voters, and the ‘missing Scotland’ who haven’t voted in a generation and more.

One of the most interesting revelations of this long campaign has been how voters see independence. It has come from the margins of politics to being normalised. With it huge numbers of Scots including lots of No voters say, ‘I would like us to be independence’, or ‘I would like to think we could do it’, and then a ‘but’ comes. This widespread goodwill is a significant, indeed historic shift, compared to where this debate began.

If, as is likely the SNP do not change tone and adjust content, irrespective of a YesNo vote, they are going to have to consider embracing such an agenda post-vote.

Here then is a suggestion to the SNP and independence cause. Have courage and believe in your convictions. Embrace the ideas of doubt, uncertainty and talk about the risks. That’s what strong, courageous leadership and vision involves.

Talk to your fellow Scots in a language human and humble that contains personal stories about how you made the journey to independence. Tell us how you deal with your emotions, doubts and fears. And drop at least for a time the technocratic, accountancy sell which has so far dominated the independence offer.

Doing so now would be good for democracy, politics and the independence case. It would also be conducive to the worries people have about a ‘divided Scotland’ and the need for reconciliation after the vote, irrespective of the result. Better for all to start such a dialogue now. As the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer said, ‘Nothing will bring us back to the path of justice so readily as the mental picture of the trouble, grief and lamentation of the loser.’

The ‘idea’ of independence has already won the campaign. This is a very different entity from the SNP’s vision of independence. But it is time to talk and speak in a very different language – to not treat independence as a company flotation or consultancy prospectus, and connect with Scots across the full range of emotions, hopes, dreams, fears and anxieties. The question is do Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond have the motivation, wisdom and political insight to do so?


Crossposted with thanks to Gerry Hassan.


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